He was one of Rochester, New York’s greatest athletes in the 1950s. When I was sixteen years old and in my physical prime, and he was in his 40’s, he beat me in the 40-yard dash like I was standing still. He could have played for anybody. The Cubs wanted to talk to him. The Yankees would have if he’d been interested.
Instead he took a job at the local tool and die to be close to his aging parents. It’s a good thing too; otherwise he never would have met my mother. Family came first.
His generation of fathers hadn’t heard of “quality time,” but the idea would not have impressed him. He never contented himself with just fitting his kids into his schedule when it was convenient. He knew that being there for “crummy time” is what counts: the phone call at 3 a.m. from a stranded child needing a ride home; the sobs of a son failing to make friends at a new school; the cries of an infant child whose fever will not break.
My father and I were at daggers' ends during my teen years. It was the usual stuff: I thought I knew everything, and he thought that yelling at me would bring me to my senses. Yet he was always there. I had my sights set on becoming a boxing champion from the age of twelve. When I was fifteen, I had a preliminary match against a much stronger fighter who I was going to have to fight again a few days later. I lost that first match — badly. That night, Dad found me retching in the bathroom, devastated. He said, “I know tonight was rough, but you have a chance to redeem yourself this weekend. You’ve worked too hard. Don’t you dare throw away three years like this.” He gave me the courage to go back for the rematch and win. It is one of my most cherished memories of my father.
We always worried about his health, his smoking. I once thought that “cigarette loads” might help him quit. For the uninitiated, a cigarette load is a splinter of wood caked in gunpowder that you slip into a cigarette or cigar. I forgot about the load I packed into his kitchen-drawer stash of smokes. A couple of weeks later, as I watched cartoons nearby, he stumbled into the kitchen early one Saturday morning, lit up a cigarette, and “bang!” — the load worked as promised. He shouted, “Rick! That’s not funny,” and then chuckled for several minutes while lighting up another one.
After a rough day watching doctors work to revive him when his health finally failed, I said to my mother in frustration, “He treated his body like a rented mule.” She responded, “That mule carried us all.” And carry he did. In the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, he made the commitment to send his children to Catholic high schools. He supported his father until the end. He sacrificed driving fancy cars so that his wife could stay home and raise his children. Those same children never knew what it was like to write a college tuition check.
If you are a father, the most haunting passage in all of Scripture must be at the end of John’s Gospel. Our risen Lord has just conferred primacy to Peter over the Apostles by the Sea of Tiberias. Christ asks him three times, “Do you love Me?” An exasperated Peter tells Him, “You know I love you.” Christ responds, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” Love demands sacrifice. In an age that tells us to assert our own identities and to get our share, my father knew that a life lived well requires more.
Rich Leonardi, publisher of the blogs "Ten Reasons" and "Over the Rhine and into the Tiber" He grew up in his father's house in Rochester, New York, and currently lives with his wife and five children in Cincinnati, Ohio. His story originally appeared in Amazing Grace for Fathers . (Great gift for Father’s Day, coming up.)