The house I grew up in was in such a rural area it made Mayberry look like a metropolis. There wasn't another kid my age for miles, so sports and my imagination were how I learned to entertain myself.
I'd watch games, then go outside to re-enact big plays or just pass the time by bouncing tennis balls off a wall and fielding them like grounders, spending countless hours shooting free throws and 3-pointers on my backyard hoop or seeing how many times I could throw a football and hit the same spot on the side of our barn.
I couldn't wait for my dad to pull into the driveway from work so we could throw wobbly spirals or toss a baseball, even if only for a few minutes. Later in life I would take the importance of those memories and the time my dad took to have a catch with me and make sure I never would be too busy to share those type moments with my own kids.
When I wasn't playing games as a kid, I was reading about my athletic heroes or favorite teams, so sports was more than just a way to pass the time. It became my escape, and eventually writing about sports became my career.
And in an odd twist, sports -- specifically a high school football game -- saved my father's life. I got to thinking about that this week and how this Father's Day weekend could've been a lot different for my sister, myself and our family had it not been for the one thing my dad and I always have shared a passion for.
Even though I'm sure he had trouble understanding my choice of heavy metal music or video-game addiction as a teenager, the one common interest my dad and I always had was sports. So last November, just one day after Thanksgiving, he debated whether he really wanted to ride with me for two-plus hours for the high school football playoff game I had to cover that Friday night.
As he's gotten older, the idea of sitting on hard, cramped bleachers on a damp, cold night just isn't as appealing for my dad, and he was pretty sure he would just stay home alone. But I convinced him that I really could use the company, and looking back on it now, I realize what a profound consequence that simple choice had.
The game had just kicked off when my dad called to me as I walked the sideline, explaining that he didn't feel well. When a man who never missed a day of work in his life and who I couldn't remember ever having gone to a doctor for as much as a checkup complained about not feeling well, I knew something was up.
Before I could even ask the team doctor to go into the stands to check on him, my dad had collapsed and was face-down on the cold ground. As EMTs worked on him, that same team doctor who had reached him first told me that he hadn't been able to find a pulse and we had to get him to the closest hospital immediately.
By the time I reached the emergency room and was updated by a nurse that my dad was being prepped for heart surgery, I could hear him in the room next door screaming and moaning in pain. But once I walked into the room just to let him know I would be there when he came out of surgery, my dad, between gasping for breath had only one question for me.
"What's the score?" he said, his face scrunched tightly from the shooting pain in his chest.
Hours later, as he rested from the procedure to implant three stents to alleviate the blockages, I relayed as many details as I knew about the game and he drifted off from a combination of medication and sheer exhaustion.
As his heart surgeon visited later, and I explained the details of why we were there, he assured me that the heart attack was going to happen that night, regardless of where my dad had been, and that had he stayed home, where he would've been alone, he likely would not have survived.
I've thought a lot recently about how grateful I am that the common bond of sports that my dad and I have shared is also responsible for making sure our family has another chance to enjoy the most important gift any father and son can share this weekend -- time together.
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...