The Trophy: An Essay About My Dad & Fatherhood

Note: My friend Mark wrote a book about his dad and asked me to write the Foreword. I was honored to do so, and with his permission, I've included an adaptation of it here. As a new dad myself, I'm learning why it's important — and hard — to be a dad.
Photo credit: Julie Rybarczyk

Somewhere, buried deep beneath stacks of comic books and other remnants of my childhood, is a trophy.

It’s old and wooden but in good shape. On the top stands a small figure made of brass. He’s playing soccer.

There are dark brown stripes along the sides of the trophy and decorations on the front. The whole thing is maybe 18 inches tall.

Near the base is a small placard. Somehow, over the years, it has never fallen off. There is an engraving, which reads:

Most Improved Player

I played soccer for only a few years. For most of my childhood I was a nonathletic kid whose only claim to fame was a spelling bee medal. I was chubby and sensitive and shy around girls. I didn’t get many awards.

The trophy

For two seasons when I was in elementary school, my dad coached our boys’ soccer team. I couldn’t run from one end of the field to the other without getting winded, so I played defense.

Dad, who had grown up playing baseball and football, never mentioned it, never called me fat.

Instead, he taught me to use my body weight to my advantage. If you don’t use your hands, I learned, you can get away with a lot in soccer. My dad taught me to aggressively “nudge” my opponents out of the way to get the ball.

At the end of the year, he gave me the trophy.

Later, I learned the county soccer association didn’t hand out trophies that year. I discovered there was a store near the mall that let you swap figures on old trophies — like a bowler for a soccer player, for example.

But I didn’t learn this for many years — not until around the same time I was old enough to understand that our cocker spaniel Jessi hadn’t “run away.”

A sweet silence

When my dad handed me the award, we exchanged no words. None were necessary. The trophy said it all: Well done. For years, it would sit on my shelf, resting near a window, easily seen by passersby.

My dad had a special way of telling me he was proud of me. How he did it was as significant as that he did it — always in a way that was honest.

If my placard had said, “Team’s Best Player,” I wouldn’t have believed it. I was smart; that would’ve been insulting. But I could handle “most improved.”

And he could’ve put a number of variations on it. Instead, he stamped the trophy with three important letters: J K G. They were my initials: Jeffery Keith Goins. But they were also his initials. No sign of “junior”” appeared anywhere.

As far as the trophy was concerned, there was no distinction between my father and me. No wonder I never got rid of it.

From boy to man

As the years went by and I grew from a boy to a man, my relationship with my father ebbed and flowed with the patterns and conflicts of life. As all sons do, I eventually came to see my father as a man, a flawed human being — the last thing we want our dads to be.

For a season, I let this lead to disillusion. But now, whenever tempted to be disappointed, I recall that trophy. And I remind myself that most dads do the best they know how.

The relationship a man has with his father is unlike any other — which really is just a euphemism for “weird.”

The role of these men is to raise us. They teach us how to build a shelf and fix a toilet. They model strength and resolve for us. They train us up in honor and integrity and how to ask a girl to the prom. And sometimes they don’t.

Either way, we grow to admire and even fear them, to hold them to an ideal that likely would mortify them if they knew it.

There is a mystery to our fathers, a piece of these men that we never know. Through their silence, they teach us. And this is part of the legacy our fathers leave us, if we will recognize it.

The fatherlessness in us all

There are some sons and daughters who grow up with fathers, and some who do not. Most of us, I’ve found, are in both groups. We had a dad, but not completely. Or, we grew up in a broken home, but others stepped in to fill the father gap.

Either way, we are forced to maneuver the chaos of puberty, college, and careers seemingly on our own, but not entirely.

The struggle may cause us to grow bitter, even cast blame on our dads for not being there when we needed them most. Or, the opposite may be true: We become frustrated because they never empowered us, never let us fail. Whatever the case, we are dissatisfied.

This is how all journeys begin — in search of something lost or something never found. As with most journeys, this one leads us back to where we started: back to awkward dinner conversations and pregnant pauses on the telephone. Back home.

Most men I know (and maybe most women) are asking a question their fathers didn’t answer:

Am I good enough? Do you love me? Why did you do this?

Some spend their entire lives agonizing over the answers. As I've grown up, I've realized there were questions my dad simply could not answer, even if he wanted to — and others he already had, in his own way.

About this book

Some say that the best kind of book is the one that reads you. I disagree. The best kind is the one where you and the author finish the story together. This book is like that.

Maybe it will recall painful memories of a broken home or an abusive situation. Maybe it will help you regain a redemptive experience you forgot.

Maybe it will stir up an unanswered question in you, like it did me, one that you realize has been staring you in the face for years — in a box underneath a few comic books with a plaque that even time couldn’t wash away.

Somehow, I talked Mark into making this book FREE on Amazon this week. You can download it now through Saturday (offer ends at midnight) for Kindle. It's one of the best books on fatherhood I've ever read. I hope you have a chance to read it and be changed. Get it here.

What's a “trophy” moment like this that you've had with your dad or a father figure? Share in the comments.