Fathers, Sons and Sports: The Greatest Gift

THE JONNY GOULD COLUMN

Henry Arundell – remember the name! On last weekend’s BT Rugby highlights the commentator roared his appreciation of the “teenage sensation” and his attacking prowess. Henry is only 19, but a London Irish Academy player with such an exciting pedigree that both Eddie Jones AND Gregor Townsend have been on the blower to talk Summer Tours.

So why am I blowing that particular trumpet? Well Henry was once my son Tommy’s best friend. They spent Year 7 & 8 at Beechen Cliff Secondary School in Bath as inseparable mates. Then Henry was offered a full Scholarship to Harrow Public School – an offer and opportunity his parents clearly couldn’t refuse – and the rest is history. Fast-tracked into the London Irish Academy set-up, he has always played above his age-group, and has proved the attacking star of this season’s England Under 20’s campaign.

I’m still in touch with Henry’s parents. Ralph – his dad – is kind enough to keep me up to date with all his stunning achievements. And it got me thinking – is there anything more wonderful and enduring than the mutual love and passion for sport between a father and a son? Now don’t get me wrong. I’m sure there are many Mums and daughters that would/could argue the same, but I can only speak for my unique experience with my son Tommy G.

From the day Tommy could walk I have put a ball of various sizes and shapes in his hands and at his feet. I was that Dad who made him kick with both his left and his right foot. Our front lawn never recovered from the daily outings with a football. We would play catch for hours, and he never tired of the sporting scenarios I created to keep his competitive juices flowing. Inevitably there were those moments when his desire to win needed checking. The first time he talked back at a referee was during the Royal Wootton Bassett Rugby Festival in the Under 8’s Tag Final. Before he could get himself into any more trouble I pulled him off the field for a dressing down. The Referee in question was kind enough to speak with him at half-time to assure Tommy that he hadn’t been sent-off and could return as long as he had learnt his lesson.

Convinced he was suitably remorseful for his over-zealous actions, I offered Tommy the chance to return to the fray and make it up to his teammates by helping them over the line. Initially he refused, clearly highly embarrassed by his telling-off. But with minutes of the game remaining and the contest in deadlock, the need to be involved proved

over-whelming and he begged me to put him back on. Moments later he set up the winning try – his redemption was complete and a life lesson learnt.

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POPS GAVE HIS ALL: Robin Smith’s best sporting memories are of his dad.

One of my favourite sporting memories was a story told by Robin Smith – the South African born England cricketer. He was asked at a Q&A who his sporting hero was. He replied emphatically: “That would be my Dad!” He reminisced about a man utterly dedicated to his son’s sporting excellence, who drove him everywhere and stood on every touchline. 

Robin as we all know was a sublime cricketer, but it turns out rugby was his real forte in his earlier life. He went on to tell the story of a big rugby Cup Final he played in for his school at the age of 16, and the memory of his father’s sport crazy madness.

Apparently his Dad was so beloved by his Coaches that he was the only parent allowed on the side of the pitch reserved for the players and Coaching team. With seconds left in the game, and with his team trailing by 4 points, Robin took a crash ball that broke the opposition’s defensive line. It was now a straight forward foot-race to the try line. Robin said he pinned back his ears and aimed straight for the corner flag. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a view of his Dad – ball in hand – running a parallel line to his son, screaming his encouragement. The opposition full-back was closing in fast and with a matter of yards to go Robin launched himself in a dive for the try-line. And out of the corner of his eye he noticed his Dad was doing exactly the same!! Eyes brimming with tears, Robin Smith shared a memory of his Father that still lay deep within his heart.  

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VERY SORE. NEVER AGAIN!  (Unless it’s for my son!)

Not that all parents are positive influences on their child’s sporting aspirations. There are invariably those who take the competitive element way, way too far – I remember the Mum at the Heywood Prep School Sports Day back in 2005, who turned up in a skirt that proved merely a Velcro strapped wrap-around that she removed pre the Mum’s Race. Underneath she was wearing a pair of running shorts – and then she put on her spikes!! I kid you not – for the 60-yard Mum’s race. The only thing missing from this ensemble was the starting blocks. She duly won, and as she crossed the finish line cried out for all to hear: “Yes – I bloody did it!”

Mind you I wasn’t much better. My problem was the nagging fear that never left me – that I was the old Dad in the playground. I had this burning desire to prove to my boy that I was still a Dad who could hack it. So every year I lined up in the Father’s Race determined to be competitive. Now given the reality that I was ceding upwards of 10 to 15 years to almost all my fellow competitors, I had to think outside the box. Thankfully the school considered a straight 60-yard sprint far too dangerous, so introduced a hoop at the halfway point which the runner was required to climb through. What they didn’t say was that one had to stop at the Hoop to do it – and this was my edge.

Another tip for any would-be Father’s Race competitors is NEVER enter the first Heat. That’s always got the keen Dads in it. Enter the last heat (begrudgingly). I guarantee the vast majority of those involved in the last heat are the chubby balding Dads who made a point of avoiding games at school, and were now only entering because their other halves have insisted upon it. You’ll now be in the Final having exerted little effort to get there. In fact my theories proved so successful that I was a 2-time winner and 3-time runner-up of this exalted prize. But it still wasn’t enough. I wanted the third win. I wanted – like Brazil and the Jules Rimet Trophy – a hat-trick of wins that would complete my legacy and entitle me to keep the Trophy.

But I knew my time was running out. I’d pulled both a thigh muscle and a hamstring in the previous two runnings of the Heywood Father’s Race, as my body cried out for redemption from the pain of competition. With the glory days so clearly almost over, if I was ever to win this race for the third and final time, it had to be this year. So I took the challenge seriously. I got in shape and on the morning of the race had a leg massage to ease up the hamstring.

I entered the last Heat, with Chubbso and Baldy, and won it at a canter. Come the Final I had the perfect start and transitioned through the Hoop like an Olympic gymnast. With 10 yards to go I could smell the victory that was rightfully mine. But then I heard that noise – the sound of a much younger fitter man, going through the gears and closing fast. My tank was empty and so flung myself at the finish line more in hope than expectancy. Amazingly it was a dead-heat. I was more than content and offered my fellow-Dad my sincerest congratulations and suggested we share the Trophy for the forthcoming year. But the Headmaster sadly had other thoughts. “Oh no Mr. Gould!” said Mr. Hall. “We must have a winner! We’ll have a race-off – just the two of you, but don’t worry we’ll give you plenty of time to recover!”

“I’ll need the whole Summer to recover, Mr Headmaster!” I replied. “I only trained for two races, Sir!” But there was no moving him, and an hour later, for the last race of the day, the Headmaster beckoned us forward for the Fathers Race run-off. The whole school was watching, as were all the parents, and Tommy was positioned at the end of the track to cheer his Dad home. Then disaster struck. The Headmaster announced that to make things easier they’d removed the Hoops. It was now a straight 60 yard sprint. No! That was my only hope. Taking away my Hoops was like chopping off Samson’s locks, it was Bradman without a bat, Woods without a club, Brady without a ball. (Ok I’m getting a tad carried away now).

Anyway, I’d spent an hour trying to keep my hamstring stretched, and for good measure I’d removed my shoes for added grip. With my Tommy in my eye-line I was ready to do whatever it took to win it for my boy. The Headmaster brought us under orders – and then said: “Go!”. The oppo got away cleanly whilst I… slipped. Bollocks! I was already a stride or two down and I had no hoop to help me make up the deficit. But I was giving it everything my skinny little legs had to offer, and within the cacophony of noise that carried us home, I found myself closing the gap. I couldn’t believe it. This young fit athletic Dad was actually fading. I was closing with every stride, but could I get there in time? Tommy’s screams of encouragement were like a siren dragging me home. One more effort JG, one last burst. Yes, I was upside with just 10 feet to go – but then…. disaster struck. I had asked my ageing body to go to the Well once too often. If I didn’t stop immediately I knew my hamstring was about to explode. But if I did stop my last chance of glory was gone too.

Inevitably my heart ruled my head. So yes, I did win the race – and yes, I did rip my hamstring to shreds and collapsed through the line as if I’d been shot by a sniper. But the look on my boy’s face was worth it all. Sons and sport – it’s the greatest gift – and you don’t need a call-up by Eddie Jones to know it.

Until next time!  – IRC.

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