How a sports game helped my dad and I to bond again
By Terry Randolph
“I hate you.”
Those were the venomous words I shouted at my dad during a congratulations dinner in 9th grade for getting into a performing arts school we had been eyeing. Somehow, an argument had broken out between my dad and I, escalating to that very moment those words spewed out of my mouth. This moment of my life sticks with me because of the conflicting feeling of liberation and pain the words carried. No longer would I take the threats or insults hurled my way, or be told to “be a man” by sticking up for myself. Mostly I was tired; tired of trying to hold in the years of anger I had against my father, and that night I had to let it all out. The drive back home was a wrathful silence with my mother being the powerless bystander watching my father and I’s disintegrating relationship.
The next few years proved to be even more frustrating; it was a time when I began to figure myself out. It was a time where I tried to balance my views and beliefs with respect to my parents. I often stayed away from home by finding refuge at friends’ places, in theater productions, choir or video games. The thought of feigning happiness around my dad was tiring and seemed impossible to do with my deep resentment of him. Also, I avoided home because I care for him; he was my father, the man that took care of me since I was born, and it tore me up that we were at this point. We talked throughout my college career, but never really “talked”. It was just the little-nothings to see how things were going, but nothing extraordinary; the damage we wrought on each other was extensive. There was no way to know how to repair the wounds; the words we threw at each other left scars that took a long time to heal.
So when college was right around the corner for me, I knew it would be a great way for me to escape and take some time to be alone. Most importantly, it gave me space from my dad to let us come to grips with our own issues. Out of all the things to help us get to where we are today, there is one thing in particular that stands out.
Madden the football video game franchise helped my dad and I bond again.
Madden is to football what ice cream is to a slice of apple pie; it makes the football seasons all the more sweeter for fans of the sport. Every year we see a Madden game churned out a month before the football season starts. The game allows you to take control of your team and lead them to victory; you can coach them for one season, one game, or for 30 years (franchise mode). The team is yours to dismantle and put back together; essentially you can make your favorite team your dream team.
The game is not anything too special really; it is practically the same game as its previous iteration. The differences between games are mainly seen in roster changes (updated according to trades, signs, drafts, etc. in the offseason), ratings (based on performances the years before) and statistics (their production through the year(s)). For the most part, the game keeps the same main features as the last years version and the graphics seem to stay the same.
Growing up, my father always told me his dream of being a football player. Had it not been for his knees paying the price for playing, he would have continued on to the University of Michigan and tried for the NFL. I have heard the story many times and can attest that it continues to be his passion in life. On gameday you can see how engrossed he is into it, yelling at the screen and analyzing every play. During the offseason, you can catch him watching tapes of his favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, playing in the four Super Bowls from 1975-1980. Or, you will catch him playing the newest Madden.
He is an avid player, getting the newest edition every year since I can remember. The first time I remember seeing it was in 1993 where he would play it on the SNES system during his days off from working at Weinerschnitzel. I would sit down next to him, watching him play the game for what felt like hours at a time. Eventually, he would take the time to explain the plays to me like a coach would to a player. Over time, he would give me the occasional chance to play with him or he would watch me and advise me on what to do. It was our little game, our chance to hang out in the midst of school and work. What made the experience more fun was seeing how happy he was in those moments; you could see his eyes were lit up while playing.
From what I could see, Madden allowed him a chance to live the dream taken away from him; hearing him talk about his football experience carries both sadness and a reluctant acceptance that his knees ultimately betrayed him. You can see the “What ifs” that plague him; what if my knees were still good? What if I played football? What if… With the game, he’s able to build the Steelers into the powerhouse he so desires them to be. He gets satisfaction from pummeling the teams he despises. If you watch him while he plays, you see the fire of excitement burn bright; pockets of time where he was lost to us but in his own little world.
As the years went on, Madden became more of a solitary thing for both of us; we would each take turns playing the game on our own for stretches of time. I was not really as into football as my dad was; I was going to church on Sundays when the games would be on. My interests in gaming were deviating into RPGs, shooters and action. For most of my undergraduate career, I never played or bought Madden. Football seasons came and went like ice cream on a hot summers day. The key moment in my switching back into football had to be watching the Steelers play (and lose) in the Superbowl against the Green Bay Packers. It sparked a renewed interest in football, leading to me playing Madden again my Senior Year. It reopened up an avenue of conversation my father and I could dive into.
Eventually, Madden became something I wanted to experience on my own and turned more into a solitary play for both of us; we would take turns using the game for stretches at a time. My interest in football waned to where I would no longer join him on gameday. Instead, I was becoming fascinated by RPGs, shooters, action games. By the time college rolled around, and that spat had happened, Madden ceased to exist for me. Football seasons came and went like the newest boy band fad. It was just another game, but also served a reminder of what my father and I used to have.
That started change again at towards the tail-end of my junior year when my co-workers at Regal started talking to me about football. We started talking about stats, which players look promising, little things. However, like repeatedly listening to an album that grows on you, I started to dive more into keeping up with the season. The big moment came while watching the Superbowl that year; the Steelers had lost to the Packers. I called my dad that night, analyzing the mistakes made on the field to cost the Steelers the game. The transition was subtle, but the start of us talking again.
We started talking more throughout the summer about the upcoming season about how the draft went, what the offseason moves seemed to signal, and predicting how the Steelers would do. He also bought me a copy of Madden 12 to enjoy. I enjoyed it, but not because of the game. I enjoyed it because the scars seemed to be healing. This time, we were actually talking like father and son.
Since coming home after completing college, both of us have been playing Madden 13. We may not play against each other, or work together as a team, but we definitely talk a lot about our experiences. We get into extensive conversations analyzing the opponents on our teams’ schedule to see if we could find huge weak spots in their game plans, or how to make strengths into weaknesses. He will watch my games on occasion and point out what I need to do to increase my chances of winning. I might watch his games on occasion and tell him what I see. Even while walking the dog most of the conversations get football injected into them.
Because we both play franchise mode, we also talk about how to pick our drafts, what to look for in scouting and how to know who to sign as a free agent. Both of us have figured out the qualities we look for in terms of offense and defense; power, speed, versatility, durability and play read ability. In a way, it also creates a competition for both of us to see who’s team is better, or who can manage their team better.
Has it completely healed all the damage? No, and I think that nothing will be able to. The past, for what it’s worth, is the past and is only something to view through a telescope. They are learning experiences that we can gain an understanding from. The road has not been too easy getting back into the swing of things, but nevertheless its improved vastly. This is only the start, but thanks to Madden it is at least a start.