I never knew my dad, Bill Nesseler, as an athlete.
I know he made the Franklin Junior High football team in Rock Island, but that was only for a night. The next morning, he had to return that jersey and inform the coach that he could not play football, that his Argus paper-route income and family chores were more necessary to the family good.
Such was life in the 1940s.
And yet, there is no bigger sports influence in my life than Dad, who will be buried in his referee's shirt and his whistle around his neck after passing away Tuesday afternoon at the age 84.
That influence came when my sports life began at the age of 7 years old, when the T-Shirt League baseball coaches sent me home because I was a year too young. Dad was there to comfort me, telling me to go get 'em at the age of 8.
It has lasted through 39 full-time years in the newspaper business, most of those in Sports.
He was an assistant to Ed Heinz as my basketball coach for four years at Immanuel Lutheran School, where he let me run and gun in the days of no 3-point line. He was my Little League coach for four years, and an umpire behind the plate through my Babe Ruth and Connie Mack baseball leagues, both as a player and as a head coach.
There were lessons learned from him through every pitch, every inning, every win, every loss.
One in particular from that game of baseball that we loved dearly was that there would be no favoritism when I stood at the plate, he behind it. I remember it as if it was yesterday. Left-handed T.J. Krone on the mound, two balls that surely were way outside being called strikes by dear ol' umpire Dad. A third one, too, hit that same outside locale, but this time I swung, and missed. It was the only strikeout I had all season as an 18-year-old in that league, but there was no way I was going to let my Dad call me out on strikes.
Yeah, the stubbornness is certainly a Nesseler trait. Ingrained on a ball field.
Sometimes, though, that stubbornness gets a nudge.
That happened five years ago, on a Father's Day, back at Douglas Park, the same home plate where I had struck out nearly four decades earlier. Playing with a bunch of “kids” – nearly all under 30 in a hardball league called Veto League Baseball -- my Dad showed up in his Downings Dairy coaching shirt from Little League 43 years earlier, and still a perfect fit.
I had not heard of the Franklin Junior High story to that point and did not know he had an ounce of sports game in him. But, there he was, dressed and ready to play ball – at the age of 79.
Knowing he could not run to first base, I stood a few feet off the plate and offered to do that when he made contact. Except that for the first three pitches, there was no contact. Not even close. He had swung early, way too late and nowhere near.
I felt badly for him, even to the point of being embarrassed that I had asked him to come. I told him he tried his best but it just was not meant to be that day. It was a speech I had heard often from him, baseball-related.
Except, a league of stubborn 20-somethings would have none of it. To a man, they said, “Stay in there, Bill; hang in there, Bill; take as many strikes as you need to get a hit.”
I played along, and cringed at each and every strike, from four to eight. What I could not comprehend, though, is how my Dad could smile after every miss, no matter by how much.
And then, the craziest, wildest thing happened. After Strike 8, Dad decided he had had enough. Or maybe he did not want a full inning's worth of strikes. Whichever, at that point over 20 fellow ballplayers – whether in the field or with their team at bat – gave Bill Nesseler an ovation that was fitting for someone who had hit a game-winning grand slam.
THAT, is what baseball is all about. THAT is the baseball lesson Dad had been teaching me for nearly five decades. It is all about having fun, and he was having fun, because he was getting to play a game.
I followed Dad in that batting order that day, and I could not tell you where I hit it, only that I was safe at first with tears still in my eyes.
I imagine now that Dad had some of those same kind of tears in his eyes when his mom told him that he could not be a Franklin football Knight way back when. Yet, he certainly had come full circle in how he dealt with sports disappointment. That smile at the plate after eight strikes told it all.
You know, I want to be just like him when I finally grow up.