My biological dad wasn’t around much. Growing up, it was pretty much me, mom and my imagination. Don’t get me wrong. Marching band aside, I wasn’t a total social pariah. I had lots of friends, and the neighborhood was filled with potential playmates – though it was a bit of a circus freakshow.
The Rodmans were alright, I guess. I think they were in some sort of benign cult centered around eating a shitload of Count Chocula and never, ever sleeping. And there was the kid down the street named Dreck. I swear to God. Dreck. That’s some bad gentile parenting right there.
The Walker kid scared the crap out of me. Imagine Eddie Haskel with access to cigarettes and bottle-rockets. Next door was “Bobbie Jay,” whom we’d all quickly tire of. Trust me, the whole “Can Bobbie Jay come out and play” -thing gets old fast. Though he would later enjoy a renaissance of sorts when we discovered the concept of relentless ridicule and that Jay, of course, rhymed with gay. Yes, it was the seventies. We were still dicks.
But as far as immediate family there at 23 Michigan Court, it was just me and mom. That is, until the day she unknowingly came home with an honest-to-goodness father figure.
Francis Asbury Tarkenton—then quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings—was known for his super-human scrambling moves and winning a grand total of no Superbowls. He would go on to host the TV variety show That’s Incredible! and do something or another with infomercials I think. But in perhaps his greatest career move, he would lend his name to the finest toy ever: Fran Tarkenton’s Automatic Quarterback.
Now, I hesitate to call it a “toy,” this glorious opportunity for a fatherless, only-child. It was a wondrous contraption, about three feet tall, with a green plastic case, a steel arm sticking out the top, and a plastic “hand” (that, of course, looked nothing like a hand) to cradle a football.
Not exactly from the Steve Jobs School of Product Design, but holy crap could that thing throw a football—a “football” only in the sense that this hollow, plastic object was brown and roughly football-sized and football-shaped. Short passes, long passes, touch passes, it had some sort of timer thing on the side so all you had to do was crank it up and run your little ass off. It was everything I ever wanted.
And yet it was somehow… more.
At the time, I wasn’t looking for a role model, some sort of surrogate dad. No thanks, I’m good. One less person yelling at me, the better.” And besides, I was more of Bert Jones kid myself. But every Saturday morning, I could almost hear him…
“Come on, boy, let’s go out and throw the ball around. Okay, right. I’ll throw it, you just run and catch it. Or more often than not, chase it down, pick it up, run back, put the ball in my freakish plastic hand, crank it back up, set the timer and run out again. And by the way, occasionally – and for no apparent reason – I’m just going to throw it over the fucking fence.”
Yeah, my new father figure was awesome. His only real flaw was that he couldn’t do much else. For starters, my mother wouldn’t let him in the house. And we couldn’t exactly take him to the pool or bowling. I’m pretty sure he would’ve killed someone. Probably Bobbie Jay.
Still, Dad™ was always there, rain or shine. (Though not so much with the rain.) We played. We laughed. We cried. Mostly it was just me for the last two, the latter when he hit me in the goddamn eye at least a dozen times. Good times.
I haven’t seen him in years. Not since I was 13 or so. And I have no pictures him. In fact, I can’t even find a mention of him on the Internet. And no one I know has ever heard of him. But he’ll always be there – in my memories, in my heart – throwing me those perfect spirals, teaching me how to run routes. But most of all, teaching be how to be a good dad to my own kids. To always be there for them, even if just to toss around a hollow, brown plastic thing that only loosely resembles a ball.
And on those days when they’re in school or off with friends, to stand in the corner of the garage and wait quietly.
Thank you, Fran Tarkenton’s Automatic Quarterback. I love you.
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