In a time when professional athletes seemingly make the news more for their disappointments, failed commitments and even criminal activity than they do for their successes, I am happy to report that a couple of college athletes recently proved any negative stereotypes wrong.
Last week our Dinner with the Smileys guests included two Men’s Ice Hockey players from the University of Maine — Kyle Beattie, #21, and Nick Pryor, #71 — their coach Tim Whitehead and his son Zach. As my mother-in-law, Robin, was also in town visiting, it was our biggest crowd yet, with five adults and four kids.
My table seats six.
I have a rule, however, which I learned from my mother, that no matter how many guests arrive, we always fit them around the dinner table. There was no balancing-paper-plates-on-knees when I was growing up, so I wasn’t going to start now.
We hauled in a side table from the front porch, pulled the kitchen table away from the wall and shoved the two together. For seating we had the usual six wooden chairs that belong to the dinner table, two padded dining-room-table chairs that belong to my grandmother but are stored in our basement, plus an old red stool that has been chewed by the dog.
It wasn’t something you’d see on Martha Stewart, but it worked nonetheless.
My boys had been looking forward to the dinner all week. Dustin — their usual source of all things sports-related — has not been able to participate in that aspect of their lives for three months now. (Watching the Super Bowl without Dustin was probably harder on Ford than not having his dad there for Christmas.) Although I try to fill the role of both Mom and Dad in Dustin’s absence, there are some things I just can’t do. (Throwing a football is one of them.)
The boys’ sports-tank was dangerously low. And hockey here in the Northeast is what football is to the south. So for the kids, it was as if we were about to host rock stars.
Nick and Kyle arrived early, before their coach. They sat on the couch and Lindell, 5, wasted no time wedging himself between them. He was like a tiny board book squished between two enormous bookends. And he peered up at the players as if he was studying them.
After Coach Whitehead and Zach arrived, all the boys and men went into the basement to play pingpong. In the team’s official program, Nick listed pingpong as one of his hobbies. And, well, if it’s in print, Ford is not likely to miss it. He had read and reread that catalog several times the night before. I smiled to myself upstairs as I heard the players teach my younger, adoring boys the best way to hold a pingpong paddle — something Dustin would have showed them.
At dinner, Nick and Kyle removed their baseball caps. I glanced at Ford and Owen to make sure they were watching. They were. Asking my boys to take off their hats at the dinner table should be less difficult in the future.
We had lasagna, strawberry salad, homemade bread and green salad. With two college athletes at the table, however, even all of that went quickly. I looked at Lindell, who was watching the bigger boys. I hoped that all those times I’ve said, “Eat your lasagna so you grow big and strong,” were finally sinking in.
The players were polite, respectful and good with the kids. They used nice table manners, too. One dinner with them might just equal 100 of my attempts at proving to the boys why all of the above matters.
It’s such a simple thing — come visit with some kids and have dinner. But Nick and Kyle clearly understood the task meant so much more — be a role model.
A few days later, Coach Whitehead invited us to watch a practice and meet the rest of the team. Ford counted down the days. His face brightened when he saw Nick and Kyle. And when they gave each of the boys their very own signed hockey stick, I knew it would be one of their newest cherished items, a reminder of two “big kids” who cared about them and think they are special.
For a few short hours, those hockey players filled a spot that my boys have been missing. Dustin and I are grateful.
But besides teaching the boys a thing or two about respect, being a man and playing sports, Dustin also likes to show the boys how to love their mother and women in general. Which is why my favorite line of the night came from Nick.
Lindell had asked him, “Is it scary living at college away from your mom?”
Nick smiled and said, “Yes. Yes, actually it is.”
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.