Who's better?" I asked my bridegroom of several weeks, "Cassius Clay or Muhammad Ali?"
My new husband looked at me with wide-eyed terror.
"You're kidding, aren't you?"
I shook my head meekly, wondering what was wrong with my question.
"They're the same person!" he said, bursting with laughter as he buried his head back in the sports page.
As a young bride, I was simply trying to acclimate myself to my husband's world of sports. Although my father and two brothers enjoyed sports, their interest was nothing compared with my bridegroom's obsession. He watched all the games, knew all the statistics, analyzed all the coaches, and listened to all the sports talk shows on the radio.
He tried his best to draw me into his sporting world. "Watch this replay!" he would shout from the TV room.
Dropping what I was doing, I'd dash through the house to catch sight of yet another spectacular catch, block, putt, run, or leap. Although it was great stuff, the action didn't grab my attention like a good book, a long walk, stars on a clear night, or a Monet on a museum wall.
Even as I joined my husband on an occasional sports outing, I found myself paying more attention to the people than the score, the cool breeze than the play, the peanuts than the pop-up.
As our marriage moved through the game plan of life, three sons were born to us. Unwittingly, I had picked up the perfect team for a pickup game of pitcher, catcher, batter. While my friends with daughters got all dolled up for outings of lunch and shopping, I threw on my jeans for hours of fielding, refereeing, and yelling, "Run! You can make it!"
"Aren't you just a little bit disappointed you don't have a girl?" friends often asked.
"Not at all," I answered truthfully.
"Well, there's a special place in heaven for mothers of three boys," they replied, quoting from a popular parenting guide.
Pity is not part of my playbook.
So as each young son grew and took his section of the sports page at the breakfast table, I refused to be benched on the sidelines. So what if I didn't have braids to plait, sweet dresses to iron, or ballet shoes to sew ribbons onto? I wasn't going to be left in the dugout. It didn't take long to figure out I could be the ball girl, or I could step up to bat.
IN short order, I became one of the boys. I pitched, I putted, I fished. And a whole new world opened up to me. Activities I never would have chosen turned into wondrous adventures.
As pitcher for the neighborhood pickup game, I discovered the joy of a well-hit ball as well as the earthy smell of trampled grass on a hot summer afternoon.
As driver to the putting green, I marvelled at the exactness of nailing a 4-foot putt as well as the birdsong that serenaded us from a nearby oak tree.
As threader of worms, I caught the excitement of a fish tugging on a line as well as the shade-shifting brilliance of a setting sun.
Just about the time I grew accustomed to these activities, the boys moved into their teenage years, and I found myself thrown into a whole new realm of challenges. Because I was often involved in getting the guys where they wanted to go, I decided there was no point in just sitting and waiting for them to finish. Against my better judgment, I joined the action.
I've spent hours on a cold, overcast day climbing up a 40-foot pine tree, swinging from a rope, and yelling "Tarzan" before plunging into the cold waters of a northwoods lake.
I rode the fastest, steepest roller coasters of a theme park screaming my head off, amazed that I had allowed my speeding upside-down self to be put in such a precarious situation.
I attended years of baseball conventions, running with a crush of fans for autographs from players I didn't even know. (I can beg with the best of 'em.)
I found myself at the top of a snow-covered mountain peak as a novice skier on too steep a slope, simply because my sons knew I would like the view.
"Go for it, Mom!" they said. "You can do it!"
And I did.
THE highlights of my sporting career came, however, when my sons crossed over into my playing field.
I knew I'd scored when my 18-year-old returned from the city and described the personal tour of the art museum he gave his friends; when my 16-year-old discussed the contrasting novels of a popular author; and when my 13-year-old spotted sparkling Orion in the velvet darkness of the sky and announced that it was his favorite constellation.
Hey, these guys even do lunch.
Not long ago, as we rode home from dropping off my oldest son for his freshman year at college, my younger sons and husband joined in a spirited game of sports trivia.
"Name three pro-basketball teams that don't end in 'S'."
"Who holds the record for most home runs by a catcher?"
I listened vaguely as I watched the silver-beamed headlights of farmers' tractors glide down rows of moonlit cornfields. Breathing in the sweet scent of the late-summer harvest, I noticed a sudden lull in their questioning. I seized the moment.
"Who was better," I asked, "Muhammad Ali or Cassius Clay?"
"Muhammad Ali?" answered one son.
"Cassius Clay?" guessed the other.
Their father burst out laughing.
"They're the same person!" he explained.
"Hey, that's a really cool trick question, Mom!" said one son.
"Let's try it on Billy and Greg when we get home," said the other.
Twenty-five years later, I have redeemed myself. Just don't ask me the score.