It was always exciting to go to a Houston Astros game when I was growing up. The Astrodome, called the “eighth wonder of the world” by locals, was awe inspiring. "Peanuts, ice cold beer" rang throughout the place, and the peanuts tasted like the ones we roasted at my paternal granddad’s house. The most memorable game was when Mom and I had Sky Box seats. The Sky Box was enclosed, with huge windows facing the field, and tables and chairs available instead of cramped stadium seating. But what I remember best was the all-you-can-eat fried chicken we were served. I can’t tell you who won the game, but I ate my weight in drumsticks. Long before tailgate parties were in abundance, I was all about game-day food.
Mom, on the other hand, was all about the game. Winning or losing, she roots for her home teams, sometimes violently. During one of the summer Olympics during the 80s, I sat next to her on the couch watching the U. S. and the Soviet Union compete for the gold medal in basketball. Ever the armchair cheerleader, her arm flew at my face and made a direct hit. I didn't press charges, but I did switch chairs. Four years ago, when we took Cowboy to his first Houston Rockets game, Mom went with us. To protect my child, I put him by Flash. Wearing a face mask and full body armor, I took the hot seat next to Mom. I’m not sure if the game was too one-sided or if she's mellowed, but no blood was shed.
So, I come by my sports spectatorship honestly. My family was not highly athletic; we’re watchers rather than doers. And I have dutifully carried on the tradition.
But not Cowboy.
When he was five years old, we signed him up for Challenger Division Little League, for individuals with disabilities. He looked cute in his uniform, snaggle-toothed grin and all. In Challenger, coaches and parents help the kids learn the game, and "buddies" from local school teams, some of the finest young people on the planet, help the players hit, run the bases, and play outfield.
During Cowboy's rookie year of T-ball, he quickly learned to hit the ball. But after the hit, it took a lot of coaxing to get him to run to first base; instead, he leisurely strolled to first. Ironic, since, like many kids with autism, Cowboy was a “runner” and would take off in flight at any given moment. Flash and I kept an eagle-eye watch on him 24/7. The only time he ever walked slowly was on the ball field.
Flash and I worked with him at every game. We’d run with Cowboy to first base, where our star athlete would promptly sit down and play in the dirt. When it was time to get ready to run to second, Flash had to coax him to his feet.
“Come on, Cowboy. You need to stand up and get ready to run to second base.”
Our requests were met with silly giggles as Cowboy remained on the ground, and we had to lift him to a standing position.
I could hear Howard Cosell in my head, He’s finally on his feet. He runs to second. He's safe. And he's sitting in the dirt again.
And so on. This was the ritual at every base, every time.
When Cowboy would finally saunter to home plate, he would walk right past the base. We had to lead him back to touch home plate with his foot.
In his second season, things livened up.
Number 7 steps up to the plate. He tips the ball off the T, and he's running to first.
We leapt to our feet and cheered him on. He was on his way to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
And he made it to first base! Safe!
But then, he kept going past first base. Not to second base, but right over first base into the wide open outfield. He just kept running.
And Cowboy's dad is hauling butt after him. Truly a spectacle to behold.
"Run, Forrest, Run!" I screamed.
After a few years of baseball, Cowboy went into early retirement. I think he got tired of the lag time while waiting for his turn to bat. Each year after that, when sign-ups rolled around, Cowboy said “No” to playing baseball. Then, when he was 14, he changed his mind.
As he walked up to the plate for the first time since elementary school, there was no tee. I thought it was nice that the coach was letting him try without it. Of course, with no practice in five years, I didn’t expect much.
The ball was pitched. His stance was good, and he had his elbow up like Flash had showed him. He swung and hit that ball on the first pitch. The crowd (okay, well, his parents) went crazy. What had happened during his retirement? Professional players could tap into his secret and make it to the World Series.
His comeback was huge, and Cowboy, as usual, did things with his own special flair. When he got to each base, he stood right on top of it like “king of the mountain” until the next batter made a hit. A couple of times when he wasn’t paying attention, he was almost mowed down by the next hitter.
During his third season back, Cowboy was playing the outfield consistently well. And at the next to last game, he played infield and outfield simultaneously. He made a hit, ran to first, and when the next teammate hit a foul, Cowboy ran to pick up the ball and threw it to the pitcher. He fielded more balls than ever and was awarded the “game ball” that day for his performance.
I, on the other hand, earned a place in history as “the mom who hit a line drive directly to the pitcher’s eye” during our Parents vs. Kids game three years ago. I ran to the mound to check on him as he walked to the dugout to ice down his eye, tears rolling down his face.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked the coach.
“Run the bases.”
Fearing I could be taken into custody at any moment for assault to a child, I made it to home base and ran directly to the dugout to check on my victim. His mother assured me this was all part of the game. I later learned that the pitcher had been screaming, as I ran the bases, “She’s out of the game! Get her off the field! Get her out of here!” Although I was determined to hang up my bat for all eternity, the parents continue to make me play every year. But it is never without giggling from onlookers and “Back up!” yelled to the pitcher when I step up to bat.
The next January, Cowboy wanted to play in an Upward Challenger Basketball League. He was a point man right away, making a basket every time he got the ball. Similar to the beginning of his baseball career, he strolled down the court during the entire first season.
During his second season, he ran the court. And gone were the days of his making a goal for the opposing team. It was time to teach him to be more assertive. All those years of teaching Cowboy to not be aggressive; and suddenly we were telling him to take the ball away from other kids on the court.
His third year of basketball brought a girl to the team. Being small in stature, it was especially difficult for her to make a basket. The coach would give the ball back to her over and over after missed shots to give her extra chances. One day, as she was lining up to shoot, Cowboy walked up and calmly took the ball out of her hands and headed down the court to make a basket. We’d forgotten a few details in our teaching him to steal the ball.
Rebounds took considerably longer for Cowboy to learn.
“Stand under the basket,” we’d shout from the sidelines, as a member of the opposing team went in for a shot.
Following orders, he’d stand under the basket with his arms at his sides, like a British palace guard, as he watched someone else get the rebound.
So, the next week, we added, “Get your arms up!” So, standing about six feet from the goal, his hands were in the air.
“You know,” I told Flash, “I don’t think he has any idea why his hands are in the air.”
Flash walked onto the court and showed Cowboy where to stand, over and over, for weeks.
Finally, with no coaching, Cowboy scooted near the basket, raised his hands, and got the ball on a rebound. It was one of those Sports Highlights of the Week moments. During the next three games, he didn’t make as many baskets, but he was a rebound machine. Similar to his baseball previously that year, the next to last game of the season held some kind of special magic. He was dribbling instead of carrying the ball down the court. He was making baskets with every shot. He was getting multiple rebounds.
“MVP, Baby!” I bellowed from the sidelines. Everything he had learned in the last three years came together in one beautiful game.
And the magic continues. In every sport, each season, Cowboy becomes more adept at playing and better understands the games. Things we thought we’d never see, happen during every game. Even his playing well in sports that have no assigned seasons, such as disc golf and Wii sword fighting, are testaments to his improved eye-hand coordination and ability to focus for long periods of time.
The world of sports is wide open for Cowboy. Soccer, archery, zip lining, and rock wall climbing are included in his repertoire. We see miracles on every field, every court, and in our living room. He’s living proof of the limitless possibilities offered to all of us if we persevere.