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Did We Just Become Best Friends?

Relationships are built through team sports.

Photo by Adrià Crehuet Cano on Unsplash

“I want all the student-athletes to stand up and take a look around this room... for many of you, when you get married, your best man is standing right here in this room.”

This is how I opened the annual Freshman Parent/Student-Athlete night as the director of athletics at Serra High School in San Mateo, CA. It was a night where we outlined what it means to be a student-athlete at Serra—a private, all-boys Catholic school of about 860 students. Department policies were covered during the evening, but, most importantly, I wanted to enforce how imperative it was to build lifelong friendships through team sports.

It was a beautiful spring day at Sea Cloud Park in Foster City. I was 14 years old in May of 1988, and I was the catcher on my Millbrae Lions Pony League team. We were playing the Foster City Phillies. It was a big game, as both teams stood atop the Pony League standings. The Phillies had a great, left-handed leadoff hitter. He was fast, and when he got on base, he usually ended up on third base by stealing second and third.

“He’s taking a big lead over there—I’m going to pick this guy off,” I thought to myself. I touched the back of my catcher’s helmet between pitches, signaling to the third baseman that I would throw down for a backdoor pickoff play. The pitch was on the way, a bit inside to the right-handed hitter, which was a perfect pitch for me to get my momentum going toward third base for a perfect throw. As I launched the ball toward third, the runner ran back to the base. The ball hit him square in the back, right between his shoulder blades. He dropped to the ground as if he had been hit by a sniper! Somehow he managed his way back to the bag. Millbrae won that game by one run (yes, Tom Arvetis missed home plate, something that would later be disputed among friends), but that pickoff attempt to third base is what I will always remember most from that game.

Three months later, I began my freshman year at Serra High School. I wanted to follow the path of my older brothers and go to the school that produced Lynn Swann, Barry Bonds, and Gregg Jefferies. My younger brother followed suit, so all four siblings played varsity football while attending Serra. In my senior year, there was an excellent freshman baseball player who also was the backup quarterback on an 0-8 freshman football team. His name was Tom Brady.

At freshman football tryouts during the first week of school, I recognized the kid whom I nailed in the back three months earlier. He recognized me as well, and we laughed about the incident. We became good friends during that freshman football season. The team went 7-1, just missing a league championship by losing to Bellarmine 13-12 (to this day, we all know Matt Tinitali was in bounds on the two-point play at the end of the game, although the official thought otherwise). During our JV season, my friend became the quarterback and I played center. You can’t have a closer friendship than that! Junior year was special. We both started on the school’s first ever Central Coast Section championship team. He played free safety and I played linebacker. We worked perfectly in tandem, as he set the coverage while I set the front on defense. I’ll always remember how he picked me up in games if I missed an assignment or a tackle.

“You’ve got this, Deano, this is your time... you’re going to make the next play,” he offered with encouragement.

We became the best of friends, hanging out together all the time and going on family vacations. He and I stayed in close contact throughout college and visited each other’s campuses. As we ventured into the next chapters of our lives after college, we and our core group of friends remained close and shared many experiences. We eventually were the best men in each other’s weddings, and we remain in close contact today.

I was nervous at first about writing my thoughts on paper and sharing them with the world. However, I believe that my experience as a school administrator, coach, and father of a young athlete has given me a unique perspective of the sports world. Last week, I wrote my first article (Who’s the Problem?) and decided to submit it to be published. I sent the link to several family members and received positive feedback, so I decided to share it on Twitter and LinkedIn. I was pleasantly surprised by the encouraging comments, especially this one from my best man:

“A great read for parents with kids participating in sports at all levels. A reminder that youth sports present a tremendous opportunity for teachable moments with our kids, specifically focusing on what they can do to be resilient. Effort and attitude... Dean Ayoob, thanks for writing this piece.”

I got goosebumps as I was reading these comments because I suddenly recounted his words from long ago, “You’ve got this, Deano, this is your time... you’re going to make the next play.” 30 years later, that guy I nailed in the back with a ball on a botched pickoff attempt was there to support me in my new endeavor. We went from competitors to teammates to lifelong friends because of our dedication to team sports. As I watch and coach my son’s sports teams, I try to take a step back from the competition and remind myself of the lifelong bonds he is making through sports. Thank you, Todd Conneely, for your ongoing support; your friendship is valued more than you can imagine.

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