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Oregon Family Magazine

Bring on the Athletic Scholarships!

02/29/2016 ● By Sandy Kauten

The Epstein family has finally produced a varsity athlete. I know it’s nothing to boast about; millions of families crank them out as routinely as Crayola manufactures crayons. But we haven’t been one of those families. In fact, from the time my grandfather Sam Epstein arrived in America, it has taken about 100 years for one of his descendants to suit up and test muscle, resolve and technique against athletes from other high schools.

My 17-year-old daughter Sally is going into her second year as a distance runner. So far, she has always finished last, but she said, “I’m getting a Letter this year because I’m a senior.” A Varsity Letter!

I know that track is a mixed sport, containing fierce competitors along with the kind of kids who act in school plays or play clarinets in the marching band. But when I see EPSTEIN emblazoned in yellow letters across the back of Sally’s navy-blue team sweatshirt, I feel a surge of pride -- like we’re finally partaking fully of life in America.

Old Sam Epstein’s two sons were too busy hitting the books or working for wages to play games. And the next generation? My cousins were non-physical specimens who lacked the hustle and desire even to keep score or carry equipment. My brother Jim was an artist with no taste for athletics. Brother Steve was no towel-snapper either; he was on the debating team. And me? I dreamed of playing professional baseball.

Dad and I played catch in the back yard only twice. When it came to sports, he had a bad case of Not Getting It. He associated physical exertion not with fun, but with emergencies -- the result of catastrophe or poor planning. I never saw him run. He told me that as a boy he’d been thrown out of a rowboat by some roughnecks. So I assume he swam at least once, but he didn’t like it.

I played pickup baseball games every day. I didn’t like practicing, although I could give 100 percent to an actual game for 10 hours at a time. Nowadays kids think you need 18 players for a game. But you can do it with six if you adapt the rules and don’t mind long innings. (Today's kids also think you need to give 110 percent, which is hard to do.)

With no umpires, we used the honor system. Whenever a disagreement threatened to disrupt a game, one side would yield by sneering, “Let the babies have their bottle.” In really thorny disputes, a larger boy would pound on a smaller boy with his fists until agreement was reached. Sometimes girls would play, but they were never pounded upon.

I had too few skills and too much sportsmanship. When I’d be tagged out in a close play at the plate, and my teammates were yelling, “HE’S SAFE BY A MILE!” I’d enrage them by saying, “Sorry guys, I’m out.” Honesty was more important to me than scoring a point, and it disgusted me that opinion always followed partisan lines. And I wondered why I’d usually be picked last.

At age 10, I got my parents to take me to Little League tryouts. I wanted to wear a real uniform, sit in a real dugout and play nine kids on a team. Hundreds of boys turned out. When it was my turn, a man with a clipboard watched me catch two of three throws and hit one of three pitches. “We’ll call you,” he said neutrally. Doubting he would, I wept on the drive home, then waited in vain for the call.

Thirty years later, my dad finally told me the man HAD called, but, “we saw how upset the tryouts made you, so we decided not to tell you.”

“Dad!” I said, “You don’t know what you’ve done! Did he leave a number?” Thanks to my over-protective parents, my moment had come and gone at age 10. I never went out for another team. In high school, while the rest of the guys were running wind sprints to please some coach, I devoted myself to chasing girls, which suited me really well. It was all Game and no Practice. All it took was desire and hustle.

This pastime eventually produced three daughters, and when they got old enough they each played some rec-league softball or soccer. But none stayed with it past sixth grade. My cousins’ and brother’s kids did no better.

And now here’s Sally, an actual member of the Fighting Terriers track and field team. Her meets take place in the afternoons when I’m supposed to be at work. But one day last spring, supervision was lax and I slipped away. Although Sally had already run her 7-minute mile, I got to lounge around on the turf, chatting with her and her pals as we watched other girls run and jump and throw things. It was as relaxing as a nap in a hammock.

I’ve promised Sally that this year I’m going to see her run a race or two. “Maybe I’ll be able to finish ahead of someone,” she suggested.

"Don’t do anything special on my account,” I said. “I just want to see you race.”

It may take another 100 years for an Epstein to bring home a trophy, but like Sally, I’m in no big hurry.

Rick can be reached at [email protected].