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Dad Was Christine Brennan's Biggest Fan

The noted sportswriter Christine Brennan began at a time when relatively few women worked at the trade. She has been a cheerful pioneer, inspiring others to follow in her footsteps. Her own most consistent inspiration came from a man ahead of his time... her father. Best Seat in the House pays tribute to the lasting influence of Jim Brennan, Sr., who passed away in 2003.

In an interview with NPR.org -- just in time for Father's Day -- Christine Brennan reflects on a Dad who taught her to throw a tight spiral... and advised her that life "ain't no dress rehearsal."

Q. How did your father foster your interest in sports?

He and my mother simply let me do what I wanted to do when I was a child. When I was turning eight, I asked for a baseball mitt for my birthday and my dad went to the store and bought one for me. This would not be unusual today, but it didn't happen today. It happened in 1966. All the other girls in the neighborhood wanted dolls. Not me, and that was just fine with my parents. I was very tall for my age -- my mother said I was born size 6X and kept right on growing -- so the boys wanted to play sports with me even as they told every other girl to go away.

But I most wanted to play sports with my father. I couldn't wait to throw the baseball in the backyard with him when he came home from work, and my father couldn't wait either. He taught me how to throw a baseball properly, how to throw a spiral with a football, how to keep score of baseball games.

I was the oldest of four children, so he also started taking me to games with him. The University of Toledo was across the street from our neighborhood and we would walk to the Rockets' football games. I could see the glow of the stadium lights from our front yard. I was so excited to get to those games, and my father, the Pied Piper of the neighborhood, was thrilled to take me and, eventually, my siblings and other children as well. Because of my dad, I always felt I belonged in the world of sports. It was the simple things; just my father and me throwing a baseball, or listening to a baseball game on the radio, or going to a Toledo -- or later, University of Michigan -- football game. My father loved sports, so I loved sports.

Q. What was his favorite sport? Was he a good athlete?

My dad's favorite sport was football. He was quite a good lineman at Hyde Park High School in Chicago in the 1940s -- so good, in fact, that he received a scholarship to Drake University and played there for one year before joining the Army at the end of World War II during the occupation of Germany. He also was a pretty good high school shot putter, and although he was second-best at the school, there was no disgrace in that because the best kid was Jim Fuchs, who ended up winning two Olympic bronze medals.

My father had a tryout with the Chicago Bears in the late 1940s. The great George Halas suggested he get into better shape and come back next year, but there was more money to be made in sales than the NFL, so he never went back.

Q. Were you a good athlete?

I was a pretty good athlete for my day. Because I was playing sports in high school in the mid 1970s, I didn't have to specialize the way girls do now because you weren't even thinking about a college scholarship. Nothing about girls sports then was as serious as it is now. I played all six varsity sports Ottawa Hills High School offered and sometimes would run between a tennis match and a field hockey game, playing in both the same afternoon.

I was named the senior girl athlete of the year at my high school, and while that sounds like quite an honor, and I always felt it was, there really wasn't much competition for that award. President Nixon signed Title IX in 1972 and it had not yet begun to take effect, so equality for girls in sports was non-existent back then. The cheerleaders had better uniforms than we athletes did.

Q. How did your father support your efforts?

My father's attitude about a girl playing sports was unique for the 1970s. I was the oldest of four children, as I said, and he and my mother truly raised me as a little person, not particularly as a little girl. They were way ahead of their time. Even though my father was a rock-ribbed Republican who voted for Goldwater, Nixon, and probably Dewey, he really was a feminist when it came to believing that girls and women could do anything. I know he was the only father in the neighborhood who encouraged his daughter to play against the boys -- and even beat the boys.

Even though my father came from a very poor background during the Depression, he was very well-read and extremely confident about how he wanted to raise his children. He saw what was coming for girls and women in the United States. He also made time for us: he wanted to play golf with us at a pitch-and-putt on Sunday afternoons, or take us to games. He didn't want to spend extra time with his adult friends. He wanted to be with us.

Q. What's your favorite memory of a game with your father?

It was November 22, 1969, the sixth anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination, and my father took his three oldest children to the Michigan-Ohio State football game in Ann Arbor, just 45 minutes north of Toledo. Ohio State, led by legendary coach Woody Hayes, was the defending national champion and ranked No. 1 in the country, while Michigan was a decided underdog in the game. It was a very popular ticket and most men were either bringing their wives or their friends to the game.

But my dad wanted to share the experience with me -- age 11 -- my nearly 10-year-old sister, and my 7-year-old brother. When we got to our seats in the end zone at Michigan Stadium, I couldn't believe my eyes. We were the only children there. Lucky kids that we were, our father had brought us to the biggest game of the year. It turned out that the game was even more than that: it is still viewed as one of the greatest in college football history. Michigan upset Ohio State that day, 24-12. By the way, the title of the book comes from that game. Although we were seated in the end zone, I realized that day that the seat next to my father always was the best seat in the house.

Q. There are obvious pioneers in women's sports -- Billie Jean King, Mia Hamm -- and obvious developments -- such as Title IX -- that have reshaped the environment for women in sports in the past 30 years. But who are some of the quieter pioneers?

There are many. Jackie Joyner-Kersee is one of the greatest role models I've met in women's sports. Not only was she a decorated Olympic athlete, she has taken "giving back" to a new level by moving back to her hometown of St. Louis to help children in the same inner-city neighborhood where she grew up. I've watched Jackie talk to poor young women, telling them about the dangers of drugs, alcohol, and unwanted pregnancies. It was magical. They hung on her every word. She speaks so beautifully to them because she lived their lives when she was a girl in East St. Louis, Ill.

I also should mention Julie Foudy. Julie stood up and fought for Title IX when it was under attack from the Bush administration in 2002-2003. At the time, she also was a member of the U.S. National soccer team and, in fact, was the team captain. That's dedication; to be spending so much time in meeting rooms arguing on behalf of girls and women in sports when you should be working out, practicing, getting ready for the 2004 Olympic Games. In the end, Foudy won -- in two ways. She helped save Title IX and she led the U.S. team to a gold medal in Athens.

Q. What's the most amazing thing you've seen a woman do on the field of play?

The good news is that there are many answers I can give. I've had the pleasure of watching Venus and Serena Williams serve a tennis ball well over 100 mph. I've watched 16-year-old phenom Michelle Wie hit a golf ball more than 300 yards. In the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Sarah Hughes skated the most technically difficult program ever for a woman to win the gold medal in figure skating. Bonnie Blair was so dominant in speed skating for so long that it was remarkable.

The Olympics provide many moments for women to achieve great things. I was in Seoul in 1988 when teenager Janet Evans beat the East Germans time and again in distance swimming. And in 1984, at the Los Angeles Games, Mary Lou Retton captured the moment as few athletes ever have when she landed that famous vault of hers, scored a perfect 10, and became a household name for life.

Q. Do you ever deal with people who think you shouldn't do what you do? How do you handle that? And what would your father tell you about it?

Actually, the critics are few and far between these days. I'm not saying that people don't disagree with me, but each day I think it has less and less to do with being a woman and more to do with the fact that they just don't like what I said or wrote. I'm always amused when I get the occasional letter saying, "Go back to the kitchen where you belong." I say to myself, "Oh no, you do not want me in the kitchen." I was known as the Home Ec Wreck in high school. The kitchen is the last place you want me.

My dad's advice was and still would be to simply ignore people like that, or smile at some of the things they say. He always encouraged me to charge ahead and not pay attention to the background noise. I quote many of my father's sayings in the book, but my favorite is, "This ain't no dress rehearsal." What I've always taken that to mean is that this is your one chance at life, so throw everything on the table, trust in yourself and be confident about what you're doing. Oh, and don't spend too much time worrying about your critics.

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