My heart sank when I saw legendary NFL running back Emmitt Smith sitting next to his oldest son, EJ, at National Signing Day, a Stanford cap snug on EJ’s head and a University of Florida cap still sitting starkly on the table in front of them.
It sank for me, selfishly, because — as a life-long Gator football fan who spent my own high school years watching Emmitt wear #22 while breaking records for my team — I was disappointed not to have his son coming to the University of Florida to play too. It would have been fun and special to watch EJ play the same position on the same field. It also would have made for fabulous Emmitt sightings in Gainesville next fall.
But I also felt for Emmitt. He and I both now have high school seniors — our oldest sons — and they have both been choosing between the paths we took and paths we did not. I have tried very hard not to sway my son toward my alma mater, but at the same time, there is always that little part of my heart that thinks, Wouldn’t that be cool to have my son walk the same paths, sit in the same classrooms, know the inside jokes and the traditions that I share with my friends?
That’s why I think what Emmitt Smith said in that moment sitting next to his son at Early Signing Day is so critically important for every single parent of a high school student to hear. When the interviewer asked Emmitt what advice he had given his son, without missing a beat, Emmitt took the Gator hat off the table and put it on his own head.
“You know, I’m going to take this hat, I’m going to wear this hat,” he said, eliciting laughs from the crowd. “I can wear this hat; he doesn’t have to wear this hat. His daddy went here. That doesn’t mean my son has to go here.
“At the end of the day, my son has his own journey, and it is his journey, not my journey,” Emmitt continued, punctuating each word clearly. “And for him to do the things that is best for him is what we teach all of our children — to find what is best for you and go make it happen for yourself.” He said he was proud of the man that EJ was becoming.
“I’m a Gator. He’s still a Gator ‘cause he’s in my family. We’re still a family of Gators, but we’re supporting not only EJ, but we support Skylar, we support Jasmine, we support Rheagen and Elijah — all of our children, no matter where they go,” he finished. “We’re going to be parents first.”
Emmitt Smith might be a rock star running back, a legend at both the University of Florida and the Dallas Cowboys’ stadiums, and a champion of Dancing with the Stars, but this statement might be the most admirable feat of strength he has shown me. Let’s be clear — no matter how good your intentions are, and no matter how well you prepare yourself, watching your child go through the college application process and not letting your own ego and heart get in their way takes a lot of strength.
I never expected to receive parenting wisdom from an NFL player at exactly the moment I needed it most. But as my own son rounds the corner into the spring of his high school graduation year and decides where his own journey will take him next, I have not been able to forget that image of Emmitt placing the hat on his head. I must wear my own hat. I must let my son wear his. I have my own journey. He has his.
And like Emmitt, no matter where my son goes, we will always be a family of Gators. Parts of our stories do not change based on where we get our diplomas; they are written in indelible ink, and that is one of them. That is what parenting is, writing our family stories in our own handwriting on our children’s hearts, then knowing when to hand the pens — and the hats — over to them.
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