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A First Father-Son Football Game for a Long-Suffering Cowboys Fan

A sportswriter introduces his son to the pomp and perils of NFL fandom

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sunday night’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers was one of the worst performances by the home team I’ve ever seen. The Cowboys scored three points. Dak Prescott fractured his thumb and will be out for weeks. On the bright side, my son and I enjoyed this splendid nightmare together. It was his first NFL game.

Owen is the 9-year-old who was bouncing up and down outside AT&T Stadium. He wore a Cowboys T-shirt, shorts, Crocs, and socks. He glowed with the anticipation that usually appears when a new Star Wars show is queued up on Disney+. A few feet from the entrance, I stopped and offered one of the bits of fatherly wisdom I’d planned for his first game. “Owen,” I said, “I think the security lines are shorter over there.”

A child’s first baseball game is the thing that inspires retrospective romance. A kid walks through the tunnel toward the field … the kid sees the color of the grass … years later, when the kid is a sports columnist, he uses the word “greensward” for the first and hopefully only time in his career. First NFL games aren’t like that. Take mine, for example.

I was about 8 years old when my family took me to the old Texas Stadium. I have no memory of the Cowboys’ opponent. What I remember is that my mom made me wear two layers of thermal underwear. It wasn’t especially cold. After the game, when we hiked from the stadium to my dad’s van, I was covered in sweat. “My god,” one of my uncles said, “the kid’s going to die of heat stroke!” Several pairs of hands reached out to undress me. Then I lay on the floor of the van in my underwear while my body temperature returned to normal. That was my introduction to pro football.

Owen and I were the only two Curtises going to Cowboys-Bucs. I wanted to make my helicopter parenting a tad more subtle. For the plane ride to Dallas, I filled Owen’s backpack with two books from Rick Riordan’s The Trials of Apollo series, a favorite of his. Then I added a children’s quickie biography called Who Is Tom Brady?

On Sunday, we drove from my old house in Fort Worth to a parking lot outside an Arlington strip mall. “Plan,” said Owen, using the dad-splaining voice I’d been warming up for the occasion. “Let’s walk through the parking lot. Go through the entrance …” One of the first things you learn when you try to teach kids stuff is that they’re far more interested in teaching you.

I’m not sure how many teachable moments could be found inside a 13-year-old stadium, anyway. What was I supposed to say? “You know, kid, I saw Tony Romo play here.” The instructions I gave to Owen—“Stay close,” “We’re about to go through security”—were identical to the ones I gave him at the airport.

Owen and I stopped to admire the stadium facade, which I said looked like a glowing UFO. (He made a polite noise of agreement.) Working from the same metaphorical coaching tree, I compared the inner bowl of the stadium to George Lucas’s Galactic Senate. (That was a bingo.)

I worried three hours of football and TV ad breaks would be a lot for Owen. I forgot our seats in the upper deck were at eye level with Jerry World’s 160-foot-long video board. Cowboys-Bucs became the longest sustained period of “screen time” Owen has had in his life. Jake Camarda hitting the board with a punt was a bonus.

NFL games can be doomy and overproduced. For a child, these qualities make them magical. The smoke machines they set up when the players run onto the field are cool. Michael Irvin’s recorded pregame speech is rousing. Owen appreciated the wit of the video board operator, who took an image of Brady and overlaid it with the words “intruder alert.”

To feed Owen’s expanding football brain, I found myself “calling” Cowboys-Bucs like the world’s most obvious color analyst. “If they stop them on third down, the Bucs will have to punt.” “This is a big play.” “This is another big play.” I’ll never insult an announcer again.

Owen did a great job of focusing on the game. But one of the best parts of being a kid is that you always don’t know what you’re supposed to be looking at. Near the beginning of the game, Owen tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at the sunset he saw out of the west windows of the stadium. “That’s pretty cool,” he said. I never would have noticed.

“Who’s Tom Brady’s friend?” Owen asked during a slow stretch in the third quarter.

“Uhhh …” I paused while my mind ticked past Alex “TB12” Guerrero and the recent Page Six item, which I’d recounted in a heavy-things voice on the way to the game.

“Starts with a G,” Owen said helpfully.

Oh, Gronk. Phew.

I think Owen liked being at an NFL game because it felt less inhibited than the rest of his world. Even the adults did funny things. When the Bucs took the field, I booed. He looked at me, and we shared a smile. Yes, you can boo here. You can even boo Prescott when he overthrows Noah Brown in the third quarter.

The only thing I’ll ever ask of Owen, sports-wise, is that he roots for the Cowboys. Rooting for the Cowboys will give us one great subject to complain about together. Last week, trying to head off disappointment, I asked him if we’d be shocked if the Cowboys lost.

“I don’t think we’ll be that shocked,” he said.

Of course, the Cowboys then played an exotically bad game of football. After one Micah Parsons sack, Owen accidentally launched the free rally towel that had been laid on our seats. (Some fans three rows down were nice enough to return it.) That was one of the only launchable moments of the night. For the next two hours, the fans in front of us barely even stood up. The stadium was quiet. The game was a gift from Jerry Jones, who recently offered a theory of team-building in which one plus one would equal three. Jerry got the Cowboys’ point total right.

When the Cowboys didn’t get a first down early on, I could see frustration flicker across Owen’s face. After that, he was as stoic as he is when he eats frozen peas. (Actually, more stoic—he likes peas.) When we learned Prescott got hurt, Owen got more curious. He was interested in learning the details of a disaster. He’ll do great as a lifelong Cowboys fan or a Democrat on Twitter.

Parents know kids rarely come out and say how they feel about one-on-one outings. You don’t hear, “Swell, Dad. Can we do it again at Thanksgiving?”

When we left the stadium, Owen was admiring his rally towel. It was as threadbare as a Motel 6 washcloth.

“Do they give these out at every game?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Great,” he said. “I can get a whole collection.”