I remember exactly where I was when I got the call.
It was the spring semester of my freshman year at Florida State. I was in my girlfriend’s dorm. It was a Friday. I had aced two exams that week.
When I heard my mom sobbing over the phone, I didn’t know what to expect.
My dad had not been sleeping well for a while and he had been forgetful at times. My mom and the doctors thought it was sleep apnea. It made sense. My dad snored to high heaven and perhaps his breathing was impaired at night.
But then the doctors wanted to do an MRI, just to make sure of their diagnosis.
Over the phone, sobbing, my mom told me they found something much worse.
A tumor. In my dad’s brain.
I didn’t know what to think. My brain went numb. I think I started crying, I don’t really remember. My mom told me that they had gotten the diagnosis a few days ago, but waited to tell me so I could focus on my exams.
She passed the phone to my aunt. Her husband, my dad’s brother, passed away from melanoma when I was a child. I don’t remember what she told me exactly, but her voice was strong. In a tragic way, she knew what we were feeling at that exact moment.
My mom was back on the phone. I told her I would find a ride back home first thing tomorrow. She was still crying. The pain in her voice was deafening.
I hung up.
I was crying.
And then it hit me. All at once. Like a tidal wave.
My dad has cancer.
I don’t exactly know when I was introduced to the game of football, but I know it must have been at a young age.
I come from a very football-eccentric family. Although we don’t have any professional or collegiate athletes, my family’s love for football stretches to the extreme. I have aunts and uncles that have been Florida Gator fans long before they were a championship-winning program. I have a grandfather that refuses to watch Pittsburgh Steelers games on live television out of superstition. I have a baby cousin who will have the unfortunate fate of being brought up in a Miami Dolphins household.
And then there’s my dad.
To put my dad’s love for football in perspective, my mom loves to tell the story of how my dad nearly missed my own birth because he was watching the Florida Gators take on Tennessee in a crucial SEC matchup. Florida would end up winning the game 31-0 and I arrived healthy into this world – a win-win situation for my dad.
My dad had lots of passions in life. He was an avid auto-racing fan, he was a great chef and a master on the grill, he built a career around photography, and he was a history nerd to boot. But his love for football was probably second only to his love for his family.
He grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan not because they were the local team (he grew up in Daytona Beach) but simply because he loved seeing players like Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith on Sundays. As such, I was raised a Dallas Cowboys fan. In fact, I don’t think I would have been allowed to live in the house if I was a fan of any other team. Pictures of famous Cowboys players adorned the walls of our houses growing up, much to the dismay of my mom, and my dad loved to collect books and figurines of players as well.
Coming from Florida, my dad was also a massive Florida Gators fan. In fact, my dad’s whole family are Gators fans. I was the only one to defect to the other side.
Florida Gator games were family vacations for us. I was born in Washington and raised in Connecticut throughout elementary school, but that didn’t stop my family from making one or two trips down to Gainesville every year for a family get-together. We’d all stay at my aunt’s house in Gainesville and get up really early to secure a prime tailgating spot at the law school. We must have tailgated at the same spot for a dozen years.
Some of my fondest memories from childhood are of those tailgates. We’d throw the football, eat good food and then head on over to the game. It was also really, really hot in August in Gainesville, so by the time we got to the Swamp, us kids would be roasting. Still, we had to stay the entire game. Even if Florida was blowing out the other team by fifty points, we’d stay until the end of the game.
My dad was the life of the party at these get-togethers. He was in charge of all the drinks for the weekend (his favorite drink was rum and Coke) and was all-time quarterback when we’d have a family scrimmage. He wasn’t much of a runner, but he could sling it with the best of them.
Looking back on those times, it wasn’t so much the game of football itself that I enjoyed as a kid, but it was the sense of family and togetherness that it brought me. I come from a pretty close-knit family, but football brought us together in ways that I can’t even describe.
Seeing my dad in the hospital for the first time is something I will never forget.
I got there late at night. It was a calm night. Not a cloud in the sky. The hospital bordered a river and the waves lapping up against the concrete created an eerie atmosphere as I entered.
I didn’t really see my dad at first. He was dressed in a blue hospital gown in bed. There was some reality show playing on the TV. Silly, yes, but the details are so vivid.
My family gave me some room as I sat in a chair beside his bed. He looked different. Gone was the twinkle in his eyes and the scruffy grin that always adorned his face. Instead, it was replaced by a confused look. I could tell he didn’t really know what was going on. He didn’t speak but was mumbling quietly under his breath.
He didn’t know who I was because the tumor affected his memory. Telling my own name to my dad for the first time was the hardest thing I had ever done.
I didn’t really know what to talk about while I was sitting there, holding his hand. So I turned to the one topic that I knew he loved: football.
I remember sitting there, crying my eyes out, talking to my dad about Florida State’s football season and how some draft analysts thought EJ Manuel could go in the first round. I don’t know why I turned to football, but I just did.
He didn’t react to what I was saying. He had this faraway look in his eyes and when he turned to me, I could tell he wasn’t really looking at me. It wasn’t his fault. The tumor was aggressive. It affected everything in his body.
My mom led me to a different room to talk to me in private. It was one of those typical hospital rooms in which people always receive bad news in those TV shows. You know, the ones with the chairs and the magazines?
The doctor wasn’t around, so she talked to me about the prognosis, the immediate steps we’d have to take and the treatment. It all kind of ran together.
That night when I got home, I looked at a picture of my dad on my phone. I tried to burn the image of that man into my head so I would never forget who he really was.
I’ve never played a down of football in my life. Unless you count the pick-up flag football games that I played with my parent’s work friends.
I was always the scrawny kid growing up. I played soccer throughout my childhood and into high school, but I never really had a desire to play football. Perhaps it was because I didn’t really start growing until my junior year of high school or because I didn’t know how to throw a football until I was in college.
I’m sure my dad would have loved for me to play football. You see, one of the greatest passions in his life was photographing sporting events. He was a photographer all throughout his life and built a career out of it.
You know what normal parents do at their child’s sporting events? They show up, sit in their lawn chairs and take pictures with their phones.
You know what my dad did at my soccer games? He showed up with his massive camera lens, probably longer than my arm, and took a couple hundred pictures of every game. He’d get back home and sit for hours on the computer, editing and cropping pictures so that each parent would receive a disc filled to the brim with pictures of their child throughout the soccer season.
It was amazing. I didn’t realize it at the time, but photography was what he was born to do. There are very few people on this earth who are blessed with a gift as special like my dad’s gift of photography.
Growing up, I was his guinea pig. If my dad bought a new lens or wanted to test out a new backdrop, I was called in.
“Dakota, stand here.”
“Dakota, turn this way.”
“Yes Dakota, just a few more.”
A few more always turned into a few hundred more. But it was necessary. Afterwards, he’d use the same lens or backdrop to create beautiful and jaw dropping photographs. It truly was astounding at what he could do with the simple click of a button. His mastery of lighting, scenery and design was second to none.
My dad worked as the deputy director of photography at the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Pete Times). His job was to mostly coordinate the staff photographers on assignments and chose which photographs would be used on which pieces. While he didn’t work as a day to day photographer anymore, he still had the flexibility to go and shoot a special event if he so pleased.
And those events usually turned out to be football games.
The football games he usually went to were, of course, Cowboys games. In 2011, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hosted the Cowboys in a Saturday night matchup. My dad asked me if I wanted to be a card runner for the game, the guy who ran around the field to all the different photographers and grabbed their camera cards while giving them new ones.
It was an amazing experience. Being on the field for that game was something I’ll never forget. It wasn’t a great game or anything (the Cowboys won 31-15), but the atmosphere was electric and being on field-level was astounding. The players were absolutely huge and seeing football from a ground level changed my entire view of the game.
After the game, my dad showed me the photographs he had taken. They were amazing. He was doing what he loved. He was pursuing his passion. He was doing what he was born to do.
Looking back on it, the year my dad was sick went by in a blur.
My primary role was his caretaker. I moved home and took online classes for a semester. I was by his side every day at every hour until my mom got home from work.
The days were long. I drove him to Moffitt Cancer Center every day at 7am for his chemotherapy. I know that stretch of I-75 from Palmetto to Tampa like the back of my hand for how many times I was on it.
Sometimes there would be bumps in the road. One day we were at the hospital for twelve hours because there was a mixup with his medicine. Another day, my mom got a flat tire that took five hours to fix. He got a blood clot in his leg once or twice.
The worst was leaving him at the hospital by himself.
The hospital kept him overnight for certain treatments. I knew he’d be okay. He was in a hospital and surrounded by nurses who would look after him. But the pain of leaving my sick dad in the hospital, alone, was heartbreaking. Sometimes my mom would sleep over at the hospital because she didn’t want to leave his side.
He had to learn how to walk all over again. At times he needed help from a walker or wheelchair. We’d walk around Moffitt for hours at a time.
One time, we decided to venture onto South Florida’s campus. Moffitt was basically on USF’s campus, so it wasn’t that far of a walk.
But we got lost.
There we were, my dad, my girlfriend, and I, wandering down a busy road at rush hour. It must have looked crazy, two kids escorting a sick man with an I.V. pole down the sidewalk. We must have been gone for two hours because we couldn’t find our way back.
After that, the nurses forbade us from leaving the hospital again.
When someone in your life is battling cancer, you live for the small moments. The tiny victories. The times when you shake your fist at fate and yell “Take that!”
The first time my dad walked, we celebrated.
When my dad told a joke, we all laughed.
When my dad remembered my name, I cried.
There are bad moments in your life when someone is battling cancer. A lot of bad moments. Times that you just want to forget about.
There were days when everything went wrong. Days where we cried and days where we got mad at our situation. Days when we got terrible news and days when it seemed like the world was out to get us.
But you don’t live for those days. You live for the good times. You live for the days when your dad gets out of bed and makes a peanut butter sandwich and it’s the biggest meal he’s made in months. You live for the days when your dad gets frustrated at you and calls you by your first name. You live for the days when your dad gives you a hug and it feels like the weight of the entire world is lifted off of your shoulders.
You live for the tiny victories. You live because those are the best damn thing in the world.
The first football game I went to in Doak Campbell Stadium was awesome.
I dragged my girlfriend there an hour before the game started just so we could get a great seat. It didn’t really matter, because Florida State was playing Murray State and the stadium only got half filled.
Florida State crushed Murray State 69-3. But while many fans left at halftime, when it was already in garbage time, we stayed for the entire game. I wanted to soak it all in. The band playing the fight song after every touchdown. The announcer saying “And that’s good for another Florida State…” and the crowd yelling “First down!” The atmosphere, the heat, the crowd, the excitement, I just wanted to take it all in.
From there, my love for the game of football only grew. I accumulated as many “ticket points” as possible in order to secure tickets to Florida State’s home game against rival Clemson. I was distraught when I had to miss a game against Duke to go Gainesville for an engagement party. I dragged my girlfriend to the home game against Florida even though we both had terrible fevers.
But standing there, drenched in sweat and ready to pass out from the fever, I knew that football was my passion.
Florida State football was my escape from reality.
When my dad was sick, I turned to football. I read every article I could, listened to every radio show, and learned the roster inside and out in preparation for the 2013 season. I probably knew that team better than most national analysts did with the amount that I put into it.
It was a strange year for me. At home, there was sadness and grief. But FSU football was a source of happiness for me. They were winning, and they were winning big.
Florida State probably fielded the best team in school history in 2013. Jameis Winston was the young, talented quarterback. They had a trio of dominant running backs. Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw were the triplets at receiver. Bryan Stork anchored the best offensive line in the country. On defense, Timmy Jernigan was the force in the interior. Telvin Smith was the heart and soul of the team at linebacker. And the secondary had five starter who are now in the NFL.
It was amazing.
I remember sitting in my living room watching their first game against Pittsburgh. The Panthers scored first and my heart sunk. This was it, I thought to myself, this team isn’t going to get it done.
But then they scored. And they scored again. Winston threw touchdown after touchdown and the team looked unbeatable. It was phenomenal.
I traveled back to Tallahassee to watch their first home game. Winston threw an interception pretty early in the game and I remember telling people around me, “Well, at least he got it out of his system.”
Florida State scored 62 points in that game.
It was the best year in program history. Winston lived up to his nickname of “Famous Jameis” and led an offense that scored an average of 51 points per game. The defense was suffocating and clamped down on even the best of offenses.
Midway through the season, Florida State faced Clemson at Death Valley in what was billed to be the biggest game in ACC history.
FSU crushed the Tigers 51-14.
They were my escape from reality. The Saturdays that I spent watching FSU football were some of my best days during that year. When my dad was able to watch those games with me, it made the games that much better.
My dad taught me how to love football.
He taught me that football is more than just a game. It’s more than just seeing who scores the most points.
It’s about the atmosphere. The sense of family and togetherness that you feel when tailgating before a game. The roar of the crowd when your team scores a touchdown.
It’s about the dedication. The unwavering support for your team, no matter the results on the scoreboard.
It’s about the passion. His love and intensity for photographing the game is the same energy I draw upon every time I sit down to write.
He taught me to pursue my passion, no matter what it may be. Photography was his life. It was his heart. It was his soul.
Even now, I am still learning from him. I am learning how to be a better man. I am learning how to be a better professional. I am learning how to be a better life partner.
Although my dad is not here today, I still ask him for advice.
He doesn’t have to answer, but I know he is listening.
My dad passed away on Monday, December 9th, 2013.
It was around five in the afternoon when my sister opened my door and told me to come downstairs. Something was wrong.
My dad had been in hospice care for a while.
There was Jimmy Buffett music on the radio when I came downstairs. Buffett was his favorite musician. It was calming.
We held his hands and whispered things to him as he took his last breaths. I cried harder than I had in my entire life. I told him not to go, but I knew in my heart that it was his time.
There was a numbness after he passed.
When you enter hospice care, you prepare yourself everyday for the inevitability of death. You think about it everyday and try to brace yourself for the eventuality. They give you all these pamphlets and you meet with all these people to talk about death and they try to give you advice for how to deal with it.
But then it happens and all that goes out the window. You’re left with these raw emotions.
Grief. Love. Sadness. Happiness. Exhaustion. Confusion.
This wave of emotions washes over you all at once and you’re filled with all these thoughts and feelings and you don’t know what to do with yourself.
But then these emotions pass and you’re empty. Like a husk of your former self.
Emotionless. Numb. Vulnerable.
I don’t remember what I thought about in the minutes after my dad passed away. My mom made phone calls to other family members and I could hear them sobbing over the phone.
I was crying. We all cried. I don’t know when the crying started nor when it stopped.
My uncle took my sister and I to a restaurant afterwards. It was just something to get us out of the house. Before we left, we said goodbye one last time.
I told him thank you. Thank you for being my dad.
There was a Cowboys game that day. They played the Bears. I remember sitting there, in the restaurant, watching it.
I believe humans have the opportunity to go anywhere in the universe after we pass away. Our souls travel the universe, seeing stars and planets that are lightyears away. We can go anywhere, see anything. The possibilities are endless.
But I know exactly where my dad was that night.
He was there, in Chicago, watching his Cowboys play.