Memories of my dad, the Philly sports fan, a year after his passing

I have been doing this a long time, in fact more than 20 years of covering high school sports in this area.

Not surprisingly, the years, and games, frequently run together. Some games stand out because the circumstances, such as CIF playoff games, notable weather conditions or even Chino Hills’ ridiculous 121-102 win over Rancho Cucamonga in boys basketball in December.

Some of them are memorable because of what else was going on, such as last year on this date, February 13, 2013. I was covering a boys basketball playoff game that was not especially memorable. Host San Bernardino was blowing out Kaiser in the first round. 

It was in the waning seconds of the game, a San Bernardino 62-29 win, that I got the call. When I saw it was my mom calling from the east coast, I knew the news wasn’t good.

And it wasn’t. She was calling to tell me that my father, Gordon Marshall, had passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer.

It was not a surprise, I had seen him only about a week before in New Jersey and at that point, we knew it would be only a matter of days.  Officially, the coroner’s report had the date of death as February 14, only because they did not arrive at my parents’ house until after midnight. But my mom knew my dad had truly passed on the 13th. Valentine’s Day should not be a sad anniversary.

I had wanted to write something then, but the words didn’t come right away. I eventually wrote a eulogy, and I decided I would wait until the one year anniversary to write something in this space.

I was never a great athlete. With my dad encouraging me, I tried several sports as a kid, baseball, soccer, basketball among them and I wasn’t very good at any of them. But I was still a fan.

I grew up in the Philadelphia area, but my father had no ties to the area. He grew up a Chicago White Sox fan, because of the summers he would spend with his father in Chicago.

But when I discovered a love for sports, he dove in head-first with me.

From an early age, I developed my determination to never leave a game early. At the age of 8 or 9 in the late 1970s, I remember going to a rainy and chilly Phillies game with him early in the season. We waited through multiple rain delays, him sipping coffee, me sipping hot chocolate, sheltered on the concourse of The Vet. We didn’t leave. The game didn’t get over until after midnight. I don’t even remember who won, but it was a time I will never forget.

We cheered for the Philadelphia teams, me because it was where I was growing up, my dad because it was something to share with me.

When I was a youngster, It was a great time to be growing up a sports fan in Philadelphia. When I was 10 and 11 in 1980-81, all four major sports teams in Philadelphia made the finals in an eight-month period even though only one of them won.

I watched them all with my dad.

Later, the years became leaner for Philadelphia sports teams. After the Phillies won the World Series in 1980, only the 76ers in 1983 won a title while I was a kid. I’m still waiting to witness a Flyers or Eagles championship; and only the Phillies in 2008 have delivered since then. The Flyers have lost the Stanley Cup finals six times since they last won, the Eagles have lost the Super Bowl twice.

Through it all we cheered for our teams, we booed the teams we hated, whether it was the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, New York Yankees, New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers, Boston Celtics or Lakers.

We went to games. I went to an NBA finals game with the 76ers in 1980 that was a partially obstructed view, same with a Flyers playoff game about the same time.

While our relationship went far beyond sports, it was sports that became a common bond.

In the pre-internet era, and before SportsCenter was on seemingly around the clock, West Coast games were on TV too late for me to watch growing up and were on too late to make it into the newspaper.

My dad would stay up late to watch these games for me, even when he had to be at work the next day. He would watch, write me a note and leave it on my bedroom door for me to read in the morning.

Sports was a part of our family, when I was a teenager, we had partial season tickets for the Phillies and 76ers and went to Eagles and Flyers games as a family. We went to a Phillies World Series game in 1983, sitting in the upper deck in center field of Game 5.

My dad and I would take a good cop/bad cop approach to our teams, with him usually being the bad cop. “They stink,” he’d say about any one of our teams sometimes in slightly more colorful language. I’d try to be a little more positive.

My dad and I took our love for sports on the road. In 1987 when he and I traveled to California to scout colleges for me to attend, we bought tickets to go to the All-star game in Oakland at the then-astronomical price of $125 apiece to watch the game from the upper deck in the outfield.

Knowing my love of sports, my parents encouraged me to pursue sports writing as a career and excitedly read clippings my grandparents would mail them of my early articles.

After college, he flew to Arizona and I drove from Southern California to see the Eagles play. In 1999, we met each other in Detroit to see games in the last season of Tiger Stadium, a dream of mine.

Regardless of the teams, my dad would figure out a team to root for (sometimes after asking me), and was not shy in being vocal, even if it meant yelling at the TV (a talent I share).

Even when my parents would visit and would attend a high school game with me, he would figure out for which team he should root. While I would remain neutral as a reporter, he would fervently support his newly-adopted team, which was usually the underdog. He identified with underdogs, because he was an underdog who succeeded in life. That is perhaps one of the reasons why he embraced Philadelphia teams, who were frequently underdogs. I think really only the 1983 76ers were overwhelming favorites among Philadelphia sports teams.

Growing up in New Jersey, there wasn’t the minor league baseball presence that there is now. But when I started to cover the California League in the 1990s, we began to go to minor league games near our family summer house in Vermont.

As my dad’s health declined and my parents traveled less to California, I valued that one game a year we would attend in Vermont. While all of the sporting events I attended with my dad were special, the last one will stand out.

It was summer of 2012 and my dad was confined to a wheelchair, suffering from fatigue and excruciating headaches. I certainly wasn’t going to push him to go to a Vermont Lakemonsters game, especially since it was more than an hour’s drive each way to the game. But he wanted to go. The mere fact that he wanted to go meant a lot to me. We (my mom, dad, wife, daughter and myself) watched from a patio that had special wheelchair access. We tried to make it as normal as possible. It wasn’t normal. But it was special, because I knew in my heart it would be the last game we would attend together.

Dad, you’ve been gone for a year now. I just want you to know that, the Eagles don’t stink as much as they used to, the Flyers still kind of stink, the Phillies stink again and the 76ers really stink. But keep cheering, the underdogs do sometimes win.

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