I'm not quite sure when it started.
It wasn't the day she was born, that's for sure. All she did that day was give me a squeeze. She was just a few hours old, wrapped in a pink blanket and snoozing in a hospital room. My wife was eating a Greek salad with extra feta cheese, her most missed item on the "thou shalt not eat" list for expectant mothers. And I was standing in a corner in the state of bewilderment and helplessness that befalls all expectant fathers when the expecting part comes to an end. I went over to the bassinet they had rolled her in on and just stared at her. She was impossibly small, as I recall, and wrinkled in a way that made her look like a tiny version of a very, very old person. And she was breathing, just enough that you could see it -- her chest expanding and retreating, expanding and retreating, silently and beautifully.
"Hi there," I whispered.
I put my finger inside her tiny little hand, which was curled into a tiny little fist. And I left it there as I watched her chest expand and retreat, expand and retreat.
"I'm your father," I said, for the first time, and my voice cracked with emotion of which I wasn't even aware I was capable.
And then I felt it.
Just as surely as I could see her little chest moving, I felt her squeeze the tip of my finger. She only did it once, not again in the hour I stood there and left my finger in her palm, hoping for another squeeze. But she did it, no doubt about it. I like to think that was the first time she gave me a hug.
It hadn't started yet when she was 3, either. She was in nursery school, and the teacher asked each of the children what their moms and dads did for work. When it was Nikki's turn, she stood and announced in a confident voice: "My mommy has conference calls and my daddy talks to Golic."
Talks to Golic.
I suppose that is an apt description of what I do at work. Not a glowing description, mind you, but it tells the story. It's not quite like saying: "My daddy fights fires." Or: "My daddy is an astronaut and yesterday he walked on the moon." Or even: "My daddy hosts a talk show which requires him to remain abreast, at all times, of the news of the day and then deliver information to his audience in a manner that is both informative and entertaining."
No, Talks to Golic is pretty much just Talks to Golic.
But there's nothing so bad about that.
I think it was actually when Nikki was in kindergarten that it started. They had the same deal where the teacher went around the room and each kid explained what the moms and dads do for work. I was in the classroom that day, as I am a lot. (There are some advantages to only Talking to Golic until 10 in the morning.) I loved listening to how all the children perceived their parents' jobs. One little girl said her mom "drives on the Post Road." Another said her father "has dinner with other people." And then it was my little girl's turn to talk. And she stood, with a big smile, and said, very specifically: "My father doesn't do sports, he just talks about sports."
Everyone in the room had a good chuckle over that one, even me, though it wasn't the sort of unabated, howling laughter she has provoked in me millions of other times. It wasn't funny the way her improvised sing-alongs are funny, or the way in which she quotes Will Ferrell in "Kicking and Screaming" is funny. It wasn't "funny ha ha," as they say. But it was funny.
And then it became a trend.
It seems to me that in every athletic endeavor I have attempted in the now 10 years of my daughter's life, she has -- every time -- been convinced that I had no chance to win. I can think of two explanations for this phenomenon, both of which are exclusively my fault.
The first is my irrational fandom of the New York Jets. (I say "irrational" not because it's insane to root for that football team, but because it's bordering on psychotic to root for anything as intensely as I root for the Jets.) And, because my daughter is 10 times smarter than I am, she has already figured out that this passion has caused me nothing but misery during her lifetime. The point here is that my daughter has seen me through all this self-inflicted suffering and has likely arrived at the only sensible conclusion, which is that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to root for something to happen if you have no control over it. This, to me, would explain not only her certainty that I am going to lose but also the casual smile with which she accepts it.
The second explanation for her lack of faith stems directly from the day I was entered in a charity race at her school. It was just a 5K run, nothing too extreme, and it was a gorgeous spring morning; I was ready to roll. I explained to her, as I let go her hand and made my way to the front, that her daddy had been running a lot lately and felt he had a pretty fair chance to run a good time. I saw the boys from the high school track team in the front of the pack. They seemed like the right guys to be around if I was going to rock this thing. So I kissed Nikki on the forehead, left her with her mom, and politely pushed my way to the very front where I greeted the high school boys.
"I feel good today, fellas," I told them, stretching my hamstrings. "You guys set a pace and I'll be right there with you."
I still remember the bemused look on the face of one of the boys. Tommy was his name, and he had shaggy brown hair and his sneakers were unlaced. I noticed the laces immediately, and thought to myself: How serious can this kid be if he didn't bother to tie his shoes? (As it turns out, the boy's name was -- and still is -- Tommy Ross. He was, and still is, the best track athlete the school ever produced. He was by leaps and bounds the best runner in the county, perhaps in the state. But I didn't know any of that then. I just noticed the floppy hair and untied shoes.)
Anyway, the starter used a bullhorn to make a few announcements and then counted us down. At the sound of the gun, I felt great. The adrenaline flooded my veins as I ran stride for stride with Tommy. That lasted about 50 yards. It was then that Tommy began to pull away from me. The race was not 30 seconds old when he shifted into a gear I simply do not possess. After about 60 seconds, I saw his right shoe fly off. This, I figured, was exactly the break I needed. Surely this would slow him down significantly. Perhaps he would even stop to retrieve the shoe. As it turned out, neither occurred. If anything, Tommy seemed to accelerate, as though the weight of the shoe had been holding him back. Within another minute, I lost sight of him completely.
In the end, Tommy Ross ran the 5K in 16 minutes and change. I finished about six minutes later, just behind a 58-year-old science teacher but, mercifully, a few seconds ahead of a woman who had given birth to twins three months before. When I got to the finish line, Tommy was chatting up a couple of girls, still in only one shoe. I took a moment to catch my breath, and once I was sure I wasn't going to throw up, I went in search of my daughter.
"Daddy," she said, when at last I found her, "that boy you were running with finished a really long time ago."
"I know, sweetheart, he must have run the race of his life."
"He only had one shoe on."
That was a tough one to combat. I really had hoped that she hadn't noticed the shoe.
"Yeah," I said, fully defeated. "I know."
She walked away with a look on her face I had seen before, many times. A look that suggested it would be impossible to be less impressed by me than she was at that moment. She was looking more and more like her mom every day.
So that day is the second reason she is always certain I'm going to lose, and badly, in any athletic endeavor I am foolish enough to attempt.
The apex of this phenomenon came recently, when I was invited to play a tennis match to commemorate the opening of the school's new tennis courts. Also invited to play was a boy named Marc Powers, an alumnus and the best tennis player the school had ever produced, among the best his age in all of New England, and the reigning player of the year in the Ivy League. Now, I am not nearly stupid enough to agree to take this kid on by myself -- what was planned was a doubles match in which both he and I would take part -- but somehow what was announced at school was that he and I would be squaring off to christen the new courts.
Well, when I got to school the afternoon of that announcement, the place was abuzz. Every one of the kids I know came to talk to me.
"Good luck against Marc Powers, Mr. Greenberg," Charles said to me.
"I've heard he's really good," said Morgan.
"I didn't know you play tennis," said a fourth-grade teacher.
And then, Nikki came out of her classroom. She saw me surrounded by a pack of her friends and made her way toward me, striding quickly as the kids in her path parted like the Red Sea. When she reached me she barely hesitated. (Obviously she was off somewhere and didn't need to waste a lot of time offering her opinion.)
"Dad," she said as she passed, "you're going to get killed."
All the kids laughed. And so did I. It was funny. Funny ha ha, this time.
And so, that's the story of my daughter, Nikki, who loves sports. She loves to play tennis and to swim, she has played softball and basketball and a little soccer, and mostly she loves to dance. But, perhaps appropriately, what she seems to possess even more than athleticism is a keen eye for talent -- or the lack thereof -- and a knack for concise, accurate commentary. I have no idea where she gets it from. But what I do know for sure is that I will always hang on every word of it. And I will always feel better every time she gives me a little squeeze.
Mike Greenberg is co-host of ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" and an anchor on ESPN's "SportsCenter." He is the author of The New York Times best seller, "Why My Wife Thinks I'm an Idiot: The Life and Times of a Sportscaster Dad," and the co-author of "Mike and Mike's Rules for Sports and Life," written with his radio partner, Mike Golic, and Andrew Chaikivsky.
For more stories about the athletic connections between parent and child, check out "Fathers And Daughters And Sports" and "Fathers And Sons And Sports" wherever books are sold."