Three pro-sports dads and their sons talk about following in footsteps, “dad” vs. “coach,” and learning a bit about life. Video: Hannah Gaber/azcentral sports
Brett Wallerstedt is talking the about the five years he coached his son, Nick, in youth football and the strategy he employed to make sure Nick wasn’t always mad at him.
“I learned early on if there were coaching points I wanted to make on the field I’d grab one of the other assistants and say, ‘Hey, grab Nick and tell him this,’ ” Wallerstedt says.
Nick, a junior-to-be-quarterback at Phoenix Mountain Pointe, is standing next to his dad. A smile spreads across his face.
“I just remember him yelling at me all the time,” he says.
As little boys grow up to be young men and sports become a passion their fathers come along for the ride. Youth sports. High school. Perhaps college and even the pros. Ideally, the father stays out of the way, other than to lend some encouragement and be there when his son asks him for advice or instruction.
But what happens when the father was an athlete, too, and an accomplished one at that? How does he separate his knowledge of the game – and the desire to help his son – with the understanding that his child needs some space to succeed or fail on his own?
“It’s tough,” Brett Wallerstedt said. “The father-son dynamic is always tough.”
On Father’s Day, then, three stories.
The Wallerstedt’s: Brett, the former Arizona State and NFL linebacker, and his son, Nick.
Toby Wright, who led Mesa Dobson to a state championship in 1987 before playing at the University of Nebraska and in the NFL, and his son Javin, an up-and-coming cornerback at Chandler Hamilton.
Luis Gonzalez, the Diamondbacks’ icon and Game 7 hero of the 2001 World Series, and his son, Jacob, who after a stellar high school career at Scottsdale Chaparral, likely will sign with the San Francisco Giants after being taken 58th in the MLB draft.
Luis and Jacob
After his retirement in 2008 Luis Gonzalez became the first base coach on Jacob’s 12-year-old traveling youth team.
It didn’t go well.
Gonzalez’s unquenchable desire to win got the best of him. He yelled at the kids if they made an error or even were positioned incorrectly. If Jacob went 3 for 4 he’d ask him what went wrong the fourth at-bat. He became such a loudmouth that he was kicked out of a couple of games and on the rides home often found himself alone in the car while the rest of his family drove separately.
“It was because nobody wanted to be in my space,” Gonzalez said. “Everybody wanted to get away from me.”
Finally, during a family meeting, his wife, Christine, strongly suggested Gonzalez should quit being Jacob’s coach and focus on being his dad.
“My family fired me from coaching,” Gonzalez said. “It was probably the best move.”
Like Wallerstedt, Gonzalez struggled with passing his knowledge on to his son while at the same time backing away so as not to suffocate Jacob.
“That’s the toughest thing for a dad,” Gonzalez said. “When you play at that level you realize you’ve gone through some mistakes your kids are going through. But they have to find out for themselves. It took me a while to separate that.”
There were times, Jacob admitted, when he wanted Luis to be more of a dad than an ex-major league player. But as he grew up he began to see his father’s counsel – even if it wasn’t always asked for – as a blessing.
“He knows a lot more than I do so I have to suck it up a little bit and learn from him,” Jacob said.
The two, Jacob said, have found a “good balance” to their relationship. Luis is still there to help Jacob but Jacob also has carved out his identity, in part by ditching his father’s No. 20 for the No. 26 he wore at Chaparral. Oh, Jacob also bats right-handed.
“I’ve learned to be more supportive. I think that’s helped him, too,” Gonzalez said.
Still, old habits die hard.
“My wife still sometimes gives me the timeout to do down the right field line when I’m watching Jacob play,” Gonzalez said.
Toby and Javin
When Toby and Javin Wright walk off the practice field at Chandler Hamilton – where Toby is a volunteer assistant coach – their conversation often is limited to one subject.
“Ninety-five percent of the time we talk about football,” Javin said. “He tells me what I did wrong, what I have to improve, what the coaches were saying I did (well).”
That constant stream of instruction – and criticism – can damage a player-coach relationship, much less the father-son dynamic. But the Wrights are tip-toeing their way through the mine field.
“My dad is a very big inspiration for me,” Javin said. “I’m trying to be like him.”
Javin’s willingness to hear his father out whenever Toby has something to say – “I need to take it like a man and listen,” – has helped. So, too, has Toby’s knack of knowing when to communicate with his son so he’s not a constant drumbeat in his ear.
For example, while the two talk football constantly Toby might save a particular teaching point when they’re watching a movie. Say, Transformers.
“I can tell when his energy is not there,” Wright said. “If we’re breaking down tape and I see one eye open I know he’s not interested. When I get those telltale signs I back up. But then we’ll be watching Transformers and we’ll be looking at Optimus Prime and I’ll say, ‘It’s not by accident that this guy will fight you to the ground. It’s not by accident that this guy has earned his right to be able to get up from a fall and work as hard as he can.’
“Anytime you get a chance to learn it doesn’t matter where the teaching or learning is coming from.”
It can be hard, Wright said, to separate his ambitions and dreams for Javin from Javin’s need to grow at his own pace. But in striking that balance their relationship thrives.
“My only wish for him is to soar to the skies but this is his process,” Wright said. “Realizing about certain plays. Realizing what real effort is. Realizing how you gain and how you learn. I’m so appreciative of what the game of football has done for me that I would not dare cheat him of that opportunity to experience what it takes for him to be a player and a man.
“I stay in my lane. But if he straddles out of his lane that’s when I nudge him back a little bit.
Brett and Nick
Brett Wallerstedt grew up in a house with four older brothers and a father with a military background. Rarely did a day go by when he wasn’t being told what to do how to do it. That experience has helped shape the way he parents Nick.
“I didn’t want to be that overbearing father constantly telling him what he needed to do and what he needed to work on,” Wallerstedt said. “He’ll tell you I still did but I tried to pull back as much as possible.”
It wasn’t easy. Nick said there were “a lot of ups-and-downs” in their relationship. But they’ve reached a point where Wallerstedt understands it’s more important for Nick to have a father on Friday nights after games rather than a former NFL player pounding critiques into Nick’s head.
“It’s just tough because I want to help,” Wallerstedt said. “I see things during the games and I think, ‘Maybe he doesn’t have to go through some of the things I go through.’ But he has to do it on his own. He’s the one out there making plays and competing. I have to realize I’m a fan. His biggest fan.”
On Father’s Day, that’s all the sons want.
Reach Bordow at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/sBordow. He can be reached at 602-448-8716.