I was raised on baseball.
My parents, and all four of my older brothers, loved the game, so I was indoctrinated at an early age.
As a gift for making my First Communion I was given my first ball and glove (or mitt as some people call them). I believe I was about six-years-old at the time.
I lived in a baseball bubble for the next 6 years.
I had no interest in any other sport…zero…none.
The other kids in my neighborhood shared my love of baseball, but not my disinterest in other sports, so they were playing football and hockey (both ice and street). Since winter in Rhode Island is not conducive to baseball I decided that playing football and hockey would suffice until springtime.
When my twelfth birthday was approaching I put in a request for a football, a helmet and some shoulder pads.
Lo and Behold, my wish was granted (I still wonder how my mother managed to pull it off, given our less-than-privileged lifestyle). So…on my birthday in 1972 I suited up and grabbed Ray, the kid across the street, for some gridiron fun in the large empty field across the street from my house.
It was a beautiful fall day and we were having a blast, just the two of us, slamming each other around and enjoying the sound of our pads and helmets making contact.
At some point during our “game” we looked up to see a lanky kid with a head of naturally curly red hair sprinting across the field toward us, waving. We didn’t recognize him, which was odd in our small and close-knit neighborhood, so we took a time-out until he reached us.
Our suspicions were confirmed…we didn’t know him, but that didn’t seem to matter to him.
With a huge smile he announced that he had just moved into one of the newly constructed houses around the corner. Still panting form his sprint across the field, he continued on, informing us that he had his own helmet and pads and if we would have him, he’d love to join us (if memory serves, there were several pleases and thank yous thrown in).
Since I was the oldest, and since it was my birthday, Ray deferred to me. The new kid had observed the rules of playground etiquette (not inserting himself into the game without permission, and tacitly acknowledging our seniority) so I granted his request.
Have you ever looked back on one of your decisions in life and realized exactly how huge the resulting impact was?
That moment, there on a mostly-dirt field in the brisk October air, when I invited a stranger to join a game of football, has affected my life in more ways than I can possibly describe.
The new kid’s name was Kevin.
Shortly after he returned with his gear my mother interrupted the game by informing us that it was time for birthday cake and ice cream – and being my mother, she told me to bring both Ray and my new friend.
Ray and I didn’t need any additional encouragement…we sprinted to my house as if it were the end zone in the Super Bowl…assuming Kevin was right behind us.
When we were at the table awaiting the magic of chocolate cake…the festivities were delayed when mom asked where the “other kid” was.
In the excitement to get a good seat at the table, Ray and I had pretty much forgotten about him.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Probably still outside.”
He seemed like a good kid, but he hadn’t earned enough points to out-prioritize cake and ice cream.
My older brother Ted then took it upon himself to rectify the situation. He went to the back door and found Kevin, still wearing his shoulder pads, waiting silently and patiently outside.
Despite Ted’s urging, Kevin steadfastly, but very politely, declined the invitation to join us, so Ted did the next best thing…if Kevin wouldn’t come to the party, Ted would bring the party to Kevin.
Ted brought him a nice big slice of cake, a generous scoop of ice cream and a tall glass of soda.
Kevin was properly grateful and thanked my brother profusely, while simultaneously insisting that he didn’t want to impose.
The rest, as they say, is history…or, in my family, legend.
Kevin and I became instant friends.
Soon afterward Kevin was an honorary member of my family, and I, his. It wasn’t long before we formed the once-in-a-lifetime type of friendship that many people talk about, but few ever experience.
Best friend doesn’t even scratch the surface…
In the 43 years since that day, which included high school, college, jobs, houses, wives, kids, and cars, Kevin and I have weathered every conceivable type of storm and come out on the other side closer than we were going in. I can count on my hands the number of days we harbored anger toward each other (and it was always my fault), but I could never count the number of times we supported each other in times of need.
When I wrote my first novel I dedicated it to my mother and my son, they being the two most important people in my life.
My second novel was dedicated to Kevin.
I left Rhode Island in 2006. Since then, Kevin and I have only seen each other twice, but despite the separation we are still as close as any brothers.
As much as I enjoyed the football equipment I received on my birthday, I can honestly say that meeting my lifelong best friend was, by far, the best gift I could have asked for…so I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge him on his birthday.
Happy birthday, Reefus…I love you, my brother!