Sports has given me a career, an unbreakable bond with my son, moments of joy never to be forgotten, catastrophic gut-punches of defeat that (immaturely) fracture the soul like losing a family member and a very special friendship that’s lasted a decade and spanned an ocean.
This tale starts outside Bologna, Italy at Gianni Falchi baseball stadium in August 2007. A young Italian man takes a photo of my son after the first game. But something about this Italian and his slightly-. fractured English draws me to him immediately. He is, I determine quickly, the most knowledgeable sports fan I’ve ever met as we talk about all American sports, international auto racing and, of course, soccer.
When game 2 starts at 9 AM that Saturday, the young man pulls out a baseball scorebook and keeps score, something I rarely see in U. S. parks. When the Fortitudo (home team) pitcher strikes out a batter, he is prepared with laminated forward and backward Ks that he tapes to a
nearby railing. I point to the several hundred other fans in the stands and say, “Afro, do these people understand what these [Ks] are for?” “They don’t understand anything,” he shoots back at me and I realize he has a NY sense of humor on top of everything.
We exchange email addresses and Afro, my son Andrew, and I have been teammates in love with sports ever since. Afro and I co-manage an NFL fantasy team. He taught us to love soccer and we’re immaturely over-passionate about his Inter Milan team that the three of us talk and text endlessly about.
He visited us a year later and we took him to Shea and Yankee stadiums, Fenway Park, games in Philly and Baltimore, museums and Blue Man Group. He was there to witness a classic moment in family history. On the way to Fenway, we stopped at Dunkin Donuts for breakfast. We ate in the car and when I peeked at the receipt and saw a 79-cent charge for a Plain Bag. I had a monumental temper tantrum about the ridiculous cost. As I threatened to sue Dunkin for every donut hole they had, my wife Bonnie grabbed the receipt, read and bellowed over my whining, “That’s not a Plain Bag, idiot; that’s for a Plain Bagel.”
The laughter that filled the car, including my own, lasted all day. When relating the incident that night to his sister, Andrew was literally rolling on the floor and Afro was roaring as well. This young man who mostly learned his English from American TV and sports on TV understood the nuance and the comedy.
In 2011, we made our way back to Italy to see our beloved Inter play soccer at Milan’s Giuseppe Meazza Stadium. Afro was our guide from Lake Como to Parma for 9 days that couldn’t have been better.
Afro came to Aberdeen in late September. That we went to two Mets-Marlins games should be of no surprise. He went to his first college football game and even three lightning delays in the Ball State at Florida Atlantic contest didn’t sap his enthusiasm for the event. We also went to a Park Vista High School football game, where the highlight wasn’t the dramatic victory for the home side against Atlantic but the amazing halftime performance by the Park Vista Performers. Afro and I urge you to go out to a Friday night game to see the wonderful band, dancers and cheerleaders.
The athletic highlight of his visit belongs to my Bermuda Isle neighbor/Marshall Williams, who invited us to go bowling in Greenacres. Afro, in his second bowling experience, and I watched in awe as Marshall strung together 12 strikes from the middle of the first game to the middle of the second. A virtual 300 game! What Afro couldn’t understand on the way home, and I don’t think it was trouble with his English, was why Marsh insisted he needed a new bowling ball an hour after that magnificent feat.
Afro loved Aberdeen and South Florida and best of all, we did some online research and discovered that as an NAV software programmer he could earn enough money to move here with his girlfriend fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming an American.
It was sad to take the young man, who I think of as my Italian son, to the airport after 12 wonderful days. But the three of us will be together again soon. Just before Christmas, Andrew and I are flying to Florence, where Afro will pick us up and we’ll head immediately to a Fiorentina-Napoli soccer game. Then we’ll spend Christmas Eve Mass, Christmas Day and a few days at Afro’s 90-year-old grandfather’s apartment, his father’s butcher shop and his mother’s restaurant in or near the tiny town of Baragazza, in the hills of Tuscany midway between Florence and Bologna.
I can’t wait to meet them, learn more about Afro and pray to the sports gods for what they’ve given me.