“My father used to play with my brother and me in the yard. Mother would come out and say, ‘You’re tearing up the grass.’ ‘We’re not raising grass,’ Dad would reply. ‘We’re raising boys.’ “
— Harmon Killebrew,
Hall of Fame baseball player
Death has this way of engraving details into our brain. Hearing him moan and stumble to the bathroom. The thud of his body hitting the floor. The washcloth your mother said to hold on his forehead. Kneeling beside him. Your brother standing in the doorway. His fading breath. The exact moment in time.
“April 3, 1956, 3:30 in the morning,” Mike Gottfried said. “I was 11. He was 41.
“I was always looking for a father after that. I really lost hope for a long period of time.”
His died of a heart attack that night, a railroad engineer in Pennsylvania who worked long, hard hours for what was a fundamental strength of industrial America. A wife lost her husband and three boys became fatherless, the latter an issue Gottfried has spent years now trying to change one son at a time. It’s a marvelous pursuit.
He is the former head football coach at Murray State, Cincinnati, Kansas and Pittsburgh. You can watch him as an ESPN analyst and color commentator. His life’s work has been about a game, but his soul now is devoted to a cause.
Gottfried and his wife, Mickey, are founders of Team Focus, a nonprofit, year-round community outreach program that identifies and mentors young men without fathers by holding leadership camps and teaching many of the skills that dad traditionally imparts.
Las Vegas has been identified as a city in need of such services, and Gottfried, with the help of some influential locals, is bringing the program here for boys ages 10 through 18, much like he has done since 2000 in cities in seven other states, from Alabama to California. The first camp here is scheduled for late June at UNLV. Already, boys searching for a bond they can’t find in life have registered.
Jerry and Lois Tarkanian are behind the project. So is businessman/developer Bill Walters, who was 2 when his father died and has agreed to help finance the June camp. So is pastor Paul Goulet and city councilman Larry Brown. So are many others.
“The community desperately needs a program like this,” Walters said. “You have to get to these children in their formative years, before they get involved in gangs or taking or selling drugs. You can’t build enough jails. We’ve got to reach out to our young people now. The fact someone such as Mike Gottfried would bless our town and bring such an organization here, I just want to be part of it.”
History’s words are correct. A mother’s love is instinctual, unconditional and forever. No influence is more powerful. There is no substitute.
But the connection between father and son is also unique. A father affirms a child. He can help instill integrity, value, self-assurance. It is often a relationship built through physical activity.
He is the one who teaches a boy how to throw a baseball. Or how to treat a woman with respect. Or the art of tying a tie.
Gottfried still doesn’t know how.
“My wife still ties them for me,” he said. “When it comes time for us to teach the boys at our camps, I stand off to the side. It’s something that reminds me of the job we have to do for so many boys, of the passion I have for this. I just don’t want to learn how to tie one.”
The national statistics are frightening: Of those children from fatherless homes, 63 percent account for youth suicides, 85 percent for behavioral disorders, 71 percent of high school dropouts, 85 percent of all youth sitting in prison today. Some kids just make bad choices. Others might not, had they received a father’s guidance.
So the camps teach them things such as manners and how to deal with peer pressure and how to find a job and how to dress accordingly and how to change the oil in a car and many of life’s other necessary tools.
It’s impossible to describe the enthusiasm Gottfried has for the program, to justly portray how much of his heart and spirit he has given it, to fairly represent the depth he feels for each boy. All have his cell phone number. He always answers.
A story: Like most boys in the 1950s who grew up playing baseball, Gottfried loved Cleveland Indians great Bob Feller. It was three months after an 11-year-old boy heard the thump and ran for a washcloth and knelt beside the man he thought would live forever when Gottfried’s school held a father-son banquet.
The guest speaker: Bob Feller.
“I remember one kid at school said I couldn’t go because I didn’t have a dad,” said Gottfried, who has two grown daughters and whose organization is now beginning to pursue helping girls without fathers. “He didn’t say it to be mean but more of what was obvious because there weren’t a lot of boys back then without fathers.
“I went with my uncle but didn’t hear one word Bob Feller said that night. I just sat there looking around at all the tables, wondering which men were fathers to which boys.
“Now, my passion is to reach as many boys without fathers as I can. Everybody has a destiny. We’re just trying to help them reach theirs. Sometimes, they just need a man to talk to about things.
“Sometimes, they just need you to put an arm around them.”
For information on Team Focus and the camp coming to Las Vegas in June, call 877-635-0010 or go to www.teamfocusonline.org.
Ed Graney can be reached at (702) 383-4618 or email@example.com.