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Dickson: Paul Jasienski/AP • Alexander: Ted S. Warren/AP

Happy game day

Sports | Athletes wrestle with the decision of whether to compete on the days when their children are born

Issue: "On the rails," Oct. 9, 2010

Mere hours before kickoff of the Baltimore Ravens season-opening game on Monday Night Football, rookie tight end Ed Dickson got word that the birth of his first child was imminent. The news presented a dilemma: Dickson could delay the debut of his NFL career by one week or miss the debut of his son's life.

He chose the latter, electing to play in what turned out to be a 10-9 Baltimore victory over the New York Jets. Dickson did not make a catch or contribute significantly to the outcome. Nevertheless, coach John Harbaugh, who had given Dickson a free choice to skip the game, awarded the new father one of the ceremonial game balls in honor of his off-field accomplishment.

"I was heavily involved in the game plan. I chose to stay," Dickson said later, explaining his decision to reporters.

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It's a decision few father athletes make anymore, to neglect the arrival of their firstborn in favor of the game at hand. Most players nowadays choose to be bedside for the important life moment, putting their career and contractual obligations on hold for at least a few hours.

Times have changed. A generation ago, many coaches wouldn't have allowed their players to miss on-field action to witness a birth. Of course, "witnessing a birth" for most men used to mean pacing the hospital lobby. Now, fathers more typically are involved, often serving as birth coaches, cheerleaders, or documentary filmmakers.

Still, Dickson's decision is not entirely unheard-of in today's athletic world. Just two weeks before the kickoff of football season, up-and-coming tennis Frenchman Gilles Simon elected to finish out his run at the U.S. Open in New York rather than be with his newborn son in Paris. He managed to win a match on the day after his son's arrival before losing in straight sets two days later to eventual champion Rafael Nadal. Heading into the match with Nadal, Simon quipped: "If I win, it's fabulous. And if I lose, it's even more fabulous."

Simon's play against the Spanish champion reflected such torn motives. He appeared listless, unconcerned with mounting any real challenge and prolonging his time away from home. So why then even choose to play-especially without teammates to consider?

Team sports, admittedly, complicate the matter. If possible, athletes might consider the lead of former Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander. In a 2003 afternoon home game against the St. Louis Rams, Alexander witnessed the birth of his first daughter, waited just long enough to kiss wife and baby, and then rushed by police escort to Qwest Field, entering the game late in the first half and helping the Seahawks to a comeback victory with 58 yards rushing and three catches out of the backfield-a game-ball-worthy day, if ever there were one.

Hot dogs burned

In the closing seconds of the Detroit Lions season-opening loss to the Chicago Bears, receiver Calvin Johnson hauled in what appeared to be a game-winning touchdown catch. But referees ruled he let go of the ball too soon, failing to complete the process of making the catch. No catch. No touchdown. No Lions victory.

A swirl of protest ensued over a rule Lions fans believed obtuse and void of common sense. But lost in such clamor was the foolishness of Johnson, who not only failed to understand the rules that govern his craft, but appeared more concerned with style than surety. His decision to drop the ball and begin celebrating before proving possession reflects the latest fashion in stylized touchdowns. Releasing the ball at the earliest possible moment after scoring has become the modern-day equivalent of the old touchdown spike.

Several players recently have forfeited sure scores by releasing the ball before crossing the goal line on breakaway runs. Many more have done so without penalty, none more egregious than Notre Dame wideout T.J. Jones, who dropped the ball a full yard before the end zone on a 53-yard score during a recent Irish loss at home to Michigan. Perhaps a return to the more subdued celebration of handing the ball to the referee is in order.

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