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Fatherhood Lessons From Rocky Balboa

A working-class boxer who loses his biggest fight is exactly who my son should be emulating

Sylvester Stallone with his son, Sage, on the set of Rocky V
Sylvester Stallone with his son, Sage, on the set of Rocky V - John Bryson/Sygma via Getty Images

I can count on two fingers the celebrities that I look to for guidance as a father. Fred Rogers is an obvious choice when I need to channel cardigan kindness and empathy. The second? Rocky Balboa.

When the first Rocky movie came out in 1976, people gushed about the David-takes-on-Goliath appeal. But watching it again, with the eyes of a parent, I see other, more urgent takeaways.

Rocky lives a small life without much hope for the future, an inconceivable trait for a movie hero in an age when action heroes and superstar athletes flex a masculinity that’s all about appearing large and in charge. Rocky doesn’t trash-talk or power slap guys, like his best friend Paulie or his loan-shark employer’s driver Buddy, which would be fair, given how they treat him. When Buddy insults him, Rocky reaches for gratitude.

“You oughta count your blessings, Buddy,” Rocky tells him. “You’re still a healthy person.”

I thought about Rocky recently when picking up my son, Macallah, at school. He jumped into the back seat and told me he wished our Honda CRV were one of the BMWs, Jeeps and Mercedes SUVs in the carpool line. My gut instinct was to get defensive, telling him how at his age, my family drove to Disney World in a Chevy Malibu the size of a go-kart. But I resisted that urge, opting instead to play the gratitude card.

“Don’t forget,” I said, “this is the car where we sang ‘We Are the Champions’ after you hit your first Little League home run. And that console next to your seat? That’s where you held Leif as a puppy when we brought him home from the breeder.”

A look of reconsideration came across his face.

The greatest ripple effect from Rocky’s humility is the drive to persevere, even when faced with almost certain failure. He cared more about lasting 12 rounds with Apollo Creed than he did about winning. So he trained like a Gulag peasant, running the predawn streets of Philadelphia in canvas sneakers, chugging raw eggs and doing his heavy-bag workouts on sides of raw beef in a meat locker.

A few months ago, Macallah and I watched Rocky — him for the first time and me for the first time in probably 25 years. Afterward, I asked him if he saw any value in Rocky’s dogged perseverance. “Lemme think about it,” he said.

Boys are barraged with messages from swaggering YouTube influencers, gamers and professional athletes that preach easy success yet never pull back the curtain to reveal the sweat-stained shirt.

But none of this ultimately serves them. These messages erode their willingness to dig deep and grind it out, outcome be damned. As a father, I struggle hard to counter this tide, which sometimes puts me in panic mode, leading to cheerleading clichés (“Winning isn’t everything!”) that make even me wince.

Recently, Macallah tanked it during a tennis match with me because he was netting so many of his shots. I tried offering occasional tips, but these were just tinder on his flame. He was frustrated and ready to give up. If he couldn’t hit cleanly every time like Nadal, it seemed, he didn’t want to play at all.

A few days later, we squeezed in a brief tennis match after school. Before we left, Macallah asked, “Can you give me some tips after we finish playing and not during?” Grateful and surprised, I nodded.

He didn’t play well, but this time, he didn’t seem furious about netting balls. Instead, as I waited in the car, he practiced by himself on a nearby concrete tennis wall. I watched him from afar, his face full of intensity, determined to keep trying until he hit the ball cleanly, more accurately.

By the time he finished, his tank top was stained with sweat. My son was off to a Rocky start.

Follow Article Topics: Family-&-Fatherhood