_ Editor's note: Jonathan Anker is a father of two young children and editor of HLNtv.com's Digital Life and Parenting sections. He is also on Twitter._
My son was on Day Four of the Cold That Wouldn’t Die. He was by now a coughing, feverish, yet remarkably happy and energetic little guy, lying in bed with me on one side and a small mountain of crusty tissues on the other.
In addition to whatever official illness he was battling, he had by now also come down with a certifiable case of cabin fever. We’d both long since overdosed on Richard Scarry books, games of Zingo and enough episodes of “Dinosaur Train” for him to be officially recognized as the world’s youngest paleontologist.
“Hey, you know what’s coming up this weekend?” I asked my sneezing little sports fan to give him something to look forward to. “The college basketball tournament. The bracket!”
“What’s a bracket?” came the slightly nasally reply. I explained it was like the playoffs (a win-or-go-home concept he totally gets thanks to football and baseball’s postseasons), and all the best college basketball teams get to be in it. To illustrate the point, I reached for his Boogie Board which, if you’re not the parent of a toddler, is not an age inappropriate surfboard, but rather like a modern-day Magna Doodle that’s shaped like an iPad.
I sketched out a small, basic bracket and we laid there propped up against pillows, talking about how each team gets to go to the next line if they win. But if they don’t, “then their season is over” he told me with eyebrows raised. He smiled, laughed, found the whole thing really cool.
Two years ago, the two of us entertained ourselves for a solid 30 minutes on an airplane (i.e., an absolute lifetime when flying with kids) with a printout of Slate’s annual mascot bracket. It doesn’t list team names, just their mascots. For small kids, this becomes pretty hysterical. Notre Dame ended up winning, because my then-2-year-old found their feisty, little raised-fists leprechaun just the right mix of cool and goofy. Syracuse’s spheroid blob, by comparison, never stood a chance.
Two years later, it was rescuing both of us again. Learning some neat stuff, having awesome tangential conversations about why it’s important to try your best even if you lose and curing cabin fever. Minutes later, he was certain enough he’d figured this whole thing out that he engaged in a very earnest conversation about how the tournament works with our antlered hand-puppet, Zeus the Moose.
Zeus the Moose (sounding suspiciously like daddy) : “How do you know who wins the whole thing?
The kid: “Well, you have to win a game. If you don’t win, you lose. And then you have to win another game. And, like, you go to the next line and the Final Four and the winner gets the trophy.”
Zeus: “I’ve won games. Can I get a trophy?”
The kid: “Noooooooo, Zeus! You’re not a basketball player!”
Sufficiently happy, if not yet healthy, the anticipation built for Selection Sunday when the real bracket would be released. Mainly because I said he could fill it out using the iPad, a rare treat. Even better, the ESPN app we used had each team’s logo next to their name. I prepared myself for another mythical championship for Notre Dame.
He gave a little giggle of excitement as we began tapping teams through the bracket and I have to admit, I was probably as curious to see who he’d decide to advance as I was to see who’d win these actual games. His logic, predictably, was baffling and fantastic.
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Why did he have Kansas winning in the first round? Not because they were a top seed or hoops royalty, duh. Because that’s where the girl in one of his favorite bookslives. Double duh.
Michigan State? “’Spartans’ is a funny word.”
The Gators? “That's where Grandma lives.”
Miami? “Ooh, Miami! That’s where you were born.”
Oregon? “I like ducks,” he said in the know-it-all tone of a kid who’s legitimately confused why you’d even bother asking such a silly question.
Arizona? “They’re the Wiiiiildcats??” In his mind, I’m sure those were two separate words. And so those do sound like some pretty fun cats. Also explains why he picked Kansas State and Davidson to win some games.
Here’s the finished product. In the end, he filled out a remarkably respectable bracket for someone using a 4-year-old’s logic and with no use for seeds -- sort of like Margie in payroll who wins your office pool every year.
Notre Dame’s scrappy John L. Sullivan-looking leprechaun got the ax surprisingly early, with those funny-sounding “Wild Cats” and Spartans joining sentimental favorites Miami and Florida in his Final Four.
By the following Saturday, he’d watched some of these games and was excited to see those Miami Hurricanes and Florida Gators actually play. I did, however, have some trouble explaining how remarkable the run of 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast was, until I dropped a “Little Engine That Could” reference. That did the trick. He was immediately in awe; even adorably asking the next morning if “the little engine team” won.
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We later opened up that week’s Sports Illustrated, which contained its annual bracket -- the empty, unfilled lines inviting you to chart the tourney’s progress. Growing up, I kept that bracket and a pen on the kitchen counter and updated it after each game, because clearly I’m a sports geek. But, my son is learning to write these days and that bracket -- like our Boogie Board -- offered yet another excellent, impromptu learning tool.
We began filling it in together, his little lefty scribbles slowly, beautifully, spelling out the first three letters of each school’s name, turning SI into the world’s best activity book.
Later, I went to check how our picks were faring in our online bracket. Mediocre, it turned out, but our Final Four picks remained intact. However I noticed that we’d failed to name our bracket, as requested by the site. “How about we call it E's bracket?” I suggested. After all, he filled it out himself, he should get to have his name on it.
“No,” he said. “Let’s call it ‘E and Daddy’s bracket.’”
I couldn’t suppress my smile. “Perfect! Sounds good to me, buddy.”