By Marty Smith | ESPN.com
Updated: March 5, 2014
Fatherhood changes a man like nothing else, and it's most evident in men who have self-centered occupations. Like driving race cars for a living. Or talking on a television. Or singing in smoky bars. Or traveling all over the country to play a game. By nature, athletes aren't programmed to show vulnerability. They're programmed to stomp everything in their path on the way to the goal, whatever the goal may be.
They live with chips on their shoulders. They use any smidgen of doubt others may have in them as fuel. Children may not erase that dynamic completely, but they help prioritize it. Most of that mess is wasted energy, and the second you fall in love with your child, that becomes strikingly evident.
The Sprint Cup driver motor home lot used to be the most silent place at the racetrack. Drivers would exit cars and exit garages and hole up in the bus. There wasn't much interaction, or at least not nearly as much you'd think among a group of guys who do the same exact thing every day and live mere feet apart for 150 days a year.
Then all these kids showed up. Matt Kenseth. Jimmie Johnson. Jeff Gordon. Ryan Newman. McMurray. Elliott Sadler. Greg Biffle. Denny Hamlin. Kevin Harvick. Within a year or two, all of these guys go from me-first to diaper duty. Suddenly, the driver lot is romper room. And the driving corps is tighter knit.
It's amazing how a couple kids on a swing set can dissolve a lot of foolish pride.
Last fall, in discussing Jimmie Johnson, Kenseth said to me that, to his daughters, "He's not Jimmie Johnson. He's Evie's dad." That's fantastic.
I was reminded of all of this Sunday evening in Phoenix. The sun had begun to ease down toward the top of the grandstands, and Harvick had just completed an interview with "SportsCenter." I grabbed the microphone to ask him one final question, and he asked that I hold on a moment.
His publicist handed him an iPhone, and he altered his voice to the playful sweet voice a daddy uses when talking with his toddler. He asked if his little man had seen dada win. He asked if the car looked cool.
And he smiled a different smile. He'd been smiling for an hour in Victory Lane photo upon Victory Lane photo and embrace upon embrace.
But this smile was sweeter. It was wider. It was deeper.
As I watched, I remembered that this is the same dude who jumped cars to grab throats, who lived with a chip on his shoulder for a decade.
Fatherhood will change a man like nothing else.
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