Miniature football helmets are everywhere. On any given day, my son’s room is littered with them, with most of the major conferences represented: ACC, Big10, Big12, Pac12, etc. Over the last year he has amassed an arsenal of these tiny replicas—one so impressive that when they’re all out of their respective containers, I feel compelled to intervene.

“Hey, I told you to pick these up!” I shout, gesturing wildly with my hands.

“Ok, Dad.”

“It’s time for bed, let’s go.”

“OK, OK. I will, Dad.”

If he starts cleaning immediately, my anger is placated. Any sloth-like attempt, though, results in further directives.

When I think about the toys we’ve purchased over the years, or even those received as gifts, it’s maddening how infrequently some of them were used. Sure, they brought some joy, but it was fleeting. Interest fades with even the most popular of toys—not with these helmets, though. It’s hard to recall a day, at least in recent memory, when they haven’t made an appearance. At least he uses them, I guess. It makes the anxiety-inducing sight of helmets strewn across the floor slightly more palatable.

With over 40 miniatures to corral, it takes a little time for my son to put them away. The helmets come packaged in plastic cases with individual compartments. They fit snugly and are easy to store. The fact that my son puts them away is hardly impressive, but when I realized, one day, he had done so according to conference, I stopped. Leaning in closer, I examined the containers to inspect his work. All the Big10 schools were together. Wow, I thought. He did it.

On another occasion I entered his room to find he had arranged them by color—schools with orange in one area and those with green in another. What about the helmets with two colors, though? When that conundrum arose, it became a judgment call—a matter of which color featured more prominently. He even had a miscellaneous collection for those schools with multiple colors and/or elaborate designs. His fascination with mascots and the mystique surrounding each has long been his MO. From ferocious animals to mischievous outlaws, he loves those tiny helmets.

And then It changed for me. He wasn’t just playing. In his mind he was, sure. But he was counting, grouping by color, creating patterns, and arranging by division. He was thinking—thinking his way through a process. How many times, I wondered, had I entered that room so eager to scold and missed something.

I can’t see them as I did before, as just toys. I realize there will come a time when he no longer lines the helmets up on game days. A time when Michigan and Ohio State are no longer facing each other at the foot of the bed in late November. A time when a Big12 showdown between the Sooners and the Cowboys will be on television, but not on the mantle nearby. A time when a bevy of orange helmets—from Clemson to Illinois—won’t be clustered at the base of his dresser. And I’ll miss it.

And so now when I enter his room, my approach is softer. I still remind him to pick up his helmets, and he does. There are other times, though, when I don’t say anything. I just look at them. My first thought is no longer to reprimand. I make suggestions instead. Arranging them by animal might be fun—large cats, bears, birds. He seems intrigued when I mention it. As a father, I never want to quell his enthusiasm or discourage his creativity. I missed it before. And so the next time his room isn’t quite up to Mom and Dad’s standards, I’ll be sure to take a closer look.

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Patrick Danz

Patrick Danz is a follower of Christ, husband, father, educator, and sports enthusiast. He lives in Trenton, Michigan, with his wife, Nicole, and their three children: Keason, Carmella, and Alessandra. When he's not teaching, Patrick spends his time writing, golfing, grilling, and quoting lines from Groundhog Day. His work has appeared on Parent.co and Fatherly.