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Kerry Earnhardt in his son Jeffrey's corner

Memorable sports moments of 2012

Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012

Note: This story ran in The Charlotte Observer as part of a package celebrating 2012's memorable moments in sports.

More memorable moments in sports in 2012

Scott Fowler on 2012's memorable moments in sports

Kerry Earnhardt stood a few yards from the six-sided cage in which his son, Jeffrey, would fight.

I asked Kerry, son of the late Dale Earnhardt, if he was nervous.

He asked why he would be. We talked a few minutes. He was courteous but struck me as shy and not interested in, or terribly good at, interviews.

I also thought he was nervous. Wouldn’t you be?

Jeffrey, 22, is a racer who in a few minutes would compete in his first mixed martial arts fight. Jeffrey had wrestled at Mooresville High. But the three-round fight would include kicks, punches, elbows and, presumably, blood.

If one of my kids was about to walk across the wooden dance floor at Coyote Joe’s to get in a cage, I’d be terrified. Jeffrey’s mom, Rene, didn’t attend because she didn’t want to see him get beat up. Jeffrey didn’t even tell his parents. They’d heard rumors that were confirmed when they read my column about it.

The Fight Lab announcer called Jeffrey’s name. Country music played, fans clapped, a few women screamed and Jeffrey walked out of the shadows.

His opponent was more experienced and landed the first blow, a succinct kick across Jeffrey’s shin.

But Jeffrey was stronger and regularly brought the other man to the ground.

He won a unanimous decision in his final MMA encounter. Shy no more, Kerry rushed into the cage.

The best sports stories are about more than sports. They’re about lots of things, and sometimes they’re about family. Who do you want in your corner, even if the cage has six of them?

After handshakes, hugs and pictures, Kerry left the hexagon. As he circled past me, I stood to offer my hand. He slapped it hard and smiled and talked in a rush, saying more in 20 seconds than he had before the fight.

At that moment Kerry no longer was a guy with a legendary last name. He was a father, and he was proud.