“What’s your first impression of Mom?” was the first question Nathan Mao shot across the table at his father, Lincoln.
His second question was equally probing, pointed even: “Would you have preferred to have a son who focuses purely on studies and did not play football?”
The father-son pair were playing the Sailors’ Father’s Day game: Jenga Jive-talk – the Sailors’ own twist on the classic Jenga – with each tile corresponding to specific questions crafted to spark both inane and meaningful conversations between players. The game comes with “joker” tiles that allow players to ask questions of their own as well.
And it quickly became clear that this chip – Nathan and his straight-forward cheeky maturity – came off the old block.
Lincoln did not flinch at either question crafted by his son. His first response demonstrated a very clear – and heartwarming – memory of Nathan’s mum, Grace. His answer to the second question came lightning quick, and like every good dad joke, drew from references that the child is well-familiar with – and will inevitably squirm at.
“Definitely not,” was Lincoln’s immediate response to the question: “Would you have preferred to have a son who focuses purely on studies and did not play football?”
The cheeky dad-joke-punchline – a sweet one – came a second later: “You’re my choice in any multiverse.”
Nathan was hit so hard by the line he failed to find his words. “(That’s) too chummy, or rather too cheesy!” he remarked behind a visible squirm you would expect from any 15-year-old.
Nathan made history as the Singapore Premier League’s youngest-ever player at 15 years and 5 years old when he came on in the 4-3 defeat against Tampines Rovers on 31 March, playing with a maturity beyond his lean years, and it was clear the family approach to football had some part to play in this.
Jenga Jive-talk was designed to create banter between father and child, but in the case of Nathan and Lincoln, it drew out the close relationship they share.
“I feel that with all the coaches and video software at the club, Nathan’s getting a lot of feedback already,” said the 44-year-old.
“My role is more like a cheerleader. The conversations we have at home revolve around character, resilience rather than actual performances. Football is a wonderful thing with so many teachable moments that can be translated outside of the pitch.”
It is an approach from his biggest supporter that Nathan appreciates.
“My dad’s been there, he does all the small things that you only notice a few years later, things that you don’t really give a lot of appreciation when it actually happens,” said Nathan.
“He’s so busy with work but he still makes time to go out and spend time with me. He’s definitely a role model for me.”
Like most fathers Lincoln’s hopes for his son extend far beyond the sport.
“My wish for him is to continue to do our best, stay humble, stay thankful and continue to grow as a person and as a player. At the end of the day, it’s about the journey – not the destination.
“I hope he ends up wherever he wants to be – which is to be a successful football player. But even if he doesn’t, it’s important he enjoys the process and is thankful for every step he takes.”
It is evident that Nathan remembers every step of his journey thus far, and it is also evident that alongside the game of saccharine-sweet words, Nathan also packs cheeky barbs in his arsenal.
When Lincoln pulled the question: “What activity am I really bad at, and how did you find out?”, Nathan pounced.
“Football,” he said, flinching just a little, even as it was Dad who squirmed and chuckled uncomfortably this time.
“I knew that when I was six years old, and I was already better than you.”