Every so often - maybe once or twice a week - Katie, the eight-year-old, will mention that Danica Patrick once won a race in Japan. Katie does not need an excuse to unload this little fact on us. We could be talking about her school spelling words, how she can't find her shoes, a surprising turn of events on the cooking show "Sweet Genius" or tentative plans for her next birthday party.*
*Katie is ALWAYS planning her next birthday party. The minute this year's party ends, she begins working on next year's birthday party.
It really doesn't matter at all what we were talking about.
"You know, Danica Patrick won a race in Japan," she will say.
"Is that right?" I will ask for the 438th time.
"Yes," Katie will say. "You didn't know that? You're a sportswriter. You should know that. I read it in my book."
The 2012 National Sportswriter of the Year, Joe Posnanski comes to NBC Sports after writing for Sports Illustrated, The Kansas City Star and, most recently, Sports on Earth. He'll write three times a week, including a weekly Friday column called "The Big Read."
It's easy to forget, though, what those words - role model - mean to an eight-year-old girl ... or at least what they mean to MY eight-year-old girl. Obviously, Patrick has been very much in the news. She won the pole for this weekend's Daytona 500, NASCAR's marquee race, and everyone knows that she was the first woman to do that, the first woman to come close to doing that. It is a remarkable achievement for any young driver, man or woman, to win the Daytona pole. Sunday, at the Daytona 500 race itself, she could make all kinds of history - if she were to beat the 42 men in the biggest race, well, the mind boggles at how big a sports story it would become.
Of course, with Patrick there's always more going on than just sports. She is finishing a divorce, and she has started dating NASCAR driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ("I feel like I"m on the bachelorette," she tells reporters). She is very pretty, and knows it, and does suggestive commercials for Go Daddy as well as less evocative ones for various other companies. She is a blend of wildly contrasting fates. She is a talented driver who expects to be taken seriously - a challenge for any woman who competes against men. She is a nationally famous superstar who has not yet won a major race in America. She is also sex symbol who protests being a sex symbol while embracing being a sex symbol - she walks that tightrope with confidence.
None of these things matter whatsoever to my daughter Katie ... not even her winning the pole at Daytona. Her infatuation with Danica Patrick is about something much simpler and plainer.
"Do only men play football?" Katie asked me one Sunday when I was watching NFL games on television.
"Do only men play baseball?" she asked one afternoon when I was watching the Kansas City Royals playing.
"Do girls play golf too?" she asked when I was watching some PGA Tournament going on somewhere in America.
These questions were not pleas from a little girl who wanted to make a point or make a stand. They were questions about possibilities. Jerry Seinfeld tells this great joke: "When men are growing up and reading about Batman, Superman and Spiderman, these are not fantasies. These are options." As a little kid, I think, every door is wide open, every dream a chance, every fantasy a reality, and you only slowly come to understand that maybe you won't learn to fly, maybe you aren't a music prodigy who can play a song after hearing it once, maybe the Major Leagues is not realistic because you can't even hit the fastball of the kid who lives two houses down.
So much of childhood is about crossing out what's unrealistic. It doesn't come in a single bolt, but slowly, very, slowly, day by day by day, the future comes into sharper focus and the fuzzy world where anything's possible loses just a little bit of its wonder.
For my daughters, particularly Katie, I have found, this is even more true. Seinfeld's superheroes, the most famous superheroes, are all men*. Of course, there has never been a woman president. There has never been a woman in the Major Leagues. There has never been a woman quarterback in the NFL or a woman coach of a major men's team or, well, you can go on and on and on.
*Yes, of course I know, there are lots of superheroines like Wonder Woman with her invisible plane and Catwoman with her baffling and conflicted loyalties and various other lesser superhero lights.
These too-obvious facts are not too obvious to an 8-year-old girl. She learns them slowly, reluctantly. She reaches for something. When Katie watched the U.S. women's 4x100 relay team break the world record, she was utterly enthralled. It has been months, but even now if you ask Katie what she wants to be when she grows up she will talk about being a teacher or a singer or a writer or something like that, it changes all the time, but she always plans to run the anchor leg of the an Olympic relay.
In the end, that is why Danica Patrick matters to Katie. It isn't that Katie wants to be a race car driver. She doesn't even ride her bicycle much. But . it's possible. Two beautiful words. It's. Possible.
*The Indy Japan 300.
And here's a beautiful thing: Patrick innately understands all this. No, she doesn't talk much about it, and she doesn't spend a lot of time talking about women's rights or girl power. But it's always there, it's a part of her, underneath the hype and endorsements and competitive hunger. And every now and again it will come out like it did this week when she said: "(Parents) can have that conversation with their kid about you can do anything you want and being different doesn't, by any means, not allow you to follow your dreams. I love to think that conversation happens in households because of something I do."
People talk often about role models letting us down ... there has been plenty of that the last few months. But it depends on what you want from those role models. Danica Patrick cannot let down Katie because Katie doesn't care about her personal life or her various choices. "Why do you like Danica Patrick so much?" I ask Katie.
"Because she's pretty and she races cars," Katie says.
Obviously, adults expect so much more from Danica Patrick. Obviously, Patrick expects so much more from herself. She has a chance this weekend - and next weekend and the weekend after that - to break ground and take checkered flags and sell web hosting by flaunting her attractiveness. But, through the eyes of an 8-year-old girl, she has already done enough to be a role model. She has made Katie's sky just a little bit wider with just a few more stars.