Monday, February 11, 2008

For the Love of the Game...

I absolutely love sports.

Sure, I had my doubts. From a distance I saw Big Ben Roethlisberger tossing touchdown passes in Pittsburgh while the pimple-faced Eli Manning was slinging interceptions for scores at an unbelievable rate (see: Minnesota Vikings, Week 12). I, like most New Yorkers, wondered aloud about the draft-day decision the Giants brass had made that faithful day and believed that we had chosen the wrong quarterback. Our gap-toothed Hall of Fame pass rusher skipped the entire training camp fighting a long divorce battle and our coach was on pace to break every blood vessels in his scalp during the off-season press conferences. The franchise’s record-holding running back was busy dissecting the team for his national television audience while the team frantically searched for a replacement back, trading for a respectable guy from Cleveland (Reuben Droughns) and drafting some young kid from Marshall (Ahmad Bradshaw). With a rejuvenated T.O. and a loaded Redskins squad, the chances for Big Blue to come crawling out of the NFC East looked slim.

But Sunday – in front of a record-breaking 90 million viewers – our defense manhandles the greatest offense since the beginning of the salary cap era, our snot-nosed QB becomes a legend, and New York defeats Boston on the biggest of stages – Super Bowl XLII.

Man, it’s great being king. Now I know how Simba feels.

As most displaced New Yorkers, I woke up Monday morning dazed and confused. Did that just happen? Did someone spike the punch without my notice? Was this all a part of some diabolical plot similar to Tonya Harding's planned hit on American teammate Nancy Kerrigan? Forgetting that I had elevated my bed, I plunged headlong onto my area rug. After licking my wounds, I powered up the TV and flicked to the morning’s SportsCenter loop. Yup, the Giants had won.

As I sat in my dorm room and reflect on the excitement that enveloped the Super Bowl, I began to think about THAT question. I hear it when I walk through the campus, or climb up the hill to class, or drag my garbage to the trash chute. I’ve never known exactly how to answer it…and honestly, as I type this sentence into Microsoft Word, I’m still puzzled.

“TTK, why are you so infatuated with sports? Why do you love them so much?”

To answer, I usually counter by inquiring about their lack of love for sport, or ramble about the thunderous dunks that Shawn Kemp deposited on his victims during his career, or smile and tell them to watch another game. However, that’s never the real reason why I love sports. I just supply my textbook answer, understanding that time is short, that no one has twenty minutes to spare, and that a simple gesture or phrase would suffice. Since my definition will never give the feeling behind true love of sports justice, I’ll instead give a quick story.

I first started playing organized basketball in seventh grade on our neighborhood’s CYO team. My head coach was a
tall Irish guy that always had a scowl adorning his face. During practice we would run suicides and wind sprints until our lungs felt like they’d collapse, like the ceiling was ready to bear down on our timid souls. On that team, I bought my minutes because of my tenacity and hustle. I loved when the coach roared with delight when I dove out of bounds in pursuit of a loose ball. I enjoyed glancing over to the bench and catching a grin curl across Coach’s face after I powered to the offensive glass for put-backs and garbage lay-ups. I knew my role, and embraced it for the benefit of the team.

During the course of the season, we had become recognized as one of the better teams in the league and gathered new rivals at other schools around Queens. On this day, we were playing at home against another basketball factory school, and needed a quick basket to keep pace with this team late in the fourth quarter. Our coach couldn’t make the game due to some extenuating circumstances and we were left with the assistant, an honorable gentleman, the late Coach George. When we came to the huddle after the timeout, Coach George pointed to me and made a simple statement.

“We need a basket right now. TTK, are you ready to make the shot?”

I immediately stared at my laces and tried not to make eye contact with the other guys in the huddle. I couldn’t believe it. Coach was asking me to not only take, but MAKE the jumpshot.

“I-I-I-I guess so,” I stammered.

The ref motioned to our bench, and the team knew that I was going to be the guy to take the shot and tie the game up. As I slowly make my return to our basket, Coach grabbed me and grinned. This is nothing for you TTK, he said. Once you make the jumpshot, just get back on D.

The rest of the story pretty much writes itself, but I’ll continue. My teammate "Jimmy" fed me a beautiful inbounds pass, and without hesitation I squared my shoulders, rose above the defender, and canned the jumper. As I sprinted back down court to play defense, I only remember touching the trail of tears that rolled down my face, dishing out high fives to the rest of my team, and hearing the din of an electric gymnasium crowd.

People love sports because of the feeling one gets after swishing that game-tying jimmy in front of a packed school gym. Or after snatching that catch in traffic across the middle of the football field while playing with your friends. Or after spiking that volleyball into the dirt during a friendly match at the family reunion against your loud mouthed relative who still thinks that they’ve got game. Those feelings explain why collegiate athletes lift weights during the heat of summer, why your kid brother smells like funk when he hugs your knees after a day at the YMCA, and why your dad still owns the pair of orange Chuck Taylor's he wore every day during high school.

While most people are fearful about the real world after college, the saddest part of college for most guys (and some girls too) is realizing that those dreams of hearing your name called on draft day are starting to fade fast. Sure, we know that we can yam a basketball through the net, but understand that there are thousands of guys in Division I, II, or III hoops that can do it a lot better than we can. Most of us shrug off that feeling of inadequacy and move on, but some don’t. That’s why you’ll always find “that guy” pumping extreme amounts of iron in the Bally’s weight room, buying cartons of protein shakes at your area supermarket, and fighting an addiction to those nutritional supplements sold at the local GNC. Sure, he’s glad that you noticed his tree trunk sized arms when he carried your groceries and hopes that he’ll cash in on a date, but he’s still hoping and believing that a conditioning coach will call his room phone and invite him out to Redskins training camp next summer, so he remains on alert.

Once we accept that the major leagues are out of reach, most folks latch onto professional athletics hoping that those figures on the television screen provide the same exhilaration that we once felt as competitors in sport. Becoming a die-hard fan glues that team’s passion to his/hers, allowing the fan to revel in their team’s victories and wallow in their defeats. As my friend "The Doc" once mentioned, sports are our soap operas. Sport is the straw that stirs our emotional drink. The fan wants to recreate those dramatic scenes in his/her mind, to appreciate and share with the members of future generations.

I realize that I’ve left out the casual fan in my assessment on our love for sports. Well, the casual fan joins the collection of sports fans in this instance. To the majority of its viewers, sporting events are one of those things in life – like great movies, TV shows, or special songs – that provide us with brief moments of time to experience unbridled joy. I’ll always remember David Tyree’s sensational catch in Super Bowl XLII not solely for Eli Manning’s flair for the dramatic and the Giants inevitable touchdown seconds later, but primarily because in that moment I jumped around the house like a unruly toddler, bearhugged my sister in front of a group of friends and strangers, and had a big smile plastered on my face for the rest of the game.

The casual fan has those same memories, like the time that a high school boyfriend rested his track letter jacket gently on his date’s delicate shoulders, or when daddy’s girl enjoyed her first ever father/daughter date at the ballpark, or that electricity in the air at grade school on the day that the Yankees made the playoffs for the first time. The casual fan may not watch every single regular season game or bother to fact check Wikipedia to make sure that I spelled Roethlisberger’s name correctly in the beginning of this “note”, but will always watch the biggest of games. Why? The casual fan wants to create a myriad of great new memories to attach to the old ones, and understands that on the biggest of stages – such as the Super Bowl, World Series, the Masters, or Olympics – the chance to experience a lasting moment of joy has a greater chance of occurring.

For me, besides that feeling of “greater love” (thanks, Fred Hammond!) that comes through a relationship with Jesus, a God that continually shows his unconditional love for his creation, sports – like marriage or new birth – is one of the tangible earthly elements that provides moments of unbridled joy in our lives.

That’s why I absolutely love sports.


1 comment:

  1. Pretty prescient, TTK, to have had Andy-"I'll lie at first for you, Roger, but come to my senses and morality later"-Petite as your picture at the top of the blog now that he's been a key figure in the news, of late.

    --5th Floor Drew Hall