Justin Zackal’s first love, the Pittsburgh Steelers, taught him all about loyalty, disappointment, and other matters of the heart.
What captures a boy’s heart is an impetus through adolescence. For many boys, their first love is sports, not girls, as they fall for batted baseballs before batted eyelashes.
A sports first love is like understanding origami for the first time; a boy goes from a passive observer of the result to suddenly making an emotional connection with the folding and unfolding of the story. He now gets it. And there’s always that first moment or season when his paper heart starts creasing and a love for sports takes flight.
Mine was the 1989 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Now, if you were writing a book about the team that year, you’d probably ball up the first page. Week One: Cleveland Browns 51, Pittsburgh Steelers 0. Hopeful to “get ’em next week,” the Steelers provided fans another narrative that was crumbled-ball worthy. Week Two: Cincinnati Bengals 41, Pittsburgh Steelers 10.
Not all boyhood fairy tales are fraught with a 92-10 deficit against two AFC Central Division opponents. Some hopes go undefeated. But all boys are innocent, following the same erratic, heart-first, head-last gallop toward adulthood.
Perhaps that’s why men become boys again when they follow sports. They can’t relive that memorable first kiss, but a reckless rooting interest in their sports team, the same one they fell for as boys, is a chance to relive those halcyon days.
“I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it,” wrote British author Nick Hornby in his book Fever Pitch, an autobiographical account of his love affair with the Arsenal Football Club.
Our heads prevail as adults, but sports remain a vestige of the heart. Otherwise, giving critical thought to the pain and disruption from sports would tell a Steelers fan in 1989 to sell the team’s stock after Week One, update your resume and find a new team to follow, or get a good mechanic, contractor or therapist to fix this mess.
In sports, there’s no guaranteed return on emotional investment.
In the American film adaptation of Hornby’s Fever Pitch, the protagonist, played by Jimmy Fallon, is comforted by his unrequited love of the Boston Red Sox.
“I like being part of something that’s bigger than me, than I. It’s good for your soul to invest in something you can’t control,” he said.
To which his other love interest, played by Drew Barrymore, admiringly responded: “You can love under the best and worst conditions.”
The Steelers came back from their 0-2 start in 1989. They won nine of their next 14 games, including five of their last six. They needed four AFC teams to lose on the final Sunday to make the playoffs—which they all did! In their first-round playoff game, on New Year’s Eve in Houston’s Astrodome, the Steelers beat the Oilers, 26-23, on a 50-yard, game-ending field goal in overtime.
The season didn’t end like the Disney fairy tales I was raised on, though. (The Steelers lost to the Denver Broncos the next week.) But my fascination with sports at a young age taught me lessons about loyalty, disappointment, and other matters of the heart, under the best and worst conditions.
As adults, our hearts are continually folded, contorted and sometimes ripped to understand the imperfect origami called life. But by following sports, we’re all boys again, and every new season is like a clean, flat sheet of paper.
Photo: Gene J. Puskar/AP