The author, as the most reluctant of athletes, 1982.
Scorekeeping and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat: A call for submissions from the new editor of our Sports section.
I came by my love of sports naturally. Or, organically. Or, however one does something with virtually no encouragement other than that of one’s own interest.
“Sports” as a subject or physical pursuit were simply not valued in my family as I grew up. My parents were not athletic, and though my father seemed to have some vague affinity for football, it was not something he shared with us with any regularity. He was a university professor, a research scientist, a workaholic, and a distant person who I never really got to know.
There was no backyard catch at my house. School was for learning, not playing sports, and the jock mentality was derided a little too sharply by someone who had likely not done that well himself back in the day. Furthermore, if you weren’t absolutely good at something from the start, it was simply understood that you should quickly move on to more important and presumably intellectual pursuits rather than endure the embarrassment of trial and error. This was not a life lesson that served me well.
My father took the family to what would become a famous NFL game when we first moved to Baltimore in 1977: The double-overtime playoff between the Colts and the Raiders. This was my first professional football game, and at seven years old, I expected it to be the beginning of many more as part of Life in the Big City. It was not, and was in fact the only Colts game I ever went to. Years later I learned of the significance of the game itself: One of the longest games in NFL history, the game with the famous Ghost to the Post play, legendary coach John Madden on the opposing sideline for the last playoff game the Baltimore Colts ever played before they, too, faded into the ether of irrelevancy.
The Colts lost. I don’t recall discussing any of the particulars with my family, though I’m sure there was some superficial talk of feigned disappointment, since we were all now suddenly Colts fans by geographic mandate. I was just wide-eyed at the spectacle and the noise and the fact that we were at a real live pro football game on Christmas Eve. I had no functional knowledge of how the game was really even played, but 60,000 people or so had a connection with one another that I had never experienced.
As the next few years rolled on, I willed myself to become a Colts fan. This was a challenge, because, first of all, they were terrible. Secondly, no one in my family shared this interest. And finally, every time I would begin to discuss it with friends, my ignorance of the sport was quickly exposed and I would end up changing the subject. Forget knowing the players, positions and formations- it seriously took me about two years to figure out the whole downs thing, mostly because I was too embarrassed to ask someone who knew. Every time I thought I had it, there would be a penalty and a loss of down or someone would go for it on fourth and I’d be lost again.
By the time I finally really understood the game, in about 1983, the Colts were a laughingstock and presumptive #1 draft pick John Elway was announcing that he’d rather dig ditches than play for Baltimore. Owner Robert Irsay traded the pick to Denver for a bag of magic beans and the die was cast. I remember vividly the loss I felt the night the Mayflower vans packed the Colts up for Indianapolis.
I blamed John Elway (who– let’s face it — is pretty much to blame) and while I had no personal catalog of glory days to miss, it was in some ways even more personal to me. They were splitting right as I finally cared about them after years of making a concerted effort to do so. I had done my part, but now they were leaving and taking my chances of relevant sports fluency and the bonds I might forge with them to Indianapolis. I was the only one in my family who seemed to care, so this grief was mine alone to internalize.
Now, in fairness, I did make it to a fair share of Orioles games, and I wasn’t too thick to understand the basics of baseball. Our house was close enough to Memorial Stadium that we would hear the crowd roar from our backyard and take some comfort in knowing the team had done something good. And they were good in the late 70’s and 80’s, a saving grace for a decaying city whose civic pride had been pounded into submission. I later realized you didn’t really have to be a sports fan to dislike the derision of the bullies, and in those days Baltimore was a malnourished kid who desperately needed to wipe his nose and get some Charles Atlas action happening pronto against the sneering Washingtons of the world.
In school, I was a fast runner and that was about it, skillwise. I did the bare minimum required in extracurriculars and hated every minute of it. I eventually quit just about every team I was on. Sports seemed to be such a clearcut means of evaluation, and I felt unprepared and judged at every turn. I can’t say I was really bullied or mocked about my performance by anyone other than myself, but at some point I decided that to stop trying altogether was simply cutting out the middle man.
But then something surprising and revelatory happened: I went to college and realized I was suddenly among an entirely new set of players with no knowledge of my uncoordinated past. The competition wasn’t any worse, but I was able to stop comparing myself to those around me who I’d known since I was a kid and who had been to sports camps and had worked on their game with their fathers on weekends and had made varsity while I spent my after-school hours absently convincing myself that Sports were just an excuse for unkind, judgmental people to gather. Of course, that had only been my own internal banner all along.
I began to play racquetball and then tennis and I surprised myself with my own hand-eye coordination. I wasn’t winning a lot, but I was competitive and I was improving quickly. I lived in a house off-campus where we had a volleyball net out back and we played almost every day. I discovered I had a vertical leap that would genuinely surprise my opponents and I was spiking and blocking against guys who were a full head taller than me. Eventually, our intramural team beat the college basketball team who, to a man, towered over us and were beyond disgusted with themselves at the loss. It was so unbelievably beautiful.
The floodgates opened for me and I became a huge sports junkie from that point forward, checking the stats in the sports pages religiously, getting Orioles season tickets from the first home I owned within walking distance of Camden Yards, getting Ravens season tickets the year they moved to Baltimore and living and dying with my allegiances. When the Ravens arrived, I felt genuinely bad for Cleveland, because I knew there were probably a lot of kids there like me who were left wondering what they should have done differently to keep the team from leaving them. But I was too ready to reclaim my NFL allegiance to allow myself to dwell on it. By then I was ready to take on all comers with an intensity that I have backed off on as the enthusiastic gears of newfound adulthood have thankfully worn down to a more sustainable grind.
Every time I am tempted to sink back into the bitterness I felt for so many years– to regret the athletic memories that might have been, to have had actual teammates, to hate that stupid horse-face John Elway who rejected me so very personally– I stop and force myself to appreciate the fact that I finally did get to discover that I don’t totally suck at sports. I enjoy playing them and I enjoy watching them now, both of which seemed to be impossible goals as a kid. Better yet, I now have two kids of my own who get the ongoing benefit my own experience: They have a Dad who is usually available for a backyard catch and who will encourage them to keep trying even when they do totally suck at something the first time out.
My nine-year-old daughter and I race all the time, and she can already almost beat me at a full sprint. When she does finally beat me I have vowed to celebrate this accomplishment with her, but I’m not going to ease up to let that day arrive early. My five year old boy not only knows the basic rules of football, but he can recite most of the teams– by division– in football, baseball and hockey. This is not because I’m forcing either of them to live out what I missed, it’s because when they ask a question I try to put enthusiasm and value into my response. They asked, so they care, so I should too. A respectful answer almost always leads to more questions. When my boy tells me he intends to be an NFL offensive lineman, I tell him that sounds awesome. We’ll talk about the genetics of his 5’8” lineage some other time, and I’ll get a kicking tee just in case.
During the time of my athletic awakening, I studied English, and the parallels were immediately evident to me. The reason sports resonate with so many people is that they’re so damn literary: Conflict and resolution. Facing a challenge, succeeding or failing. Overcoming insurmountable odds. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. As the years have rolled by, the lens of our public consciousness has widened to the locker room and the league offices and the back alley labs where fascinating shadowy characters try to beat the system by making the human body do more than it was supposed to be able to do. To will itself to victory at any cost. I can relate.
As a young man develops, sports are often a unifying security blanket, and just as often they are a divisive tribal threat. They connect us and divide us, and we measure ourselves by points, by standings, by civic pride and by failure. We can always pretend we’re hitting the last-second jumpshot to win the NBA finals as boys on a playground and we can always pretend we’re lifting a Lombardi Trophy from the misery of our cubicle walls through fantasy football as we become men.
As the new editor for the Good Men Project Sports section, I am looking for submissions that explore the games and gamesmanship that happen off the field. The perspectives that define us as human beings and the ways we measure our own values through a scoreboard or a valiant effort.
Some topics I’m looking forward to exploring:
– Cheating versus Gamesmanship (Tomlin, Kidd)
– Bullying, locker room culture (The Incognito ripple effect)
– Concussions – The coverup, the future of sports safety.
– The N word in locker rooms (Why are some abhorrent things acceptable in the context of sports?)
– Pop culture meets sports (Jay-Z as athlete’s agent)
– Trash talk- Sports psychology / anxiety as it translates to the field.
– The NCAA’s iron fist / revisiting amateur status.
– Fantasy football – the industry, the motivation to win vicariously.
– ESPN as media juggernaut / thought monopoly.
– Drug testing in sports / steroids / marijuana.
– Heroes and forgiveness.
– Success through loss.
To submit an essay on any of these topics or any others that you would like to be considered, please first consider the Good Men Project Style Guidelines. Keep your pieces between 500 and 1500 words if possible. Let’s keep the conversation that no one is having about the real meaning of our sports culture going.
Submissions should come to me at [email protected]
— Photo [main] courtesy of the author
— Photo [inset] by Lloyd Pearson, Baltimore Sun / AP