Why Sports Matter – A Personal Story

Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

During times of turmoil and periods of crisis, it is fashionable for the folks who cover sports for a living to diminish the importance of the professional world they inhabit. In the aftermath of a traumatic national moment, it is quite common to find a sports journalist who suddenly discovers a sense of perspective, notwithstanding his lengthy article just days prior lambasting the Phillies’ manager for his mismanagement of the pitching staff as if he botched the logistics of Operation Overlord.

“None of this matters,” he will solemnly declare on Twitter.

And he will be right, of course. None of it matters.

Who cares if the Flyers miss the playoffs this year? There’s always next season, or the season after. You’ll watch the Orange and Black’s long goodbye during this wretched 2021 campaign, or maybe you’ll flip the channel. Perhaps you will latch on to the 76ers, who are currently locked in a three-horse race with the Bucks and the Nets for Eastern Conference supremacy. Will the long, painstaking roster build during the Process years finally pay off in a championship?

You could also fix your gaze on the Phillies, who have sprinted out of the gate in 2021, and hope to move past the bullpen struggles that hampered their ability to contend during the abbreviated 2020 season.

Or maybe you are a true glutton for punishment, and you want to take a ride on the carousel of false hope spinning merrily along at One Novacare Way. The Philadelphia Eagles, cellar dwellers in the NFL’s most wretched division, hold a number of high draft picks, boast a new head coach long on excitement and short on experience, and retain a general manager whose roster construction leaves much to be desired. Steering the ship is an owner whose discursive lectures on organizational culture would play better in a college classroom than a Philly neighborhood bar.

Documenting it all will be the beat writers, grunts in the trenches, pounding away at their keyboards as they struggle to find the words that capture the excitement of a timely home run or the disappointment of an impotent power play. Will they be able to coax a player or a coach to shed the comfortable blanket of cliché and provide a thoughtful, nuanced sound bite that adds some color to their game story?

Standing behind the front lines is the army of podcasters, sports radio hosts, and television analysts busily crafting their takes. The louder, the better, especially in the traditional media spaces. The same experts who pined for Marcus Mariota during the heady Chip Kelly era and alternately celebrated and bemoaned the career of Carson Wentz are prepared to tell you which prospect is the best option for the Eagles next year.

It’s a cacophonous noise machine, polluted by lousy opinions as evanescent as a scoop of ice cream that has fallen to the ground on a hot summer day.

And, to tell you the truth, I am more grateful than ever for this goofy little ecosystem of frivolity and nonsense. Yes, sports are inconsequential in the grand scheme of life. But it is precisely this element of meaninglessness that makes these professional contests, and the conversations that form around them, so meaningful.

During this lost year (and counting) of the COVID pandemic, we have been driven into a lengthy period of isolation. If we have discovered anything during this interminable wait for a restoration of normalcy, it has been a renewed appreciation for the importance of community. No, not the ersatz versions we have constructed on social media. Actual, physical community- the kind you might find in the stands at a ballgame, or at a corner bar on a late spring night while the flat screen televisions on the wall are tuned into a Sixers postseason contest or a Phillies early-season tilt against a divisional foe. Maybe you run into an old friend, and, over a shot of Fireball and a Twisted Tea Light – the Northeast Philly special – he tells you what he’s been doing in the past few months or years, or laments how quickly his kids are growing up, or shares that some houses are going up for sale in his neighborhood if you’re looking to buy. Interspersed in the conversation will be laments about Joel Embiid coming up short when it matters, or praise for Embiid as he dominates the paint; the commentary all depends on the story unfolding on the TV screen.

Aside from community building, sports offer us all a chance to escape from the daily travails and frustrations of life, even if just for a few hours. And can’t we all use a break every once in a while from the stresses this pandemic has inflicted?

We all have our own stories of struggle during this year of sickness and sorrow. If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I would like to offer my own.

****

It was a sticky morning in the summer when I learned that I was going to be a father. I had fallen asleep on the couch, and my soon-to-be wife excitedly woke me up from my slumber. I was too disoriented to understand her words, but I saw the pregnancy test in her hand. Tired though I was, it did not take long to put the puzzle together.

We had learned recently it was very likely that we would need to postpone the wedding we had planned for almost 2 years. We decided to push the big party to 2021, while holding a small ceremony in a backyard with our immediate family during the original date. What better wedding favor could we dole out than an announcement that we would be expecting our first child? Even better, we would be right around the end of the first trimester, when it is conventionally deemed safe to spread the news.

But we would have to get there first. I watched as my fiancée struggled through the nausea and fatigue of the first trimester, offering assistance when I could. We would head down the shore and take walks in the evening. We would talk about our plans for the future. What did we need to do to get the house ready? What room should we turn into the nursery? What color should we paint the walls? Should we stay in Northeast Philly, or was it a better idea to move?

Looking back, it is amazing the ways in which one’s life is rendered completely not his own once the prospect of parenthood looms. It is simultaneously the most daunting and thrilling feeling I have experienced.

During this period of planning and plotting, I was too busy to register how strange it was that my fiancée was unable to get an appointment to see a doctor until November. By that point, she would have been entering the second trimester. The baby book I had been reading noted the importance of getting the checkup completed early. But we were in the midst of a pandemic, and who was I to argue with the regulations of a medical practice that was trying its best to keep its patients safe? It was, and still is, a deeply abnormal time, and we’re all doing our best to make sense of it.

We made it to the big day in October without too much hassle. We were married in my brother’s backyard, and we sprung our big news on our guests. Our pandemic-induced confinement made it quite easy to keep the secret, and we seemed to catch everyone by surprise. It was one moment of unfettered happiness in what had been a long season of disappointment.

The defining moment of November 11, 2020, will be etched into my brain forever. My wife left for the appointment. She had to go alone, which bothered me quite a bit. What if something happened, and I needed to be there? I pushed the negative thought from my mind. This is a happy day; there was no time for pessimism.

Besides, there were no signs anything was amiss. My wife texted me with updates through the early portion of the examination. Everything was as it was supposed to be. I continued to work, and finally my phone buzzed with a FaceTime request. The moment I had been waiting for…

The midwife prepared the sonogram equipment. It was time to hear our baby’s heartbeat. It had been four long months, but we had arrived at the moment when we would be able to hear the first signs of life from the little human we had created together.

The sonogram wasn’t working; the midwife could not find the sound she was seeking. Not to worry; this happened sometimes. Time to bring out the big guns. In rolled the ultrasound machine. I made small talk with my wife. I have no idea what we discussed, but I just wanted to make sure she was trying to stay relaxed during this period of creeping anxiety.

The midwife was ready, and my wife turned the camera toward the image on the screen. I looked, and I saw what appeared to be a small appendage. Much too small. Something is wrong, shouted the voice in my head.

The midwife pretended to struggle with the machine, but she knew. She went to fetch a doctor, who arrived moments later.

“Oh no,” I groaned aloud, involuntarily. I have no idea if anyone heard the disembodied moan coming from the phone.

“I’m sorry, there’s no heartbeat,” the doctor stated in that comforting yet clinical mixture our white-coated healers have mastered over the years.

No heartbeat.

I would have given anything I owned to hear that heart beat just once. I would have willingly traded my own.

It was my first lesson in being a dad, delivered just as the textbook was being slammed in my face.

****

How do you put toothpaste back in a tube? How do you un-ring a bell? Here’s how you start: you call your mother-in-law and your parents with the crushing news. The unmitigated joy you gave them just a month ago has been slapped away by the cold hand of fate. You assign them the thankless task of helping you spread the word.

You receive texts, calls, flowers, and meals from family and friends. Support arrives from people who have endured this particular pain before and know exactly how you are feeling. You learn that this sad little group you just joined is actually quite sizable. The people in your orbit try to find words that offer comfort, but there’s nothing to say. You promptly write thank-you notes. Your handwriting is blurred by the tears forming in your eyes.

I spent the next few months trapped in a fog of grief. Writing typically serves as my port in the storm, but the thought of creating anything overwhelmed me. My mind was dominated by the inexplicable loss we had just endured. I couldn’t work up the passion or the interest required to write another take about Carson Wentz’s regression, or Doug Pederson’s inability to inject some creativity into the Eagles’ stale offensive scheme.

So, I just watched the games, not particularly caring about the outcomes. College football or pro, it didn’t matter to me. I was happy to tune into whatever was on television when I needed a few hours to think about something else. Anything else.

I was grateful for the temporary respite from reality, and doubly thankful for the athletes making the sacrifices and taking the precautions they needed to hold these contests while mitigating the spread of the Coronavirus. In pre-pandemic times, so many of these games are just an afterthought, something to watch on a Saturday afternoon to pass the time. Now, they were a gift.

Even the Eagles, terrible though they were, brought me some joy. I am convinced we Philadelphians aren’t truly happy unless we’re miserable. It’s the natural state of the Eagles fan, and the Birds delivered misery in spades in 2020.

In my opinion, rock bottom arrived in late November, when the Eagles traveled to Cleveland to take on the Browns on a Sunday. On their first drive, the Birds drove right down the field, running the football down the throat of the Cleveland defense. The Browns had no answers. Then, as the offense neared the end zone, Miles Sanders fumbled. Drive over.

After a goal line stand of their own, the Eagles defense handed the ball back to Carson Wentz and company. Wentz promptly threw a pick-six. The entire turn of events emerged as the perfect encapsulation of the Eagles’ season.

It was a stunning, total collapse of a franchise we all assumed to have been constructed on a solid foundation. In a matter of months, Pederson would be gone, with Wentz not far behind in the stampede out the door. The wonderful images of the improbable Super Bowl run just three years ago, barely visible in the rearview mirror, now disappeared completely as the Eagles plunged into a mountain of adversity.

And yet, all I could think was how exciting it was to have the machinery of normalcy cranking noisily along. For just a little while each day, I could pause dwelling in my own misfortune or delving into the relentless stream of depressing stories about the pandemic, racial strife in the country, the tumult of the presidential election, and the uncontrolled outbreak of our own city’s gun violence epidemic.

We all need some time on the sidelines every once and again. But we also need to resist the intoxicating charm of living there permanently. Eventually, we all must find our way back onto the field.

****

At some point, right around the New Year, I grew tired of being tired. I struggled to sleep, my weight ballooned, and I could not shake out of the grief spiral. I needed to do something.

So, I started running.

It was a struggle at first. My legs, comfortable after a long period of inactivity, screamed at me as I barely hit the one-mile mark on my first venture. My feet were on fire, and the muscles within were constantly cramping. Everything inside was telling me to stop.

I kept going.

Eventually, I built up some endurance. The runs got longer. I pushed through the cold of the winter and the lactic acid buildup in my legs. I hit the 2.5 mile mark, and by February I was able to cover a 5k distance. The pounds dropped, and my confidence grew.

Running is a lot like life. You can find yourself cruising along the level paths and gliding down slopes. You make heady plans for yourself. You can run for miles today.

And then, you come upon a hill. Suddenly, the voice beckoning you to try for a personal record distance is demanding that you stop. Not one more step.

I keep going.

There is an inferno raging in my quads and hamstrings. Stop, take a break. It’s too hard. You’ve gone far enough for one day.

I keep going.

The little voice in my head won’t stop talking. This isn’t helping, it counsels me. What’s the point of putting yourself through this agony? Quit. 

I keep going.

You let your wife down. You should have insisted on an earlier doctor’s appointment. You should have been there when she needed you. 

I tell the voice to shut the hell up.

And I keep going.

In time, I find myself stretching the limits of what I thought I was capable of reaching. 5 miles, 7.5 miles…

The pain in my legs subsides. I am in the clear again, and I take a moment to reflect on the cycle of mourning.

We are all compelled to travel along the road of grief at one time or another. Although the arduous journey seems lonely, we are not actually alone. Not truly. The path is lined with the footprints of those who have come before us, pointing the way forward. And it is illuminated by the love of family and friends, keeping the darkness of despair at bay.

You don’t get over tragedies, but you can get through them. The key to progress is buried in a lesson we learn any time we participate in a sport or athletic endeavor.

You just need to keep going.

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