I have a tricky relationship with sports. That might just be a more pleasant way of saying I'm jaded, which one can easily become when he's getting paid to watch and write about sports, or any subject for that matter, but I think it's more complicated than that, and my views have been changing since well before I became a sportswriter.
The first big shakeup happened right around my 13th birthday, when, under the spell of some classmates who looked like they were having the best time in the world, I started skateboarding. At that point, I think I was still holding out hope that I'd one day ascend to a spot on the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team (more on that shortly), but had already been disabused of that idea after playing tournament games against kids who, though they were obviously more skilled than me, had failed tryouts for the National Under-14 team. To that point, all I'd done outside of school was play soccer and baseball, so to have something else come along when I was feeling insecure and uncertain about where I stood in the athletic world, something as fun and intensely personal as skateboarding, dealt sports a major blow in my mind. Things just looked differently after that. Team politics, overbearing coaches, getting up early on Saturday to go play travel league games, cardio conditioning sessions, all of these became very distasteful to me after I picked up a skateboard. I still played sports on through my first year of college, when a feud with my soccer coach ended my competitive athletic career, but, as I said, my views had been altered.
After that, and I'm condensing here, there was watching the riots in College Park when the Terps won the 2002 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, which made me rethink sports fandom in general, and my taking a job as a sportswriter, which put me eyeball-to-eyeball with athletes on a daily basis. The latter, though it might sound bad, certainly is not. Talking to and being around athletes, including some MLB first-round draft picks, just brought home the fact that the people you see on the field aren't gods. They're mostly normal folks who've been blessed with the wonderful combination of good genes and a monomaniacal drive to be the best at their sport. If I can sympathize with any human foible, it's monomania.
So, this has been a long, convoluted way of saying I think a lot about sports, about its importance in day-to-day life, about its effects on the psyche of this nation, about how most people don't have a clue what goes into becoming a pro athlete, about whether the Orioles are going to win a World Series before I'm a bitter old man. And all of these thoughts, bundle them up and call it neurosis, often keep me from being able to just sit and enjoy a sporting event.
On Sunday afternoon, while traveling back from a family wedding in South Dakota, I found myself pulling into one of the gates and O'Hare International Airport just as the opening whistle sounded for the World Cup group match between the U.S. and Portugal. My brother and I, who had planned on missing the first half of the game, were delighted that we'd arrived early and would get a chance to catch most of it. By the time we'd elbowed our way into a bar, cafe and sandwich shop combo and found two seats next to each other, Portugal was up, 1-0.
The next 90 minutes have to count as some of the best I've ever spent watching sports. There were probably 75 people crammed into this place, and every time the U.S. made a run the voices would raise an octave, fists would start pounding the tables and then it would die down again, only to pick back up next time the U.S. took possession. When Jermaine Jones scored the equalizer in the 64th minute on a 25-yard rocket, I thought the roof was going to cave in with all the stomping and jumping that was going on. I looked back over my shoulder after Jones' goal and saw that an even bigger crowd had formed outside the bar, drawn by the shouts of the maniacs inside.
When Clint Dempsey scored with a stomach thrust in the 81st minute to put the U.S. up, 2-1, it was pure euphoria. I almost fell out of my stool trying to high-five the guy sitting next to me. My brother started a "U.S.A." chant, which I almost always find cheesy, but in this context it was completely fitting. We were a bunch of Americans, watching our team beat a European powerhouse before we boarded our flights back to our own corners of the country.
Then, there was absolute, pit-of-your-stomach-falling-out defection when Portugal scored with 30 seconds left in extra time. Everyone in the bar clammed up, then we calmly picked up our bags and walked out to find our terminals.
What watching that game reminded me, other than that the jaded sportswriter can still lose himself in a soccer match, was that the best athletics, just like the best books and works of art, are compressions of real life. They allow you to experience in a few minutes the highs and lows that would take weeks or months for the workaday world to produce.
As I write this, the U.S. team is gearing up for a match with Germany, its final group play contest. I'll be watching it, and, I promise, I won't be thinking about anything but soccer.