Super Bowl Sunday in Afghanistan, and Why Sports Matter

Super Bowl Sunday in Afghanistan, and Why Sports Matter

Photo: AP 

Occasionally, when I tell people I write about sports for a living, they give me what I like to call The Look.

The Look is a mixture of polite condescension and pity. It's usually accompanied by a nod, and maybe a thin smile, especially if they're the kind of person who takes themselves a bit too seriously. If they really don't understand my profession, or why I do what I do, they might follow it up with phrases I've heard far too often: "That's neat!" and "Well, it must be fun to go games!"

They usually have too much tact to say it out loud, but I know what they're really thinking. When you talk to people for a living, you grow to understand it's people's faces, not their mouths, that tend to tell the truth.

Writing about grown men who play games for a living is sort of ridiculous, isn't it? Sports are entertainment. It's not as if they really matter.   

In fairness, I don't get The Look very often. When I tell people I write about sports for a living, most of the time they're curious. Or, if they're passionate fans of a specific team like the Ravens, they want to know what's it really like to talk to athletes. Have I ever interviewed Ray Lewis? Peyton Manning? LeBron James? Could I ever get them extra tickets? Why is the offensive coordinator such a knucklehead?

It's easier to talk to the second group of people, because on some level, they get it. Even if they can't always put it into words. Sports is in their blood. It's a little piece of their soul. They realize, deep down, that it's a probably foolish to care so much about something so trivial, but it's the caring that matters. Even if you're cynical, sports can still amaze you. Games can still remind you how long it's been since you called a friend, or took a trip home.

Lately I wish -- in those instances when I do get The Look -- I could take 20 minutes and tell them a story about Staff Sergeant Ryan Miller, a Marine in the 8th Engineer Support Battalion, stationed in Afghanistan.


I got an email from Miller several weeks ago, hours after the AFC Divisional Playoff game between the Ravens and Steelers. It hit my Inbox in the middle of the night, at 4:24 a.m., but I was still awake, still too wired from the game to sleep. Ryan had read something I'd written about the Ravens online, and even though he was a Steelers fan, he wanted to convey how much respect he had for Ravens, and their fan base. He confessed that he'd been checking The Baltimore Sun's website throughout the season, hungry for news about the Steelers' archrival.

"I don't get to see a lot of games at all over here due to mission requirements," Miller said. "But when I get the chance, I read all about them. It is sad that there has to be a loser in this annual battle, especially because of how insanely loyal and passionate [Ravens] fans are. But because of my own deep-rooted loyalties, it does not mean that I can't respect my enemy."

Talking to Miller over email, I learned that following the team you love when you're busy fighting a war isn't exactly easy. I don't think about it often enough, but just reading Miller's emails made me realize how spoiled I am by modern technology, especially when it comes to watching and reading about sports. Not only do I TiVo Ravens games so I can go back and watch them again -- often in slow motion so I can have a better understanding of what went right and what went wrong -- I typically find myself with too much to read when it comes to the NFL. I have to pick and choose, otherwise it feels like my brain will start to overflow.

Miller doesn't have those "annoying luxuries," and for the most part, he considers himself one of the lucky ones.

As a support Marine, it's his job (along with the rest of the 8th Battalion) to set up in a forward area, and provide combat troops with electrical needs and purified drinking water. They're constantly moving, and there's virtually no time for leisure. Military technology is so advanced these days that even what the Army considers a "forward areas" can often have televisions, Internet and phones. But for Support Marines, it's a much more nomadic existence. They have Internet access and televisions at Camp Leatherneck (which is in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan), and the Armed Forces Network does show NFL games, but the time there is always short before they're called to their next mission.

"We go months without a shower sometimes, let alone a phone call," Miller says. "We have different priorities. Our focus is the fight in front of us."

The military has fairly strict rules about what they want soldiers reading on the Internet. Miller said he's only allowed to access sports websites like ESPN.com or SI.com at night, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. Doesn't really matter if you get in at 9 a.m. after being out all night, and you're covered in grime and all you want to know is the Penguins-Red Wings score. The sports sites are still off limits.

"The loophole I found is that if I look up local newspapers I can get away with it because it is still classified as news," Miller says. "Yes it is bending the rules a little bit but it's not too bad, and is a risk I'll take any day."

I had to laugh a bit when I read that. Imagining Miller's hunger for scores, profiles and sports columns is a bit like taking a trip back in time, when newspapers were widely-regarded as the authoritative voice instead of an industry struggling to stay relevant. No one has to wait for the newspaper to arrive to find out the box score of the Orioles-Yankees game these days, unless they live in Afghanistan.

When people talk about the military, at least as it relates to sports, they tend to say things like: "What those men and women do overseas helps put things into perspective back home." Athletes, in fact, say this a lot. And it's always said with good intentions. The same is true of the belief that we shouldn't use military language when we talk about sports. It trivializes the real thing. After all, they're just games.

But what's also true is that, for people in the military, sports can feel more important than we could ever understand. They're a much-needed distraction from the complicated realities of combat, and they're a window into the world back home. Miller was born and raised in Pittsburgh, in a blue-collar neighborhood where everyone knew one another. His parents put a Steelers' hat on him not long after he was born in 1980. Everyone in the neighborhood bled black and gold. He can remember his teachers talking about the Steelers as early as 1st grade.

"There is so much Steeler pride where I grew up that if someone [from the neighborhood] were to root for another team, they are viewed with the same disdain and bitterness that one would look at a terrorist," Miller said.

Miller played football and ice hockey growing up, and memorized every Steelers roster from the time he could read. He joined the Marines because he felt directionless in his teenage years after dropping out of high school, and initially regretted it.

"It was, when I made it, the biggest mistake of my life," Miller says. "But at the same it time fueled me for the rest of my life not to fail. I dropped out of high school in 1997. Even to this day I can't give you a solid reason why other than just plain boredom. To this day I wish I hadn't done that, but we all are a result of our past, and had I not done that, I know that I would be a different person today. I was going nowhere fast and I knew I needed a change of venue and some discipline. I found both in the Marine Corps."

No matter where he's been, whether it was boot camp in Parris Island, S.C. (where the biting gnats are so big, Miller says, they blot out the sun) or southern Afghanistan, sports have always stirred feelings in him that go beyond the field. They aren't just games. They're a reminder of where he's from. 

"When we are rolling out and doing our thing, hearing about a hometown team helps because it is like a little slice of home and something we can connect to," Miller says. "When the Pens won the cup against the Wings, I got to see that. It was so awesome! I was tired, dirty, stinky, had been sleeping underneath a truck, but I got to go to the [combat operations center] and see the game on TV via satellite. It was a huge morale booster. Even the Wings fans were smiling because it was a terrific battle that we watched. They were upset, yes, but loved the experience."

When the Ravens and the Steelers met in the AFC Divisional Playoffs a month ago, Miller got to actually watch the game, a rare treat in his hectic life. He'd just flown back to base on a helicopter after wrapping up a support mission, and landed around 1 a.m. Afghanistan time. His family had sent him a package for Christmas, but he was so excited about the Steelers, he forgot to open it. He plopped down in front of his computer, hoping to follow the action on ESPN Game Cast, because it wasn't being broadcast on the Armed Services Network.

But another soldier sent him a link with streaming video, and he finally got it to work just after kickoff. For the next hour, he sat in front of his computer, screaming and cursing as he watched the Ravens dominate the Steelers in the first half on grainy video. It was so frustrating, when the two teams went into the locker rooms, he finally remembered to open the package his mom had sent him for Christmas. She had mailed them more than a month ago, but they'd just arrived that day.

Inside was a bright yellow Terrible Towel.

Now, at this point in the story, Ravens fans may need to be reminded that Miller and I aren't trying to taunt you over what happened next. This is, instead, a story about the power of sports. There are Marines in Miller's unit who are Ravens fans. Men he would risk his life for. And next year, some brave soldier could easily be clutching a purple headscarf and bringing the Ravens good luck from the other side of the globe.

But on this day, it was a Terrible Towel. Miller punched two holes in it, snuck outside, and raised it up the flag pole. He took pictures and emailed them to every Steeler fan he knew. He was a little worried about what his 1st Sergeant would say if he found out, but he was desperate.

"The potential trouble was worth it at this point," Miller says.

What happened next, we all remember well. The Ravens collapsed and the Steelers rallied. One season ended, another continued. A yellow towel flapped in the breeze in the dark sky that blanketed Afghanistan.

"I let that towel fly all day. I was told to take it down a few times but I conveniently forgot to," Miller says.

When the Steelers and Packers take the field tonight in Dallas for Super Bowl XVL, I hope Miller gets to watch. I don't know if he will though. Duty often calls in his job, and if Support Marines understand one thing, it's that the men in combat are their most important priority. During the exact moment when Christina Augliera sings the National Anthem, Miller might be sleeping under a truck, covered in mud, fixing an electrical system or bringing fresh water to friends who need it.

But I know at some point he'll be thinking about the Steelers. He'll be thinking about a game that, while it may seem trivial when compared to his real life, still matters.

Sometimes sports aren't about the outcome on the field. Sometimes we care, despite the occasional look of condescension from the tribe of non-believers, because rooting from afar is really about something as simple as connecting.

It's about the people we love, and places we call home. 

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