First of all, you made me curse, which is something I’ve been trying to cut back on. You did it, though. You unsettled me enough with your farewell column that those were the first words I thought of. Second, why did you have to go there? Why did you have to write about how sports can make you a better person and can inspire you and can create families for those who don’t have them?
And, third, you’re right. You’re absolutely right.
Jocks aren’t going to like this post. My old coaches and guys I played with probably won’t enjoy it, either. Heck, I don’t even want to write it. But Rick Reilly made me do it, with his stories about father-figure coaches, teammates who supported disabled teammates, and athletes who cared enough about a disabled fan to drive him back and forth from games. He painted a picture of sports as a place where beauty could exist, where miracles could happen, where people could rise to the occasion not just as athletes but also as human beings.
That was not my experience with sports.
One of my earliest sports memories is from a little league baseball game. I was small and timid, and my coach pulled me aside before one of my at-bats and told me not to swing. I was short and had a small strike zone, he said, so I would have a good chance of drawing a walk. I can see how in an adult mind this strategy would make sense, but I was a kid; I wanted to swing the bat, to prove I could get a hit. He was adamant, though: Do … not … swing.
Translation? There’s no way you’re good enough to get a hit, so pray they walk you.
I became a decent baseball player in the years after that, and I was actually a pretty good pitcher until I overused my arm and basically burned it out. I also played basketball and ran track for a couple of years in middle school. My downfall in track was simple: I wasn’t fast enough to outrun anyone. This kind of failure was fairly easy to take, mainly because I didn’t like running all that much anyway because of my flat feet. Giving it up was a simple decision.
From the seventh grade on, though, basketball was a form of pure torture for me. I loved the sport, and I still do, but it nearly drove me insane before I eventually decided to stop playing in the tenth grade. Some players thrive on coaches riding them; I wasn’t one of them. I was always skinny, and no amount of time in the weight room ever seemed to change that. I wasn’t aggressive enough, I was told over and over again. I had an assistant coach was decided to call me “Cheryl” for an entire year. I guess they were trying to toughen me up. All they did was break me down.
I remember in the eighth grade running this ridiculous drill that was basically a free-for-all to try to get the ball. Ever hear of a DDT, the wrestling move made famous by Jake “The Snake” Roberts? Another kid did one on me, driving my head into the gym floor. In high school, an upperclassman elbowed me on the bridge of my nose, cracking the bone. My nerves were shot, and my stomach was upset constantly. I was embarrassed at who I was.
As I said, I quit basketball after my sophomore year of high school, and not making the baseball team my freshman and sophomore years effectively concluded my adolescent athletic career. Looking back, I wish I had quit everything sooner and been in the band. Somewhere, though, that kid who was told not to swing was still inside me, and he desperately wanted to prove he could get that hit. But he never did.
I’ve always known how that anger carried over into my sporting life since those days. I don’t know how many tennis rackets I’ve destroyed in frustration through the years. I actually had to apologize to my wife before we were married after she attended a basketball scrimmage I was taking part in because I was so inconsolable about my performance that I wouldn’t even talk to anyone afterward. In those moments, it’s always the same: You ought to be better than this. You’re letting everyone down. They’re all mad at you. Look at how well everyone else is doing. You’re going to lose … again.
What I didn’t realize, though, is how my past had colored how I view sports in general. In my eyes, no one in sports is a good guy. The ones who appear to be must be hiding something, or they must have sacrificed their families to get where they are. Every college coach is cheating, every professional athlete is greedy and disingenuous. If the team I want to win is losing, I get angry, and if they’re winning, I almost can’t stand to watch because I’m afraid they’re going to blow it. I hate arrogant and cocky players like Kobe Bryant, and I want them to lose so badly it hurts.
So, no, Rick, sports did not exactly better my life.
Something started to change in me about two years ago, though, when my oldest daughter started playing Upward Basketball. She smiled when she played. She didn’t beat herself up for mistakes. She seemed to genuinely love what she was doing. “How can this be?” I thought. She challenged the bitterness I had built up inside me. Then I watched the San Antonio Spurs win the NBA title over the Miami Heat last week, and I had the same sort of feeling. They played together. They weren’t selfish. They were beautiful to watch. “How can this be?”
And then, Mr. Reilly, I opened up a link to your column this morning, and I felt myself fighting back the tears, just like you probably did when Sox Walseth put his hand on your shoulder all those years ago. I saw how sports were supposed to be, and I lamented the fact that it wasn’t like that for me. Then I realized I had to put those events of my life behind me, just like you had to put the bad man you were behind you to become a great sports writer and, more importantly, a better man. “Never let anyone tell you sports doesn’t matter,” you wrote, and I realized it had mattered to me all this time … for all the wrong reasons. And I also realized it wasn’t too late to forgive, forget, and reclaim what I had lost.
Damn you, Rick Reilly.