One of my great weaknesses as a human being is a complete inability to stay calm while watching my favorite teams. In everyday life, I try to conduct myself like a sane, rational person, but the minute Duke takes the court, or the Yanks take the field, the layers start to peel. I’m likely to have at least two severe emotional reactions before it’s all over. As the importance of the game increases, so too does my immaturity. Every ebb and flow in the action is like life and death, and I become a neurotic, writhing ball of anxiety. It’s kind of like the beer commercials where a group of guys are yelling and screaming and groaning in front of the television, except way more negative, lacking any attractive women, and lasting two to three hours instead of thirty seconds.
I wouldn’t call it a joyless experience, because there are many moments of absolute joy. Instead, I’d compare it to the joy you may have seen a manic-depressive experience- it’s a form of happiness, no doubt, but the unsettling kind that makes you nervous to leave. My roommate probably put it best when he recently told a mutual friend that “a lot of unrelated but serious issues are brought to the table.” And once the postseason hits, all bets are off.
Sometimes I wonder if deficiencies in my own character have led to this extreme investment in sports. Probably. But looking back, there are instances in my childhood that indicate a predisposition. Maybe I was always at risk, or maybe it’s my destiny- a horrible, unfair, lonely destiny. My earliest sports memory is falling in love with the tennis player Steffi Graf. I was probably one of the few young children in America who would pedal his three-speed bike away from the beach during summer days because I had to get home for her third-round match at Wimbledon.
This wasn’t a stereotypical masculine kind of crush, where I’d make gruff comments about her hotness. First of all, I was still several years away from puberty. Second, I was literally in love with her, the way people fall in love in sentimental British novels from the 1800s. It may have been my first crush. I used to construct elaborate fantasies that she and I played doubles together, and beat some of my enemies from school. I clearly remember my stepfather walking into our condo one day on summer vacation, and catching me leaping around the living room swinging a tennis racket, wearing a Nike headband, and covered in sweat. I was probably nine years old. “Practicing your game?” he asked. “Yup,” I said.
Nope. For the last few hours, Steffi and I had been tearing up the Petrova Elementary Mixed Doubles Tournament (nonexistent) against some asshole fifth graders.
And in 1991, she met Gabriela Sabatini for the Wimbledon title. Sabatini was, let’s say, “well liked” by otherwise indifferent male observers for certain assets that the more svelte players lacked. It was a running joke in our house that my stepfather was always a little extra interested in matches when she was involved. Of course, as an eight year-old, I didn’t understand. How could anyone prefer this inferior talent to the unblemished grace of Steffi?
The three of us settled in front of the tv, and Steffi took the first set 6-4. I was the only one with a real rooting interest, so my mom and stepdad began to pull for Sabbatini to force a dramatic third set. As their wish came true, I started to lose all composure. Again, keep in mind that I was a mild-mannered kid who got good grades, rarely talked back, and avoided trouble. But I remember screaming at the tv, sulking when things didn’t go well, and regarding everyone in the room with pure malice for daring to support Sabatini.
By the time the deciding third set reached a 6-6 tie, my nerves were on edge, and I had a sick feeling in my stomach. Almost all my energy had been spent; I was running on fumes. I railed against the line judges on every call that went against Steffi, and could barely keep from throwing up every time she lost a point. In the end, the first love of my life pulled away for a classic 8-6 win in the third. At match point, I raced through the house shouting “Steffi!” like someone who would eventually grow up to become a professional stalker. And despite the feeling of pure exhilaration, I like to think there was a nascent sense that my involvement with sports (and women) would always be a little unhealthy.
The next clear sign that I was in for a lifetime of being “too engaged” with sports came when I was twelve. That year, 1995, I thought Brett Favre was the greatest human being in the world. I still rooted primarily for the Giants, but when it became clear that they wouldn’t contend for anything except draft position, my interest shifted to this brilliant, gunslinging QB. He led the Packers to the NFC Championship and a showdown with the hated Dallas Cowboys. A lot rode on this game for me. So much so that, the week before, I had a dream that the Packers won.
Yes, at that early age, sports had already invaded my dreams. And last week, on Monday night, I dreamt that Duke led Villanova by thirty at halftime. So if you ever want to make a line graph of my emotional development since age 12, just find a ruler and draw a straight line. And make sure it’s near the bottom of the page. If you’re feeling extra generous, make a note that I have a beard now.
The Packers didn’t win, and I was devastated. I probably cried. They came close, but Aikman and Smith and Irvin worked their evil mojo, and went on to win the Super Bowl when Neil O’Donnell folded under pressure and threw fifteen interceptions (still a record). I rooted so hard for the Steelers that game, but with such miserable certainty of their failure, that my mother made me watch the second half in my room.
That pattern was set. I’m happy to report that I no longer cry at a bad outcome*, but I have by no means gained in maturity. When one of my teams loses in the postseason, there’s still bound to be a reaction that produces mild to extreme embarrassment for myself and those around me. Duke’s loss to Villanova in last Thursday’s Sweet 16 game was no exception. But, seeing as how this post is already too long, that story will have to wait for Friday.
*I do still play fantasy doubles in my head, but my partner now is Rafael Nadal, and I swear to God there’s no romantic element there.