I am not an athlete. Never was. There was a time, once upon a time, that I may have entertained aspirations (read: delusions) about my skill on a softball field. Alas, my dreams of being a power hitter were derailed by little things like my lack of speed, athletic talent and hand-eye coordination.
But I loved to play.
I am a very competitive person. My obsessive need to win has been softened over the years thanks to things like reality, but I remain someone who likes to come in first. Unfortunately, I am also pretty lazy. When the zombie apocalypse comes, you can all thank me, since I will not be able to outrun the undead, thus giving them an easy target and you a chance to get away.
When I was a kid, weekends weren’t weekends without sports on TV. From the Super Bowl to the Professional Bowlers’ Tour to endlessly long golf tournaments, we watched sports. Now, I watch sports with my own kids and I revel in teaching them about strike zones and nickel defenses and icing. And I anxiously await Sunday afternoons to call my Dad and talk about the same with him.
There has been a lot of criticism of professional sports over the last several weeks. I want to be clear. Domestic violence, child abuse, drug use, drunk driving, “insert latest athletic hero’s fall from grace here” are abhorrent and have no place. Not just no place in professional sport, but no place in a civilized society.
Even so, I live for weekend sports watching. I spend fall Saturdays nearly vibrating with excitement waiting for Sunday football. I pore over standings and schedules and try to calculate my team’s chances at the beginning of the season. I cry when they lose (better luck next year, Red Sox), I get defensive when they are criticized (Tom Brady getting replaced with a first year backup – puhlease!), I rejoice when they stand alone at the end of the season, trophy hoisted above their heads.
I owe my teams a lot. The Red Sox taught me it was OK for a grown man to cry, that losing doesn’t make you a loser, and that loyalty isn’t always easy. As fall of 2004 opened, I was deeply mired in grief. I had lost quintuplets and spent my days lost in a haze of depression and hopelessness. All I could think about were the babies. I vacillated between insomnia and not being able to get out of bed. I couldn’t see any way out of the dark haze of sadness I was in.
I watched the ALCS that year, hoping that this would be the year that the Red Sox finally knocked off the Yankees. But then the Yankees were up three games to none and it looked like they were going to lose. Again. Heartbreakingly.
Then Dave Roberts stole 2nd. And suddenly, my team had life. And suddenly, after six weeks of thinking of nothing but my loss and pain, I had something to look forward to. And when the Red Sox won the World Series. I felt joy. It was the first time since I had lost the babies that I felt anything other than despair. I had missed joy. And I am grateful to the Red Sox for giving it to me.
This year, I was diagnosed with breast cancer on January 27. It’s harder to wallow in despair and depression when you have three kids constantly in need of your time, attention and, let’s be honest, cash, but once they were in bed at night, the dark feelings came out to play. What if I died? What if I wasn’t strong enough to make it through treatment? What if, what if, what if? For weeks, if I wasn’t thinking about my kids, I was thinking about cancer.
Until the Super Bowl. And my most hated team, the Denver Broncos, got crushed by the Seahawks. And I felt joy watching a team standing alone at the end of the season. For those moments, I wasn’t someone standing at the beginning of a breast cancer journey, afraid and vulnerable, but instead I was a sports fan, happy to see one team achieve the dream.
I am not a good mother in a lot of ways. I yell far too much, I don’t keep a pristine house and I am almost always the parent who turns in the school forms a day late. But one thing that I am proud of is that I encourage my children to love sport. To engage in competition. To revel in rivalries. To try their hardest even when it looks like they’re going to get creamed.
My oldest son started playing tackle football this year. I know that he is only 8 years old, but I also know that he is a good athlete. He has excellent body awareness, he is very fast and he has excellent stamina (for most everything except homework). I entertain a lot of visions of him as a high school football player or a college basketball star or the star shortstop for the Red Sox in 2026.
My athletic dreams for him probably won’t come true. But what he has learned in his first season of football are things that I couldn’t teach him nearly as well. He has learned to lose gracefully, particularly important since they are currently 1-6. He has learned that even if he tries his hardest, he might not be one of the star players on the team and in fact might be one of the kids who has to work even harder to get playing time. He has learned what teamwork is and that playing a sport is not always about winning but playing with your friends as hard as you can is always satisfying.
And that is what sports is all about.