I wasn’t raised a sports fan. As a kid, my rooting interests were casual at best.
I’m a third generation Jayhawk, so March Madness has always been in my blood. I could throw a baseball pretty well because my dad was (still is) a die-hard Mets fan. I tried to get into America’s pastime, but we lived in Royals country, and well, it was all downhill from the moment I turned one.
I wasn’t athletic, I preferred books – I volunteered regularly at the local library all throughout junior high and high school. And aside from several years of dance as a child (which, let me tell you, ballet is possibly more hardcore than many sports), horseback riding (I was a passable horsewoman), and a brief stint as a Junior Varsity cheerleader (let’s not talk about it), I basically paid no attention to that world growing up.
Many of my friends already know this story, but for those of you who don’t, that all changed in 2011.
2011 was the worst year of my life.
In March, my sweetheart of six years and I called it quits. We wanted different things, it was mutual and there wasn’t any vitriol or threats or any of that stuff you see on TV. All said and done, it was a fairly amicable break up. We still see each other at parties, we can laugh at each other’s jokes.
But I felt like my world had been hit by an earthquake, the foundations shaken so hard they shifted and cracked. For six years I had built my life around this person, and then to all of a sudden have that person gone – have an empty bed, an empty house… I hadn’t been prepared for it
A month later, my dad called. He was getting a divorce. This wasn’t his first divorce (my mom), or even his second (my sister’s mom), but for me, a 26-year-old adult, it was by far the hardest to swallow. He and my (then) stepmom had real chemistry. I thought they were it.
Maybe it didn’t exist anymore.
I couldn’t sleep. I started staying up late. I threw myself into my work. I was exhausted, mentally and emotionally.
When I couldn’t sleep, I would watch TV. I’m a big fan of two channels – the Food Network (back when they had Good Eats), and TLC (What Not To Wear was so formative). One night, when trying to flip from the Food Network, channel 114, to TLC, channel 120, I somehow landed in the middle, channel 117.
It was Fox Soccer. It was 11pm, and they were showing a replay of some match, and all I can remember about it was the soothing, measured tones of the commentators as they did play by play.
For the first time in months, I felt something in my brain relax.
All I had to do was look at the ball get kicked up and down this beautiful grassy field and listen to this lullaby of color commentary. I felt calm. I felt sleepy.
And so it became a nightly ritual. Whenever I was ready to go to bed, I would flip on Fox Soccer to whatever replay was showing, drink a glass of wine and finally, finally relax.
As usually happens, the more you watch something, the more you start to learn about it. Soon enough, I had a decent handle on how the game was played, preferred commentators, and a favorite team (Manchester City – a fast counterattacking game, jerseys in a color I love, and Joe Hart’s ass).
I began to look forward to watching the games at night, and even began to watch games on the weekend, including City’s FA Cup win. It was desperately needed fun.
In July of 2011, I missed a phone call.
Normally, you say you received a phone call, but I still haven’t forgiven myself for missing this one. It was after midnight, and I was already in bed (I was sleeping!!), and I figured I could call back in the morning. It was my mother.
I forgot to call her back until I was already at work the next morning and saw the light blinking that I had a voicemail. I didn’t even check my messages, I just called her directly.
She was in the hospital. She had checked herself into emergency care and received two pints of blood in a transfusion that night. She had been days away from dying.
She had leukemia.
I was on a flight from Austin to Chicago the next day, and drove through one of those epic, midwestern thunderstorms – lightning, hail, trees on the highway, the whole bit – to make it to her hotel room to be there before her chemo started.
When she slept during the day, I wandered aimlessly around Rockford (a small town about two hours north of Chicago – don’t visit unless you have to). I went to Borders’ going out of business sale and picked up a couple of books, one for me, one for her. I had Swedish pancakes with lingonberry jam (if you have to visit, get the Swedish pancakes).
My mother was dying? Sort of? She could be fine? But she also could be dying? That’s what it felt like. She was a fighter, though, always had been, so I trusted her will to get better. That’s all I could do.
After I flew home, we’d talk on the phone a lot (a lot for us, anyway – normally we talk once a week, and I’m led to believe this is a surprisingly little amount of conversation, but it’s never been any other way for us).
She would tell me about her day (mostly chemo, sometimes radiation), which books she was reading (always mysteries or textbooks on computer languages. She taught herself Java, Ruby, and a couple others in her hospital bed). I would tell her about work (marketing) and of course, what my team was doing in the offseason (hello Aguero!).
In those months I clung to whatever scrap of good news I could find. In many cases, that just happened to be sports. In September, when my mom was finally allowed out of the hospital, we spent a weekend in Chicago together. We went to her favorite yarn store, and she bought some in Manchester City blue to make me a scarf.
Sometimes, you have to believe in something. You have to believe that good things will happen if you work hard, if you want it bad enough, if you did the right things.
A lot of people go to church to feel that faith.
I turned to sports.
I needed to cheer for something. I needed to believe that my team could win if I just shouted louder, wore the lucky shirt, or even just woke up early enough to watch the match.
Yes, it’s naïve. And I’m an adult. I know my team will lose sometimes, because that’s just how life is. It doesn’t send me into fits of depression or anything like that. I know sports culture is all sorts of messed up, and that our hero worship can go too far. I know reality can be harsh, and that sometimes it’s a blown call or just plain bad luck that changes the outcome of the game.
I know that life doesn’t always work like that.
But sometimes it does.
Sometimes Mario Chalmers hits the last second three-pointer to send a Championship game to OT.
Sometimes Balotelli will find Aguero streaking down the field in stoppage time on the last game of the season to win a title for the first time in 44 years.
Sometimes you lose in the World Series just to come back and win it the next year, extra innings be damned.
Sometimes an NHL grinder who’s the victim of a cruel joke and an even crueler league is crowned All-Star MVP.
Sometimes, we get those moments that we so desperately cheer for, that we crave way down deep in our soul that tell us everything will be ok. That it’s worth it to keep fighting and keep trying and keep going even when everything looks awful.
Sometimes sports can give that to us.
And that’s why I watch.
(P.S. My mom is healthy now, thanks to a successful bone marrow transplant performed that following February. Please, if you can, get on the registry! Not everyone has four siblings likely to be a match.)