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Just a Game

There’s this game I play with my students on the first day of school, where I ask them near the end of the class to write down something they think they know about me.

It’s a task I assign for several purposes, most of which are self-serving. I want to take my students’ temperature, see how they’re receiving my Vaudeville act.

Most of the time I get responses like “you seem chill” and “you’re a dork who likes to read books.” Coming from 14-year-olds, these are about as high up the compliment chain as you get. There’s always a couple of smartasses who criticize my clothes or my receding hairline, but I’m self-confident enough to let digs like that roll off my back.

But this year, I had one student whose stab cut to the bone.

“Let’s see what Adam wrote,” I said, pulling his index card from the stack. “You pretend to like sports, but you really don’t.”

The comment drew a couple of titters from the class. I looked up, not knowing which of the foreign faces belonged to this 9th grade assassin.

“Who’s Adam?” I said. A timid boy in the third row raised his hand. “Talk to me about this, Adam. What makes you believe I don’t actually care about sports?”

This poor kid. His first day as a freshman, the first period of his high school career, and the teacher is already digging into him.

“I mean…” Adam looked around the room and tried to gather his courage. “You have a couple of sports decorations, but they look fake. I think you just pretend to like sports so students will think you’re cool.”

In Adam’s defense, I once knew a guy who pretended to like sports so people would like him more. His name was Charles, and he was a guitar salesman at the music shop I used to work at. Charles was one of our top salesmen, frequently taking home the biggest commission check each month. He pretended to be an Indianapolis Colts fan when he talked to customers, always talking about Peyton Manning and Pierre Garçon and Dwight Freeney with this bright-eyed enthusiasm. For awhile, I bought it. After all, Charles grew up in Terre Haute, a town my Hoosier-born mother once described as smelling “like bad pussy.” So of course he had an affinity for his home team.

But one day right before pre-season, I heard Charles yukking it up with a couple of regulars over by the guitar counter. “I’m just looking forward to my guy Peyton coming back strong after his injury,” he said, chuckling and jabbing the customers with exaggerated elbows. “I think this is going to be the Colts’ year.”

“You know Peyton signed with the Broncos, right?” I said.

Charles shot me a look like I’d just cock blocked him with the hottest girl in the room. “No way, not my Peyton,” he said, clutching his chest. “When did that happen?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Five months ago? March?”

It was clear from that moment on everything Charles knew about the Colts was a sound byte, fodder for small talk with customers. It was part of his chop catalogue, an act to make him appear like a loyal Colts homer displaced by Fate, now slaving away amongst racks of Gibsons and Fenders.

Charles’ fraudulent affinity for sports aside, I could see why Adam might believe the same thing about me. I’m kind of nerdy looking; I wear glasses and plaid shirts and carry a notebook in my breast pocket. I get weirdly excited and pace like a jungle cat when I’m in the throes of analyzing a short story’s theme.

But unfortunately for Adam — and me — his hypothesis was patently false.

If anything, I’m the type of person who is too wrapped up in sports. I don’t just enjoy the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat; my heart beats according to wins and losses.

On the playground, they call this particular sect of humans poor sports. When I lose, I take it personally, and then I take it out on the people around me. It’s one of the many character flaws I admit to freely.

There’s home movie footage of me during my 6th birthday party pouting in time out because I didn’t win Pin The Tail On The Donkey. I’d lose friends in elementary school over recess football games. The last time I played Monopoly was in college, when I flipped the board after my roommate Ryan called his dad to verify a made up rule he was trying to enforce.

I’ve learned to cope with this personality blemish over the years by recusing myself whenever a competition arises. I’ll beg off a game of beer pong by claiming an elbow injury, or feign ambivalence when my English department doesn’t win the school spirit trophy during Homecoming week. But deep down, I care. Oh boy, do I care.

This defect is never more apparent than on Sunday afternoons in the fall, when I kneel at the altar of the mighty football gods.

Now, middle-aged suburban dudes screaming at the television on Sunday afternoons is as cliche as the Mighty Ducks beating Iceland. But I also happen to be a fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, a fan base notorious for its irrational passion. After all, my brethren are the ones who threw snowballs at Santa Claus; the ones who booed Jayson Werth in Washington for nearly a decade; the ones who necessitated the greasing of light poles in Center City with Crisco so we wouldn’t climb them in victory.

Philly fans get a bad rep for being mean. I’ve heard some horror stories about opposing fans barely escaping South Philly with their lives. As Philly fans go, I’m not much of a shit talker, and I’m certainly not a fighter, but dear Lord, do I live and die by those Birds.

Each Sunday, I sit in the living room and turn on the game, but really, there might as well not be a couch. For three hours, I stand inches from the television, yelling and clapping like I’m on the sidelines. I give praise where appropriate, but I’m never afraid to offer a little constructive criticism.

“You gonna catch a ball today, you fuckin’ scrub?” I’ll yell when yet another Eagles wide receiver alligator arms a pass over the middle. “That one had a fucking bow on it!”

“You know they can’t hear you, right?” Melinda will yell from the kitchen.

“Oh, they can hear me,” I’ll yell back. “The whole city of Philadelphia is letting them know how much they’re shitting the bed.”

Usually, that’s where my wife will cease her intervention. She knows it’s not worth it, that I’ll just continue in a browned out state of rage for the next two hours whether she says anything or not. 

It took her awhile to acclimate to my insanity, to understand the raving lunatic screaming the F-bomb into the liquid crystals of the television was the man she professed to love and care for ’til death do us part. The first time we watched a football game together, she sat there in a state of mild shock, like she’d just seen her priest hoover three rails of coke. As I recall, the Eagles won that game, so when time expired and I returned to my normal self, I looked over at her confused.

“Is everything okay?” I said.

“Yeah, I just…yeah,” she said.

She later told me she had pegged me as a laid back guy who never got worked up about anything, so to see me in such a lather, yelling and cursing like a man possessed at a meaningless game, was a shock.

I think she felt better when she witnessed the spectacle of my father and me watching a game together, both of us yelling and cursing in unison.

“Big stop here, D! Big stop!”

“So he’s been like this forever then?” Melinda asked my mom as they watched me pace the living room of my childhood home.

“Oh absolutely,” my mother replied. “When he was younger, he’d cry when the Eagles lost.”

I can be a real bummer to be around when the Birds are losing. But when they’re winning, there’s not a thing on this planet that can dampen my spirits. When Chicago Bears kicker Cody Parkey missed a game-winning field goal during the 2018 playoffs and sealed an Eagles victory, I jumped onto the couch like Tom Cruise on Oprah. The win sank in and my pulse slackened, and I looked down and realized I was not wearing a shirt.

“Why am I not wearing a shirt?” I said to Melinda, who had, like usual, passively watched my one-man performance from the kitchen.

“You’re joking, right?” she said.

“No, I’m not. “What happened?”

“You don’t remember taking off your shirt and whipping it around your head? It was only like 30 seconds ago.”

“Huh,” I said. “I must’ve blacked out.”

Naturally, the Birds’ victory over the Patriots at Super Bowl XXII was a new level of emotion. As the seconds ticked down and I saw that victory was imminent, I grabbed my wife and hugged her harder than I did on our wedding day. We were at my friend Brandon’s house watching the game, and I managed to keep the lump in my throat from erupting at least until I got to the car, but once on the road, listening to the post-game press conferences on the radio, I lost it.

“What’s wrong?” Melinda said, squeezing my hitching shoulder.

“I’m…just…so…happy,” I said. Fat, ugly tears rolled down my cheeks.

“Are you crying?” she asked.

“Uh huh.”

“Oh honey,” she said. “It’s just a game.”

But it’s not just a game. To me, it’s my childhood. It’s throwing the football to myself in the backyard when I was five, listening to Merrill Reese give the play-by-play. It’s me in my plastic helmet and shoulder pads, sitting inches from the television in the living room, willing Ricky Watters to break one to the end zone. It’s me silently cursing Rodney Peete or Bubby Brister or Ty Detmer or Bobby Hoying or whatever dogshit quarterback the team tried to sell me that season. And when I remembered how many years I had waited for this moment, I began to sob.

These are all the things I thought of when my buddy Adam, darling little freshman that he was, posited I wasn’t a real sports fan. I didn’t say any of this to Adam. After all, it was only the first day of school. 

Instead, I laughed. 

“Oh buddy,” I said. “You have no idea.”

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