I was 10 when my blood turned Tennessee orange. My cousins from Jackson came to Nashville for Thanksgiving, bringing with them tickets to the Vols' "home" game at Vanderbilt. (Contrary to folk legend, Miles Standish did not offer the Wampanoag Indians that same bounty at the first Thanksgiving. The Vols were away that week.)
It was just one UT game, but I was hook-and-laddered. I'd been an Oakland Raiders fan my whole life, fulfilling every mother's dream of having her precious little lamb tack a Jack "The Assassin" Tatum poster up above Curious George. But suddenly, my Silver and Black Sundays were following Big Orange Saturdays. I'd rooted for both teams, through good times (three Super Bowls and a national championship) and bad (there aren't parentheses large enough to encompass just the Joe Bugel era alone), ever since.
One weekend this past September, after staying up late on back-to-back nights watching my beloved teams lose to their archrivals while my true beloved went to bed without getting from me so much as a kiss goodnight, I decided I'd let my passion for pigskin override what really mattered: The Texas Rangers. Seriously, I couldn't justify the involuntary, physiological reactions to my teams' wins and losses any longer. The most common side effect was what my wife calls "getting splotchy." Sounds like something 50 Cent might do with one of his shorties, but it's actually the matching red patches that form on either side of my neck during especially tense moments - like the coin toss and TV timeouts - of Vols and Raiders games.
So, 26 years after that first Thanksgiving as a Tennessee fan, I made the decision to go cold turkey. Or at least lukewarm as far as the Vols were concerned. I would no longer watch games unless there was nothing else going on. And I'd quit rooting for the Raiders - whom my wife detests - all together. It was time to grow up.
That's when I got religion, specifically Catholicism. Kind of. On September 24, in a game against Washington, the game stats will show Notre Dame's first play from scrimmage was a 13-yard completion. What the numbers won't show is why the head coach of the Fighting Irish, Charlie Weis, chose to call a pass play from his own 1-yard line. The week before, Weis went to the home of Montana Mazurkiewicz (pronounced ma-zur-kie-wicz), a 10-year-old Notre Dame fan whom doctors said would never be an 11-year-old fan of the Irish because of an inoperable brain tumor.
Weis told the boy about his old college roommate at Notre Dame, Joe Montana, for whom Mazurkiewicz was named. The two talked football until the pain became too much for the boy. Before he left, Weis signed a football for young Montana and asked him if there was anything he could do for him. The two agreed that the boy could call Notre Dame's first offensive play that Saturday against Washington, which he did: "pass right."
Charlie Weis has one of the most brilliant minds in all of football, having served as offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots as they won three of the last four Super Bowls. But the greatest play he ever called wasn't a complex code of numbers and football mumbo jumbo. It was the simple request of a terminally-ill 10-year-old, "pass right."
Montana died the day before the game, but Weis kept his word. Yea, though his team walked in the shadow of its own end zone, Weis feared no evil. While conventional wisdom was screaming, "Run it up the gut!" Weis instead listened to his heart and called Montana's play.
Quarterback Brady Quinn rolled right and hit tight end Anthony Fasano for a 13-yard gain. The Irish won going away, 36-17, and afterward Weis had his players sign the game ball, which he later presented to the Mazurkiewicz family.
I felt like Michael Corleone in The Godfather III: "Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in!"
Stories like that one (the "pass right" thing, not The Godfather) remind me why I've always gotten so worked up over sporting events. The final score may not matter in the broader scope of world history, but how people get to those results often represent the best human beings have to offer one another.
Remember the scene from City Slickers when the guys are discussing baseball minutiae and Bonnie incredulously says, "I like baseball. I just don't memorize who played...third base for...Pittsburgh...in 1960", to which the guys immediately and in unison say, "Don Hoak!" She thinks that proves her point and proceeds to tell them that her friends and she talk about important things like relationships. Then Phil says, "All I know is that when I was 15 and my dad and I couldn't talk about anything, we could always talk about baseball."
It's true. For every tantrum I've thrown over my team losing a game, there've been a hundred tears spilled over something heart-wrenching like the time Waverly (Ohio) High School abandoned what should've been a shutout of Northwest High and let Jake Porter score a touchdown.
Why do I still remember where I was (at our house on Starsdale Road in Memphis), what I was wearing (my Oakland A's pajamas), and how old I was (4) the night I watched Brian's Song and bawled like a...well, like a 4-year-old when Billy Dee Williams-as-Gale Sayers said about his dying teammate and friend, "I love Brian Piccolo...and tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him." And why do I still tear up when I read that line?
I think it's because sports aren't inherently anything. They're merely a vehicle by which we see the best and worst in ourselves and each other.
So now, as the NFL playoffs begin, I'm wondering if giving up my favorite teams was a bit extreme. Maybe I should just wash down a chill pill with some decaf and try watching games like a kid again, enjoying them for what they are instead of making them a matter of life-and-death. Death is what happened to Indianapolis Colts' coach Tony Dungy's eldest son three days before Christmas. No victory in and of itself - not even a Super Bowl title - can stanch Dungy's grief. What might be meaningful, though, is the relationship he has with his players and coaches and the journey they take together.
And that idea's worth cheering for. No matter how old you are or what color your blood runs.