Finding Peace With Sports Fandom

While the Toronto Blue Jays sit on the brink of imminent internal implosion and the Virginia Tech Hokies have finished a trip to Syracuse where they found a way to show their true colors – I wonder about the nature of fandom.

For some, these two events would drive fans to question the managers, players or refs. Others may  wonder what could have happened at a different moment in the game had “this play” occured.

I’m sure that some die hard fans watched and screamed at their televisions and possibly even threw things whenever they got the chance.

Not me.

Not recently anyway – the last thing I threw was my hockey stick.  To be fair, it wasn’t my hockey stick’s fault but it took the brunt of my frustration.

It was either the stick or something else.

Looking back, I should have picked the “something else.”

I wonder about the children who sports market to.  The mascots dance and look for kids at games.  Teams use cutesy graphics and shirts to get kids to wear their logos.  Once they get kids in the games they are hooked.

Kids watch these games and become “fans” of these teams.  I recall crying over the University of Tennessee Volunteers losing to Alabama in football and think about what led me to become a UT football fan.

Was it the team?  I didn’t know anything about the coach.  I didn’t know the players.

Was it the history of the University?  Of course not.  I had no idea about anything to do with it.  I didn’t have any connections to anyone involved with the University.

Was it the mascot?  Smokey is a Bluetick Coonhound.  I grew up with cats, birds and a hermit crab that I killed when I forgot to water it.  I didn’t think about the fact he needed water so I left it for a couple of weeks and it curled up in its shell and died.  Oops.

But Smokey was real, there was a real coonhound on the sidelines.  It was Smokey VI when I was growing up.  There was a Smokey caricature that could be found in different places that attracted kids.

Was it the winning?  I’m not sure.  That team didn’t really win much as the crying under the desk attests to.

Maybe it was part tradition (the team running out through the giant T that the Pride of the Southland band formed at the start of the game), Smokey and some kind of need to be a part of something.  I needed to be a part of the Volunteer Army – I didn’t know anyone with a boat who could get me into the Volunteer Navy.

There was the tradition of Tennessee high school football that seemed to flow into it as well.  Andy Kelly played high school football for Rhea County High School and I can remember going to see him play on the other side of Chattanooga – which I’m pretty sure was at Red Bank High School.

The kid was an All American and went to Tennessee – and a friend of the family knew him. So maybe I did have a connection?  Maybe that was part of the lure?  I’m not sure.  I just remember taking what seemed like a long bus ride and being out in the cold Eastern Tennessee night air.

As I grew older and moved away, my loyalties shifted just a bit because of my closeness to Virginia Tech.  However, my Tennessee roots are always there and at times I wonder if they are still there.

(My Mississippi roots don’t seem to run very deep – sometimes I think that’s probably a good thing but every state seems to have its fair share of problems)

In fact, my college choices were VT and UT with an invitation from the Pride of the Southland band to try out.

I’ve never said anything about that invitation but that weighed heavy on me.  I went back and forth on that.  I thought a lot about how much that band means to the people of Tennessee and the University as one of the oldest marching bands in the country.  Both schools knew I was involved in color guard but UT cared enough to invite me to the Pride of the Southland band.

I know there were reasons that I took up VT as opposed to UT and I know football was one of the main reasons.  Looking back on it I can say that was probably one of the key factors.

In high school, VT football was everything for me.  I went to VT games in high school from home games to away games (East Carolina, N.C. State and two Gator Bowls – one with Peyton Manning as a UT freshman QB).

I don’t know if I went to VT because of the English department or because of the opportunities there.  I don’t know if I went there because Nikki Giovanni, ironically born in Knoxville, TN,  was there or that I would get the chance to show her my work.  Ultimately I would get to have Giovanni read my work as well as interview iconic VT football coach Frank Beam for a piece in the Collegiate Times.

These are two things that not may can say they were able to attain.  As for how I got the meeting with Giovanni – I am to this day still confused.  I don’t believe my work was that good but nevertheless I am thankful for her guidance.

Some say things happen for a reason.  Others say we make our own choices.  Whatever it is we all are at where we are at.  The past is the past.

I didn’t choose UT and the Pride of the Southland band but VT and the chance to watch VT football.

Sometimes I think about it when I hear Andy Kelly on the UT football broadcasts.  I saw you play your senior year when I was just a kid.

People can make decisions – whether they are for sporting reasons or personal reasons or whatever reasons and look back years later to wonder what could have changed.  To look back and wonder what could have changed brings back nothing but wasted time.

Time heals but time changes – it’s over and done.  We can subscribe to any personal philosophy when it comes to why we made a decision.

We have to accept that there are things we will never be able to do.  In many ways that acceptance is what frees us from the burden of realization of limitation.  Yes we are limited, all humans have limits, and we have to find our limits.  Once we can “see” our talents and how much we have to give – we know where we can use them.  The ability to use them plays a key role in our happiness – which is why we must start inside ourselves.

Everyone can begin by accepting that whatever decisions, whether 30+ years ago or 30 minutes ago are past.  We can start by accepting that whatever it is we like, whatever it is that we find as a key part of our lives, we must acknowledge that it is important to us and not let anyone take away those pieces of us.  If we can make peace with those pieces, we can become whole with ourself.

Pat Summitt Never Quit – Don’t Quit Remembering Her

A legend has passed and the world will never be the same without her.  Those who were coached by her know that their lives are forever touched by her.  Those who watched her coach know the intensity and passion that she possessed when she ran the sidelines for the Big Orange.  Not only did she make great basketball players but she made great leaders and women too.

Through her 38 years as the head of the Lady Vols program she recorded 8 National Championships, 18 Final Fours, and 1,098 wins.  Those 1,098 wins are more than any Division 1 basketball coach whether they are a man or a woman.  For all the talk of the greatest coaches in college basketball history, Pat Summitt will always be the one that I admire.

Growing up in eastern Tennessee in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains, the University of Tennessee ruled my life.  From the Big Orange football team to watching Summitt coach in the “House That Pat Built,” the Thompson-Boling Arena.  Summitt’s teams dwarfed the men’s basketball program and she wrote her own script as challenged the football program’s legacy as the most successful team on campus.

In Summitt’s later years she struggled with symptoms of Alzheimer’s, the disease that would finally take her on June 28,2016.  I never wanted to write this post about the death of Summitt because for as much of a fan of Tennessee football I was always a fan of the way she coached.  Whether right or wrong, it wasn’t so much her pushing the players so she could win, it was pushing them so they could find something in themselves.  Sometimes the viewer’s focus could get lost on the way that she stared at the players after they made a mistake.

Some players are able to handle things like that and some aren’t.  Coaches know how to handle things like that and as someone who has coached before, you see different kids who have different buttons that you can push.  The best coaches know how to push the right buttons and obviously Summitt knew how to push buttons but she did it with the best intentions.  To make them better individuals and better players.  Summitt is famous for saying that “you can’t always be the most talented person in the room.  But you can be the most competitive.”  I hope that we never lose sight of those words no matter what we are doing.  May we never forget Summitt, I would hate to think she’s somewhere staring at us from the sidelines.

I’m a Hockey Player or Why I Didn’t Watch The NCAA Tournament

All this talk of hockey, I didn’t even see the NCAA tournament.  I heard people at work talking about the last second shot that Villanova hit to win at the buzzer so I searched for it and I saw it.  People in my Twitter feed had posted it.  It was a pretty incredible shot.

The NCAA tournament used to be my life.  March was built around a bracket.  If I didn’t carry my bracket with me everywhere I went I was lost.  If I didn’t watch scores I felt out of touch.  If I didn’t stream video when I could I felt helpless.

I grew up with a father who loved the Boston Celtics and the great #33.  Insert Larry Bird into my life at a young age and suddenly I’m playing basketball from the start.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved college football.  It’s that Roll Tide-War Eagle thing that ESPN Films 30 for 30 did.  You know how you love a sport so much it becomes part of you.  Well growing up I’m bleeding orange and counting down the days to Saturday to see the Vols run out of the tunnel.  Incidentally if you ever get the chance and are a huge college football fan, before discounting the power of the SEC, attend an SEC game.  You might just get it.

But eastern Tennessee wasn’t the place for a kid into basketball.  Sure TBS played the occasional Celtics-Rockets game from the historic Boston Garden that I can remember watching with my father.  But my neighbors were outside beating on the door telling me I had to come outside and see the new Big Orange gear they bought.  Trust me they bled orange.

In Talladega Nights, Will Ferrell’s character “Ricky Bobby” says “when I wake up in the morning I piss excellence.”  These people pissed orange.  I’m pretty convinced that the sewage in eastern Tennessee was as bright orange as the groves down in Florida.   But no, the Florida orange is NOT the same color as Tennessee orange!  Please don’t ask that question!

It’s hard not to be roped into watching it when you have people like that in your life.  My dad tried to keep me from becoming a “traitor” – he’s a Virginia Tech grad – but he couldn’t stop the wave.  It was over before it began.  Family friends tried to get me to like the Big Blue of Michigan but Bo Schembechler seemed so distant and so far away.  Michigan?  Where the hell is Michigan?  I can find it on a map, but Knoxville, I know where that is!

So being the football loving father that he was, my dad drove us to Neyland Stadium to see Johnny Majors and Smokey run out through the famous T.  Bright day, a little overcast with 92,000+ of my closest friends to see the Vols play someone that I could have cared less about.  The Pride of the Southland Marching Band was killing Rocky Top and damn if that stadium wasn’t rocking.  Literally it was moving.  I don’t know if it still does it.  But the crowd could get the stadium to move.

They won for me that day.  Weeks later they would play Alabama and get slaughtered.  My spirit would be crushed.  I think it was the first moment that I realized sports could be cruel.  The first time I ever cried for my team.  As odd as it sounds, I ran away from the TV and cried because I thought my team was invincible.  Silly little me.  No team is invincible.  No matter how many times my mom tried to tell me, I couldn’t understand that every team was going to lose.

As I got older I realized I wouldn’t make a good football player.  Not because I didn’t have the will power or the smarts to figure it out but because I was skinny.  I ran all the time.  I was so into shooting basketball and never got into actually playing football.  As time passed I stopped started focusing on playing basketball because I felt like I could progress.

Sometimes I feel like maybe I should have tried football.  Maybe I could have run out of that T.  Or maybe I could have gone to Virginia Tech.  I may never know.  I followed one dream that led me to a meeting with one of the NCAA’s most charismatic basketball coaches in “Lefty” Driesell.  Lefty is known for coaching Maryland when Len Bias died but he also coached small Northwestern Virginia school, James Madison University.  Sometimes it’s enough to be in the presence of someone great.

Or it’s led me to win an award.  One of the few awards of my life.  That’s enough for me.  I guess if being focused on something leads you to experience things that are great then it was worth it.  But you’ll never know until you put the time in.

That’s where I am with hockey.  I’m super focused on hockey because I want to see where it takes me.  I want to see what I have inside me.  There’s gotta be something inside me.  Something that has always been there.  There’s a drive there.  I know there is.  It’s that same drive that was there when I played basketball.  It’s just a different sport.  I just have to somehow dig deep and find it.  It’s been buried for many years, so now I’m searching for it.  How the hell am I gonna find it?

Boy I Love Losing Super bowls

Recently I saw an advertisement for ESPN’s 30 for 30 “Four Falls of Buffalo.”  30 for 30 films are the greatest sports documentaries I’ve ever seen.  They cover every sport, they draw you in and whether you think you care about the topic or not, you find yourself watching the whole thing. However, this one was about everything for me.  It was about a team that most outside of New York State could care less about (mostly the far Western side of the state) and a team that was labeled the “loveable losers” for the years they went to “back-to-back-to-back-to-back” Super Bowls.  I know Drake wrote “Back to Back” but let’s see him do “Back to Back to Back to Back!”

I’ve been a Bills fan for as long as I can remember.  Well, for as long as I’ve been a professional football fan.  Growing up in the South there was not a lot of love for the Atlanta Falcons at the time, they were horrible and my team was the University of Tennessee Volunteers.  The Big Orange.  Southeastern Tennessee was close to Knoxville and my neighbor was a huge Vol fan. For all I knew he probably was a booster but he bled Orange and decked me out in Orange and turned on the radio on Saturdays so I could hear all about the Volunteer Navy and Smokey.  Yes, I know the words to Rocky Top, I have been to Vols games and I’m not sure that color Orange is right for everyone.  But I digress.

I got into card collecting as I got older and we moved around the South.  I starting looking for baseball and basketball cards everywhere I could find them.  Gas stations used to carry them, grocery stores had them with the candy bars and I used to visit a sports card shop or two when I could.   My father, being a Hokie, wasn’t too thrilled about my Volunteer Orange hanging in the closet.  So when he had the chance he took me to Blacksburg and started introducing me to Virginia Tech football.

Picking through a box of cards I found a stack of football cards, which I had never been collecting before, but my dad had been.  I didn’t know any of the players but I stumbled upon some guy who was a rookie and when I flipped it over it said he was from Norfolk and he went to Virginia Tech. So I started asking my dad about him.  After that, I made my mind up that I was going to be a Bills fan.

I’ve been a Bills fan through the greatest team ever era; that included my heroes: Bruce Smith, Andre Reed and Darryl Talley just to name a few. We navigating around Todd Collins long enough to realize that we miss Jim Kelly. Past the forgettable Rob Johnson vs. Doug Flutie debate that Wade Phillips had. Flutie clearly was the better starter from where I sat. Oh and here’s where it all starts to get murky. Are you ready? Alex Van Pelt, J.P. Losman, Drew Bledsoe, Kelly Holcomb, Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, E.J. Manuel, Jeff Tuel, Thad Lewis, Kyle Orton, Matt Cassel and finally current starter Tyrod Taylor.  The Tyrod Taylor that I was thrilled to find they signed, only because I was ready to give up after the signing of Rex Ryan.

Yes I said give up.

“But you can’t be a true fan,” some might say.

Or “give up just because of the coach?”

Buffalo could have signed anyone and truly, I mean ANYONE.  I don’t mean to scream, but maybe I do.   I saw how the Jets were under his leadership and I wasn’t impressed.  For a team that was supposed to have a great defensive mind, the Bills never seemed to have too much trouble getting past them last year.  I didn’t want him to come in and wreck what was a great Bills ‘D.’

But it’s been wrecked.  Jim Schwartz was let go from his defensive coordinator spot and Ryan has put himself in place as head of the defense. Thru 13 games this year the defensive stats aren’t pretty.  358.8 average ypg (20), 3,300 total yards given up (20), 253.8 passing ypg (22), 104.9 rushing ypg (14). Last year’s defense ranked 4th in total ypg, 3rd in total passing yards given up and 11th in rushing yards given up. 124 penalties were amassed over a full season, through 13 games there have been 109 this season. If I were a betting man I’d say that stat will go up, way up.

The defense that was lean and mean is now sloppy and punch drunk.  They are boisterous and complain about penalties, like Rex Ryan did after the Eagles game just recently when he followed the officials off the field running his mouth all the way.  He ran his mouth to the New York media week in and week out last year becoming one of the favorite mouthpieces to get a quote.  This year he’s wanted nothing more than provide quotes about Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots wanting to give the newspapers enough words to fill half a page only to lose both games.  I can’t believe he hasn’t learned his lesson by now and I can’t believe Doug Whaley hasn’t reined him in by now.  It feels to me his hiring was for publicity to sell some tickets or to move some shirts.  I hope management is happy.  They went from a potential playoff team to a “not gonna make the playoffs” team.

Funny, I could stick by a team that busted its ass and tried it’s hardest to win a game with a coach that was clueless but at least he wasn’t out there blaming the refs every week and burying his head in the sand.  Chan Gailey wasn’t the best coach the Bills ever had but I would gladly have him back, at least he didn’t run his mouth about the Patriots before the Bills played them.  Even for all his faults Doug Marrone did a better job of giving me a warm and fuzzy feeling.  Alright, no.  Let’s say he gave me a lukewarm feeling.  But damn, at least I didn’t feel like secretly he wanted to coach for Bill Belichick like Rex.  Anymore I think it’s Rex’s secret desire to coach for Belichick that’s why he talks about him so much.  As Drake says “Jealousy is just love and hate at the same time.”

I haven’t fully given up on the Bills.  I threatened to go out in the yard and burn everything Buffalo I owned.  I was mad and out of control.  I’ve come this far, I’ve gone through all those years with all those years of missed playoffs and terrible play.  I wasn’t expecting the team to compete for a Super Bowl.  I wasn’t expecting anything major.  Of course, outside of Buffalo no one really knows much about the team anyway.