#45 - Yay! It's Man Christmas!

Yay! Yay! Yes! It's here! Man Christmas is finally here! We're unwrapping a brand new NFL football season today and I couldn't be more psyched.

This is my absolute favorite day of the year. When I was little, Christmas, of course, was king. But by the time you age out of being likely to receive a gift as big or bigger than yourself, The Big Day loses a little bit of its luster. Since I've had kids Christmas has resurged somewhat, but I don't make pre-Christmas picks. I don't have a fantasy Christmas team. I don't sit around for 13 hours watching Christmas.

I like my birthday. I like Thanksgiving. I like baseball opening day. I LOVE the first day of the NCAA tournament. But I freaking ADORE the first NFL Sunday of the year. I *heart* it so hard it hurts. If they made First NFL Sunday of the Year scented air freshener I'd wear it as a cologne. Shoot, I might spray the whole can into a glass and drink it.

Today, I will watch as many football games as the networks care to put on. I don't understand this silly limit of broadcasting three games per Sunday. There is not a limit to the number of NFL football games I would watch. If they put on seven games, I would watch seven games. If they put on 15 games, I would watch 15 games. I record all Giant games and watch them at least twice.

My wife's got a big paper to write today, so she's going to the library and I'm going to be watching the kids. It's probably a bad idea to enshine this confession on my website, but I'll tell you this: If Max or Oliver plan to poison themselves or choke or break their arms falling down the stairs today, they better damn well do it at halftime.

In the days and weeks leading up to Man Christmas, I have, of course, been watching and rewatching and rerewatching all the Giant playoff games from last season's F-ing AWESOME championship run. The tempting, tantalizing win at Tampa. The defeat of Dallas and the weeping of Terell Owens after which the season's status as a success was assured. The unlikely and frigid victory at Lambeau Field following which I ran out into the snow in my socks, busted into my extremely surprised neighbor's house and ran laps around their living room with my index finger in the air. And then--and I'm getting chills as I write this--the historic, euphoric, beatific beating of the smug Bostonians which made the Gmen champions of the world.

As I prepare to celebrate Man Christmas today I am also reminded of more difficult times; specifically, the 2006 New York Giant season which left all Big Blue fans black and blue. I felt so betrayed and flayed by that team that I actually invoked a self-enforced sports embargo for a period of three months. I wrote about this experience for The Weekly Standard and I'm including the text below.

When I read the piece today, on this high holiest of occasions, it reminded me how fickle sports fandom really is, and that while it may be the king of cliches, it's truly never over until it's over.

Happy Man Christmas to each of you and may Eli Manning bless you.

I Wish I Knew How to Quit You
A Sports Addict Goes Cold Turkey, by Chris Connolly

Hello. My name is Chris Connolly and I’m a sports addict.

I say I am a sports addict because, even though I recently succeeded in abstaining from all sports for several months, one never really stops being a sports addict. One is always just one drag bunt or one foul shot away from sitting in the tub with sports radio blaring while re-reading analysis of games one watched the night before.

I did some things I’m not particularly proud of during my addiction. At my wedding, our photographer made a pocket-sized boxscore out of cardboard and held it up at the back of the room so I could track the progress of a baseball game. Three years later, while my wife was in labor with our first child, I had my brother sending me text messages with updates on Yankees/Red Sox.

Talk about the “crack” of the bat…

I was pretty much a full-time sports fan. Which is to say, I consumed sports information all the time. I listened to sports radio during the day, watched sporting events at night, and had radios all over the house that I flipped on and off as I went from room to room. I would even go to sleep listening to games on a walkman. I doubt there was a major—or minor—occurrence in the American sports world over the last 10 years that I didn’t know about within 15 minutes.

Did I know my sports fandom was over the top? Of course. But I never felt compelled to do anything about it until recently. After all, people devote time to things a lot more ridiculous than knowing who the Yankees’ top third base prospect is. (Eric Duncan.)

Until a few months ago, I was a highly functional, even highly happy, sports addict. I was like a sea anemone letting my tendrils drift in a rich current of sports data. Then, one fall day in November, the 2006 New York Giants motored by and sheared off my tender little appendages.

If you don’t recall, the 2006 New York Giants were a trainwreck—or, to keep the metaphor going, a shipwreck. Actually, thinking about it now, if you took a train and shot it off into the sea, the resulting carnage would mimic last season’s campaign quite nicely.

Every football team tries to create an identity. Even non-sports fans probably know that the Steelers cast themselves as a gritty, hard-nosed bunch and the Raiders as a gang of thugs. And the Giants? Well, the Giants are stupid.

Stocked with as much talent as any team in the league, the 2006 New York Giants specialized in drama, bickering and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. With an unflagging commitment to knuckleheadedness they engineered some of the most staggering come from ahead losses of all time.

And the G Men didn’t leave their team identity on the field either. Not by a long shot. It would have been impossible for them to be stupider off the field than on it, but they managed to battle to a tie: There was criticism of coach Tom Coughlin via the media on more than one occasion; Michael Strahan, the team’s defensive leader, who wasn’t even playing due to injury, nearly-assaulted a female journalist at a press conference; mid-season, the team’s MVP-candidate, Tiki Barber, announced his retirement for no reason; and while this freakshow spiralled around him, head coach Tom Coughlin stubbornly brayed his team watchword… discipline.

Have you ever heard those stories about surgery patients who wake up in the middle of operations unable to do anything but suffer horribly until the anesthesia wears off? That’s what watching the Giants was like.

Every Sunday, I would wake up to find myself sitting in front of the TV while this gang of millionaire morons plied their trade. When I wasn’t kicking the ottoman through the living room wall, I was fielding calls from my father and brothers who—being similarly afflicted—would phone me to gnash their teeth and cry.

Since sports are all about numbers, let’s look at it this way: Generally, I kick my ottoman through the living room wall once, maybe twice, per sport season. So, let’s say 1.5 for football, 1.5 for baseball, and 1.5 for a combination of basketball/soccer and other games. This puts my lifetime annual OKA at 4.5. During just the 2006 football season, that number spiked to 4.0. I was sure the league would test me for steroids.

Then on November 26th the Giants played the Tennessee Titans. Addicts can generally site a moment when they hit rock bottom; this was mine.

It started out well for the G Men. Dominating the game, they established a 21-0 lead by the end of the third quarter and showed no signs of slowing. My phone was silent, my heart was beating normally—even the ottoman exuded a quiet confidence.

Then the sleeping Giants woke.

“Now hang on here!” They seemed to say. “21-0? This doesn’t seem right.”

Over the game’s final 10 minutes they put on an incredible display of fumbling, holding and interceptitude. When the smoke cleared, the bewildered Titans had won, 24-21, and my ottoman had been reduced to kindling.

The phone rang, but I couldn’t answer. I went into the kitchen and tried to prepare dinner, but my hands were numb. I thought about going for a drive, but decided it would probably end in my death. Instead, I took a shower.

Normally, as I’ve said, I listen to sports radio in the shower. But this day, the very thought left me queasy. I made the water as hot as possible and let it run over my shoulders. For the first time in probably a decade, there was no chatter to accompany the rushing water.

Out of the silence, a realization came: I was wasting my time.

I was investing hours of emotion and study into something that returned only pain. For me, as well as my furniture.

I did the math:

I’m 33 and started paying attention to sports at about 10. I closely follow three teams: the Giants, Knicks and Yankees. This means, over the last 23 years, I’ve followed 69 seasons of basketball, baseball and football.

The Knicks last won a championship the year I was born, 1973, so I didn’t share in that glory. The Giants won Superbowls in ’86 and ’90, both of which rocked. The Yankees, probably the most successful team in the history of sports, won in ’77 and ’78. But I don’t remember those years. They also won in ’96, ’98, ’99 and 2000. Sadly, for all but one of those years, I lived in Europe and could only follow the games via newspaper reports my grandmother mailed me.

So, to sum up, out of 69 hand-wringing seasons, I have shared in the joy of only 3 championships. Every other campaign has ended in failure. And guess what? Compared to sports fans from other cities, I’m cleaning up!

Wasn’t there a better way to spend my time, I wondered? What if I took all my sports hours and worked on my abs? What if I worked on reading the classics? Hell, what if I just worked on work!?!

I decided then and there to find out. I declared a three-month moratorium on sports fandom. I would not read, watch, listen to, or talk about sports.

I called my brother to tell him about my experiment.

“Oh, you’re experimenting with giving up sports? Are you conducting a corollary study about what it’s like to be a homosexual raising a child?”

I was off to a good start.

As with most addiction battles, the first effects of withdrawl were physical. I’d get in the shower and reach for the radio, or I’d turn on the TV and begin to tune in a sports channel. But once I got past the blunt force desire to absorb sports, I discovered the true seed of my addiction—I missed the background noise.

Accustomed to the calming drip of sports info in my ear, I had tremendous trouble sleeping. I lay restlessly tossing in bed while thoughts raced through my skull. Unchecked by updates on the misdeeds of erstwhile running backs, ideas and fears plagued me ceaselessly. I realized that for the last decade or so, I’d been immersed in a constant and inoculating flow of sports information. I missed the drone.

My addiction, I swiftly realized, was two-fold. Yes, I yearned to know what was happening to my teams, but I could deal with those cravings. What I really wanted was to get back into The Matrix of the sports community.

Some people are always listening to music. Others flip on soap operas or the weather channel when they’re alone. I listen to sports radio. It’s a calming background buzz that keeps me from thinking full-time about work woes, money, or Iraq. It’s also a place to share debate with like-minded people around the world.

Talk radio has been called America’s Last Neighborhood, and during my experiment I realized this could not be more accurate. Although we’ve never met, I know far more about Jerome in Manhattan and Mike in the Bronx—callers to my favorite radio station—than I do about my flesh-and-blood neighbors.

There’s a man named Frank who lives next door to me. I know exactly two things about him: 1. He watches truck racing day and night, and 2. For some reason, he carefully leaves a four-inch strip of grass unmowed where his lawn borders my driveway. Beyond that, we might as well live in different countries.

On the radio it’s a different story. I know my fellow listeners hopes and dreams.

There was a woman named Doris Bauer, or “Doris in Rego Park,” who used to call New York’s WFAN. She was a passionate Mets fan whose commentaries were frequently interrupted by bouts of wheezing and coughing. She championed the Mets shamelessly, good times and bad, and I always looked forward to her nightly appearances.

A few years ago, at 1:00 am, the hour Doris usually called, her favorite host reported the news that she’d passed away. Lying in bed listening, I wanted to cry. It felt exactly like I’d lost a friend.

I learned a lot during my sports embargo. I rode my bike, tore through my library reserve list, and started to embrace those late night thoughts rather than banishing them with an onslaught of white noise.

But most importantly, I learned that sports fandom is about more than your team. Sports fans are a family. We share the same goals, contemplate the same issues and rely on one another for support and debate.

A team is more than a collection of athletes—it’s a geographically unbounded neighborhood. Sports fans root for uniforms first, athletes second. This is why we can hate the players on our teams, and still love our teams. This is why, sometimes, when a guy you like is on a team you like, he becomes an immortal.

Why do wins and losses matter? Because they matter to the people in your neighborhood, they matter to your friends—even the ones in Rego Park you’ve never met.

I’m a sports addict, yes. But I know now it’s not such a bad thing. In the future, if I can restrict myself to the actual games and stay away from the pre-games, post-games and game reports, I think I’ll be okay.

That said, the other day, I got an email from my brother that got my heart racing. The subject line: “NFL camps open in 100 days!”

Yeah, I could quit any time.


Grant said...

Great post. I am glued to the tv watching teams I don't even like but it's still great. That should be mandatory reading for wives/gf's so they understand what this means. 10 hrs on the couch is not a waste of time.

Anonymous said...

even though my dude is a total man in every definition of the word, he doesn't dig on the foot-ball. I depend on my neighbor to bust into our house because he's excited about the winning team. Without him we are clueless