categories: Cocktail Hour
Americans aren’t too keen on losers and losing. I thought about this during the pain of the Patriots’ loss over the last couple of days. “Pain” is the right word, even if it seems overdone to non-sports fans. I know there is a big gap between people–and between the readers of these pages–on how seriously they take these things. It was nice of my wife Nina to pat me on the back and console me after the game. But you had the feeling this was a little hard for her to take seriously, as if I were consoling her after someone she liked got kicked off The Bachelor.
I don’t care. It did hurt. If only through empathy—for instance seeing Wes Welker–great, gutsy Wes Welker–cast as a goat, his eyes red from crying and his voice quiet. And not only empathy. I was sad for me as well as them. When I think Patriots I think sitting on the aluminum benches at Schaefer Stadium with my Dad watching Sam “Bam” Cunningham or Randy Vataha, so yes I sometimes say “us” or “we” when I refer to the team, feeling at least a much a part of the whole thing as last year’s third round draft choice. Still, I didn’t expect to suffer this time. Hadn’t dread fled New England after the Sox won and the Pats did a judo flip on their perennial loser tag? In the days running up to the game I talked to a couple of friends who had grown seriously depressed after the loss to the Giants in 07/08. I felt for them, but I thought “I’m different…I get all the pleasure of rooting for the team but I no longer let what happens on a football field affect my emotional life. It’s only a game after all.”
I was dead wrong. The loss crushed me. I think one of the things that is lost when you lose is possibility and as the Pats drove down the field in the second half—so efficiently it looked like they should do it very time—my mind already rushed ahead to possible glory, though tinged with fear of course. Then when the fumbles starting to bounce the wrong way the old New England dread returned….
Of course it is different for me than it is for Wes Welker. It’s Tuesday morning as I type this and the intense pain has faded (the dull pain will stay until we win again.) For Welker career and reputation have been altered, and he is enduring what his quarterback called the “a week of sleepless nights.” Hopefully, he isn’t watching a lot of television where the blowhards of Sports Center are busy elevating some reputations and destroying others. I am reminded of the publishing industry where, after a book has done well or poorly in the market, the less-sane agents and editors scramble to paste a narrative, a reason, atop the randomness of things. A football game hinges on the random, too, but that won’t do if you have hours of air time to fill. There was a telling moment at the end of the first half when the Patriots scored and the announcers, who had just seconds before been confidently relating the narrative of why the Giants were playing better, scrambled to reverse themselves and explain why the Patriots were the better team that day.
On a small scale, I know a little of Welker’s pain. During my years playing Ultimate Frisbee, I never won it all. We would train for eight months and the effort to win the national championship always shaped the year. I have many friends who did win nationals, but I did not, so it could be argued that the whole thing was a waste of time for me. I think differently, but there was certainly a lot of pain involved. One year in the semifinals of Nationals down in Florida, the season ended with a bad throw from my own hand. Believe me that was a little harder for me to get over than Sunday’s loss.
In today’s sports culture we are quick to say someone is “clutch” or that they “choke.” What is forgotten is that most human beings, even well-trained athletic human beings, are some combination of both, different people in different moments. Maybe Michael Jordan screwed things up for everyone else by being so consistently cold-blooded, but I certainly remember both Magic and Bird having their share of choke-y moments. There has been a lot of anger directed at Tom Brady over the last couple of days for “letting us down.” Please. If the ball bounces a foot higher after the last second endzone heave, and Gronkowski comes down with it, Brady is Doug Flutie re-born, his reputation not just in tact but shined to shimmering, and the 16 complete passes completed in a row are the stuff of legend. The problem with elevating winners to heaven and consigning losers to hell is a simple one: it is a lie.
“For us there is only the trying,” said T.S. Eliot. This is the deep truth that the sports blowhards, and most of us, don’t really get. The effort, the shape, the attempt. Take writers for instance. We throw our entire selves into making books. Our “season” often lasts several years and, almost invariably, the result of our training and effort, is some sort of worldly failure: either the book is not published or it falls short of our expectations for it. Does this mean our efforts were pointless? The sportscasters in our heads would have it so, writing their narrative of failure. It is up to us to wrestle back the narrative, to turn it into a story of effort, bravery, and persistence.
But enough pep talks. It’s okay to be sad. That’s part of it too.