How I became a sports fan

When I went to college in the late 90s, I wrote for the school newspaper. We only published one issue a month, but I poured all my energy into my articles and editorial columns, obsessively re-writing and polishing them late into the night, while guzzling Surge and eating bacon sandwiches from the gas station. I focused on the school newspaper with such single-minded passion that I neglected all my real classes … and therefore I flunked out.

After the college politely told me to go away, I started working at a potato chip bag factory, helping a man named Big Dan operate a giant machine called a laminator. The job wasn’t very complicated. I spent most of my time cutting sheets of plastic with a dull knife and prying lids off glue barrels. But Big Dan’s moods varied wildly from one minute to the next. Sometimes he danced and sang. Sometimes he burst into fits of rage, screaming at me and showering my face with drops of spittle. Every day, I dreaded Big Dan and his volatile mood swings.

Desperate to escape from the potato chip bag factory, I begged the local newspaper to hire me. I also drove to the surrounding towns, begging the newspapers there for a job. I wanted to write for a living. I told editors I would be happy to sit in a spider-filled basement and type obituaries as long as I could get out of the factory and squirm into the newspaper business.

Finally, an editor in a nearby town (a town I had never visited before my begging tour) said he needed a sportswriter. He asked me if I knew anything about sports. Smiling and fidgeting, I said, “Um, well, no, not really. But I would be happy to learn!”

Thus I began working as a sportswriter in January 2001. I wasn’t just a sportswriter … I was the only sportswriter at this particular newspaper.

I was also the sports photographer and the guy in charge of page layout. I covered the sports page with lots of pictures (big pictures) since my articles were so short and meager. At first, my stories only contained the final score, the names of the players who scored the most points, and a quote from the coach. Whenever I asked the coaches for their thoughts about the last game, I wrote down everything they said. Their terminology baffled me, but I nodded enthusiastically and pretended I knew what they were talking about.

I grew better over time. I learned that “PAT” stood for “point after touchdown.” I learned that a baseball team scores runs, not points. I learned to park my car as far away from the field as possible. I also learned a wide vocabulary of terms from Sports Illustrated and big newspapers which I incorporated into my own articles. For example, when a football team scores a touchdown, it’s better to say they posted a touchdown … or they lit the board … or they chipped away at the other team’s lead. These punchy little expressions fascinated me. The language was far more interesting to me than the games themselves. I never became an expert on sports, but I learned how to sound like one.

I loved and respected the athletes and the coaches and the work they did … but I never truly became a sports fan myself. I did become a devoted fan of the sports language, though.

I don’t work at the newspaper anymore, but I do like to listen to sportscasters on the radio sometimes. When I hear them throw around expressions like “lock horns” and “square off” and “buzzer beater” and “wild card,” it almost makes me want to go back to work at some seedy little newspaper office and bang out stories about games.

But not quite.

***

My new novel, Citizens of Purgatory, is based on some of my ridiculous experiences in the newspaper business. It’s available in paperback on Amazon. You can click here to order a copy.

Rhyan’s music box

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Lately, my co-worker has been jamming out to 90s music on Pandora. He works right beside me, just a few feet away, so I hear every song over the groaning and screeching of ancient machinery. Rhyan, the co-worker I’m referring to, is 21 years old. I’m 33, so I have a different relationship with the music. I have plenty of not-so-old memories of driving around in a ’76 Monte Carlo, listening to Nirvana, Third Eye Blind, Semi Sonic, Fastball, Ben Folds Five, and Eagle Eye Cherry. But Rhyan is probably too young to remember when all this stuff was fresh and brand-new. To him, the songs are just remnants of some bye-gone era in the distant past … the way I think of Woodstock music, for example.

 As I hear these 90s songs, I feel like I should be guzzling Surge, discussing the special effects in “Titanic,” getting ready for my school trip to Germany, and drawing T-shirt designs at a little printing company called Vision Graphics. (You’ve probably never heard of Vision Graphics, I know, but I worked there in the afternoons when I was in high school. It was an integral part of my youth.)

I already spend a lot of time reminiscing about the 90s anyway, with or without Rhyan’s high-tech music box. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but some time in the middle of my 20s, I started thinking about the past more and more, savoring my memories of the 80s — memories of Alf, the California Raisins, Super Mario Brothers, and Ronald Reagan’s grandfather-like persona.

Now the 90s are beginning to take on that same dreamy sparkle.

There’s something very dangerous about nostalgia, though. If I spend too much time reflecting on the past, I’m going to miss the present. I have to keep reminding myself of this. My friend Hannah told me the other day that nostalgia is “quicksand covered with leaves.”

Not too long ago, while Rhyan’s music box was playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the fourth time in one day, my mind floated back to 1996. Then I suddnely remembered a quote from James Herriot. I read it once when I was a kid and it has always stuck with me:

“It’s not good to live in the past, but it’s OK to visit it from time to time.”

Good advice.