Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Whiskey-Stained Jersey & a Tear-Filled Beer

A tendency in my life appears to be to either put my entire heart into something or to shrug my shoulders in apathy. And realistically, there are only three things I've come across in this life that I've truly and consistently found worthy of anything more than apathy: sports, liquor, and literature.

Let's begin with sports.

"Rational" folk often question why I invest so much of my emotion into something that's "just a game". They wonder how I can legitimately shed tears over something that "won't matter tomorrow". Or why I am compelled to drink bottomless quantities of bourbon in attempts to console myself over such "trivial" matters. And most wait for me to add, "just kidding," after I tell them that I want to be buried in my maize and blue Michigan jersey. When the "just kidding" doesn't come, thoughts are conjured as to my sanity.

Given my passion for Michigan football, I suppose it's a bit ironic that one of the first images that comes to my mind when I think of defining this aspect of my life stems from a Notre Dame-inspired story, Rudy. Rudy's father was the quintessential Midwestern man. A hard-working factory man, hard-drinking bar patron, hard-praying Irish-Catholic, and above all, a family man. In Rudy's father's house, it was sacrilige to be anywhere other than in front of the black and white television on game day Saturdays, watching the Irish play football.

That household pretty much sums up my childhood. And much in the same way Rudy's dad did when he first set eyes on Notre Dame Stadium, I too believed, "this is the greatest sight these eyes have ever seen," when I first entered Michigan Stadium with my dad in 1994.

My passion for sports was passed down to me by men like Rudy's father. Granted, the men I grew up around were all automotive men of Detroit, but you get the picture: hard-working Midwestern men, Irish-Catholics, beer-lovers, good fathers. My fondest childhood memories are of family gatherings watching Michigan football, neighborhood gatherings watching the Red Wings playoff games. Ingrained in these memories are the men surrounding me as I watched those sporting events in awe and wonder. Particularly entrenched in those memories, are the expressions on those men's faces as they watched the Red Wings hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time in four decades. Or the smiles on their faces as they watched Charles Woodson recreate Desmond Howard's path to the endzone on a cold day in November.

The expressions of my father, my uncles, and my best friend's fathers, hugging and clanging beers together in fits of emotions I had never seen from them before, are expressions that will never leave my memories. I'll always subconsciously be trying to live up to those expressions. Spoiled as a kid by one of the best Michigan football team's ever to step foot on the Michigan Stadium grass and by unprecedented hockey success by the Red Wings, my own adult experiences haven't always met the standard I set in my mind as a kid -- the standard of grins and hugging. Given Michigan's unheard of failures in recent years, particulary during my college years, I guess in some subconscious way part of me feels like I haven't lived up to my previous generation's standard.

When people wonder how I can cry almost inevitably every year after Michigan loses to Ohio State, I guess what those people don't understand is that I interpret that loss to be a failure on my own behalf. That in some way, I feel like the losses equate to the downward progression of my life. No, I don't have any say in what happens in that game. But so many of my memories are directly related to Michigan football that it was just inevitable that it's become a huge part of my life. And they don't see that when the Red Wing's lost game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2009, I felt like my own experiences never measured up to the smiles of the men I grew up watching rejoice in victory. Not only this, but that I interpret, perhaps drunkenly, that my life outside of sports isn't measuring up to the standards of the men I grew up watching. And at that point, the bottle seems like the only way to try and recreate that unique high of childhood; that, or it's the only way to try and reconcile the failure of my own sports teams in comparison to the successes of my father's sports teams.

Granted, I'm no psychologist; these are just my own conjectures. But I think there's precedent to suggest that my conjectures are not that far-fetch'd. Frederick Exley, the son of a New York Giants football legend, wrote one of my favorite novels, "A Fan's Notes," based entirely on how his failure to live up to the sports glories of his father subconsciously triggered a life of alcoholism and a genuine addiction to New York Giants football, and a good combination of the two. The book ends, essentially, with Exley wishing he could tell the reader that thing's have changed. That he's made straight the path. But when you love a team like that, it sticks with you for the long haul.

Ultimately, though, my past only explains a portion of it all. I think, in the end, my sports addiction stems partly from the same reasons any average Joe in middle America lives and dies with his sports team: the distant hope of recreating those memories of glory. For me, it's the possibility of experiencing the utter jubilation that I felt as a child, watching Michigan beat Ohio State to earn a shot at the National Championship. Or that feeling of watching grown men cry in happiness as I half-watched Steve Yzerman hoist the Cup and half-watched the men around me celebrating like children. The thought of experiencing anything remotely close to those feelings is enough to get me through the lowest of lows as a sports fan -- and trust me, I've been to hell as a sports fan (*see note below). Deep down, I anticipate what the feeling might be once we do return to glory: a high better than any drug can provide you, a high like the innocence of childhood, a high like you're floating on airs. And the anitcipation of that is enough to get me through anything -- and not just the bad years in sports, but the down times in life in general.

Until then, I'll keep spilling whiskey on my jersey and crying tears into my beer. Because those rare, rare, magical years when your team wins, the journey is worth every tear and every spill.

* I'm pretty sure hell as a sports fan is sitting in the Big House for your last game as a student after all the other 100,000 fans have left, freezing in the November cold, with your head in your hands, wondering how it could be that Michigan never beat Ohio State during your tenure in Ann Arbor. Wondering how it could be that the worst 4 year stretch in Michigan football history miracurously coincided with your college years. No amount of whiskey, not even a barrel of moonshine, can cure that hell.

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