I used to care *far* more about sports than I do today. As a child, the cosmos and my parents’ genetic material paired up to play something of a cruel genealogical prank on me, inciting me to love athletic competition, while providing me the stature and hand-eye-coordination of a particularly inebriated lemur. To compensate for this, and to play into the slovenly lifestyle that such a genetic composition propagates, I began to watch sports religiously on TV. Football, baseball, basketball, you name it, I watched it. I could list out the roster of every NBA team, at least five bench players deep, and tell you the score of every Big 10 football game from the prior weekend. If there was a Badger basketball game on TV, I was watching it, regardless of whether I had an *actual, real-life middle school basketball game scheduled for that time* (Let’s be real, I added far more value by cheering for a team playing 100 miles away, then I ever did by tubbily stumbling down the court in my *admittedly overkill* Converse).
And as is often the case when you spend so much of your time doing something, I began to care about it to a highly unhealthy and irrational degree. You know, like working a desk job for a corporation to the point where it becomes life affirming (*Closes email dejectedly*). Ultimately, this ended up manufacturing an odd bipolarity deep within my psyche. Days where my teams won would instill a beautiful mania in me, where life was grand, and hope for the future blossomed eternal, and “Oh hey, let me help you with that, sir. Isn’t it a wonderful day to be alive? God bless you now.” Conversely, days where my teams lost would invoke a depression so severe, that I would be unable to do anything except sadly shovel Cheez-its and slices of ham down my piggy little food hole and walk aimlessly around my block listening to Coldplay. And if the equation balanced out just right, that depression and mania would join forces and bond to create a whole new emotional molecule: “Wonder Twin powers, activate! Form of, ‘Unmitigated Rage’!” Now, to be fair, the wrath of a tubby little middle schooler with small meaty fists and a short reach isn’t exactly likely to strike fear in the hearts of men. If anything, the choking miasma from the Axe body spray was far more lethal than any uppercut sprung by my flaccidly feeble forearms could have been. But still, let’s just say that there are a few pillows out there that are a bit more soft and feathery now than they were before my fervent barrage.
Ultimately, however, this never ends well. I can’t imagine there has ever been a Psychologist who diagnosed someone with Bipolar Disorder and was like “Yeah man, that sucks. But I don’t really see this interfering with your day-to-day life going forward. Maybe try Cheez-its and cold cuts.” Eventually, it does get distracting when you’re unable to concentrate on your Latin conjugations and your mathematical derivatives, because your mind is still 12 hours away, focusing on that no-call from the referee that might as well have given away the game to the opponent (*clenches fist wrathfully*). Fortunately for me though, I never really needed to make a conscientious effort to better myself (*phew*). In the end, life just got too busy to be able to watch every game anymore. An unhealthy love of free throw percentages and high school recruits’ Twitter feeds was swiftly replaced with an equally unhealthy need to find personal vindication in spreadsheets and board rooms. And after a few years, I barely found myself thinking about sports anymore. I can no longer tell you the starting lineup for the Wisconsin Badger basketball team, nor can I tell you the top 25 prospects in the Milwaukee Brewers farm system. I can hardly even tell you who won the prior year’s major sporting championships.
To be clear though, I still do enjoy sports. I like the competition, the drinking, the sportsmanship, the drinking, the strategy, the drinking, the community formed from a group of like-minded people cheering together for a common cause, and of course, the drinking. I also enjoy fleecing my friends every year in a friendly, yet inherently cutthroat, game of fantasy football. I just can’t *care* about it as much as I once did. If my dear Chicago Bears lose, sure I’m upset. But after 28 years of being disappointed by them and by life in general, why would I let it get me down? If my alma mater Wisconsin Badgers fail to make a solid run in the NCAA tournament, naturally the deep inborn sense of school pride and loyalty that I paid 100k to feel gets stung a bit. But honestly the years of student debt stung far worse. Which is why it always takes me slightly aback when someone clearly cares *dearly* about the outcomes of these events.
And with this in mind, please welcome my friend Phil from Stage left – shirtless, tipsy, and channeling a unique (and honestly, truly admirable) flare for life. Phil is the husband of my friend Danielle. They have now been married for over 2 years, have two children together, and have the sort of chaotic nuptial bliss that every little girl dreams about as she’s doodling hearts in social studies class (That’s me. I’m the girl. Bite me.) Phil is an awesome guy. He truly is. He’s the life of the party, he loves his family, he can get along with literally anyone, and has on at least a dozen occasions turned a lowkey hipster bar into a collegiate frat party through sheer force of will alone.
Phil also cares immensely about sports. In particular, the Baltimore Ravens. Now for those of you unfamiliar with the 2020 NFL Season and Playoffs, the Baltimore Ravens achieved an 11-5 record, following up on a franchise best 14-2 record from the year before. This was easily enough to earn them a spot in the playoffs, where they proceeded to dispatch the Tennessee Titans with relative ease, thus setting up a divisional-round showdown between them and the Buffalo Bills. Which is where our story beings…
Now, one thing I do remember from my time of rabid sports fandom is the sheer dismay of *making it so far* only to come crashing down at the very end. There was always a fragment of me that thought “Surely, this would have been less painful had they just sucked from the beginning. Yes, this would have caused months of mild distress, but nothing as painful and suddenly wrenching as this emotional aneurism that’s now flooding my brain with bloody chunks of failure and grief.” And while this is an admittedly defeatist attitude on life, there is sometimes comfort to be found in the balm of its illusion. And I think come January 16th, 2021, Phil would have been more than happy to drown himself in the solace of its delusional embrace.
For the Ravens truly and emphatically sucked that day. They scored only three points. They couldn’t hang on to the football. Nor could they take advantage of the opportunities presented to them to turn the game around. And Phil took none of this with grace or calm composure. I’ve seen a grown man take off his shirt and sit on the floor exactly three times in my adult life. And all three belong to Phil. This was the first. Caught between the disaster on screen and the battle in his liver, Phil exited the company of his sports-watching compatriots to watch the remainder of the game exactly 5 paces behind the rest of us (in what can loosely be called those 3 awkward steps between the living room and the kitchen), with his shirt removed, and his face held limp in his hands. And when the Ravens ultimately fell to the might of the Buffalo Bills behind the strength of QB Josh Allen’s golden arm, the despondent look on his face was reminiscent of a soldier returning to camp from the battlefield, or a man just sentenced to life in prison about to enter his jail cell for the first time. He didn’t even finish his cheeseburger which, in the context of Phil, would be an immediate red flag and an instant sign of rampant depression and existential dread.
Phil ultimately recovered from this defeat. Recovered, of course, being a word with an admittedly tenuous definition that, in reality, means he was able to suffocate the “Feel bads” and “No-no thoughts” with alcohol and the loving embrace of his burgeoning family. That being said, Phil is also a Milwaukee Bucks fan, and we happen to find ourselves with the Bucks firmly ensconced in the 2021 NBA Finals. While, as a proud Milwaukee native, I would want the Bucks to win the finals regardless, I am even more encouraged to seek this outcome based on the inevitable reaction from Phil should they, in fact, lose said series. Admittedly, seeing a man sit sad and shirtless on the floor three times was three more times than I fully expected to see as a youthful adolescent ready to take on the world. And a fourth would truly be debilitating for what is already a loosely held faith in the general goodness and inherent dignity of the world.
So, God speed Milwaukee Bucks. And God Speed Phil. For the Phoenix Suns are coming in hot. And I for one, don’t want to have to dispose of another half-eaten cheeseburger.