“Did you cry?”
I was one of 10 or 12 people still in the Memorial Stadium press box a few hours after Nebraska’s spring game last Saturday. I was working on a post-game notes column when my wife called. She was at her parents’ house in Pennsylvania.
Something you should know about my wife – she doesn’t care about sports at all. If I were to rank the people in my life based on their willingness to watch sports, she’d be at the bottom of the list. Given what I do for a living, some people find this strange. I happen to like it quite a bit.
But it was a surprise when she said during that call, “I saw that little boy’s run.” Odds were good that had she been in Nebraska she wouldn’t have seen it. All the way out in southeastern Pennsylvania just a few hours after it had happened?
I was mildly shocked and, since I have a problem talking into a phone in public, I mumbled something nearly inaudible about it being pretty “special.”
“Did you cry?” she asked.
“No, did you?”
That changed the way I thought about Jack’s run.
One of my best friends from high school is now a professor at a college in Nebraska. He’s a thinker and a sports fan, very much in that order. Some who know him call him a contrarian. He likes the big questions.
He’ll frequently ask me: Why do sports matter? He’s talking about sports in a global context. In a world full of extraordinary triumphs and tremendous suffering in real life, who has time for games?
My answer has always relied heavily on myth. As humans we’re drawn to stories. So I say something like “sports offer all of the drama of our great art forms – film, music, fiction, painting, etc. – without the presence of an author.”
For example, the Boston Celtics played the Miami Heat on March 18. Miami was chasing its 23rd straight win and the Celtics were without Kevin Garnett. I almost didn’t bother to watch. Without Garnett, the outcome seemed like a foregone conclusion. But I did watch and something amazing almost happened thanks to Jeff Green.
Green missed almost all of last season after doctors discovered he had an enlarged root aortic valve in his heart. It required a dangerous open-heart surgery and now Green plays with a six-inch scar running right down his sternum. That he went into that Miami game at all, much less averaging 11.18 points per game, is something extraordinary.
By halftime that night he had 26 and Boston led by six. At the end of the third, Green had 38 and the Celtics held a four-point lead. The entire time I was thinking, “here it is, a random Monday in March, and I’m getting to see one of the defining moments of this man’s life.” I felt very lucky.
The Hollywood version of that story ends with a Celtics win, but it didn’t end that way. The Heat won despite a career-high 43 points from Green. My guess is Green doesn’t consider it one of the defining moments of his life because his team lost, but, rather than diminishing the moment, that made me like that game even more. It was proof of concept for my definition of why we watch.
I’ve always assumed that, for people who really love sports, the “absence of an author” was important. Anything can happen. That’s why sports are the only certainty on live television any more, the one place all the advertisers want to be. Each experience is unique and that’s a rarity in a culture that loves a sure thing.
Jack’s run wasn’t like that. There was clearly an author involved. Assistant athletic director for football Jeff Jamrog and fullback C.J. Zimmerer hatched the plan for Jack’s run last Friday and it happened a day later.
Under the definition I’d used for years, this wasn’t why I watched sports but it felt better than anything else I’d ever seen on a field of play.
So I took a few days to think about this.
The truth is, I almost missed Jack’s run. I was making my way down from the press box to the field and I got there just in time to hear the PA announcer say that Jack Hoffman was on the field.
The play itself unfolded in a series of still images for me – the ball wedged nearly vertical under his arm, the guiding hand from quarterback Taylor Martinez, the little burst of speed at about the 45-yard line, the football pants loose around his ankles. I didn’t cry but I was close. I felt that familiar pressure behind my eyes, that rapid contraction and relaxation of the muscles surrounding my spine.
I felt those exact same things when I watched the run again on ESPN and Good Morning America and Japanese television and on my computer just a few minutes ago. Always the same. Not tears but the even more powerful realization that you’re simply seeing something – beams of light through the lens of the eye and up to the brain for processing – and it’s causing an involuntary physical reaction.
In the aftermath of Jack’s run, a lot of people said, “this is why we watch sports.” As you know by now, that’s a tricky but important definition for me. And it doesn’t seem big enough.
So after rolling it around in my head for a few days, this is the truest thing I can say about Saturday: Jack’s run is why we do anything. Going to work, falling in love, falling out of love, suffering, celebrating, making mistakes, trying to be better, watching loved ones die, bringing new things to life – it’s all for the brief, brief moments of total release like the one that happened last weekend.
Sports are a great connector. We use them to forge relationships – with the only other guy watching the Brewers and Cubs at the neighborhood bar on a rainy Tuesday night, with the fellow fans of your favorite team, with the people you’ll never know who just happen to be having a life-changing moment the minute you’re watching – almost every time we watch. It’s good but it’s a relatively small sphere of other sports fans.
Jack’s run wasn’t that. It made me feel connected to the world. All of it.
Thanks for that, Jack.