I’m 29, and the tectonics of my sports fandom have shifted irreversibly.
Like the gradual reversion of a scar sinking into the fiber of one’s skin – in which eventually it becomes seamless and blended and meshed, as it becomes less ‘abscess’ and more ‘recess’, I find myself more rationally studying the sports landscape.
Part of this is due to immersion, as a writer, as well as a fan, I experience dozens (if not hundreds) of sports videos, clips, articles, columns, games and discussions per day, and I am forced to extract what’s important, relevant and profound. Part of this is due to exhaustion, as that very same drowning in sports content numbs and wears at the flesh between my earlobes and elsewhere. Part of this is due to dependency, as the longer I’ve liked and followed sports, the more of my ‘fix’ must be plundered to ascertain equally heightened levels of intrigue.
Still, one very real, very gradual, phenomenon locked my attention and continues to stare it down: I’m now the same age as an athlete in their “Athletic Prime.” I’m no longer looking up to athletes as heroes or role models, I’m no longer college-aged, hoping to go pro, and I’m no longer a wide-eyed rookie hoping to grow into my tremendous talent or spread my wings into superstardom. No, I’m now the same age as “the guy.” Your franchise cornerstone.
I remember sitting on the couch with the lady as she followed the oblong pigskin with me – her staring not so much at the TV, but rather through it, eyes half-glazed over in boredom/exhaustion/confusion – and that thought crept back into my head: “This is just a game.”
Then Marshawn Lynch broke through with the “run of the century”, a 67-yard scamper through which he broke (at my count) nine tackles, including a fanatical stiff-arm where he chucked a New Orleans Saints defender halfway to Tacoma. It brought shivers to my shoulders and a silent scream to my throat, and it’s still one of the most memorable, awe-inspiring things I’ve ever seen in sports.
My emotions were, as follows, “HOLY SH*T! … I gotta text my friends … Where’s the video! … Amazing! … Why did the Buffalo Bills trade him? … I am so mad … Tell me he turns into an all-time great … Where was this in Buffalo? … Sonuvab***h, Seattle’s not just going to cover, but win outright … What an upset!” This all went through my head in the span of 60 seconds. When I was a college senior, Marshawn Lynch was a senior, too … in High School.
I then realized I am wildly engaged with, and three tax-brackets beneath, athletes who may be younger than I. But, yet, they appear to exist outside the constructs of age. I don’t feel older than them, but when I empirically remember that I am, it bewilders me. I think, “How did they get to do what they do?”
Athletes talk endlessly about “doing what it takes to win” and “putting in the effort” and you hear about work-ethic, dedication and “leaving it all out there on the field.”
And I realize that was never me.
These folks who are, by and large, physical specimens that could outrun and outhit a Toyota Prius (quite easily, I assume), are also geared specifically to do just that, and have trained their brains and bodies to do so from a tender age. They’re young, they’re powerful and they’re committed. Say what you will about some of the legal transgressions or smack-talk, but these are some incredible human beings.
Remember when LeBron James caught a bit of flack for throwing Cleveland under the bus on Live Television? He also donated millions to charity that same night, and consulted with financial planners, agents, coaches, players, family, friends, supporters, branding experts, CEOs and other professional athletes to make what he could out of a watershed moment. It was calculated, cunning and remarkably mature, especially for a 25 year-old. My 25th birthday, I got thrown out of a bar for vomiting in public, throwing a potted plant, picking a fight with a 60 year-old man and dropping a few drunken n-bombs. What’s the opposite of “doing what it takes to win?” Yeah, I did that.
And when LeBron James caught a bit of flack for not winning a Championship right away? Like, last week? Even though he was only 27? When I was 27, I was funneling tequila on weeknights, crowd-surfing at rock concerts and f**king on the first date.
So when I think of these young pups playing the game, giving their all on the field, and I refer to one of them as a “headcase” or “immature”, I say it with an off-hand, tongue-in-cheek reverence. Does it take a somewhat crazy individual to administer as much physical pain on another human being as possible for 60 continuous minutes once a week? Absolutely. And it probably predisposes them to locker-room outbursts, DUI arrests and the like. You gotta cope with it somehow.
These cats are younger than I, making the same mistakes I did, and finding out the hard way there’s folks who want to take advantage of you and probably will. But, in every concrete sense of the word, these same people did it all the right way. For their every success can be measured empirically in stats and rings, wins and losses. Real life outside the lines ain’t that black-and-white. And they’re getting paid seven (sometimes eight! Or nine!) figures over the course of a mere 5-to-10 years to measure their strength in that fashion. I respect that.
So what happens when you turn 29? If you’ve aged properly, you’d think what happens is your admiration’s been de-mythologized. Athletes turn from heroes in a Greek sense, to heroes in a Horatio Alger sense: It is their routine, their workman-like approach to the grandiose and mystical that’s admired, rather than the grandiosity and mysticality itself.
In other words, you see the men behind the gods. You stop believing in miracles, and yet you start believing there’s men and women out there who can run through the five boroughs or New York City faster than any regular human can drive through them during a regular workweek, because you see it on the 6pm Sportscenter.
Less imagination, more incredulity. Welcome to the age of coming of age.