Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Decade of Standing and Cheering

By Brad Oremland

Sometimes it's weird being a sportswriter. I've had friends get offended when I tell them I can't go out because I have to watch football. You say that, and people feel like it's a cheap excuse to avoid spending time with them. No, seriously, I have to watch football. But the strangest part is how it changes being a fan.

You've probably read before that sportswriters root for the story. It's true. We also root for our predictions to come true. Everyone likes to look smart, and often that dictates who I root for, sometimes including the shameful practice of cheering against the underdog. I still feel that Super Bowl XLII is the best Super Bowl in history, but I had to throw away a dynamite piece when the Patriots lost.

The other factor is objectivity. I have been accused by readers of bias for and against every team in the NFL. I even had a colleague accuse me of bias toward the Red Sox when I wrote in 2006 that Alex Rodriguez wasn't living up to his potential. That's a cheap and cowardly accusation, and flat-out untrue. If your position is strong enough, it can stand on its own merits, and there's no need to try to discredit someone who disagrees with you. It's moral and intellectual laziness.

Some writers, like Bill Simmons, make their living being openly biased. I don't see how you take those people seriously, but a lot of people love Simmons, so I guess that's just me. The fact is, and most people find this hard to believe, I really don't care much about football teams any more. I grew up hating the Cowboys — hell, lots of us grew up hating the Cowboys. I don't really care about them now, one way or the other. I root for and against individuals (coaches and players) more than I do for teams. I don't hate the Cowboys any more than I do the Bengals, or Broncos, or Saints, or whoever.

But sports are more fun when you're invested in the outcome. Sometimes all that objectivity goes out the window, and I go nuts, waving my arms, jumping around, screaming at the television. This is a tour of those moments.

January 21, 2003: Roddick/El Aynaoui

This is actually a weird one to open with, because I didn't particularly care who won. I suppose I leaned toward Roddick, but this match drew me in purely for its intensity and high level of play. Roddick's epic Wimbledon showdown with Roger Federer in 2009 did the same thing. I've always rooted for Federer, but that match made me like Roddick in a way I never had before, and sympathize with him.

But in January '03, Federer was ranked 6th in the world and had never won a slam. The world was wide open for these two, the Australian Open genuinely up for grabs, and they played maybe the greatest tennis match I have ever seen. I was at a Florida motel for my cousin's wedding, glued to the television at 4 AM or whatever, watching this incredible battle between two players hitting amazing shots, pushing each other to the limit, probably beyond what they even thought themselves capable of, and utterly, absolutely refusing to give up. Just remembering it makes me want to stand and applaud. I'm not kidding.

October 20, 2004: Johnny Damon's Grand Slam in Game 7

I hate the Red Sox. Hate hate hate. But I hate the Yankees more. I also hated the Red Sox somewhat less in 2004 — when they were self-pitying sore losers instead of smug, cocky winners — than I do now. When the Yankees took a 3-0 lead in the ALCS, everyone knew Boston had blown it again. The Yankees would win the AL and probably the World Series, and the rest of us would have to deal with it for another 364 days.

But Boston came back. I've written about this before, and you all know what happened anyway. The Red Sox somehow tied the Series, 3-3, and I was sitting in front of the television waiting for them to blow it in Game 7. I was on the phone with a friend during the second inning, and we were about to hang up when Johnny Damon came to the plate. "Hold on," I said, "I just want to see this pitch."

When Damon's bat connected, my heart skipped a beat, I made a rather high-pitched sound, and the incident became forever etched in my memory. Damon hit a grand slam, and the Sox took a lead they never relinquished. The Yankees gave away their 3-0 series lead, and Boston went on to win its first World Series in 3,048 years.

January 4, 2006: The Rose Bowl

Do you remember how ESPN hyped USC in the run-up to this game? The Trojans were not only the greatest team in the country, they were the greatest team in history. In fact, they were by far the greatest team in history. Jonathan Chait, writing for Slate, compared ESPN's premature celebration of USC to the SNL Chicago Bears "Super Fans" who wonder whether Mike Ditka could single-handedly defeat another team. The whole exercise was sickening.

So when the Pretend National Championship Game rolled around, I was rooting firmly for Texas. This contest, like most of the others on my list, achieved "instant classic" status. It was an evenly-matched, back-and-forth game: USC led at the end of the first and third quarters, Texas at the end of the second and fourth. It was in that fourth quarter that Vince Young simply took over. He put the Longhorns on his shoulders and carried them to victory, just refusing to lose. It's always inspiring to see an individual excel like that, especially in a comeback, against the odds. And it's even sweeter when you're cheering for him already, and his heroics can set back blowhards like Mark May. Honestly, would it have killed the guys at ESPN to wait until after the bowl game to evaluate USC's place in history?

April 4, 2006: Fear the (Female) Turtle

Some time around 2000, I got really bored with men's basketball, both college and NBA. The style of play was so individual-oriented and slow, physical and lacking in finesse. I discovered that some of the better women's teams still played the game I loved, and my favorite basketball team became Geno Auriemma's UConn Huskies. But I have roots with the University of Maryland — friends and relatives who went to the school, and the Terps were my team in the tourney. I actually lived about 10 minutes from College Park when this game was played.

After a fantastic semifinal win against conference rival North Carolina, the Terps met Duke in the final, a 78-75 overtime win sparked by freshman guard Kristi Toliver. The game was an instant classic, and if you haven't seen it, you should. This was one of those moments when I degenerated into that drunk guy next to you at the game, or the bar, or wherever. I'm in the living room, jumping up and down, literally running around, screaming, "Fear the (female) turtle!", except I may have used an expletive instead of female.

When your favorite team plays in a classic, dramatic game, and your emotions build up more and more, to a tense win at the end — there's no feeling like it.

January 1, 2007: Boise State Wins the Fiesta Bowl

The classic underdog story, with a twist. The weird thing about Boise and Utah and TCU in football, or Butler and Gonzaga in men's basketball, is that those teams aren't proper underdogs. In fact, they're year-in, year-out powerhouses, and the whole argument is that they are just as good as teams from the so-called power conferences. They prove it over and over, but many people are reluctant to take them seriously — in particular, the conference commissioners and corrupt BCS, who profit from their exclusion.

So my head came to the Fiesta Bowl knowing the Broncos were a great team, but my heart and gut were wondering how long they could stay on the field with Oklahoma. In one of the greatest games ever played, they hung around long enough to notch one of the most spectacular, most improbable wins in history. "Improbable" not so much for the mere fact of their victory — this was a great team — but for how they won, with a series of almost unbelievable trick plays.

The full game is available online at Hulu.

January 21, 2007: Colts Come Back From 18 Down

This was an extremely happy day for me, one that I treasure for reasons not entirely related to what happened in Indianapolis. But certainly the game was amazing. I respect the Patriots, but I don't particularly like them. I don't like Bill Belichick. I don't like Tom Brady. I don't like the team's attitude, the way they exude moral superiority, condescension, and coldness. The Colts seemed so much more human to me: vulnerable, flawed, likable. I mean, you couldn't ask for a bigger contrast than Tony Dungy and Belichick. Plus, I foolishly predicted a Colts victory.

So when the Pats led 21-3 just before halftime, I was in a doom-and-gloom kind of mood. And then the Colts pulled off this ridiculous comeback. I compared it, at the time, to the 2004 ALCS. You have this team that every year is almost good enough, and always seems to lose the big ones, sitting on the wrong end of a one-sided rivalry, and then, when the stakes are highest, pulls off this incredibly improbable — actually unprecedented — comeback.

The Red Sox took a week to complete their comeback. They won Game 4, Game 5, Game 6, and all of those had as much drama as Game 7, maybe more. Boston led most of the way in the final game (a second-inning grand slam will do that), and the tension evaporated a bit near the end. The AFC Championship Game went in reverse: from no tension when it looked like a New England blowout, to this incredible comeback and finish with the Colts bursting back into the game before their victory in Super Bowl XLI.

June 9, 2007: A Filly in the Belmont

I cheer for fillies. Actually, I think horse-racing is barbaric, but on this afternoon I was already in front of the television, and the Belmont was on, and I knew that a filly named Rags to Riches was in the field. I wasn't watching tv to see the Belmont, but I figured I'd tune in for three minutes and see what happened. I have a weakness for races. Actually, that's understating it. I love races. I like basketball and soccer and MMA and hockey, and I like football a lot, but I love races. That's why I enjoy the Summer Olympics so much: track and field, swimming, marathon — I love it all. My favorite event in the Vancouver Games was cross-country skiing. I get caught up in it.

The Belmont was on, and I decided Rags to Riches was my girl. I watched the video earlier today, for the first time in almost four years, and it brought tears to my eyes. There's no substitute for the stretch run. Have you seen this race? Actually, I don't care: take three minutes and watch, whether you've seen it already or not.

I'll wait.

That last straightaway, when Rags to Riches and Curlin pull away from the field, gives me goosebumps. My eyes well up, my breath catches. That moment. That first moment, when they pull away. They've been biding their time, and all of a sudden you see that these two are in a different class than the rest of the field. There's no substitute for that kind of excitement. Today was actually the first time I properly heard the terrific call by announcer Tom Durkin, because on June 9, I was on my feet, standing in front of the couch, yelling at the television, "Come on, girl! Come on, girl! Come on, girl!" She didn't let me down. Glorious.

August 11, 2008: Men's 4x100 Meter Freestyle Relay

I don't consider myself a nationalist, but all things being equal, I root for the U.S. I also tend to root against trash-talkers, like France's Alain Bernard. But I didn't start off on the edge of my seat, praying for an American victory, just like I didn't wake up in June 2007 knowing how invested I would become in a filly's date with destiny. Have I mentioned how much I love races? How I get caught up in that moment when the impossible becomes reality?

This event (watch here) also highlights something that I think makes great sports moments legendary: the announcers. Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines were resigned, from the beginning, to the likelihood of a French victory, and their suspicions played out for the first 90% or so of the relay. Hicks says, "The United States trying to hang on to second. They should get the silver medal," just as Bernard starts to tighten up and Jason Lezak begins to pull even. He and Rowdy Gaines go nuts, appropriately nuts, Jack Buck nuts, Russ Hodges nuts, Giants win the pennant. As a viewer, you can't help but get drawn in by their excitement, and it compounds your own.

April 24, 2010: Leonard Garcia vs. The Korean Zombie

Just as easily, I could go with Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar. But when this fight aired, I was so buzzed up that between rounds I was pacing back and forth, talking to myself, debating whether to call my friends and tell them to turn on the tv. After Round 1, I decided not to make any calls; there was no way Round 2 could live up to the same standard. Lo and behold, Round 2 was probably even more exciting than the first. Now I am totally amped up, having detailed conversations with myself about whether this is the most entertaining fight I've ever seen.

There's no way Round 3 can be a classic, too: these guys must have punched themselves out by now. Fifteen minutes of war, the ugliest technique you'll ever see paired with the most beautiful heart, two guys who put everything into this fight, swinging for the fences, even kneeing for the fences, and turning Chan Sung Jung into a legend almost a year before he pulled off the first twister submission in UFC history. The UFC is not generous with its copyrighted material, but if you have any appreciation whatsoever for combat sports, you need to find a way to watch this.

* * *

Different people have different moments. Some of these events are famous, widely recognized as modern classics. Others are less celebrated, but they're all seared into my consciousness. Moments like these are why I'm passionate about sports. I have a lot of friends who are totally ambivalent about sports, and sometimes I try to explain why I'm so moved by them. When you watch sports, you're almost waiting for the impossible to happen. Every year, athletes accomplish things we thought were impossible. They come back from enormous deficits, continue past the point of exhaustion, beat the odds with David-and-Goliath upsets. There's no substitute for that type of inspiration.

I watch the highlights of Roddick-El Aynaoui and can't stifle my gasps and cheers. The '07 Belmont brings tears to my eyes. The 2006-07 AFC Championship Game holds a special place in my memory, like a bookmark in life. Sports fans have games and moments like that, the sort that everything else is shaped around. They're moments that inspire us, that bring us closer to the people around us, closer to humanity and its remarkable capacity for achievement. The four-minute mile, the three-pointer at the buzzer, the two-minute drill, the one-punch knockout, the no-look pass ... those are the sports moments I live for. Sports inspire us because we're human. These are some of the matches that have inspired me.

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