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A man fan

I’ve never been a sports fanatic, but I’ve always been a big fan of men, especially men who play sports.

When I was little, I was my brothers’ biggest fan. Both older, they were outstanding athletes and taught me sports essentials – like how to tuck a football in the crook of my arm and run like hell, how to throw a lateral, how to fake left. They taught me how to shoot hoop – how to aim for that sweet spot on the backboard, how to go in for a lay-up.

They taught me how to get up after a tackle knocked the wind out of me, and never cut me any slack at the free throw line.

I’ve still got a pretty fair arm for throwing passes (the pigskin kind) and still tell stories about the only three-pointer I ever made.

Last weekend, in a fit of nostalgia for my misspent youth, I went to Renaissance Video on Bee Ridge Road (the best video store in town, by the way), checked out some films, and spent an entire Saturday night in a blaze (or was it a daze?) of men in sports film glory.

First up was “Hoosiers.” Based on the true story of the 1954 Indiana State high school basketball champions, it’s a movie about being the best you can be; it’s about, as the coach played by Gene Hackman puts it, figuring out “who we are and what we can be” – not just as athletes, but as men.

Next was “Friday Night Lights.” Another true story; this one, about a high school football team in Texas, rips the glamour off the typical underdog sports story. As the teammates knock themselves senseless in pursuit of gridiron glory, they know this is their one shot at walking tall in the hall and having their pick of the popular girls.

They know in their hearts they’ll never “make it” to anything bigger or better or brighter. For them, a big win at state is as good as it will get.

As unfair as it is, “making it” — in sports and in life – sometimes seems like the only acceptable option for men. Women experience less societal pressure to perform, but by age 40 or so, most men are judged, and judge themselves, by whether they’ve “made it” or not.

For many men, youthful dreams, athletic or otherwise, have died or been shelved in favor of paying a mortgage and making ends meet.

Men are hard to read sometimes – uh, make that all the time. They tend to keep their secret dreams and disappointments to themselves, hardly ever speaking of them.

Maybe they’re afraid of facing their own feelings of loss and regret. Maybe they’re afraid their wives or girlfriends would make fun of their boyhood dreams.

But more often that they let on, I think men wrestle pretty strongly with the memory of who they were and what they wanted to be compared to the reality of who they are and what they have become.

Or maybe they know there’s really nothing to say. Maybe they’ve decided to just suck it up and stay in the game, regardless of whether they’re “making it” by society’s standards.

I know a guy in his forties who gets up early every Sunday morning and runs around a soccer field with a bunch of other guys past their physical prime. His life didn’t turn out exactly the way he’d hoped it would in some respects, but he’s out there every weekend, ignoring his throbbing knee, shaking off the creakiness of middle age.

He spends a couple of hours huffing it out across a field of wet grass, chasing a ball into a net. He’s not thinking about how his house won’t sell in the slowdown, or how his wife left him, or about the flight he’s got to catch for a business meeting the next day.

He’s thinking about the game.

He’s looking life – with all its disappointments and all its unexpected twists – square in the face of a little round ball … and he’s still playing.

That’s what men do. They get up off the bench. They play past they pain.

They stay in the game.

How could I not be a fan of that?

This column appeared in print in 2006.

Posted on January 23rd, 2009Comments RSS Feed

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