Mark Coomes on Sports Obsession Disorder: 'Those unforgettable moments are why we can't stop watching'
If you’re reading this malarkey (on company time, no doubt), you’re either a pathological procrastinator or a degenerate sports fan – the kind who will read damn near anything about abnormally agile people battling over bouncing spheroids.
You are ill.
I am too.
This is the nature of our disease: Sports Obsession Disorder is a chronic condition that manifests in childhood, somewhere between kindergarten and middle school.
The preadolescent male is tabula rasa at this stage, a virtuous pagan marooned in psychological limbo – too old for Bert and Ernie, too young for Snooki and JWoww.
The bridge from innocence to concupiscence is built on the back of backs: halfbacks, brushbacks, crackbacks and putbacks.
It’s a place where 36-24-36 refers to three fine nines of golf. Where kids can’t remember their multiplication tables but can calculate a pitcher’s ERA.
The ability to recall batting averages and jersey numbers is a form of early onset dementia that manifests in later life as the total inability to recall wedding anniversaries and children’s birthdates.
Much to the chagrin of our dates and mates, we afflicted think Corinthians 13:11 is an ancient football score, not a scripture of sage advice. When we became men, we did not put away those childish things. We just moved them into the basement and called it a Man Cave.
Sports Obsession Disorder is an odd affliction. Not all boys are affected, and not all girls are immune.
The hot chick screaming wildly for touchdowns at BW3’s? She might be a tomboy who can whip you at HORSE. Or she might be the product of a jockcentric home where men dominated the remote control and read only one section of the newspaper.
My sister, Leah, is a prime example. She grew up with three brothers. Her chances of leaving 1805 Strand without knowing Joe Montana from Joe Frazier were roughly equal to that of a Salesian nun leaving a lazaretto without leprosy.
S.O.D. is a communicable disease transmitted by proximity to known carriers. Some are more virulent than others, like parents who make sure that baby’s first onesie is emblazoned with a Cat or a Card.
My parents weren’t the rah-rah, pennant-waving type. Mom didn’t know a dribble from a dropkick. Dad used televised sports as a weekend sleep aid. Pat Summerall’s play-by-play was only audible between snores.
Forty years ago is when I caught the dread disease. I wasn’t yet 9; Denny Crum was 35 and leading his first University of Louisville basketball squad to the 1972 Final Four.
Jim Price was my hero. My brother Steve loved Henry Bacon. We both hated Bob McAdoo, the North Carolina star who rained jump shots on the Cardinals’ heads in the humiliating consolation game.
That’s how the bug bites, with that first vicarious rush. Suddenly you understand Jim McKay’s famous line from the opening of “ABC’s Wide World of Sports.”
The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.
Five months later at the Munich Olympics, Jim and I got a double dose of the latter.
I was too young to understand the full weight of what occurred in September 1972. I know now that I grew up more than a little in those five days.
I think it was then that I started to realize the power of sports to transcend games and to teach important lessons about the world.
I was going into fourth grade and blissfully ignorant of the history of hate among Arabs and Germans and Jews. I got my first inkling while watching the Opening Ceremonies on the old Zenith black-and-white.
As the Israeli team marched into Olympic Stadium behind their starred flag, Dad grabbed my wrist and said, “Pay attention. This is important.”
I wanted to know why.
“These people,” Dad said, “are coming back to a place where they were treated very badly. This is a big day for them.”
Nine days later, on Sept. 4, a handsome American swimmer named Mark Spitz won his seventh gold medal and was seemingly the toast of Munich.
On Sept. 5, nine members of the Israeli team were abducted by Palestinian guerrillas. Eighteen hours hence, Jim McKay came into our living rooms, looking stunned and sick. “They’re all gone,” he said.
“Remember Mark Spitz?” Dad asked. “They are trying to get him to leave the country. He’s Jewish too.”
On Sept. 9, the United States was robbed of the gold medal in basketball. The final horn sounded with the Americans ahead 50-49, yet the Soviet Union was awarded three more chances to run a final play.
The Soviets finally scored. The Americans, after winning 63 consecutive Olympic basketball contests, had finally lost.
Thus concluded a boy’s first lessons on the Cold War, the Holocaust and the specter of injustice at large.
That summer I read a story in Sport magazine titled “In the Shadow of Butch and Sundance.” It was about a Miami Dolphins halfback named Mercury Morris, a young speedster stuck behind a pair of established runners, Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick. The article implied that Morris was riding the pine because he was black.
I promptly became a huge Mercury Morris fan, but couldn’t get totally on board with the boring Dolphins, who passed the ball approximately once every geological epoch. I didn’t have a favorite team.
Dad didn’t either. But he certainly had an unfavorite, the Oakland Raiders. Dad disapproved of the Raiders’ pirate swagger and their slovenly coach, John Madden.
Two days before Christmas 1972, we cheered against the Raiders in an AFC playoff game. It looked like a lost cause. The Pittsburgh Steelers trailed 7-6 with 22 seconds left, fourth-and-10 at their own 40-yard line.
Terry Bradshaw whipped a pass to Frenchy Fuqua. The ball and Raiders safety Jack Tatum arrived simultaneously. Fuqua was clobbered. The ball tumbled hopelessly toward the ground.
The Steelers had a rookie fullback that year. I thought all fall that he was an Irish kid – Frank O’Harris – and was stunned that day to see a light-skinned black fellow wearing No. 32.
I was even more stunned when Franco Harris scooped up that deflected pass and galloped into the end zone to give Pittsburgh a 13-7 win. “The Immaculate Reception” made me a Steelers fan for life.
It’s fashionable these days to snort at Kentucky-born Steelers fans, presuming us to be front-running bandwagon-hoppers. Whatever. If through the eyes of a preteen boy, you saw what I saw – the greatest play in pro football history (per NFL Films) and two Super Bowl wins in the next two years – you’d be a Steelers fan too.
By June 9, 1973, sports had made me shout like a madman and cry like a baby. That afternoon, sports struck me silent (no mean feat in those days).
That afternoon, sports provided a fleeting glimpse straight into the face of God. He was smiling ear to ear.
As Secretariat blazed down the stretch at Belmont Park – “He’s moving like a tremendous machine!” – goose bumps erupted on my scrawny arms. The big red colt had distanced his rivals by the length of a football field.
I hadn’t seen more than a half-dozen horse races before that day, but no expertise was required to appreciate Secretariat’s feat. It fired the sleeping neurons of atavistic memory, wired when my ancestors chased Secretariat’s ancestors across prehistoric plains.
In later years, I discovered that millions shared the same giddy feeling of awe.
Jack Nicklaus watched that Belmont alone in a Florida hotel room. As Secretariat streaked toward the wire, the great golfer stood up and applauded. He also cried, never understanding exactly why.
“All of your life, in your game, you’ve been striving for perfection,” broadcaster Heywood Hale Broun told Nicklaus. “At the end of the Belmont, you saw it.”
This is the seed of the obsession.
This is why we watch.
The events are more often prosaic than perfect, but we watch because there’s no way to know when a starburst of brilliance will explode – and we don’t want to miss it.
And we don’t want to merely see it on SportsCenter, out of context, drained of all the real-time drama and adrenaline-spiking surprise.
It’s one thing to watch Christian Laettner’s shot on tape. It was quite another to see it live, to experience that instant surge of agony and ecstasy. And to share it with countless other shocked souls.
That’s the real obsession – to feel the thrill and know that others feel it too.
About Mark Coomes: Contributing blogger Mark Coomes covered sports from 1988 to 2000 for The Courier-Journal, USA Today, Florida Today and The Monroe News Star.