football

Exit 144. Why do sports people argue so much about who is the greatest of all time?

This post is about five days late.  I know.  It was a hectic week.  Remind me next time I plan to go to two basketball games on weeknights to make sure that progress reports aren’t due the same week.  And for the non-sports people, keep reading, because I make a non-sports-related point at the end.

The Super Bowl was this last Sunday, with the New England Patriots defeating the Atlanta Falcons in the 51st iteration of the American football championship game.  Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, playing in his record seventh Super Bowl, achieved his fifth Super Bowl win, one of only two players (and the only quarterback) in football history to win five Super Bowls.  I had it on for background noise, but I wasn’t too emotionally attached to the game.  I didn’t particularly want to be for either team.  I’m kind of tired of the Patriots, since they have been so successful in the last couple decades.  (I will admit, though, that five years ago I was rooting for the Patriots in that Super Bowl, because that was the year that Sterling Moore, who I had as a student many years ago, played for the Patriots.  They lost that one.)  And I have a hard time being for any Atlanta team, because I’m still upset at the 1993 Atlanta Braves baseball team because of what happened with the San Francisco Giants that year.  Sports fans have long memories.

As the game started, I found myself mildly pulling for Atlanta, mostly just because they were the underdogs.  And they looked like they were on the way to a huge upset, leading 28-3 shortly after halftime.  But New England pulled off an impressive comeback, tying the score about a minute before time expired, and going on to win in overtime.  Many sports commentators and announcers, including Joe Buck who goes on and on and on and on and on with any talking point he can find to mask the fact that he doesn’t know squat about sports, were gushing over the fact that Tom Brady is now the supposedly undisputed greatest quarterback of all time.

And that is why this game hurt.  As I’ve said before, my understanding and following of football greatly increased after an attempt to try out for football in 1991, but growing up, when football was on TV, we were watching Joe Montana play quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.  He has also been considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, before Tom Brady happened.  Joe Montana never won five Super Bowls like Tom Brady did, but he won four, and he was only in his 11th season when he won his fourth Super Bowl, whereas Tom Brady won his fourth Super Bowl in his 15th season.  Montana never made it to a Super Bowl and then lost, which Brady did twice.  And Montana did everything with fully inflated footballs.  But his reputation as the greatest of all time is in question now.

But then I got to thinking, why do sports people argue so much about who is the greatest of all time?  Part of it is just competition and team loyalty; if one of the greatest players of all time played for your team, you’re going to be biased in favor of them.  But there is more to it.  Being the greatest of all time is not based on one single clear cut statistic.  Different players and teams have different strengths and weaknesses.  A quarterback who is great at leading his team in the regular season might not be good at handling the pressure of a Super Bowl.  A basketball player who is good at slam dunks and playing close to the basket might not be good at making free throws or long three-point shots.  A baseball player with the ability to hit home runs might lose focus in high pressure situations and strike out more often with the game on the line, not to mention the fact that he is probably a slow runner as well, missing a skill needed in other situations.

In the world of sports on in any other part of life, different people have different strengths and weaknesses.  This is what makes it difficult to compare who is the greatest at anything.  Instead, we should all appreciate the fact that everyone is good at something, and that we all need each other in some way.

Exit 123. You’re tough.

Since I teach math, I have had many students over the years tell me that I was one of their favorite teachers, despite the fact that they hate math, or they are bad at math (they think), or both.  I know that feeling well, although as a student, math was never the class I hated.

I recently saw a post, on the Facebook group for alumni of the high school I went to, saying that a former physical education teacher and coach had passed away.  I’ll call him Mr. F.  I saw him much the way that the students in my classes whom I described above see me: I hated PE.  I was never very good at running or lifting or any physical activity.  But I loved Mr. F as a teacher, mostly because he was really funny.  Sometimes he would say things completely unexpected out of nowhere.  One time, I told him, quietly, nervously that my stomach hurt and asked if I could use the bathroom before we started running or doing whatever we were doing that day.  He pointed toward the bathroom and said, loudly enough for everyone to hear, “Yeah!  Go take a big sh**!”  I have not stayed in touch with Mr. F, I haven’t seen him since I finished high school, and I don’t know anything about his passing other than someone on this post mentioned cancer.

But when I saw that he passed away, this was not the story I shared on that post.

In the summer of 1991, right after the year I had Mr. F’s PE class, I worked out in the weight room with the football team.  A lot of my friends told me I should play football, mostly because of how I was built.  But I was not an athlete.  I liked to eat too much, and I did not like to run.  But football players were the cool kids, you know how high school stereotypes are, so I worked out with the football team nevertheless.

There was another problem, though: I didn’t really understand football.  I understood the basics, touchdowns, field goals, first downs, and such.  So in addition to working out all summer, I solved this other problem the only way I knew how: I did my research.  I did a lot of reading that summer about football.  I learned about football rules, the roles of the different positions on the field, different types of plays, strategies, and the history of American football.  And when the first day of double practices came, just after my 15th birthday, I was ready.

No, I wasn’t.  Who am I kidding…

I was in the locker room getting ready that morning, and I saw Mr. F.  I had not seen him all summer, and I wasn’t sure if he knew that I was going to try out for football.  He seemed happy to see me, and he asked how I was doing.  I said that I was nervous, and that it looked like practice today was going to be tough.  “But you know what?” he replied.  “You’re tough.”  It really meant something to me that he believed in me, despite the fact that I could never run very fast or do a pull-up in his class the year before.

My football career lasted one day.  I lasted that morning and that afternoon, and I didn’t come back.  I was in way over my head.  I was badly out of shape.  But something positive did come out of that experience in the end.  It took a few months for me to get over the disappointment of not being good enough to play football, of letting down Mr. F and all my friends who encouraged me to play.  But by the time the following football season started, in the fall of 1992, I enjoyed watching football much more than I ever had in the past.  The time I spent learning more about the game helped me enjoy watching it much more, and this has stayed with me to this day.

It’s okay that I couldn’t handle football, and that I wasn’t very fast or strong in Mr. F’s PE class.  Not everyone is an athlete.  But I still found inspiration from Mr. F.

And it’s okay that some of the students in my class did not understand everything I attempted to teach them.  Not everyone is a mathematician.  But my students can still find inspiration from my class.

Exit 93. It’s just a game.

Today is Super Bowl Sunday.  (For my unfootballed readers, that means the day of the National Football League championship game.)  I’m going to have it on in the background, but I have no preference as to who I want to win this game.

There are a number of significant events in my past that I associate with happening on Super Bowl Sunday.  One of them in particular, even though this year is a milestone anniversary for it, wasn’t on my mind much if not for two posts I saw on Facebook within a few hours of each other a couple weeks ago.  One said that the current date of January 28, 2016 was the 20th anniversary of the last Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl win.  (“20 years of choking,” the caption said.)  The other was from a friend from college, who found and shared some 20-year-old pictures of a retreat he had been on with his Bible study, also in January 1996.

Time for some back story.  In the fall of 1995, I was a sophomore at UC Davis.  I had gotten involved with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship after several of my friends from the freshman dorm had invited me.  I thought I was a Christian, but over the next several months, I made a lot of new friends who took their faith much more seriously, and I learned what it really meant to follow Jesus.  I decided to follow Jesus for myself on Thursday afternoon, February 15, 1996.

During that transition time of learning about Christianity and making new friends was the Super Bowl.  The San Francisco 49ers (my team) and the Dallas Cowboys were two of the most consistently dominant teams in football at the time, and they had developed quite a rivalry.  I lived in northern California, where the 49ers were of course the dominant team geographically, and the Cowboys are one of those teams that have fans all over the country, as well as bandwagon fans since they were so good during that era.  I hated the Dallas Cowboys.  There had been at least two seasons still recent in my memory when the Cowboys had been the team to beat the 49ers in the playoffs.

On the Friday night before the Super Bowl, I had gone to InterVarsity, and for some reason I was in a bad mood.  I was probably feeling discouraged about not having plans afterward that night, or not having a girlfriend, or something like that typical of me.  Two guys who I didn’t know very well at the time started talking to me, and eventually they invited me to their house to watch the Super Bowl the following Sunday.

One of those two guys was the one who posted the picture of the retreat a couple weeks ago.  I replied to that photo, “I wasn’t there, but one of my friends who hates the Dallas Cowboys even more than I do posted today that the last Super Bowl win for the Cowboys was 20 years ago today (’20 years of choking,’ the meme says), which was that same year, and I remember that Super Bowl being the first time I ever hung out with you guys.”

The other guy who had been there on that night in 1996 to invite me to their house replied, “Was that the game you got really mad at? Or was that a later one?”  He was right.  I do tend to get pretty upset at big games that don’t go my way.  And that one didn’t go my way.  Like I said, I really hated the Cowboys at the time, and they won that game.  I’m naturally competitive, I grew up in an environment centered around sports, and I tend to be short-tempered after a long childhood of being bullied.  But none of that was going through my mind a couple weeks ago when I made my post connecting these two events.

“Probably,” I replied.  “But twenty years later, the fact that I had new friends sticks out in my mind more than the specifics of the game.”

I think there’s an important lesson for me to learn in this.  It’s just a game.  I’ve seen my share of great games over the years, and I’ve seen my share of disappointing heartbreaks.  But realistically, those moments aren’t the ones that really affect my life.  And I meant every word that I said there: most of my memory of that Super Bowl Sunday 20 years ago involves the fact that I was around new friends, people with whom I would spend quite a bit of time over the next few years.  And that is what I should be focusing on.  Yes, it is fun to see my teams win, but the times I spend watching games with friends, celebrating with friends after a win and commiserating after a loss, those are the real memories that will last.

Exit 83. I salute you, but you might want to stop dating supermodels.

Yesterday I was reading my Facebook news feed, and it caught my eye that Tim Tebow was a trending topic.  I wondered why he was in the news now, since that name has mostly disappeared from my consciousness, and I was intrigued by what the rest of the blurb said.

Let’s get a few things straight here.  First of all, “trending” is not a word.  “Trend” is a noun.  I’m using the term here because that’s what Facebook calls it.  Also, some of you probably never had the name Tim Tebow in your consciousness in the first place.  For those of you who don’t follow American football–and especially for you hypocrites who make a big deal of calling football “handegg” or “sportsball” and then get all butt-hurt when someone makes fun of one of your passions–Tim Tebow is a football broadcaster and former player.  A few years ago, he won two national college championships with the University of Florida Gators football team.  He was drafted by the NFL’s Denver Broncos shortly after that, and he became another in a long string of overly-hyped college football stars who fail to deliver at the professional level.  He had a brief run of successful games during his two seasons in Denver, then after being traded he never again really got his career on track.  But he gets a lot more attention than most college athletes who haven’t made it in the pros five years later, mostly because of his outspoken Christian beliefs.

The reason why Tim Tebow showed up in my news feed yesterday is because Olivia Culpo, his beauty queen girlfriend, broke up with him because he refused to have sex with her.  His Bible-based desire to honor God through abstinence and chastity are more important to him than dating a model.  After noticing something about the headlines, I read a few of the linked articles and blogs, and, like the headlines, they were all written in a pretty universally mocking tone, essentially making fun of Tebow’s beliefs with childish insults.  Some of these appeared to be from credible news sources, not just random blowhards and ignorami with blogs.

I’m not particularly a fan of Tim Tebow.  For one thing, he never played for my team.  And as much as I admire his outspoken faith and his philanthropy, I have to admit that at times he has been so outspoken as to make Christians look bad.  Saturday Night Live did a hilarious bit where Jesus appears to Tebow in the locker room and tells him to tone it down a little.  And it’s kind of annoying the way a bunch of teen and young adult Christian girls who never knew crap about football suddenly turned into Gators and Broncos fans because of him.  But I have to say I’m on his side on this one.

Some Christians tend to complain too much about persecution whenever they come across situations that involve the fact that some people don’t share their beliefs.  The fact that public schools do not lead students in Christian prayers is not persecution, for example.  I also wouldn’t call the media’s reaction to Tim Tebow persecution, but it certainly does expose the double standard and the anti-Christian bias in the mainstream media.  If these same journalists aimed the same kind of childish insults at a Muslim celebrity who made a big deal to stop what he was doing to pray five times a day, or a Jewish celebrity who made a big deal of not eating bacon, the journalists’ careers would immediately end in disgrace.  But it’s perfectly acceptable to make fun of a Christian, especially when it involves one who chooses to go against the secular humanist gods of sexual liberation.

Good for you, Tim Tebow, for sticking to God’s word and your values.  I salute you.  But you might want to stop dating celebrities and supermodels.  That’s just my advice.

I don’t mean to criticize Mr. Tebow’s life choices, though.  Let’s look at this from his perspective.  I’m speculating a bit here, I haven’t done a lot of in-depth research into his personal life, but, especially considering that his parents were missionaries, I’m guessing he probably grew up in a bit of a Christian bubble where most of what he was taught about dating and sex was simply “don’t.”  From the time he was in college, he was in the national spotlight for his athletic prowess, and now, at 28, he probably still doesn’t have everything figured out when it comes to dating and relationships.  I’m 11 years older than Mr. Tebow, and I’m still figuring it out.  I wrote recently about how I’m learning that the Christian bubble doesn’t work for me anymore, so I need to explore life outside of the Christian bubble, and figure out how to reconcile non-bubble socializing and dating with my Christian values.  Maybe Tim Tebow is doing the same thing right now, except in his world, socializing outside of the Christian bubble involves celebrities and supermodels.  At this point in my life, if I were in his place, if I were schmoozing with a celebrity woman and she acted like she liked me, I’d probably go on a few dates with her, and I’d eventually find some important issue on which our values were absolutely incompatible, and we’d have to go our separate ways.  I’d learn something from the experience, and I’d be glad that I tried and didn’t chicken out.

That could be what Tebow is doing right now, and it’s unfortunate that the drama has to be played out in front of journalists and paparazzi.  So give him a break, and let him stick to his beliefs and live out his faith, even if you don’t agree.  Tim can do better than Olivia.

Exit 40. Something which I have not done in as long as I can remember.

An hour or two from now, I will have completed something which I have not done in as long as I can remember: I have not watched one minute of the NFL playoffs this year.

I apologize for those of you looking for non-sports-related content on here.  I have some things I’ve been thinking about that I will have more fully formed opinions about next week.

This is the second Super Bowl I have intentionally avoided.  There was one Super Bowl a while back when one team was the team that eliminated my 49ers, and I had had a bad experience with a fan of that team at that time, and the other team, I can’t stand that team or their fans for a lot of reasons.  But I didn’t avoid the playoffs entirely that year because, obviously, the 49ers were in it at one point.  I didn’t watch the Super Bowl at all that year; in fact, I went to Costco in the middle of the game, and it was more empty than I’ve ever seen it.  It was nice.

Usually, I watch the Super Bowl even when I don’t care about the teams involved, and usually, I even come up with a team that I would prefer to win, even if I don’t really care that much.  But the way I see it, with the Seahawks, and the Patriots, and Katy Perry doing the halftime show, everyone loses.

This also marks two years in a row that I have not been to a Super Bowl party, and at least five years in a row that I have not been to a Super Bowl party locally, because most of my local friends these days aren’t into football.  I didn’t realize until I was an adult that there were people in this country who didn’t follow sports.

Now if you’ve been a fan of one of those teams for a long time, then I hope you enjoyed the game.  (I still don’t know what’s going on in the game, so I don’t know if your team won.  I’m sure I’ll hear soon.)  I’m okay with that.  If you’re a fan of Katy Perry and you wanted to watch the Super Bowl for the halftime show, I’m a bit less okay with that, but to each his/her own, whatever.  If you’re a bandwagon fan who just moved to Seattle or Massachusetts, and all of a sudden you love your team after years of talking about how much you hate football, then I personally find people like you kind of annoying, but that would be true regardless of what team was involved and how that team did that year.  You can redeem yourself, however, by staying true to your team in the future, even through the bad years.  And the Seahawks and Patriots will have bad years again.  You bandwagon-jumpers wouldn’t understand this, but just wait and see.

It felt really weird to be ignoring the NFL playoffs while scrolling through Facebook posts of excited and disappointed fans talking about their teams’ games.  I’m just kind of fed up with the NFL in general right now.  Part of that is, of course, the disappointing season the 49ers had.  There is a lot of talent on that team, and it got wasted due to internal team strife, conflicts between players and coaches, rumors started from the outside, and bad calls.  But also, things are just getting ridiculous.  When we have players being punished by the league because they are required to speak to the media against their wishes as an obligation to the fans, players trash-talking each other on Twitter and acting like 10-year-old playground bullies, and all the increasingly convoluted rules about what is and isn’t allowed on the field, it just takes the fun away from the game.  I enjoy football, but this year just left something to be desired.

I’ve been occupying myself with basketball season just fine, and occasionally hockey (but not as much as usual because I don’t have cable).  And baseball season is just around the corner.  The cycle keeps going on and on.  The wheel in the sky keeps on turning.

Exit 27. Knowing when to hold on to something and when to let it go.

Twenty years ago, I was a freshman at UC Davis, and early in that school year, I attended my first football game.  (For the non-sports people reading this, trust me, this entire article isn’t going to be just football; it’s more of a backdrop for something I was thinking about earlier.)  I watched a lot of school football games the last couple years of high school, so I figured I’d just keep doing that.  I don’t remember the opponent or the final score (I just spent a couple minutes on Google to find that it was a win over Southern Utah, 41-16).  I remember it being crowded, and loud, and I remember someone giving me a lyric sheet to the school fight songs and thinking that some of the lyrics were kind of strange, since I had no idea at the time of the history behind the songs.  I went to every home game that year, and while I did not keep up that level of participation in following years, I still went to a couple games every year that I was an undergraduate, as well as a few basketball games every year.

I have close friends who are almost like family who have season tickets to University of Virginia football, and during my adventures on the road in 2005, I went to a game with them.  I realized at the time that this was the first time I had seen football live, at any level, since five years earlier when I was running the scoreboard at the first school where I worked.  I decided that if I ever ended up settling back in northern California, I would get back into UC Davis football.  On October 29, 2005, my time on the road had ended, I was staying at my parents’ house indefinitely, and I took an overnight trip to Davis to watch the Aggies’ football game, a win against Cal Poly.  It was my first UC Davis football game in eight years.  I attended the other remaining home game that year, a win against the Bears of Northern Colorado, and since then, nine years later, I have only missed six home football games.

Watching the Aggies beat Cal Poly is always special.  They’re one of the Aggies’ two primary rivals, but also one of the reasons I chose UC Davis over Cal Poly was because when I visited the campuses (campi?), everyone at UC Davis seemed friendly and welcoming, and everyone at Cal Poly seemed unhelpful and snooty.  (Of course, I have friends now who attended Cal Poly whom I would not describe using words like this, so please don’t take offense at what I just said.  But this just goes to show how first impressions make a difference.)  That year especially, though, the win over Northern Colorado felt just as special.  Two months earlier, while on the road, I had spent a weekend in Greeley (where the University of Northern Colorado is located) staying with an off-again-on-again online acquaintance.  I didn’t know her as well as most of the online friends I met in person during that adventure, and to be completely honest, as I got to know her that weekend, I thought she was an arrogant hipster snob.  She regularly put down things I like, both hobbies and political positions.  I went to her church the Sunday I was there, the kind of church where almost everyone was under 40 and they try to reach out to people who don’t like the traditional church experience.  Her church seemed to give off the vibe that they were better than traditional churches, with pews and hymns and old people and Republicans, because they were authentic, and relevant, and postmodern, and insert whatever other Christian pop culture buzzwords apply.  According to their mentaily, that makes them really spiritual, whereas traditional churches are full of a bunch of fake people who only care about the superficialities and don’t really love Jesus.  So I know this is pretty much irrational, but ever since that weekend, anything at all related to Greeley makes me think of her and that snooty messed-up church, so therefore I particularly enjoy watching the college football team from there lose.

Anyway, last night I was in Davis for the football game, also against Northern Colorado.  I thought several times about how it was the least fun I’ve had at an Aggie football game in a long time.  That got me thinking, why do I still go to every game?  What purpose does it serve in my life?  Am I going to keep going to every home game forever?  If I am no longer enjoying Aggie football, maybe it’s time to cut back.

Now there are reasons specific to tonight that made this game less fun than usual.  The crowd was pretty sparse, particularly in the loud and raucous Aggie Pack section where all the students sit.  (I’m not allowed in that section anymore, of course, but they’re fun to watch.)  My theory is that a lot of students were still nursing their Halloween hangovers by the time the game started at 4pm.  I was exhausted from a late night of Halloween parties myself, and I found myself nodding off a few times during the first quarter.  It was a slow first half; at halftime, the Aggies were behind, but the score was only 7-0.  And it was cold, or at least colder than it’s been in this part of California for the last few months, and I didn’t bring my big jacket.  And, finally, the Aggie team is pretty bad this year.

But as much as I enjoy watching football, I’m starting to wonder if maybe it’d be okay not to go to every game.  I started going back to Aggie football (and basketball, and, for the first time ever, baseball) games during the 2005-06 school year, alone, partially because I had no other social life at the time.  Now I do, and sometimes I get busy with other things, or I have to arrive late at a friend’s event because I was at the game.  This year in particular, there have been Saturdays when I’ve been tired and behind on housework and life in general to the point that going to the game starts to feel more burdensome than enjoyable.  I missed a game this year for a non-sports social obligation.  And going to games alone isn’t particularly productive socially; I occasionally run into people I know,  but I’m not meeting new people at football games or anything.  Sometimes I need alone time, and I enjoy spending my alone time going to a football game, but tonight I just wasn’t feeling that.

I don’t like change.  Aggie football has been my fall tradition for ten football seasons now, and even before that it was a connection I had to the past.  I remember that 2005 game against Cal Poly, the first one I went to as an adult, how much I enjoyed hearing the same fight songs that I learned as an 18-year-old freshman.  And while there is a lot to be said for keeping traditions alive, there is also great value in knowing when to hold on to something and when to let it go.  I love returning to the campus of my alma mater with all the old buildings, all the big trees, all the memories of that time in my life.  However, as I’ve said before, it’s really easy for that kind of nostalgia to degenerate into a longing for a past that truly only existed in my selective memory, with the bad parts forgotten, and a frustration over how life was so much simpler back then, without providing any solutions for navigating the current reality.

Fortunately, I have ten months to decide whether or not to stop going to Aggie football games.  There is only one home game left this year, against Sacramento State.  The Hornets are the Aggies’ other primary rival and the next closest college football team to UC Davis; their respective stadiums (stadia?) are just 22 miles apart.  I already bought a ticket to this one, since that game is always exciting and actually has a chance of selling out every year, so I’m definitely going to that one no matter what.  So I won’t have to decide to change my tradition until next fall.  And I don’t have to stop going entirely; I can still go to some games without making it the primary focus of my Saturdays in the fall, which may leave room for something new I might need in my life.

Incidentally, last night, after falling behind 24-7 early in the fourth quarter, the Aggies made the rest of the game exciting.  They looked pretty good for most of the fourth quarter and closed to within 24-21 before fumbling away the first turnover of the game.  That led to a field goal, so it was still a one-possession game (27-21), and the Aggies drove down to the Bears’ 18-yard line before throwing several incomplete passes, followed by an interception with eight seconds left.  Oh well… at least they fought hard.