Considering the literary nature of my last post and my piece about reading fiction that preceded it, this topic may seem like a harsh contrast. In today’s oft-compartmentalized culture, books and sports rarely intersect. Sure, there are books about sports, but the entities in themselves seem to occupy two separate spheres. Literature is for nerds and sports are for jocks, right? But as someone who spent the majority of his childhood engrossed in a world of pick-up games, high school football training camps, and the incessant glow of the behemoth bug zapper that is ESPN, I’ve been, perhaps unconsciously, trying to reconcile my new love for literature with my first love of sports and the demigods who play them. And while I’ve never found any justification for the sort of obsession that turns great athletes into idols and grown men into their kneeling peons, I have concluded that my love for these games comes from the same impulse that keeps me coming back to Steinbeck, McCarthy, and Duncan. It’s because they’re stories. But before I spiral into a discourse about underdogs and juggernauts, Cinderella’s and Jackie Robinson’s, I want to tell you about a strange encounter that brought all these thoughts to a flesh and bones revelation.
This past Saturday, my extended family and I took part in an event called “The Big10 10K and 5K.” Almost all my cousins, aunts and uncles made the journey from Omaha, Nebraska to support their football-adoring Alma Mater, The University of Nebraska, in a good ole’ fashioned footrace along the lakeshore south of Soldier Field. And while I waywardly opted to spend my college time in Southern California, nearly 2,000 miles from the cornhusker state, the aforementioned sports-obsessed kid once believed that Lincoln would one day be his college home, too. I tend to think that boyhood sports-worship reaches its zenith sometime around the age of 12, which, in my life, happened to be the era when the Cornhuskers were making a run for the NCAA National Championship, led by their fleet-footed, Omaha-born-and-bred Heisman Trophy winning Quarterback, Eric Crouch. Needless to say, Crouch was my guy. I watched him take it 102 yards to the house against Missouri (http://tiny.cc/db9z0w) , and promptly ran myself ragged in my backyard trying to imitate him. I still wear his jersey on occasion, albeit a tad ironically.
But this is where the story of the hometown boy who won the Heisman gets a little predictable, a little sad. After that triumphant year, Crouch went on to do, well, nothing. He was picked up by the St. Louis Rams late in the draft, but retired shortly thereafter because they wouldn’t let him play Quarterback, and because he couldn’t hack it at any other position. He was too small. Couldn’t throw. He wasn’t fit for the bruising life of an NFL QB, and according to reports, too proud to take a minor role. So he hung up his cleats and, in the fashion of 90 percent of Will Ferrell’s characters, faded into obscurity. Rumors surfaced that he was managing a Lady Footlocker. To Husker fans, he was a quitter. In a state where hard-nosedness is as much a staple in its people’s DNA as a love of avocadoes is in Californians’, his was not a legacy worth celebrating.
Now, these claims very well could be Grade-A Sports Reporter Boloney, but nonetheless, Eric Crouch faded from view. And up until this past Saturday, that obscurity that Eric faded into was enough to keep any idea of him, or of the tremendous admiration that I had for him as a kid, out of my mind completely. But that all changed at the post-race tailgate party/Big10 fun-fest when, while polishing off my second free Bratwurst, I saw him. There he was—the Eric Crouch—in the same jersey that was still hanging in my closet, meandering by the football target-throwing competition. The race was, after all, a giant promotional event for the Big10 network and the upcoming football season, and apparently, he was there as one of a few former players working for the network for some meet-and-greet. In an instant, I was my 12 year-old self again, weaving through the crowd to get a closer look at my old Husker hero. I found a comfortable spot to observe him in the football toss; about three feet away. And like any creepy fanboy, I watched him for a while. I watched him stretch out his arm before stepping into to throw a couple balls at an inflatable target. I watched him narrowly miss the target on his first 3 throws, and then on his final attempt, I watched the hopeful anticipation spread across his face when he released the ball, and the following look of triumph, his arms thrust in the air like he’d once again beaten Oklahoma in the conference championship with his Golden Arm, when the toss rattled through the bull’s-eye. And after standing there for a while, just watching this guy who was once my hero, who was now tossing footballs at a press event, I realized that I was wrestling with two different stories. The first story was about the hero and the kids like me who’d worshipped him, which terminated as soon as his career ended, and the second was what everyone said about him in the years that followed: the story of the quitter, the has-been living out past triumphs, desperate to have the glory back.
I could easily write this off as a comical coincidence, as the day I met an old hero and made fun of him behind his back. But as my dad and I waited in line for our turn to take a couple tosses, he decided to talk to Eric. They talked about growing up in Omaha, the proximity of their homes to a popular pizza place, and the school that Eric’s kids were now going to. They talked about his new job with the Big10 network, where he would try his hand at sports casting. I stood next to them, gawking in disbelief. The stories were meeting before my eyes, and their validity was obliterating with every commonplace topic that they conversed about. Here was a man who I’d only seen on TV, who I’d imitated in my backyard, and whose successes and failures had been scrutinized and packaged by reporters for my viewing pleasure, talking with my own father about highways in Omaha.
Eric Crouch’s story was suddenly much larger, much more complex, than any bottled sports cliché that ESPN might have led me to believe. It was somehow weaving its way into mine and into my father’s. It was a story about a man who’d shined bright, flickered out, then kept going, kept living. It was familiar, close enough for me to touch, yet too different for me to fully grasp.
And this is what I mean when I say that sports are just as much about stories as books. Not because they adhere to some simple narrative formula, as some 10-minute pre-game slots might suggest, but because they have a way of serendipitously revealing something to us about ourselves. Because, despite the fact that a camera lens has a way of imparting its subjects—the athletes—with a sort of disconnected immortality, their stories carry on outside of the game.
Because sports allow a unique glimpse into the mystery of our existence, one that is characterized not just by the moments of athletic brilliance on the field, but by the players who walk away from it and keep on living.