It’s not at all unusual in the South to hear countdowns until football season. Hours are spent discussing future recruits, assistant coaches, and countless other details. Believe me, I am not here to criticize football or its fans. I love it too, but this year more than ever, I’ve realized how enjoyable other sports can be (in addition to football, not instead of).
I’ve loved sports for as long as I can remember. I was seven years old when the Miracle on Ice happened, and it’s one of my earliest sports memories. I still feel chills when Al Michaels counts down the final seconds and asks us if we believe in miracles. The answer is always the same: yes.
Sports, for me and for many fans, are about those moments. They’re best of all when they involve a win for your team, but they can be almost as powerful when you have no rooting interest. It was that way for me in the 1988 World Series, when a badly injured Kirk Gibson hit his now-legendary game winning homer off one of the two greatest closers of all time. Years later, though, I wold realize that what Kerri Strug did in Atlanta was at least as impressive if not more so.
I grew up following closely the sports Americans sometimes call the big four (football, baseball, basketball, hockey) along with soccer, and I was in my younger days rather a jerk about their status versus those of “lesser” sports. I was also entirely wrong. Those moments are not limited to huge arenas, nor to only a small number of sports.
in 2014, before A’Ja Wilson was a star at USC, she played high school basketball for Heathwood Hall. Her final high school game was a SCISA state championship, in a relatively small gym in Sumter in front of a relatively small crowd. I was there covering the game, and watched as Heathwood fell behind by 3 points with seven seconds left. As Wilson, not typically a three-point shooter, said after the game, “I can’t explain the feeling. Coach said we needed a three coming out of the time out, and I said ‘I got it.’ ” She did have it. She drilled it to send the game to overtime, where she and her team took the lead and won. I felt like I was watching Hoosiers when I heard her say “I got it,” and yes, the chills were there.
In May, I covered the U.S. Quidditch Cup, which Columbia hosted this year. As a Harry Potter fan, i was intrigued, but as a sports fan, I expected relatively little. I was surprised. The Quidditch players were athletes, far from just fans acting out Harry Potter scenes. The game play was unfamiliar, but easily grasped, and the intensity was obvious. With time running out in one of the tournament semifinals, a team from Texas seemed to have victory locked up when a young woman playing for QC Boston slipped into position and with a dive which seemed to cover far more ground than should have been possible, she grabbed the Snitch, meaning a win for her team. The crowd roared. Her teammates rushed onto the field to field to hug her, with fans close behind. The chills were there again.
The chills were there too for a women’s softball game later in May. In this case, as a UGA fan, I did have a rooting interest, but I’m hardly a hardcore softball fan. Still, I paid attention as No. 16 Georgia took on top-ranked Florida. I watched Kaylee Puailoa, the only senior on the team who did not start, walk up to the plate as a pinch-hitter in the ninth inning, with a runner on base and the Gators up 2-1. Puailoa had cheered on her teammates all day knowing her career could be over. She stepped up knowing the at-bat could be her last. She made sure it wasn’t. Her home run over the center field wall left me wondering why there was so much dust in my living room suddenly.
That brings us to the Olympics. Yes, some of the sports are odd to a newcomer. Some have rules that are not easy to follow. But grasping the basics is simple enough, and it’s also simple to realize we’re being given a chance to watch people who are the best in the world at what they do. How could anyone who appreciates the greatness of Ruth and Gretzky not appreciate Katie Ledecky’s utter obliteration of her competition? How could an admirer of the winning ways of Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, or Joe Montana not admire Michael Phelps’ truckload of gold medals of Kerri Walsh-Jennings unbeaten run in beach volleyball?
Saturday, I watched the women’s shot put competition. Michelle Carter, an American, stepped up for her last throw knowing that to win gold would require her to put the shot farther than she ever had in her life, farther than any American ever had. In the biggest spotlight she’ll ever stand in, under more pressure than she had ever experienced, she delivered. A personal best. An American record. A gold medal. And yes, the chills were back.
Moments like that are what make sports great, and they come in such unexpected places.You’ll never hear me knock football, baseball, basketball, hockey, or soccer. I love them all. Go to every USC football game this fall. Cheer for tackles and touchdowns on Friday nights, and on Saturdays and Sundays. Embrace the fact that the football’s popularity is unmatched in this country. But when there’s no football game on, check out the “lesser” sports. Go watch a softball game, a sand volleyball match, a cross country meet. Go sit with the fans who make USC soccer (men and women) among the best supported programs in the country. Appreciate how hard every athlete works, and how badly they want to win. Support them. Celebrate with them when they win, and suffer with them when they lose.
Enjoy the moments that bring you chills wherever you find them. That’s why we love sports. And bring tissue just in case. Sometimes it gets dusty.
Pictured: A’Ja Wilson and her Heathwood Hall teammates celebrate a state championship in Wilson’s final high school game