When I was a boy, starting in sixth grade I was a hypochondriac. I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now, why I was seized by that particular anxiety disorder, which lasted well into junior high.
Most of my waking hours I would perseverate on the fear that I would suffer from a serious or life-threatening illness. My parents, loving and kind, reassured me as best they could, including bringing me in for several medical exams. Nothing was ever wrong, but it seemed impossible for me to escape the shadows. I felt momentary relief after a visit to the doctor, reassured I was going to live after all, but within days the fears would grip me again.
There was one thing that provided me refuge: sports. Playing sports — at recess, on playgrounds, with friends, with my brother — would help push the dark thoughts away. But so would watching sports, following professional teams, reading and rereading sports books, devouring whatever information I could in those pre-ESPN days. In the 1970s, the walls and door of the bedroom I shared with my brother were plastered with posters and articles about my favorite athletes, including Roger Staubach of the Dallas Cowboys, Nolan Ryan of the California Angels and Muhammad Ali.
It was a world that I immersed myself in, that captivated my imagination, that provided me with heroes and even hope. It sounds silly, unless you were a young boy nearly paralyzed by fear. My hypochondria eventually passed, leaving me as mysteriously as it seized me, but my love of sports never did. And it continued to shape me in fundamental ways, creating in me a love of language that would eventually manifest itself when I became a presidential speechwriter and an essayist. As an adult, when life brought me hardship or worry, political or emotional, sports was a haven. And to this day sports is a touchstone in my relationship with my brother, with whom I’ll be texting continually during Super Bowl LVII on Sunday.
On Oct. 1, 1975, when I was 14, my best friend and I went to the closed circuit broadcast of the epic, brutal third and final fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. We were in a crowded high school gym in Richland, Wash., watching the match on a large screen. I have vivid memories of the fight and the mesmerizing Sports Illustrated cover story written by Mark Kram the following week. Passages like this, about the battered Frazier, have stayed with me: “The scene cannot be forgotten; this good and gallant man lying there, embodying the remains of a will never before seen in a ring, a will that had carried him so far — and now surely too far.”
But Kram was hardly the only person whose words left an early imprint on me. Bill King, the radio voice of the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and the NFL’s Oakland Raiders in the 1970s, once compared the Raiders quarterback Kenny Stabler to the violinist Jascha Heifetz in a manner that was both unaffected and evocative: “Jascha Heifetz never played a violin with more dexterity than Kenny Stabler is playing the Minnesota Viking defense this afternoon in the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena,” King said during Super Bowl XI. Above all there was John Facenda, the narrator for NFL Films from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s, whom many NFL fans referred to as “the Voice of God.” The scripts, written by Steve Sabol, were elegantly crafted, literate and aided by majestic instrumental music.
The effects of these early influences gave me a tremendous appreciation for the power of words. At that point in my life, I didn’t know I was going to become a writer; what was beginning to dawn on me, though, was that compelling, incandescent language, in whatever domain, resonated with me. It unlocked my imagination and stirred my emotions. It was ennobling. And in the case of sports, it deepened my appreciation for something I already loved.
One thing that irritated me when I was young, and still does, if I’m being honest, is when people refer to competitive sports as “only” a game. Sports played at a high level is “only” a game in the same way the music of Ludwig van Beethoven or Bruce Springsteen is “only” music or the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci and Claude Monet are “only” art.
Or as Thomas Boswell, reflecting on the joy of sports at the end of his career as a sportswriter for The Washington Post, wrote, “The intensity of those memories is its own message about where sports stand in our hearts.”
Last week, I had dinner with a close friend, a person of great intellect and emotional equanimity. He’s as even keeled and steady as they come. But he told me about attending with his young son, the 2019 wild-card game between the Washington Nationals and the Milwaukee Brewers, won by the Nationals 4-3 thanks to a rally late in the game. He described to me how the 40,000-plus crowd erupted after the last out and its effect on him. “I’m barely comfortable hugging close friends,” he told me. “But after the Nats won the game I was hugging complete strangers.” This is a memory my friend and his son will cherish for the rest of their lives. That’s hardly trivial.
The grace and excellence, the raw human talent, that we see in world-class athletes appeals to us. But the power of sports is also when we see it as part of a larger human drama, like Michael Jordan collapsing on the floor in tears on Father’s Day in 1996 after dedicating that championship to his father, whom he adored and who had been murdered a few years earlier.
Earlier, I mentioned Roger Staubach, the Heisman Trophy winner and Hall of Fame quarterback who played for the Dallas Cowboys. When I was growing up, Staubach was, to me, the total package: talented and tough, superb in the clutch, a winner, revered by his teammates, and a man with a burning competitive desire. He was also a person who spoke openly and easily about his deep Christian faith. As a boy, I had no theological background. But my thinking was pretty simple: If Roger Staubach was a Christian — in his case, a practicing Catholic — there must be something to it. Eventually, I would make my faith my own, but the integrity of Staubach’s life, and the role his faith played in it, helped shape my own journey.
The anxious boy who decades ago fell in love with sports has stayed in love with sports. It’s not the most important thing in my life. But it has made my life — and maybe yours, too — more fun, filled with more joyful memories, and a little more inspired. And maybe, like me, you’d be a different person, and a lesser person, if sports had never been an essential part of your life.
Peter Wehner (@Peter_Wehner) — a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum who served in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — is a contributing Opinion writer and the author of “The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.”
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