I remember it like it was yesterday. Christmas Eve, 2005. I was standing on the sidelines of Raymond James Stadium watching the Buccaneers play the Atlanta Falcons. At that time, reporters and columnists from sports betting sites were allowed to enter the sidelines with less than three minutes to play to get a head start to the locker room. This was the last season the Buccaneers allowed media on the sidelines.
The Falcons had seemingly won the game on a TJ Duckett touchdown with four minutes left. As the game waned, Tampa Bay slowly began to march down the field. Could they tie it up? Could they force overtime? Thirty seconds left. Fourth and one from the 1-yard line. Chris Simms turned and handed off to eventual Rookie of the Year Cadillac Williams. He surged through the line and burst into the end zone. Tie game.
At the time, I was working for a magazine that covered the Buccaneers. They were seen as outsiders in the press box. So when Williams scored, and I nearly jumped in the air in excitement and shouted aloud my editor, who was standing next to me at the time, shook his head ‘No’. Other stoic, stone-faced media types surrounded us. They looked down on us. They had been trained. The joy of sports had long been sucked from their veins. There was no cheering in the press box and there’s no cheering on the sidelines. We’re media, we have to be unbiased. Objectivity. That’s the name of the game. Well, that’s what they tell you in journalism school, anyway.
I stumbled on to journalism at 22-years-old after endless paths of failed majors. I was 24 and finally a senior in college. A lot of people go to college for seven years. I was the Editor-In-Chief of my college newspaper. I had great friends who were also writers. (They’re still my best friends.) We felt like kings. After much persistence and constant e-mails, the editor of the magazine that covered the Bucs finally relented and allowed me to come on board and write as an intern. My press badge was approved. My first day at Buccaneers practice, Bruce Allen, then GM of the Buccaneers told me I was the youngest person to ever be granted a press badge for media access with the Bucs. I don’t know if that was true, but it made me feel incredibly special.
When I decided to become a sports writer, it was because I loved sports and I loved writing. What the hell, might as well combine both, right? I’d never be unhappy again. I’d be doing what I loved. Writing and sports. Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life. I’d heard that cliché yearly from my parents, teachers, professors and even my friends. I thought I had found my calling. Finally. FINALLY. I had found something that would make me happy.
Suddenly, everything that I had associated with the joy of sports writing was happening right before my eyes. It was a Christmas Miracle. Overtime. A series of heart wrenching turns for good and bad went back and forth. Atlanta lined up for a game winning 28-yarder. BLOCKED. Matt Bryant missed a field goal of the same length about six minutes later. The game was heading for a tie. The Bucs had one last shot. They got within Matt Bryant’s range. He lined up for a 41-yard field goal to win the game. This game story was going to be brilliant. So many story lines, so much drama. Playoffs on the line. First place on the line. My face lit with excitement. Bryant put toe to leather, and the ball soared through the uprights. And at that moment, I lost control. The crowd exploded. I jumped up and down screaming over the dramatic come-from-behind victory. All journalistic integrity melted away at that moment as I leapt and screamed in joy. I grabbed my editor and screamed in his face, and he smiled and screamed back. We jumped up and down together. It took us a moment to recollect ourselves.
When we looked around, all the other sports writers had smiles on their faces too. It was as if, for a moment, they all got caught up in the moment with them. This young kid, dumb with a smile from ear-to-ear, just lost his mind on the sidelines. It took less than five seconds for them to wipe that look of their faces. They returned to their sneers and looked down on the feeble specialty magazine reporters leeching their press box food and ruining their press conferences with awful questions.
The rest of the evening I went through the motions of being a normal journalist. Press conference, locker room questions, feverish writing in the press box as the sun went down. It was work, it was exhausting, and it never came nearly as close to the incredible feeling that surged through my body when the Buccaneers won that game. I looked around at all the other writers on the row. They looked just as miserable. It hit me then. I knew I didn’t want to do that job any more. No cheering in the press box. NO CHEERING? What are we here for? Everyone in that room probably started out in the same fashion that I had. But as the years wore on and the bottled up excitement had to be pushed down into their bowels, they slowly just became boring game recap artists. That wasn’t going to be me. I loved sports so much that I had to give it up. I wouldn’t write another story after that day. I was done with sports reporting. I vowed that I’d never become those zombies in the press box.
On the way home, my editor looked nervous. He was embarrassed for his outburst I assumed. The magazine was his living and he didn’t want to let his hard work crumble. I apologized for my actions. He told me not to worry about it, and I didn’t. I resigned from the internship the week after Tampa Bay was bounced out of the playoffs by the Washington Redskins.
After graduation, I took a job as a copy editor at a small newspaper. That lasted for about two months. It wasn’t for me. My heart wasn’t in it. The initial reason for being a journalist in the first place was gone. I changed careers and haven’t looked back.
Whenever a feeling of excitement runs through my body because of a sporting event, I always think back to Christmas Eve, 2005. I wanted that jolt again. I had that jolt last night watching Michigan in the national title game.
That long-winded explanation has a means to an end. The Michigan Wolverines, the school I’ve devoted countless hours of time to since I was eight years old, lost a heartbreaking game to the Louisville Cardinals last night. The game was full of those incredible, exciting moments that sent that jolt through my bones time and again. Two powerhouse teams leaving everything they had on the court. Both exchanged haymakers and withstood the body blows. Louisville landed more punches in the end. I didn’t want it to end.
We journeyed with that team through heaven and hell and almost made it to the Promised Land with them. They were inches away from a historic, unlikely title. A perfect bow on a perfect season after so many years of basketball mediocrity.
As Mitch McGary tossed up that useless prayer to end the game, I felt the gut-wrenching feeling punch me in the gut. I collapsed on the couch and placed my head in my hands. It was deflating, but necessary. My wife came over and kissed me on the head and said, “They’ll be back, honey. Don’t give up hope.” I smiled, said thank you, and gave her a kiss as she retired to bed.
I sat up for a while, unable to shake the defeat. For the amazing highs that sports can bring, they can also bring unimaginable lows. The Bucs game was an amazing high. This was the lowest I’d felt about a sporting event in a long time. (2006 Ohio State Michigan will always take the cake, but 2005 Ohio State Michigan comes in at a close second. Damn you, Lloyd Carr. You punted.)
The most prominent thought in my head, though, was simple: Thank god I didn’t have to cover that game as a journalist. Thank god I didn’t have to hide my emotions. I’d have died. I’d have been kicked out of the press box, possibly the arena. I don’t have the best control over myself when my teams lose. Check my Twitter feed, you’ll see.
Games like that remind me why I’m a fan in the first place. It’s fun to lose yourself in something. To suppress that almost seems unholy. Your body shouldn’t have to do that. I guess that’s why I’ll always love bloggers more than actual journalists. Bloggers still wear their fandom on their sleeve. They still can be irrational despite overwhelming evidence that disproves their arguments. They, to me, are the lifeblood of sports reporting because they still maintain the humanity of it all. That’s not to say that there’s no place for sports reporters anymore. Far from it. Some of my favorite writers are still pulling the grind everyday. Kyle Meinke and Nick Baumgardner come to mind. But bloggers, I guess you could call me a blogger, will always have a little Kerouac in them. We’re the mad ones. We wear our emotions on our sleeves and get in arguments over ridiculous things. We follow our teams around the country under the guise of journalism. We’re not journalists. Thank god for that.
I’ll always remember this season as one of the most entertaining, fulfilling journeys in my history as a Michigan Wolverine fan. Thank you, Michigan Basketball. Thank you, Coach Beilein. Until next year.