In the past few weeks, I have spent a lot of time wondering where sports should fit in my life.
I have always found the pursuit of physical or athletic excellence absolutely enthralling. I find the perseverance, confidence and discipline required to accomplish anything significant inspiring in a way that's difficult for me to describe.
But maybe what moves me most about athletes — from high school to the Olympics — is the ability to overcome disappointment.
Intellectually, we all know resilience is key to success.
But when you’re the one being repeatedly pummeled by life, it becomes clear why so few people accomplish truly great feats. Sometimes the struggle is so deep and wide and all-consuming that quitting doesn’t look like giving up. It looks like common sense. It feels wise and comfortable. And everyone around you seems to understand that there was no other choice.
But then there are people and situations who show us that there are always options. They may not be the options for which we prepared, for which we trained and sacrificed, but they are, nonetheless, options that keep us moving toward some long-held, reverently nurtured goal.
I read too much.
Years ago, I used to watch cable news channels feeling a weird desperation for information during a breaking news story or tragic event. It is how I experienced the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 and how I experienced the tragedies on Sept. 11, 2001.
But in the last decade, I’ve read more and watched less. I love all the small, seemingly insignificant details that writers offer. I am grateful that most of the time, the writers get out of the way and let me commune with my fellow human beings as they suffer, triumph and reflect.
So in the last few weeks, I’ve read stories of incredible bravery, of true love lost, of people forgotten and of priorities refocused. From merciless hurricanes to a horrifying mass shooting to raging wildfires, I’ve read, I’ve cried and I’ve wondered.
Why does sports matter?
Who cares who wins a football game or where a teen is going to college when people are clinging to each other in a swimming pool, praying for a miracle as fire ravages the world around them?
It’s my job to care, but it’s been like swimming through molasses the last few weeks. I donate money online, add people to my prayers every day, and then I try to find that passion for the stories of people who once inspired me.
Watching Cameron Brown run the football reminded me of watching the first “Terminator” movie. One particular moment, he ran toward the sideline, and defenders seemed to ricochet off of him, they hung on him, batted at the ball. He never did hit the ground.
He just kept his feet moving, his head up, and though he slowed, he just eventually ran out of bounds.
After the game I asked him about the hustle and heady play of punter Preston Pitt, as the senior chased down a blocked punt, scrambled to the other side of the field and then made a 40-ish yard pass to a teammate.
He confessed that he was supposed to be the third man on the wall protecting Pitt as he punted. An official directed him to leave the field and talk to a teammate who’d been running his mouth a bit too much.
He owned it, expressed the fear he felt, and then praised Pitt for making such a gutsy, athletic play.
It was a reminder of how beautiful honesty is. In the middle of a postgame celebration, he laid himself open to criticism and just shared how he felt about his mistake, what it might have cost his team, and how grateful he was for a teammate's heroics.
Marquise Blair has a delightful laugh that makes you want to find funny things to say so you can fill the world with that music. As I watched him play Saturday night, I thought what a contrast his laid-back, light-hearted demeanor was with his style of play. He was, according to his mother, her shadow, trailing her wherever she went, even into his teens. They still talk nearly everyday and share all of the college football experiences he never even knew were possible until a coach offered him a football scholarship when he was a junior.
He didn’t grow up watching sports, worshiping the game’s big names or dreaming of making a living in the NFL. His hero was never more than a few feet away, and when he played, she was simply support, never attempting to dissect his game or coach him.
I left our 15-minute interview thinking that it was good to be reminded that it isn’t always ambition that drives achievement. The fuel for amazing accomplishments comes in many forms. In this case it was joy.
And for some reason, that made watching him play such an excellent game Saturday night even more entertaining.
You don’t have to watch Olympic speedskater Brittany Bowe race to know she’s a competitor. Even when the world record holder in the 1,000-meters is grinning, her intensity is palpable.
A year after she won three gold medals at the World Championships, she lost most of her season to a seemingly minor concussion. Talking with her about how she defined herself before the yearlong struggle, and how that evolved throughout her recovery, I realized how much we take for granted, especially when we’ve been blessed with opportunities.
I read more stories of heroics, or miracles and of tragedies this weekend, and while I still felt relief, sadness and empathy, I also felt a little bit more capable.
I felt a little more capable of honesty, a little more committed to finding joy and a lot more grateful for good health and a seemingly endless well of opportunities.
That perspective was possible because of the athletes I am fortunate enough to meet as I search for stories that remind us why the games matter.
They’re not always the most important aspects of our lives, but they can certainly reveal — and reinforce — the best in us as we strive, individually or collectively, for something magnificent. And that example, those reminders, may never be more valuable because so many people in so many places are struggling in almost incomprehensible ways.