Sports Bring People Together

My brother Stephen, a senior at Notre Dame, has been to all 12 Fighting Irish football games this season. Notre Dame had a bye week in mid-October, a chance for Steve to watch football on the couch instead of in the stands.

He went to Knoxville to watch Tennessee play LSU.

Steve has travelled with college friends and has seen family and friends at each stop: high school pals in Pittsburgh and Winston Salem, cousins in Washington, D.C., me in Ann Arbor.

This past Saturday, Notre Dame visited Stanford, so Steve was in Palo Alto. It also meant he spent Thanksgiving with his Aunt Bethy.

While Steve cheers in person, his family gathers around a television in New York. The Thanksgiving leftovers gone, my dad orders a half dozen pizzas. The cousins and aunts and uncles who joined us for the holiday have hit the road, replaced by my older brother’s Notre Dame friends, Chris and John. Both married, Chris brings his wife and John his two young daughters.

John and the girls arrive in the middle of the afternoon; he wants to stick around for the 8:00 kickoff but he isn’t optimistic. Then, his youngest cries, as eight-month-olds tend to do, and his three-year-old nearly does the same whenever our 85-pound golden retriever approaches her. But before we know it, the infant is asleep, the toddler is ignoring Mutsy in favor of her new best friend (my brother’s fiancée, Donna), and Stanford is driving.

Having left our house and returned to their home on Lake George, my cousin Caroline and her parents are watching as well. On Thanksgiving night, the living room was divided as Caroline rooted for her alma mater, Dayton, in a basketball game against my dad’s school, Wake Forest. Dayton’s win set up a game the next day against my mom’s school, Fairfield, also won by the Flyers. It’s unclear whether Caroline will be getting any Christmas presents from my parents this year.

My girlfriend Megan is watching too, though she is preoccupied with her phone. She’s tracking the Michigan women’s basketball team, playing in the Virgin Islands. Just a week earlier we took a short train ride to New Jersey to watch them play Seton Hall. Megan reconnected with the players she worked with the past few years.

One, Carmen Reynolds, is a senior from the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. Her parents were at the Seton Hall game, because her parents are at every game. Her father has missed just one of Carmen’s college games; her mother has missed only a few. Weeknight road trips to Ann Arbor, Bloomington, and West Lafayette are impressive enough, but consider this recent 10-day stretch: After the Seton Hall game, the Reynolds’ drove to Maryland to leave their car with a relative, then flew to the Virgin Islands and back to Maryland for a game before driving home.

There is more.

The Wednesday night before Thanksgiving involves a tradition I associate with the holiday as much as a turkey dinner: the Preseason N.I.T. at Madison Square Garden. I’ve been going with my dad, brothers, and our family friends for as long as I can remember. Inevitably, past tournaments are rehashed—when we saw Marcus Camby as a freshman; when Iverson went head-to-head with Marbury. Smartphones let us verify the exact year, the team that won. Does it even matter?

Friends gather at a local middle school field the morning after Thanksgiving for a game of touch football, known as the Turkey Bowl. They couldn’t get enough players last year so the game was cancelled, meaning some of these guys haven’t seen each other in a couple of years. One finds out my brother is engaged. Another has a new job. Another is moving. They decide to meet up at a bar later that night. They’ll all be sore the next day.

Friday morning, my great (and I mean that as a noun and adjective) Aunt Naj, 83, asks me what is wrong with college athletics. She’s only staying for a few days, so we switch the topic to baseball. She mentions Jorge Posada, says the Yankees had to let him go. They should have re-signed Matsui a couple of years ago though. She tells me it was better when you could buy a team yearbook at the start of the baseball season and it would still be mostly accurate at the end of the season, maybe even for a year or two after that.

***

I’m watching as Andrew Luck leads Stanford down the field, but I’m not paying attention. How could I be expected to focus on someone else’s school after mine had just notched its biggest win in years? Megan and I watched the Michigan-Ohio State game with our friends Jules, a fellow Wolverine, and Lee and Arielle, Michigan fans by association.

The scoreboard showed Michigan ahead most of the game—including at the end—and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy their company more because of it.

We gather with family and friends to watch, to play, to discuss. As legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant once said, “You can’t rally around a math class.”

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