Sports are great.
This doesn't seem like it will take a great leap of faith for you all to agree with me, but it still needs to be said every once in a while. And, even though we are a Sports Blog - hence, part of SBNation - sometimes we overlook the beauty of why we spend our free time commenting, jabbing, and all the other nonsense that takes place on Off Tackle Empire. It's not just the great plays. It's really not just whether Team A can beat Team B or because Team A beat Team B, and Team B beat Team C, then Team A is better than Team C. Really, the core of it? Sports are great.
I had this realization time and time again this weekend. Every time the clock went to zeroes, every last out, every last shot made or missed. There was a moment in each that gave everyone watching a sense of shared experience. We felt good - or bad - about what happened and we experienced it from our specific moment as well. We felt it according to what was going on for us both in sports life and real life. From the old barns hosting hockey regionals to the baseball fields in which Northern teams were fighting to prove they had something in them, and all the way across each gigantic auditorium hosting a basketball regional, there were moments that we watched and pleaded for our teams to get one more win for us. One more opportunity to follow that journey, and for many, it probably was rooted in much more context than the game. At least for me, that's what it seemed like.
Twelve years ago I was an 18 year old kid who thought he had the entire world figured out. My plan was to graduate high school, get accepted to a prestigious school, become a biomedical engineer, something something something... profit. It was a solid plan, and truth be told, I was on my way, getting accepted to a school in Chicago away from the small town doldrums that I felt had stifled my awesomeness (it is worth noting that I was 18 and my internal measure of awesomeness was that I was off the charts). Of course, life generally does not go as planned. Right before I was about to graduate my Senior year, we found out my mom had a large brain tumor that required surgery. Instead of having my parents - really my core - helping me in getting college figured out, I was focused on growing up and trying to deal with the reality that was facing me. In the following months, it became painfully clear that Chicago was not in the cards and with all of my friends leaving for school, life got weird.
While I wouldn't trade the following years I got to spend with my mom as she fought cancer, wore humility and care with more ease than could be imagined, and helped shape who I would be as an adult - before losing the battle ten years ago, I would also say that it was hard to understand those lessons in real time. I was lonely. I hid it pretty well, though, and I continued to try and find new friends. With my plans of Chicago out, I had to scramble to get into a school. Lincoln had the best option for engineering in state, but I literally made the decision to not go to Chicago the week before classes started. I had no housing, no class schedule, and really, my only options were Omaha or nothing. Some string were pulled and I was suddenly part of the absurd commuter group that was going to UNO. The plan was to go for two years and transfer to Lincoln and graduate with my engineering degree and profit and... Well, that was the plan.
The funny things about life... Early on I could have told you engineering wasn't for me. I have always been able to fall back on 'being smart' but I was failing quickly at the whole school thing. At this point, it felt like literally nothing was going right. I'm sure tons of people go through this every day, but when you're young and dumb, and a little self-centered, you just think you're alone. I was depressed and even with a few friendships starting to grow here and there, I just wanted to get away. It didn't help that getting connected at UNO was difficult, especially 12 years ago.
I still remember going to my first hockey game as a student at UNO. It was at the fairly new Qwest Center, and me and some friends found out you got free tickets as a student. I had been to some old hockey games at the Civic Arena, but this was massive and they had mounds and mounds of seats available. The game was fun, and while I don't know the score or the opponent, I remember feeling like maybe there was some semblance of normalcy. Sports were fun, and for a few hours I went and laughed and joked and didn't really think about life. It was cathartic, and even though I won't even begin to say that it was the changing tide in my life, I can definitely say it helped me feel like life in Omaha could be good. Heck, it eventually led to me even running for Student Government President of UNO and getting runner up - out of two.
Over the next few years, I became a bigger fan of UNO hockey. It will never be the biggest or most important sport to me as a fan, but it always represents something a lot more to me. Even now, I try to go to a few games each year with my wife, and each time I remember some of the crazy moments with friends at the arena. I remember the last time the Mavericks made the NCAA tournament and how much it made me hate Michigan. I remember the time we realized that the ticket guys weren't even checking student IDs and I gave mine to my best friend who looks nothing like me - in that he's not Asian and I am - and he still got his free ticket. I remember the time that the Malice at the Palace happened because that same night UNO and Michigan State got into a brawl ending with about 60 minutes of penalties. I remember all of those times we went and sat where we liked even though our tickets were in the nosebleed. All of these were big memories for me in a sea of not-always-great memories.
As I watched UNO battle RIT to a draw for two periods - which, I might add, was a nice cap to an incredible sports weekend for me that included the UNO's first hockey NCAA tournament win in general, Nebraska sweeping Texas in baseball with a 15 inning nailbiter on Saturday, and what was arguably four of the better college basketball quarterfinal games I have seen - I got more and more anxious. Could this be the year that UNO makes the Frozen Four? Is this team good enough? Are they too young to understand the enormity of the moment? As Goalie Ryan Massa redirected shot after shot. As my twitter feed got more and more ridiculous from fans who had more invested than I did... Well, I got a little overwhelmed. The four goal third period was cathartic and it felt good to be a part of something that was - as I have said before - much bigger than the moment itself. It was something I had hoped for as an 18 year old kid who was looking for something to do that let me forget about growing up for a while. It was the culmination of something I had followed for my adult life.
Sports are great.
I'm not saying that everything with sports are great, and honestly, the culture surrounding sports can be downright ugly - look no further than Tuscaloosa this morning for evidence of that. But, those moments of joy when you say players losing their minds, fans throwing bagels in the street, and grown men crying as their team does something they never expected to see, you can't help but be overwhelmed. As I kept refreshing my twitter feed and started seeing the UNO love, it felt like I was back in college and just overjoyed that something good had happened. It was an awesome thing.
These experiences gives us little attachments to other events in our lives. Sometimes those events were good, sometimes bad, and mostly they were just 'other'. I'm sure that right now there are thousands of stories like mine in Wisconsin and Michigan, Kentucky and North Carolina, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and North Dakota. There are stories building in Iowa City and Lincoln, and probably across almost every state where someone is following a team on a magical journey forward. I understand now that hockey played a part in my story. Sure, it was a little part that it took a lot of time to understand, but it was something that helped me cope. Of course these things don't matter in the bigger scheme of things, but for a few times each year they can and do.
My life is pretty good, and like I said before, I am lucky to have lived the experience here in Omaha that I did. I got married here, I met many good friends - who I have to this day - and while I didn't graduate from UNO, I will always have a lot of love for that school. It will always be the place that took me in, let me be a part of rooting for a fun team, and gave me lasting memories. Watching them do well lets me relive them and that's the amazing part of sports. See, they're pretty great, no?