As fall happens, the sports culture is unfurled.
It is in those autumn days that baseball winds down, football starts anew as do a host of other sports.
Whether it is in the concluding days of the baseball season or opening Friday night of high school football, the elegance of sports is unleashed.
For those engaged as players, fans, supporters or for other reasons, games become like novels, played out in human drama. Part of this beauty in sport involves the culture of supporting teams. It is in the clothes we wear, the way we cheer, the behavior before, during and at games and the captivating ways to involve those from across the spectrum. Bands play, young music-interested persons sing, and whole towns unleash their passion on those contested events.
From the field to the lockers rooms and in the stands, the event is defined by the rhythm of cheers, play and conversation. These moments are seemingly transcending, beginning under human cover at home and elsewhere, and unveiled in both private and public moments.
After classes end, a student heads to his apartment to gather his team garb - the hat (cheese head or horns for some), painted tennis shoes, a gray t-shirt with the team logo that may contain some whimsical statement, jeans and, of course, a hat to fill out a wardrobe defined by one's passion for his team. Into his car and off to the stadium, he goes - him and thousands more just like him.
A 18-year old female places her text books in her neatly kept locker and she is off to the women's locker room to transfer into a member of the cheer squad. On goes her uniform, then she brushes back her hair, applies a bit of makeup and grabs her pom-pom as her gaggle of cheer group readies to hit the floor.
The costumization of supporters is the first act. As crowers begin to gather first in the ticket lines and then mull around concession areas before finding their place in the stands, a constellation of colors evolve in the stadium corridors.
In the locker room, a 6-3, 225 pound linebacker steps out of a whirlpool and on a table to get his ankles taped. In shorts and a tattered and unwashed t-shirt that he has wore since the winning streak began, the 21-year old winces and then head back to his locker. There, he strains to pulls on his uniform bottoms and finally pulls his top over his shoulder pads, grabs his helmet and take a seat near the locker room door. He checks the clock on the wall - almost time. He looks up and catches the eye of his best friend and both nod in a nonverbal gesture fully understood between them. The hard work in the work room and on the field during summers was worth it. The quarterback and linebacker are best friends who have dreamed of this moment since they competed against each other in junior football.
In his office, the coach eyes the computer notebook that includes his report and strategy for the game. His assistant prints out copies for the team, quick hitters about what to do in the game. As he closes his computer, the 45-year old coach looks up at the ceiling and lets out a nervous, somewhat exasperated "whew" and then completes the Windsor movements of his tie before donning his lucky sports jacket. He thinks about the long hours, the sacrifices that his wife and family have made to allow him to pursue his passion. He thinks about what he has missed with those he loves. He takes a deep breath, blows out a little of the stress, grabs his lucky Irish leprechaun that his six-year old game him last year and heads out to the locker room. Focused, he is not worried about losing or excited about victory - he is in a different state. This is his team's and his own shining moment.
In another part of the stadium, a group of six men arrive and are escorted to their quarters. As they drop their bags and take out their gear, the black and white top is matched with black pants and a black hat. It is going to be an interesting evening as the crowd noise begins to creep into their quarters. The white-hatted head official takes a glimpse of his watch and says, "ready?"
Leaving the bar/restaurant, a former player nervously gets into his car with his wife of seven years and three small kids. All are attired - appropriately - in his Alma mater's garb. He is nervous, just like game day all those years ago. As he drives toward the stadium, he thinks to himself, "I hope it is different this time." Ten years ago, he lived the championship moment as a player and his interception ended his team's hopes.
Like many, the father of the senior quarterback, nervously walks on the field before the game, not a look up as he is lost in reflection. Even as an assistant coach says hello, he is lost in thought and rumbles a jittery, "thanks." He recounts how it all started for his son - a junior football championship and now he is starting this third straight year with a multitude of college scholarship offers in hand. As he takes off his hat, he thinks about all those games that he and his wife have traveled to in support of their son. He is a dad hoping that his son has the game of his life.
Each of these actors play a part in this human engagement. This orchestrated event involves bands, cheer squads, team uniforms, and attire, but also the preparation of the teams, bands, athletes and others, all coming to this play prepared from life moments of previous days.
As game time draws closer, the energy increases. The air is so thick with tension that it could be sliced with a knife, remolded and regenerated. The players, coaches, fans and others can feel the adrenaline, the butterflies that plays havoc with the stomach and everything begins to locks up so tight that it is tough to breathe. Many begin to panic a little and feel as if they are tied up inside. Others find themselves anxious and their nerves are frittered from the preparing and waiting. They just want it to get underway.
Slowly the clock winds to zero, teams head to the sideline and the crowd noise has an uptick.
As the announcer welcomes the crowd, does his sportsmanship piece, and begins to announce the presenters of the national anthem, thousands of eyes perch on the flag but in that moment, while respectful of their country, many gathered begin to play out the scenario of winning and the joy that moment will generate. Losing is not an option, except for the fan in section B, who always believes that something bad can happen. He is the same one that believes the bridge will fall as he is crossing over or while flying something bad will happen to the plane. He works at a local university and supporting his team is his passion but that doesn't stop him from adopting the Cubs' mantra - "wait 'til next year" in every game he watches that involves his precious Alma mater.
The linebacker begins to play out the opening moments of the game as the quarterback's father fidgets a bit and the cheerleader is all smiles. Like the athletes, the head cheerleader is excited to finally being involved in a state championship. Her job and passion is to keep the fans going, supporting the team. Like others, this day will be a defining memory.
On each end of the field, the cheer squads are strung out, waiting their cue as the special guest band takes the field, maneuvering to layout its out statement. As the players doff their helmets, stand erect with hands to their side, to their heart or behind them, the young sophomore lets loose a sweet, smooth voice that lifts the spirit of those in attendance. In this orchestrated movement, everyone is standing, each in their realm, each conforming to the organized structure of the moment.
The alumnus thinks to himself that is the way the anthem should be song, not like that of the Christina Aguilera's, who butchered the Star Spangled Banner in the last Super Bowl.
As the band leaves the field, both teams congregate in loud "lets go" cheers, and the game is at hand.
The kickoff is the second act (pre-game actions are the first) of this piece of sports theatre - teams spread out in formation as the official readies the ball for play. As the whistle sounds, the kicker is the first to move and sets the ball into flight, all eyes fixed on the oblong object. As it flies high, spinning in a counterclockwise motion and settles into a smallish and quick athlete's hands, he ducks away from a defender, breaks into the open - for a moment - and "bam" he goes down. The "oohs and aahs," and cheers from the crowd, grow in octave as the audience breathes.
A few people there, both on the sideline and in the stands, begin to think about their grade school days when football began for them. The sandlot games were rough and tumble affairs, while a bit bloody, violent and unorganized. Bloody noses, holes in the jeans, cut elbows, mothers upset, and a few father smiling, all part of a charmed memory.
It isn't easy to concentrate on the moment at hand. You can't forget the winning...and...losing moments that have become part of your sports psyche.
When Franco Harris caught that "immaculate reception" I was hooked forever on the Steelers. It also seemed to happen in slow motion. The lack of execution, and mistake-filled play turned into one of the great moments in sports. You recall the beauty of a fingertip catch - Harris keeping his balance and avoiding defenders like he was a ballet dancer orchestrating precise movements on an arena floor but this was on a cold, and hard outdoor platform with angry defenders in pursuit. Yet, every time I think of that game, that play, the elegance of sport springs forward.
There is something uniquely beautiful about a great sports moment. Every time it is replayed, the elegance of the player and teams play out as does the sudden look of surprise on faces, followed by joy and sorrow, as if a puppeteer held our emotions and the moment in his hands.
I recall at the NCAA Division II first round game with New Hampshire College when the University of South Dakota Coyotes had a four-point lead with a minute to play and then a player that hadn't hit a three pointer all season did so. That shot was followed by USD's Randy Rosenquist's hoist near the right sideline - just in front of me in Springfield, Mass. The shot appeared on line, hit the backboard and careened out.
When Bridget Yoerger sank a three-pointer for a 57-40 lead against Minnesota State in the DII regional at the DakotaDome, the long-awaited moment of championship achievement had no longer eluded the Coyote women, who were off to the Elite Eight for the first time in history in 2007-08.
So many life moments grasp us in winning and losing conditions, releasing both exhilarating or heart-breaking emotions depending on the side you are on.
As the offenses and defenses take the field, the movements of this play begin to take shape. On the sidelines, coaches are pacing, some are yelling and the reserves get into the action of supporting mates. Coaches don't run unto the field - well there are some exceptions - but most follow the defined rules and cheat just a little.
The cheer squad leads its student section into cheers like "We have spirit yes we do", challenging those on the other side. The section falls into the celebrated wave, swaying movements that seem to resemble the open ocean.
Onto the field, a long pass from the heralded quarterback strikes the receiver in full stride as a father smiles.
A minute later, a linebacker sacks the quarterback, the ball pops free and his teammate picks up the bounding ball, plays hot potato with it for about five yards before grasping it as a defender strains for the tackle, just missing his feet and he is off to the end zone with his entire team mobbing him in joy. From 25 yards away, the linebacker's hand shoots up with a single finger indicating number one. The linebacker and his mate do a chest bump, knocking the smaller player to his rear. The linebacker helps him up as both players run off to the sideline with joy written on their faces.
As you reflect back on your championship event, you sometimes become frozen in thought about that one defining moment, good or bad, that forever sticks.
As the former player leaves his stadium - his because it is where he played and it a place that will forever draw him back like a second home. It is where he experienced some character moments, and it is where part of his own theatre of life played out. As he leaves, his family members find their place in the car, and as he closes his door, starts the ignition and looks to his wife, a smile creases his face. Everything is right.
Finally the coach hugs his daughter, the lead cheerleader whose big smile brightens the field. She is happy for her father, her friends and the school. She kisses him on the cheek, runs to her friends and promises to be home by curfew.
The coach smiles and heads to the press conference room, before he picks up his winter jacket at his office. In his final act before leaving the stadium, he quickly checks a message on his computer, from his mentor that he hasn't seen in 10 years. "Nice job, I knew you had it in you," the note read.
As he looks up, his senior quarterback thanks him for all he does for the team. The coach smiles and hugs his star. As he releases himself from the embrace, he flops back into his chair with his heavy coat and top hat on, as a moment of pride sweeps through him.
It all has been worth it.
That feeling from the coach is why many of us keep going back to games, even when we only connect to the institutions or maybe a long distance connection.
Moments of life often include that beautiful memory of sport for many of is. It is an elegance that continues to shine when we allow ourselves to engage.