Thursday, June 1, 2017

Still A Fan, But I've Changed

When I was a kid growing up I don’t think I was any different than any other sports obsessed American boy.  The game I played changed with the season and my aspiration in life in terms of what professional sport I was going to play followed the same path.  Throughout the summer I dreamed of hitting home runs for the Oakland A’s or playing third based for the Phillies after my hero Mike Schmidt retired.  Once the leaves changed I imagined myself pounding through the line of scrimmage just like Larry Czonka did with the Dolphins.  When I caught the wrestling bug the winter months were spent honing my skills on the mat with Olympic rings serving as my goal.  Sprinkled in there was the periodic plan to ride broncs and bulls like Larry Mahan.  As I moved on into high school and would rank my favorites, baseball and wrestling were at the top followed by football from both a participation and spectator perspective.  In addition, I loved to watch about any sport because I am fascinated by competition and human effort, along with strategy and the whole culture of sport.  Nothing beat watching a good college football rivalry game, ABC’s Wide World of Sports, or my favorite, the Olympics every four years.  

As I’ve aged things have changed a lot and I suppose that is due to all the experiences that I have gone through, including no longer being able to participate in sport at a level where it is enjoyable, having kids that compete (though in very different ways), watching significant changes in sports, and perhaps just becoming more thoughtful and reflective.  At this point in my life I am obviously a spectator, and to a very limited extent, a coach.  If I were to rank my Top 5 favorite sports, this is how it would line up: 1) softball, 2) soccer, 3) college baseball, 4) college football, and 5) rugby.  I guess that I would have to put wrestling in there as a tie for 5th as I have switched it with rugby a couple of times over the course of writing this!  The list has certainly changed!

Softball is my passion.  I absolutely love the game, and it is the only one that I am still active in, working with young players and still doing a little coaching.  From an athletic standpoint nothing has given me more joy than to watch my own daughter play the game, yet I love watching anyone play!  Some people think that it is just baseball played with a bigger ball on a smaller field, but it is much more than that.  The game itself is faster than baseball and there is strategy in softball that does not exist on the big diamond.  And, girls have gotten so much more athletic in the last fifteen years that it has become a truly entertaining game to watch.  There is a lot of hustle and energy on the field and it is a game that continues to get better.  I played a little fast pitch in my younger days and one of my few regrets is that I had to move on and get a life and a job!  

My new found passion is soccer, more accurately, professional and international football.  Once August rolls around I am up every Saturday and Sunday morning by 5:30 to watch the English Premier League games live on the NBC networks.  I keep up to date on four different websites with what is happening in the major professional leagues.  I do not miss a Team USA game on television, men or women.  I admit that I am still working on remembering the players and the lineups, though I have a pretty good perspective of the top players and who they play for.  I am also fairly slow at learning a lot of the nuances of the game, but I am coming along.  I need to sit down with a true soccer coach and learn more about the offenses, defenses, and set pieces.  That’s on my list for the fall!  Both of my kids played soccer when they were young and both of them loved it.  I sincerely wish that both of them would have had a chance to play in high school, but that’s how it goes.

Baseball continues to be another passion of mine, though most of my attention is given to the college game.  This past year when the eight teams assembled in Omaha for the College World Series, I picked Coastal Carolina and UC-Santa Barbara, and tossed in Arizona as my third pick.  From my standpoint I could not have asked for a better 19 days!  Coastal won it all in a tremendous three game series against Arizona.  And while this was the fourth year since 1968 that I missed being at the CWS, I watched a lot of games.  One of the truly difficult things for me personally in our move to northeast Iowa was being so far away from Lincoln and Nebraska Cornhusker baseball, and Omaha for the CWS.  I watch a lot of games on television and wish that BTN would broadcast more of them.  One benefit of our move is that I am very close to many of the Northwoods League teams, one of the premier summer programs for college baseball players.  I do follow Major League Baseball during the playoffs, and still cheer on the A’s and Phillies, but I can’t name more than two or three players on each of those teams.  I was very frustrated back in the early 1990’s when baseball shut down and vowed that I wasn’t going to go to any MLB games again.  Well, time heals wounds and I have been to two, Dodger Stadium was too good of an opportunity to pass up, and most recently, I went to a game in Minneapolis to watch the Twins play my Phillies.  The cost of professional games does not make it real attractive to start going to some of these new ballparks, but who knows.  

Nothing matches the pageantry and game day excitement of college football.  I love the game and cheer enthusiastically for the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Iowa State Cyclones.  Few things give me as much enjoyment as spending all day Saturday watching college football.  The game is still creative and traditions still pull me in.  I have a bucket list of stadiums that I want to travel to and watch a game, and will hopefully be able to check a few of them off in the near future.  The frustrating part of college football, and the thing that puts a bad taste in my mouth is the exploitation of the athletes and all of the money — billions! — that is poured into a game that is played by students who attend academic institutions.  That part really turns me off, but up until now I am able to block all of that from my conscience on Saturdays when I am watching the game.  The NFL holds little interest to me.  The schemes on both sides of the ball are cookie cutter and honestly, there is little excitement on the field.  The past two years I watched less than a full game of professional football during the regular season.  I did tune in during the playoffs to see if Peyton Manning could get it done one more time, but other than that, I spend my time doing something else on Sunday afternoons.

Rugby and wrestling are the other sports that are on my passion list.  I have really enjoyed rugby, actually since my college days when a couple of friends of mine played on the club team at Nebraska.  In hindsight I wish I had joined the club and played.  Today, we have a couple of teachers at NFV that are playing the game with a club out of Decorah, and a few students that have expressed an interest.  It is a viable option to football and in my opinion, a game that I would have no problem seeing replace football.  This is a game that I still need to learn more about from a rules perspective, but I really enjoy watching them play.  Talk about incredible athletes.  No sport is more honest than wrestling.  One on one vs. your foe.  It is the true way to challenge oneself.  The sport has really come a long way in terms of technique and the quality of the elite level wrestlers.  On the other hand, I really don’t like what I see at the youth level, and the negative impact I see it having on high school wrestling.  The sport has suffered from the “participation trophy” syndrome, and I think that the rules are outdated and could be changed to make it more exciting and appeal to new fans.  That said, I missed not being able to watch as much wrestling as I would like the past few years because my daughter was playing basketball, and it has been great to get back into the gym and see the fellas square off against one another.

Things have changed over the years and I am certainly spending my leisure time different than how I used to thirty years ago.  I don’t think it is unusual for people’s likes and preferences to change over time, and maybe I will even change more in my choices.  While I wait to see if that happens, I write this with the state softball tournament just ending  and I am counting the days to the start of the soccer season and college football!  If you need me on a Saturday or Sunday morning, I’ll be watching a game!