This is second in a two-part series attempting to validate my authority to write about sports in an un-ironic manner.
PREVIOUSLY: I learn how to deal with constant disappointment by becoming an intractable fan of Atlanta-area sports teams. Thanks, Dad.
My family lived in Tupelo, Mississippi, when Georgia Southern College began playing Division I-AA football again after abandoning the sport in 1941. There is a lot to say about I-AA football, including the ludicrous attempt to rebrand it as FCS (Football Championship Subdivision), but about 95 percent of my sports credibility resides in my knowledge of I-AA/FCS football and I’m not going to shoot my load here. Let’s just say that when Dad started obsessing over a football team I didn’t even know existed, it didn’t exactly pique my curiosity. After all, the man had introduced me to the Falcons, Braves and Hawks. In 1985, it would have been kinder for him to beat me with a fungo. Even after Dad told me the Eagles had won the I-AA national championship, I didn’t feel particularly compelled to get on the bandwagon. Georgia Southern didn’t play on TV, didn’t play any team I had ever heard of and from my point of view in northeast Mississippi, they could have been a figment of Dad’s imagination.
By 1989, I had a better appreciation of Georgia Southern.
First of all, a lot of kids from metro Atlanta (where we were living by then) were choosing Southern as their college of choice. Three factors lead to this migration. 1) One could get into Georgia Southern by picking up the 400 or so points one receives by properly signing one’s name on the SAT. 2) Once in Statesboro, Georgia, it quickly became abundantly clear that women outnumbered men considerably, and citing point #1 previously, there were plenty of bimbos (I’m not sure what was in it for the girls). 3) The nascent football team was on its way to winning four national championships in six years.
Yep. Georgia Southern was a party school.
In September of 1989, Georgia Southern football also appeared on television! ESPN broadcast a Thursday night game from Paulson Stadium using temporary lights. It happened to be the same night Hurricane Hugo came ashore and raped the city of Charleston, South Carolina. Hugo Bowl, as it has been christened, introduced an entire wave of future student to Georgia Southern and its iconic head coach, Erk Russell.
Two years later, Georgia Southern College was Georgia Southern University and I was a freshman. Two years after that, I became a sports writer.
There are some pretty enormous chunks missing from this story of my sports background. My desire to become a six-foot-nine black man because of Dominique Wilkins is one storyline I’ve neglected. The influence of drugs in my early sports writing is another topic for later. The effect of Micro League Baseball, a video game, on my appreciation of the long history of our national pastime and my affinity for the 1968 Detroit Tigers is another post I hope to write. All of those aspects of my life in sports have to take a back seat for now. Right now, I’m still trying to convince a potentially skeptical audience that my opinions about sports might somehow be valid because I spent 1993-1997 and 1999-2005 covering sports in the small town of Statesboro, Georgia.
First of all, it doesn’t take a lifetime of following the Yankees or the Lakers around to learn what sports is all about. The guys at ESPN and Sports Illustrated desperately hope you believe otherwise, but the best sports minds in the history of sports writing have seldom been ex-jocks. Bill Simmons, ESPN’s famous “Sports Guy” is a dweebie little sonuvabitch and has a voice almost a high-pitched and girly as mine. Howard Cossell looked like a melted candy bar and talked like a college professor after two too many cocktails. Brent Musburger might have been a champion chess player. Guys like Roger Kahn and Tony Kornheiser and even Mitch Albom have interests and professional accomplishments outside of sports. I am skipping hundreds of notable sports writers who could ply their craft admirably whether they were covering the Olympics or a Division III women’s Lacrosse match. How could they do this? Because sport boils down to a simple formula:
People play a game because they either love it too much not to or they are so much better at it than everyone else they become compelled—sometimes by outside forces—to play until they can play no more. When the games begin to be played with a certain level of skill unattainable to the average spectator, people will pay money to see them.
Those last two sentences sum up sports. They could be the springboard into a thousand conversations: why Brett Farve kept coming back; why women’s sports will always fail spectacularly on a mass market level; why professional sports teams will offer ludicrous money to players even to the point of bankrupting themselves. The list is interminable.
By covering a college football program just big enough to be a legitimate draw for fans but small enough that the athletes will most likely not become professionals, I was introduced to the world of sports with a level of access few guys can get while remaining stationed in a small town they love. For the better part of twelve years, I got to know the athletes of my own alma mater (and the alma mater of my dad, brother and a bunch of cousins). I got to go to the Masters. I covered all of the Falcons’ home games one forgettable season (1995). I have interviewed Cal Ripken Jr., Tiger Woods and Joe Montana –I was always with a crowd but I always got a question in. I shook Jack Niclaus’s hand and saw a good friend of mine become Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s public relations guy. One of my best friends is a sports writer I hired straight out of college (the lovely Alex, pictured right). She married a baseball player I covered when he was at GSU who made it, briefly, to the major leagues.
I learned the philosophy of sports from Erk Russell, a legend who could have been the head coach of a much larger school but chose to build a program at Georgia Southern out of nothing. I began to understand the lessons sports has for everyday life while following Paul Johnson as he led the Eagles to two more national championships. He’s at Georgia Tech now. I met a brilliant athlete with mind-boggling talent who never made it big in the NFL but played seven seasons as a productive special teams player and locker room leader. He deserved a better shot in the pros but never complained, possibly because he knew real adversity—he had been a chronic and severe stutterer his whole life.
There is so much I was able to be part of by staying put in a small town away from glory. My dad led me to a love of sports. Georgia Southern and sports writing taught me to appreciate the games and the players and the coaches in a different way.
Those who can, do. Those who can’t, write about it.
I don’t really mind falling into the latter category.
So if you believe someone has to be a big-time sports guy working for ESPN or the Boston Globe to have a valid opinion about sports, you’ll want to skip Wednesdays at the Institute. But if you want to hear more about Erk Russell and why the BCS is moot and how fourth-and-one translates into a lesson on how we live our lives, please come back.
I was really good at this sports writing thing once. Maybe I’ll catch the magic again.