Looking back on my childhood, I can't imagine life without sports. That's all I did. Like my wife, me and my buddies also spent a lot of summers at the pool, but we thought doing the best belly flop off the high dive, or modifying the rules of water polo to include "nailing your friend in the face with the ball" were much better character-building exercises than a pretend race that didn't even declare a winner. How unsatisfying.
I bring this up because in the nine years I've known my wife, I've spent more time than I care to admit stealthily planting seeds I hoped would one day blossom into a full-on sports addiction. It hasn't reached that stage yet -- and frankly, I'm not sure I want it to; I'm crazy enough for the both of us -- but there are signs that my hard work is paying off.
Like most things, I didn't have a real plan when I started, but in hindsight, that was probably a good thing. My first break came in 1999. We were living in Arizona and I just started playing golf because, well, I was living in Arizona. It's what people do out there to take their minds off the fact that it's 150 degrees. And when I wasn't playing it, I was watching it.
The 1999 Ryder Cup might have been the most exciting sporting event I ever witnessed live on television. (Growing up on baseball, basketball, football and soccer, I feel ridiculous even typing such a sports blaspheme, and I'd imagine you feel similarly reading it, but stick with me on this.)
For starters, it's not something decided in three hours, neatly packaged like most over-produced sports television; it's a three-day tournament, mixing and matching American players against their European counterparts. And unlike your run-of-the-mill boring stroke play event that doesn't get exciting until about 3 o'clock on Sunday afternoon, this is match play and every hole matters.
On paper, this looked like a mismatch favoring the United States; the roster included many of the top players in the world and there was no reason to think that Europe would put up much of a fight. But Europe fought. Hard. So hard, in fact, they opened up a seemingly insurmountable lead heading into the last day. Then, on Sunday, needing everything to go right, the United States pulled off maybe the most improbable comeback in recent sports history.
Now, I know what you're thinking: Dude, it's golf. Fair enough, but it wasn't just golf. It was the U.S.A. versus Europe. Kind of like the Olympics on steroids. But more importantly, it wasn't really a sport ... it was golf. My wife got caught up in all the drama because she could identify with the players. There weren't complex rules requiring a four-hour explanation, silly uniforms reminding us that grown man choose to dress that way, or helmets making it difficult to identify players. This last one might be the most important.
As a woman, she likes to identify with people. This is my only explanation for why she would put movies like "Elizabethtown" or "The Notebook" ahead of "Talledega Nights" or "Nacho Libre" in our Netflix queue. She likes the story behind the story, and for her, faces help with that. Sure, golf is populated by a bunch of old white guys, but for someone who never understood the whole culture of sports fandom, it's a great introduction.
And you know what? Moments after it was clear the U.S. would win the 1999 Cup, my wife turned to me and said, "You know, that was a lot of fun. I think I could really enjoy watching golf."
Bingo. No amount of planning on my part could've prompted that kind of response from my wife. That's right, a golf tournament held once every two years helped lay the groundwork for a sports-filled future.
From Arizona, we moved to Pittsburgh, where my wife learned very quickly that the Pittsburgh Steelers were Western Pennsylvania. We lived in Squirrel Hill our first two years in the city and whenever I ask my wife her first memories of the neighborhood, she invariably mentions "seeing this really cute guy with a great smile on a billboard hawking glasses." That was Hines Ward. At the time, she had no idea who he was, but he seemed pleasant and had great teeth. Again, it's about the faces. I nonchalantly mentioned that the guy with the choppers played football and was quietly becoming one of the best wide receivers in the league (this was 2000). Of course, she had no idea what a wide receiver was, but that would soon change.
I used what I learned from the Ryder Cup to make sure my wife knew all about Ward, Jerome Bettis and Kordell Stewart that first year – anyone who seemed charismatic enough to transcend all the football stuff. And with every season, I'd point out players I thought she might like -- Antwaan Randle El, James Farrior, Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller. I TiVoed the NFL Films segment featuring Bill Cowher and his basketball-playing daughters. At one point during the show, Meagan, Cowher's oldest daughter, tells Steve Sabol the story of how she, at nine years old, didn't know what she was going to say to her dad immediately following the Super Bowl XXX loss. When Meagan, her sister and her mom reached the field, she grabbed her father and said, "No matter what happens, you'll always be my hero."
Now, I'd seen this before so I knew what to expect, but I pretended to cough, stole a glance at my wife, and noticed she was crying. Mission accomplished. (By the way, if I could've gotten away with it, I would've jumped up and given myself a high-five.) Instead of seeing Cowher the raving sideline lunatic, she now saw Cowher the family man.
My wife has come to enjoy sports, likes to see my favorite teams win (mostly because it makes me happy), will usually watch most of the games, can readily identify most players and coaches, and loves it when I tell her personal stories about the people we're watching run around trying to kill each other. I grew up in North Carolina a huge UNC basketball fan and still watch them religiously. The other day, after listening to head coach Roy Williams give an interview, my wife said, "If you ever hear anything bad about Roy Williams I don't want to hear it." And I know exactly what she means.
So, why have I spent more than 1,000 words telling you all this? Because yesterday, before the Steelers-Panthers game, I showed my wife this little blurb from Gerry Dulac's Saturday notebook in the Post-Gazette.
Most Steelers' fans are familiar with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau reading "Twas The Night Before Christmas" every holiday season to his players. I'd mentioned it to my wife in the past, but I showed her this story because it highlighted that (a) the Steelers truly are a family, and (b) even though it's a business -- a very big business -- the organization has a lot of good people, perhaps none better than LeBeau.
My wife knows LeBeau; anytime his mug pops up on the television, she always comments on how young he looks, and how he never seems phased by much. I always note he's the only 69-year-old I know still sporting feathered hair and a gold chain. (Come on, how awesome is that?)
So Sunday, after Anthony Smith's interception-turned-circus-act-turned-Jerry-Springer episode, I wondered what my wife would make of all of this. She missed the play as it happened, but after rewinding the DVR, I called her into the room with this teaser: "Hey, want to see Richard LeBeau go bonkers?"
She made her way in the room and I pressed play. Before going on, I should say that my wife is a high school teacher, spends all day with 14- to 18-year-olds and knows how these walking hormonal time bombs think. I mention this because in a lot of ways, rookie professional athletes who have just come into a lot of money are in many ways very similar to high schoolers.
Following the Chris Weinke pick, she watched Smith goose-stepping it down the sidelines while carrying the football like it a boom box and it was 1983.
As soon as Smith stepped out of bounds, looking very happy with himself, LeBeau, waiting to greet him like a Gap employee but without the sunny disposition, goes "William 'D-Fens' Foster" on him. My wife takes it all in and makes this observation:
"So that's what it takes to get Dick LeBeau angry. If [Smith] is anything like the kids I teach, he'll act tough in front of his friends, but take what LeBeau says to heart. That's how it works when kids really respect a teacher."
Huh. Interesting perspective. It's funny to think that I can learn something about football from my wife, the person who still doesn't fully understand what it means to get a first down. Instead of looking to pass judgment on Smith, she looked for something positive in the situation. (As I think about it, this might be her defense mechanism for dealing with me. Makes sense too.) Hopefully, Anthony Smith learned something from quite possibly the best teacher in the NFL. I guessing he did.
There are two morals to this story: First, tricking your significant other into being a sports fan is acceptable under most all circumstances. Second, they might even be able to teach you something about sports, even if it's by accident. See, everybody wins.