Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Joy of Patriot Watching

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 3, 2002

One of the great things about being a minister, and a Unitarian Universalist minister in particular, is that you can talk about subjects about which you know basically nothing. As a minister, one is called upon to lead a conversation about a topic about which numerous members of one’s congregation know infinitely more. This should always keep one humble; sometimes, it actually does.
This morning is one of those occasions. Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, overcome with fear and dread, when I remember what it is I’m supposed to be speaking about on a coming Sunday morning. “Whatever possessed me to choose that topic?” I ask myself. “What can I possibly add to people’s understanding about that?”
So it is this morning as I delve not only into the matter of sports (about which I know little)— but of football (of which I know even less).
Just look at me, and you’ll know: I’m not really into sports (except, maybe, baseball—because it’s the only sport you can read a book while watching). My entire athletic career could be written on the back of a postage stamp. I played softball for our elementary school team back in the fifth grade. I remember the details well: I played right bench most of the season, and right field on those rare occasions where the score differential was wide enough for me not to do too much damage. I even remember my batting average for that illustrious 1965 season: .222 (2 hits [somehow; don’t ask me how] in 9 at bats). I even managed to score the winning run in one game (one of those “Angels in the Outfield” kind of moments).
Aside from that, in college, I played volleyball in an informal church league (it was so informal that calling it a “league” really stretches things; I think it was basically an excuse to go out drinking afterwards). Volleyball is (or, “was” would be more like it) the sport at which I am most accomplished: I would rate myself as “below average” in volleyball. (You can imagine where I would put myself as far as other sports are concerned.)
My father tried to teach me how to golf. That was the religion he practiced on Sundays: golf. (He even bought me a used set of left-handed clubs, thus taking away a really hand excuse I had for being so bad.) I think my lack of prowess in that game he loved almost made him cry on several occasions.
But even though I played few sports, we did watch an awful lot of it around our house as I was growing up. You see, my two (much) older brothers (as well as my father) were pretty good athletes, especially in basketball. So, we always had a “game” on the television, and I absorbed a certain amount of knowledge from that, as if by osmosis. (It was because of this that I was able to amaze my wife during last week’s AFC championship game last week by actually knowing what was going on… by knowing the significance of things, like, “third and ten”… She was truly impressed when I started jumping up and down and hollering something about “A lateral! A lateral!” even before the announcer started echoing my words. It was as if there was a part of me she didn’t know.)
Well, I have to admit that there’s not much “there” there, as far as sports and I are concerned. In the last sixteen years, I have watched the grand total of three football games on television. This evening’s Super Bowl will be #4: I watched last week’s championship game, as I said; prior to that, I watched the Patriots get creamed by the bad old Bears in 1986 (46 to 10—yikes!); I saw their somewhat better performance against the Packers in 1997 (when they also lost, but by a more manageable 36 to 21). It is striking, I think, that both of these previous Super Bowl losses also took place at the Superdome in New Orleans: maybe there’s a pattern here… or maybe three’s a charm… we can at least hope.
[And, in case you’re interested, here’s my “prediction” (fancy word for “guess”) on tonight’s game: I think the Patriots will pull it out—20 to 17—maybe even in overtime. Wouldn’t that be something? It’s been that kind of season, after all. If it happens that way—or anywhere close—remember: You heard it here! If it doesn’t, and if they get creamed (again), I’ll deny everything!] {The Rev. called it—right on the money! A miracle!}
So, I admit to being a fair weather Patriot fan. (Unlike the Red Sox, whom I have stood by staunchly, bravely, despairingly, depressingly, ever since I was a wee child. I remember getting Rico Petrocelli’s autograph as one of the highlights of my early life. I remember them all—the greats and not-so-greats. I’m just a little too young to remember Ted Williams, really. But I do remember Carl Yastrzemski (the fact that he had a name almost as hard to spell as mine was sort of a bond between us). I remember Tony Conigliaro and Jim Lonborg, Luis Tiant, and Jim Rice and Fred Lynn, the two golden rookies of the 1975 season. But I remember others, too, that some of you might not: Joe Foy, Dan Osinski, Dick Drago, Calvin Schiraldi. And do you remember Billy Rohr? Rohr came within a single pitch—two out in the ninth inning—of pitching a no hitter in his first game, against the Yankees. But then, Elston Howard, who played for the Yankees then, singled off of him with two outs in the ninth. It was, I think, the only major league game Rohr ever won. He was back in the minors by the end of May.
I can remember Pudge Fisk’s homerun in the 13th inning of the sixth game of the 1975 World Series—and I can even remember Bernie Carbo’s pinch-hit homerun that tied the game in the ninth. I can remember Don Henderson’s homerun that stole the pennant from the Angels in 1986—and I can remember, a few weeks later, standing in front of the mirror, shaving, as I would for every morning, for almost a year afterwards, not believing that Buckner had let that ball through his legs, and that we really had come that close to dispatching the “Curse of the Bambino”, only to lose it all again in the end. I can even remember where I was when I heard that Roger Clemens had been traded to the (dare I say it?) Yankees!
As you can see, I’d much rather we were talking about the Red Sox this morning.
Ask me about the Patriots, and, beyond Bledsoe and Brady, I pretty much draw a blank.
Which isn’t to say that I’m not interested. I remember when there were no Patriots—no football team for New England to call its own. My father cursed the Yankees (his expletives were a little more colorful than “Damn Yankees”, too)—but he rooted for the New York Giants (it was the closest team that we in New England had until 1960). I remember when the Patriots didn’t even have a stadium and had to play at Fenway Park (which I somehow can’t picture now) or at B.U. or at Harvard Stadium. I remember getting tickets to an exhibition game at Schaeffer Stadium, as Foxboro was called then, and wondering, even back then, whatever possessed thinking human beings to build a sports stadium along that narrow, congested stretch of US Route 1. I, like everyone living within 50 miles of Foxboro ought to have been, was mighty chagrined when Bob Kraft actually considered moving “our” team to “far away” Hartford (because everyone knows that Connecticut isn’t “really” New England).
So, it’s not that I didn’t care about the Patriots. But, to me anyway, they were just too young, too new, too green, to be taken seriously. I mean, for God’s sake, they are significantly younger than I am—what kind of “New England tradition” is that? They were sort of the “poor relation” of New England sports. They just hadn’t had the time to develop the deep, abiding, enriching traditions of the Sox (or even the Celtics). There was always (to me) something tinny about them—like their second-rate, tin can of a stadium, with all those benches, not even real seats.
But now, maybe they’ve grown up enough (or, maybe I have) to admit that something has changed. That moment last Sunday when Bledsoe replaced Brady and proceeded to lead his team to the end zone with a touchdown may have been a touchstone moment in my lukewarm relationship with the Pats. There was so much drama in that moment—so much this-is-better-than-Hollywood-cuz-it’s-real pathos in that instant, that maybe, I told myself, I had been overlooking some splendid treasures right here—that it was time to open up to the joys of Patriots watching, and the lessons that this team (and maybe football in general) has to teach… at least for a couple of weeks…
There is something brutish about football, especially when compared to most other sports (except, perhaps, ice hockey, which I really don’t like; don’t expect a sermon from me, even if the Bruins do win the Stanley Cup). There’s something about football that doesn’t seem as nuanced, subtle, and graceful as most other sports do. (This doesn’t, of course, mean that football players are any less skilled at what they do than practitioners of other sports are.) But while all sports are competitions, and have something of the “us versus them”/ “good versus evil” dynamic written into their very essence, it is football, don’t you think, that is most unmistakably like warfare? What is war—what is football-- if not two sides facing off against each other; locked in head-to-head battle with each other?
And while some of humanity’s most splendid exemplars have been pacificists, like Mahatma Gandhi and so many others, who have lighted well our human sojourn with their examples, can we yet deny that there is not also something of the warrior within our natures, something that wants life reduced, on occasion at least, to the stark morality play of “us against them”?
And even if we seek to beat our swords into ploughshares most of the time, maybe there’s a place to beat the Rams into smithereens once in a while, as well.
Football also seems, to these less than expert eyes at least, the sport where the individual is most readily submerged into the whole—where it is most difficult to identify the individual components of the total machine. I mean, it’s easy to tell the left fielder from the second baseman throughout an entire baseball game, right? Throughout an entire basketball game, you can count the five players on each side on the court.
But in the crush of the scrimmage, it’s not always possible to tell where one player ends and another begins. In the mad pile of a tackle, is there much more than an undifferentiated mass of humanity? Not really.
Now, in this emphasis on the supremacy of the collective over the individual, there is also something which repels many of us more than a little. It is not the kind of seasoning with which we usually spice our spiritual helpings around here. And for that reason, at times, perhaps, the gruel we serve is just a little too thin to feed our human spirits in their entirety.
Perhaps sports (and especially football) have a thing or two to teach us about the importance of teamwork, and the need we have in this disparate, individualism-at-any-cost culture of ours to sacrifice some of our individual fulfillment for the good of the whole society.
But football also has something to teach us about the contributions we all have to make to the realization of our team’s goal—when we are who we are to the best of our ability; when we do our best at the task we are called to perform. Field goal kickers, punt returners, quarterbacks: all were needed for the Patriots to beat the Steelers last Sunday. That’s how games are won. We have to know who we are—and the other members of our team have to respect our abilities—respect our beings—for a team to work, for teamwork to work. The place kicker doesn’t all of a sudden decide to become a quarterback. The team doesn’t decide that only linebackers will be allowed to play this game. And sometimes, the stone which the builder rejected becomes the corner stone: The young rookie emerges as the new team leader, leading the team to victory. Or, the “old” quarterback, derided by many as a “has been”, comes off the bench, plays well, and destiny sweeps forward (and only in athletics is the age of 29 considered “old”; that’s Drew Bledsoe’s age—29).
Football teaches us about the ultimate value of teamwork. But it teaches us just as much about using our individual gifts to their full potential, as well.
“I want to be with people who submerge in the task,” Marge Piercy has written. “Who go into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along. Who stand in the line and haul in their places, who are not parlor generals and field deserters, but move in a common rhythm when the food must come in or the fire be put out.”
It is about community, Patriots watching is, especially on High Holy Days like Super Bowl Sunday. It’s about celebrating community— celebrating belonging. It is about celebrating this New England, this particular, peculiar, oh-so-special piece of Earth which we all call home, and which many of us have been blessed to call home all the years of our lives.
I’m not saying that New England is “better” than other places to live. Most of the year, the South had better weather (and probably better cooking). The Rockies may have better scenery. The Midwest (it is said) has friendlier, more neighborly people. Seattle has better coffee and better rock bands… New York has Broadway and Wall Street and the Statue of Liberty and a much more reliable baseball team (two of them, actually). Los Angeles has… damned if I know what Los Angeles has…
These are all good places. But they’re just not New England… And today, as Tom Brady and all those other Patriots players whose names I don’t know take the field, so will ocean air and clambakes and country roads and covered bridges and leaves burning in the fall and pumpkin pie and apple crisp and clam chowder and lobster bisque and hasty pudding and real maple syrup and weather vanes and saltbox boxes and the whole crazy quilt of people and places and real odd ways of pronouncing words that makes up this place we love, this home of our bodies and our spirits, this New England.
“There is joy in all,” writes Anne Sexton, and “The joy that isn’t shared dies young.”
So may we share together with joy this special day, this special season. And win or lose (for we will always do both in life), may we seize the joy in every season of these lives we have been blessed to lead.

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