When Notre Dame lined up for a last-second field goal against USC in 1986, I couldn’t watch. A second-half comeback built to such a nerve-fraying crescendo that I had to leave the house.
It was November in South Bend. I remember snow piled on the driveway and puffs of breath and clammy palms and windows fogged to make peeking mercifully impossible. I can almost summon the feeling now, as if the threat of defeat were still hanging over Notre Dame like an unknown diagnosis.
The game itself meant almost nothing. (Spoiler alert: the Irish won to finish 5-6 in Lou Holtz’s first season.) Its significance grew in the following years as Holtz built a championship program and the Epic Comeback became a symbolic catapult. In the moment, the crazed zeal was distilled to a wish for that given Saturday’s satisfaction.
Often as not, a deflating loss followed the hyperventilating. Will Clark’s punishment of the Cubs in the 1989 National League Championship Series and Rocket Ismail’s penalized punt return in the 1991 Orange Bowl come to mind. It all seemed to matter so much. Until it didn’t anymore.
Sports, in general, still compel me. Any genuine rooting interest has just withered away. I wish it hadn’t happened that way. Couldn’t say exactly how or when it did. There was no resigned washing of hands, no Howard Beale can’t-take-it-anymore rage. It’s probably traceable to 15 years of writing about sports, which made storyline drama and deadline dread more important than any concern about outcome. No longer tethered to those responsibilities, I’m left with a sense of loss.
Now I find myself rooting for family and friends. I’m proud to wear their colors. I want them to win. But there’s a degree of separation from their passion and anxiety, their hope and disappointment, that makes my interest feel like an intrusion.
Mostly, though, it feels like I’m missing something. Have you ever seen the HBO documentary Curse of the Bambino? It chronicles 86 years of Boston Red Sox futility through the eyes of suffering fans, who articulate their agony in a way that makes you believe their lives would be diminished without it. When the filmmakers revisit the same people after the Red Sox win the World Series, they can’t speak. The championship memory catches in their throats and puddles in their eyes.
My people — Notre Dame and Cubs fans, mostly — wouldn’t know about the catatonic tears of joy, although they can speak to the pain. They want their teams to win in the worst way, and take losing hard, but they would never prefer indifference to defeat.
It’s not all loss. I also know people who whispered prayers for the White Sox to win the World Series, screamed Kansas to an NCAA basketball title, and winced with the Blackhawks all the way to the Stanley Cup. Those were happy moments to witness because I knew how much they meant to each of them.
They meant so much that I couldn’t help but feel a little envious. Not for the winning, but for the intensity of feeling that forces them to avert their eyes when the outcome is in doubt.
Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.