I am not an athlete. My father, who coached football and basketball at the junior high where he taught, figured this out pretty quickly. After some frustration at my lack of skill, he wisely guided me toward academic pursuits. I never even played little league baseball.
But growing up I was like a lot of Americans in that I loved watching sports on TV. My young fanhood bloomed in 1984 when the Cubs got within a game of the World Series, and I was crazy about the ’85 Bears. Like many boys of my generation in Chicagoland, I knew all the words to the “Super Bowl Shuffle.” And then there was the first Bulls championship in ‘91, when I was a freshman in high school. I still get fired up when ESPN Classic shows the clinching game against the Lakers.
My tastes did change as I matured. And by age 16 I was completely into music culture. I lived and breathed rock 'n roll (and other musics) for a decade, swearing off the jockish entertainment of my boyhood. Big sports was just another abhorrent symptom of the square establishment. A frat house relic. I was so past it all.
Or so I thought. There were some blips on the screen over those years, mostly fed by my friends. I’ve never liked to tell anyone his or her passionate interest is wrong, so I would watch with them to be nice: the ’93 and ’94 Super Bowls when the Bills were destroyed by Dallas, Game Seven of the ’97 World Series, the Buffalo Sabres’ infamous loss in the ’99 Final, the Rams Super Bowl of ’00 and the Subway Series of that same year, just because I lived in New York at the time.
In the fall of 2001, my roommate Casey insisted we, as a group of young hipster dudes, watch football because it was what he did as a kid in Texas. We all thought it was a good idea in an ironic/post-ironic way and maybe it even stirred something in me of old, but the idea quickly died in the water. At the time I much rather preferred laying in my bed and staring at the ceiling to staring at a TV for three hours a pop. Little did I know that would soon change.
As I’ve said before, I have an anxiety disorder. Over a period of six years, age 19-25, I managed it with medication. For a number of reasons I decided, on my own, to taper off and stop taking meds in the spring of 2002. At the time I was in a calm, safe environment — my parents' house — and had no problems whatsoever over the course of the subsequent summer. I had the thing beat, I thought. Piece of cake.
The "detox" was safe but also a bit boring. I read a lot of books and took many trips to the city but still found myself wanting stimulation, particularly on Sundays. As it happened, I was invited by some high school friends to join a fantasy football league — a newish concept in ‘02. Very soon I was hooked. I loved the trash talking, the stats, the winning.
By the time I left my parents’ house in early October for the city, my Chicago sports fandom had strangely, strongly returned. I watched the rest of the abysmal ’02 Bears season (the one in Champaign) in the basement common area of my new apartment. And when the horrid ’02-’03 Bulls season started up, I watched just about every game on regular TV that I could. It filled my evenings between the things young people normally do. Sometimes I looked forward to watching sports more than parties and shows, which were becoming old hat to me.
That December I experienced a relapse of my disorder. The summer had been misleading, as the last of the medication finally drained out of my system. It was one of the toughest months of my entire life, and I often felt I was facing it completely alone. I spent Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve by myself, holed up in my room.
If you have generalized anxiety, you know that there is an ever-present anxious track in your mind. And when the disorder flares up, it becomes louder and dominates a great deal of your waking thoughts. You need — crave — something to distract yourself, to interrupt the running commentary of worry and obsession. I had a job and a band at the time, but neither was consuming enough to allay the minute-to-minute battle going on inside my head. And I had just thrown away my last relationship, so that wasn’t an option either.
Feeling desperate, I began to listen to sports radio, AM 670 and AM 1000. I remember thinking how ridiculous it was that I'd started behaving like some elderly people who need a human voice around during the day to not feel alone. But that’s exactly the purpose it served for me. I felt about as strong as an 80-year-old man that December.
Hearing Jay Hood before I went to bed or Mike Murphy in the morning offered a bit of respite. I immersed myself further, reading local and national sports news online and in print at my job. It always provided a ready-made topic to discuss with the other men in the office. While anxiety so often separated me from people, sports brought me back toward some of them, even if it was just superficial. In those hard months anything helped.
As 2003 began, I met someone. My new girlfriend didn’t really know what she was getting herself into, in terms of my anxiety and my rekindled love of sports. But on both points she was extremely sympathetic. Today I still marvel that Erika stuck it out with me that first year. My anxiety would flare up and I would spend months obsessively trying to fine-tune a response. At the worst moments, I wouldn’t leave the coach house where I lived for social events or spend the night at her place for fear of losing sleep (a trigger for panic attacks).
The rest of the year was tough. But at least I had someone to help me through it. And alongside this was the ever-present chatter of sports on radio, on TV, in the paper — it never ceased, it was always there. I got hooked again on my beloved Cubs, who were making a very exciting run to the postseason. By that fall, I had another fantasy football team and would win my first baseball championship in a roto league.
Some of my fondest memories of Chicago are from that time, and sports were weirdly often (though certainly not always) a part: sitting in the basement of the coach house watching preseason games; sitting on the brown couch at the house on Washtenaw on a Sunday, as Erika and Marie made dinner and I shouted at the players on TV; sitting in their living room while the Bartman Game unfolded. There was a lot of sitting involved.
We still did all the things young, hip people did then. And those certainly are the more memorable memories, if that makes sense. I kept my fandom mostly under wraps, it not being particularly cool, but it did slip out at times. A friend of hers once asked me if I was “one of those guys”: a dude who had headphones secretly stuck in his ears at the family get-together, who started shouting when his team scored a touchdown. By early ’04 I wasn’t too far away from that. And the scary thing was, I didn’t care.
Erika and I moved in together that spring. There was nothing left to shield her from my total fandom. At times she lamented my strange obsession but mostly in a playful way. It wasn’t a deal-killer, and she even gamely pretended to take an interest in the NBA Finals. It kind of became our thing as the years passed.
My anxiety disorder lessened a bit, too. Cohabitation was good for me. I had a true companion to talk to, do things with, plan for the future with. And when Erika was off at class or her new bartending job, I passed the time listening to, yes, sports radio. On a Friday night I would have a couple beers, catch a few hours of Me and Z, doze a little, then wake to pick her up from work at the end of the shift. I’d listen to Jim Rome on the way there.
By the time of our wedding in June 2005, I had become an old pro. I'd watch a baseball or basketball game at Tuman’s or Mac’s and could name all the players on the field or floor. I knew the latest news in each league. I knew who was in first place. I'd poured countless hours into it, and I got this back. I felt like a fan, like a man, like I was full of blood and alive, in a sedentary way. It wasn't as rewarding as, say, being a father, but it was something. For better or worse, it was my life.
I don’t know what it is about sports. Only a very few can play at the pro level. The rest of us just watch and pour our animal desires to be strong and victorious into them. A function of the libido, Freud would say. That’s a big reason it’s so popular, as much as eggheads like me hate to admit it. It’s really a secular religion. In the way the masses of the Catholic Church follow a cycle and schedule, so do professional sports. From the Super Bowl to March Madness to Opening Day to new football and basketball seasons to the World Series and bowl games … we can expect the same thing every year. Like Easter, Pentecost and Christmas.
My anxiety has lessened in the time since Erika and I were married. Having a more settled home life has been huge. But I also know age, experience and therapy have greatly helped. After awhile, you realize the disorder isn’t coming up with any new material or approaches. It’s the same thing over and over, and you can better anticipate it.
And the same can be said for sports. After my daughter, Ella, was born in 2009, I noticed that my interest began to wane. Someone new was here to occupy my time — even more so when Archer arrived the next year. I no longer had free evenings to dote on a Cubs game or an entire Sunday to watch every single NFL offering. I had to pick and choose. And after awhile I stopped searching for the next game, the next talk session on the radio. I still like the teams but have less energy to support them.
Like a lot of things that have happened to me since I moved to Chicago 10 years ago, my sports fixation was totally unpredicted. I look back on the time of my super-fandom and know it helped me survive something rough. Anxiety will always be with me, but I’m happy to say I no longer need a long, involved distraction campaign just to get up in the morning.
I would never wish my disorder on anyone else, but if I did meet someone with it who needed advice, I can only relate what worked for me. When people are suffering, they turn to any option that eases pain. As long as they’re not harming themselves or hurting other people, I can’t judge what one person uses to get through a tough stretch. They may even come to regard it fondly, looking back on it someday from a more calm and collected place. I hope everyone everywhere can get to that point. I think I might finally be there myself.