Understanding your sports fanatic friend.

DSC02971According to the countdown clock on the Columbus Crew website, there are 35 days and change until the league’s opening match to the 2013 season.  And closer to home, Detroit City FC’s season is to begin a couple months later.  The excitement of the coming season has risen to a fever pitch with me.  Last year, I attended more live soccer matches than in previous years.  Even taking out DCFC’s full eight match season, and the handful of games I saw the Michigan Bucks play, my trips to Columbus tripled to see the Crew in action.

This entry is for friends, family and loved ones of the person known as a sports fanatic.  The person you know who schedules their life around games; who bleeds the colors of their team and goes to extremes to follow their team; who seems to care little about the mundane things in life, or even the important things.  I hope that by the end of this writing, you will understand your friend, family member, or loved one better.

I recently finished reading Nick Hornby’s classic, Fever Pitch.  It is a no-apologies memoir of sports fanaticism.  Hornby is a rabid Arsenal fan, and his journal of matches and how they relate to his life reveals the mindset of a team loyalist, while also addressing issues within the sport of soccer, (racism, stadium tragedies, etc).  His life is marked and connected to the Arsenal.

There is one passage in Hornby’s book that really sinks in.  He described his greatest moment ever.

On May 26, 1989, Arsenal’s last match of the season was at Liverpool.  In order for Arsenal to win the championship, they would have to beat Liverpool by two goals.  The Gunners scored early in the second half, but Hornby had resigned to defeat as the game went into stoppage time.  Then Michael Thomas burst through the Liverpool defense and scored, giving Arsenal the league championship and Hornby a moment of delirium.

In seeking a metaphor to describe the feeling, Hornby declined the orgasm analogy, and stated why:

 Even though there is no question that sex is a nicer activity than watching football (no nil-nil draws, no offsidetrap, no cup upsets, and you’re warm), in the normal run of things, the feelings it engenders are simply not as intense as those brought about by a once-in-a-lifetime last-minute Championship winner.

None of the moments that people describe as the best in their lives seem analogous to me.  Childbirth must be extraordinarily moving, but it doesn’t really have the crucial surprise element, and in any case lasts too long; the fulfillment of personal ambition – promotions, awards, what have you – doesn’t have the last-minute time factor, nor the element of powerlessness that I felt that night.  And what else is there that can possibly provide suddenness?  A huge pools win, maybe, but the gaining of large sums of money affects a different part of the psyche altogether, and has none of the communal ecstasy of football.

There is then, literally, nothing to describe it.  I have exhausted all the available   options.  I can recall nothing else that I have coveted for two decades (what else is there that can reasonably be coveted for that long?), nor can I recall anything else that I have desired as both man and boy.  So please, be tolerant of those who    describe a sporting moment as their best ever.  We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.  (Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch, [Riverhead Books, 1998], 222-23).

Hornby reminded me a lot of myself back in my hockey fan days.  It became an obsession applied when I was the president of the Ontario Hockey League team, Detroit Jr. Red Wings (currently known as the Plymouth Whalers) for two seasons.  Then, the Detroit Vipers claimed the Palace of Auburn Hills home, and my passion settled in a permanent location.

In 1997, I was fortunate to be photographing Detroit Vipers games for my friend’s hockey publication.  The Vipers ended the season with the best record, and marched through the Turner Cup playoffs.  Where games were proximately close (like Kalamazoo and Cleveland) I would make the trip for at least one of the road games.  Their opponent in the Turner Cup Finals was the equally tough Long Beach Ice Dogs who had an ungodly undefeated streak at home.

The format was two games at the Palace, three in Long Beach, then back home for two games, if necessary, in Detroit.  The teams split the games at the Palace, and it seemed unlikely that the series would end in Long Beach.  But the Vipers pulled the surprise, winning the next two games in California, taking a 3-1 lead in the series and the potential of winning the Cup in Long Beach on a Friday night.

So damn close to being with the winners, I decided I had to make the flight to LAX and get to that game.  However, the Ice Dogs would not go down at home, and I had to get back to Detroit for the Father’s Day, Sunday evening Game Six of the series.  The Vipers won, 2-0, the on-ice festivities and locker room partying will never be forgotten.

Patrice Tardif hoists the Turner Cup.  Photo by Michael Kitchen
Patrice Tardif hoists the Turner Cup. Photo by Michael Kitchen

It was one of those moments that Hornby described.  Following hockey for so long, this was unlike anything I ever experienced.  Not being an athlete myself, I never thought I’d ever come this close to this sensation.  It remains the greatest moment in my life.  Even though I wasn’t on the ice, delivering a check or setting up a goal that made a difference in the game, I was a part of it.  All I was doing was shooting film.  Having been situated between the players’ benches all season, I was there in the trenches.  When I was in the Long Beach Ice Dogs’ building ninety minutes prior to Game Five, Phil von Stefenelli – one of the Vipers’ defensemen – was going through his pre-game ritual outside the locker room, and gave me the nod of recognition and camaraderie.

I get the Hudson Street Hooligans of the Columbus Crew.  I get the Northern Guard Supporters and Motor City Supporters as they cheer and chant in the filled to capacity visitor’s bleachers at Cass Tech High School for the Detroit City FC games.

Hopefully, this helps you understand your sports fanatical loved one.  He or she has developed a deep emotional connection to their team performing on its athletic stage.  I can’t speak for all fanatics, but after that once-in-a-lifetime moment comes true, it opens one up to new avenues.  But the connection never dies.  The Detroit Vipers became defunct in 2002, but it will always be my favorite hockey team.  And though Columbus Crew and Detroit City FC have arteries running into my ventricles, I don’t feel a need to have my life consumed by them.  I still will attend every DCFC home game, and will make one or more trips to Columbus, my vacation soccer home, and make sure I can see as many of their matches on the tellie.

Detroit soccer fanatics celebrate a Detroit City FC goal at Cass Tech High School, Detroit, 2012.  Photo by Michael Kitchen
Detroit soccer fanatics celebrate a Detroit City FC goal at Cass Tech High School, Detroit, 2012. Photo by Michael Kitchen

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