On the recent night that Cris Carter—a recovered drug abuser turned NFL Man of the Year—made the 1,000th reception of his remarkable career, for a touchdown, for my hometown Vikings, on national TV, and was then surprised on the field by his family, and kissed on the face mask by his daughter, and embraced by his teammates, and applauded by his opponents, and given a gruff nod by coach Dennis Green (who couldn't hide the fact that his eyes were two full sinks about to spill over)...on that night, I sat slumped on a sofa in New York City, all by myself, and felt something strange collecting in my clavicle: tears.
This doesn't often happen to us, the gravy-stained Grinches of the press box. But occasionally it does, and our hearts grow three sizes that day. Or at the very least, we're reminded that sports remain an oddly irresistible force, capable of moving immovable objects.
My father is almost literally one of those, a square block of granite who played football in the '50s for Purdue and Tennessee. While visiting him a few Thanksgivings ago, my brothers and I rented Rudy and—halfway through that fiasco—I casually remarked, "This might be the corniest movie I have ever...."
Which is when I turned and saw my old man—lower lip quivering, eyes screwed to the screen—leaking tears like Chad Lowe at the Oscars. Naturally, my brothers and I had a good, long horselaugh at his expense. "You bozos don't know anything," he barked through his sniffles. Then, to the screen: "You show 'em, Rudy!"
Throughout the '70s my dad mutely misted up during every annual broadcast of Brian's Song. Whenever that kid hits the shot in Hoosiers, he looks like the Indian chief in the litter commercial. He loosed a silent Niagara of tears at the part, in Apollo 13, in which NASA engineers devise a scheme to return the imperiled astronauts to Earth. When, at that scene's climactic moment, I elbowed him in the ribs, he blurted—in a sold-out theater, on the Fourth of July, as rocket scientists filled the screen—"Thank God for the nerds!"
There is, alas, no predicting what will set him to sobbing like Jimmy Swaggart. (And there is no predicting what will not: When I mentioned to him, with embarrassed understatement, that I kind of got—uh, well, you know—misty-eyed as Carter caught his thousandth pass, there was a long pause on the other end of the telephone line. Finally, after an awkward eternity, he said, "You need medication.")
This much is certain: When my dad does choke up, it's almost always over sports. Sure, he thinks that today's pro athletes are overpaid "pansies," coddled "candy-asses" who would benefit from immediate conscription into the U.S. Army—his solution to most of society's problems. However, the games they play somehow still captivate him.
So, in his world, there is crying in baseball, and in football, and in phone-company commercials in which eight-year-old girls score their first soccer goals. I'm not sure why this is, but I have a theory. He grew up in Indiana, the setting of so many sports movies, and his own life story is no less hokily inspirational than Hoosiers or Rudy or Knute Rockne: All American. He was raised without a father and had no money and, for a time, no house. He was a high school football star living in a trailer, and a football scholarship got him to college, and college to a career, and a career allowed him and my late mother to raise five kids in far better circumstances than those of his youth. So he still believes strongly in the redemptive power of sports, even as he must disdain those athletes who think that being abandoned at birth by one's father is license to neglect one's own kids.
He did no such thing. No, my dad unmistakably raised me, as was evident the other night, when a short pass had me weeping like an old, old woman. They were the tears of a clone—I've become my father—and I found them encouraging. I mean, if sports don't move you, don't cover sports. Robert Frost wrote, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." So, however uncool his habit is, I am now grateful to my dad.
Thank God for the nerd.