IT'S EASY to hate February, with its extraneous r that we never pronounce, its quadrennial leap day that we don't understand and its groundhog whose shadow does or does not mean six more weeks of winter—we can never remember which. Who needs February? Not farmers ("February has no rain/It's neither good for hay nor grain"). Not Don McLean ("February made me shiver/With every paper I'd deliver"). And certainly not sports fans, adrift at sea between the distant shores of Super Bowl and exhibition baseball games.
But February is a healthy concept. February takes its name from the ancient Roman festival Februalia, in which citizens under Caesar—the Brian Billick of his day—were made to reflect on and atone for their sins. As it was with the Julian calendar, so it is with the sports calendar, in which February makes us pay for the rest of the year's decadence. After the bacchanal of the Super Bowl we deserve to do penance. So in February we are forced to endure the Westminster dog show, the XFL and (most oppressively) a full slate of NBA games.
Yet I love February. TGIF! For without February, sports would scarcely be worth watching. The three greatest players in our three favorite games came into this world in February—Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth and Jim Brown. You say Bill Russell was a better champion than MJ? Russell was born in February too. Hank Aaron a better slugger than Ruth? February. Abe Vigoda a finer actor than Brown? February again.
The month has midwifed all manner of creative genius—inventors ( Thomas Edison and John McEnroe), stylists ( Charles Dickens and Dr. J), Founding Fathers ( George Washington and George Halas), men who described the beauty of the stars (Copernicus, Mel Allen and Red Barber) and men who proved, in the face of skepticism, that human life crawled out of the sea ( Charles Darwin and Mark Spitz).
If you're a giant of history, chances are you drew your first breath in the second month of the year—whether you wrote the Messiah (Handel) or coached the Messiah ( Dean Smith), drove a Lincoln (Boom Boom Geoffrion) or were Lincoln (Abraham). But February has far more to offer fans than mere birthdays. There are wonderful once-a-year extravaganzas like the Daytona 500 and the NBA All-Star Game, both so entertaining yet so different. One is a high-octane gathering of the tattooed, the tank-topped, the poorly educated; the other is an automobile race.)
No, far from being a monochromatic winter wasteland, February is filled with color and variety. Every February, Madison Square Garden is overrun with expensive dogs of every description. (Pee-yew!) But then the Rangers are forced to vacate, and in comes the Westminster Kennel Club—a spectacle as old, and reliably entertaining, as the aforementioned Rangers joke.
"The most serious charge which can be brought against New England," wrote author and naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch, "is not Puritanism, but February." How wrong he was, for New England and February together conceived one of life's great unsung creations—those little candy hearts manufactured by the good people at NECCO, the New England Confectionary Company, whose anachronistic slogans, stamped onto chalky treats, have baffled third-graders on Valentine's Day for decades: DIG ME. HOT STUFF. HUBBA HUBBA.
February's games are like those hearts: Quaint, sweet, from another epoch. They are Jack Lemmon in the Pebble Beach pro-am; pitchers and catchers reporting to Vero Beach; long-ball artists playing home run derby in a hokey contrivance called the Big League Challenge—live, from Las Vegas! In February we warm ourselves by the electronic hearth, our screens flickering with Pro Bowlers and pro bowlers. February gave us one timeless short fellow ( Eddie Arcaro, the only jockey to win two Triple Crowns) and one timeless Longfellow (Henry Wadsworth, who wrote, "Lives of great men all remind us/We can make our lives sublime/And, departing, leave behind us/Footprints on the sands of time").
So thank you, great men of February, for reminding us of the latent greatness in every one of us. And thanks to February itself. For the shortest month tells us, as Longfellow did too, that time is fleeting: "And our hearts, though stout and brave/Still, like muffled drums, are beating/Funeral marches to the grave."
February's advice, then, is to live a little. Go on. It won't bite. February—with its XFL cheerleaders and its swimsuit sirens—is a harmless flirt. A few days ago you had no interest in February. But it grew on you, didn't it? It got in your head. Suddenly, February is all over you. You like it. Because February is irresistible. It's whispering in your ear, "Dig Me. Hot Stuff. Hubba Hubba."