SI Vault
Gary Smith
September 24, 2001
To gauge sports' grip on US in a time of tragedy, the author took his son to a high school football game.
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September 24, 2001

The Boys On The Bus

To gauge sports' grip on US in a time of tragedy, the author took his son to a high school football game.

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Everything in the little town came to a halt at dusk on the day America mourned. Five police cars, blinking blue as they wove in escort, sealed off traffic and froze pedestrians in their paths. Drivers peeled to the shoulder of the road and stopped, waved and craned their necks to glimpse the passing procession.

In Paris on that same day, last Friday, the Metro had gone still so passengers could pray, and the bells of Notre Dame had tolled for an hour in memory of thousands of people feared dead. In Berlin 200,000 had gathered before the Brandenburg Gate to reflect at the place where the wall between democracy and communism had stood. In Dublin commerce and drinking had both been called off, shops and pubs shut tight, and in England the Queen had broken off her holiday to return home and grieve. In America, where the mass murder had occurred, four busloads of kids were leaving Summerville, S.C., to play a high school football game.

I was in the fourth row, left side, lead bus. Weeks earlier I'd promised my 11-year-old son, Noah, that we'd play hooky last week and make the five-hour drive to Atlanta to watch the Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies decide a pennant race. A nightmare had intervened, so here we were instead.

It was an odd thing to do—to go to a game—on a day when you walked around wondering why the hell games mattered anymore. But I wanted to know what a game felt and smelled like at a moment like this, why people bothered playing and watching, and even more so, what it all smelled like to my son. Sports, thanks to me, had already taken firm grip of Noah's life, but now and then I'd get this uneasy feeling about where it all might be leading, a feeling I'd never spoken of with him. Now that the earth had shaken and the whole deck of cards had spilled on the floor, it made no sense to hide what I'd been holding.

Already the stink of sweat filled the bus, the smell of teenage boys looking inside themselves to see if what they would need, just an hour later, was there. The Green Wave of Summerville High was leaving its flag-festooned town and heading to its biggest game of the season, at Stratford High in nearby Goose Creek, against the team ranked No. 2 in the state. However, the Summerville boys, too, were a perennial power; in two of the last three seasons, the winner of this game had gone on to win the state championship.

Noah flipped and spun a football in his hands. That had been the first thing he'd thought of when I told him we were going to a ball game on the day of mourning. "Can we go on the field?" he asked. "Can we play catch?"

"Well, I...guess so," I'd said.

Hell, what had I expected? I'd flung him, back and forth, between two worlds. He'd played on a baseball team in Australia, where parents applauded and cooed, "Awwww, bad luck, mate," whenever a boy or girl on his team swung and missed by a foot—and he'd played on a traveling AAU baseball team in the U.S., where parents stormed the dugout and seethed at coaches for pulling their sons out of games so benchwarmers could have a chance. He'd lived for a year in an old fishing village in Spain, where adoring grandmothers stroked his head each day on their daily shopping strolls—and he'd practiced for a year under a coach who nailed him in the head with a basketball from 20 feet away when his attention lapsed.

As his dad, I'd assigned him to ladle cabbage to the homeless in soup kitchens, and as his coach, to break the press in the last second of one-point, double-overtime championship games. He'd lived out my ambivalence, spent some years thousands of miles removed from box scores and title chases, spent others high-fiving me over touchdowns and slam dunks, slurping down SportsCenter and sports pages first thing every morning along with cereal and milk. Only a month ago my wife and I had argued over whether Noah should play baseball on the travel team again this fall, only a month after his all-star tournament had ended; argued over how much competition was too much in the making of a kid. She'd won.

Now, with a kickoff scheduled to rise into the air at eight o'clock and join the smoke and human ashes riding in the wind, with sports and suffering suddenly teetering on the scales of a national debate over who we are, I too was craning for a glimpse. A sideways look to see which world's values had taken stronger hold of my son; to see what ruled in his heart when people were suffering; to see what I had wrought.

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