While my wife convinced our kid that daddy was okay, I watched the Caps clinch the Stanley Cup alone on my couch, 3,000 miles from the D.C. area where I grew up. But I was far from alone.
I chatted with two old friends during the third period as we chewed our nails down to skin — sports often being the excuse guys need to reconnect. We tried to process, while reveling in, the very foreign feeling of . . . winning? Twitter and Facebook blew up with #ALLCAPS and screen grabs of Alex Ovechkin’s triumphant, toothless mug.
It was a microcosm of the community that sports fandom offers, perhaps the last remaining vestige of across-the-board connection in our factious society. Our tribe is not one of party, socioeconomic status or race, but of a deep and abiding interest in the trajectory of a puck on ice and a football through air. Aliens would look at us and think, “How odd.”
Yet it was this always-on community that I swore off for years. Sports felt like an unserious indulgence as more pressing adulthood responsibilities took root. “The opiate of the masses,” I snootily replied on e-vites to sports-based gatherings. Plus, why knowingly put myself through the suffering?
So it came as a surprise when I found myself suddenly running back into sports’ welcoming arms upon getting diagnosed with aggressive liver cancer at age 35.
What I’d forgotten in those intervening years was this: While sports fans (especially of D.C. teams) may be doomed to suffer, we suffer together.
This recognition happened quite overnight. And much like getting lost in the thrill of the Caps’ run, it was innocence recovered.
The indulgence was again permissible.
In the post-diagnosis blur of urgent existential naggings and fear-driven bucket-list-makings, my old friend offered everything I craved: community, familiarity, mundanity, consistency and triviality.
In times of true crisis, we desperately need human connection, but it’s in those very times that connection is most difficult to proactively seek out. My self-imposed walling off from the impassioned community of sports nuts was not only no longer necessary, it was unhelpful.
I found “How ’bout them Nats?” to be a much more capable conversation starter than “You realize we’re all dying, right? I’m just doing it faster than you! [winking emoji]”
I could be sure that somewhere, someone was also cursing the proficiency of Sidney Crosby or the ineptitude of Terrelle Pryor. Text messages kept me afloat when my beloved, now infamous U-Va. basketball team became the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
I’ve noticed that “Urgh, back in the hospital” on a group text doesn’t generate nearly the exchange as “You have to put John Wall in the MVP conversation.” And it’s amazing how quickly a fantasy football leaguewide email ridiculing me for absurd trade proposals turns into heartfelt messages asking how I’m doing and what help I need.
I wept like a baby after the U.S. soccer team’s debacle in Trinidad & Tobago to miss out on the World Cup. But I moved into the acceptance phase by the next morning, a mere Twitter trend providing sufficient solace when the pain was at its most acute.
This easily accessed sense of community is a soothing stroke in the face of a mostly solitary and seemingly never-ending journey into the medical abyss. Friends have been invaluable in the worst of times, but they have their own lives to get back to. Chronic pain, the “scanxiety” of regular cancer surveillance, the tedious drumbeat of doctor visits, surgeries with follow-up surgeries — that stuff’s on me and my wife to navigate.
Our exhaustion with Daniel Snyder, though, is enduring connective (if masochistic) tissue; Ovi’s epic post-Cup bender through the city unites us in smiles. More than shared passion, it’s shared experience.
In wrestling with the profound loss of control that comes with the big C, the familiar — even if it’s a familiar feeling of agony — is also alluring.
Sports is inconsequential, you say? Don’t tell that to the 11-year-old boy who bursts through this rapidly aging body, arms raised, at a crucial Bradley Beal three-pointer.
I cope largely by eliciting and then embracing that inner child, with his silly preoccupations. He allows me to hold my fears lighter and be more present in the moment. That’s what sports is, after all: a series of not-to-be-DVR’d moments. Some joyous, some gut-punching, but all ephemeral.
The mundane consistency of sports has been an unexpected sense of predictability in a chaotic world. I can’t know whether the lesion on my lung is bigger until my next MRI exam, but I’m 99.9 percent certain that the Nats will play the Blue Jays this week.
Of course, sports also offers escapism; not just from cancer treatments but also from relationship and professional troubles, commuting, parenting or any of the other anvils of adult life.
I’ll go even further: Sports can bestow not only diversion and maybe even salvation but also instruction. The outcome beyond our control, every game is an exercise in letting go. In seeing that perhaps our story about being destined to suffer might in fact be . . . well, just a story.
This opens up a world of possibility.
Humans are hardwired with negativity bias; we needed it when we weren’t sure whether a berry was safe to eat. We must force ourselves to pick out other, equally plausible data points.
I’ve had many a health challenge, sure. But also: My body has pushed through. Yeah, D.C. sports have been a punchline for decades. But also: The Caps, Wiz and Nats of late are playoff locks (one even just won a title!), and the Skins feel like they’re a healthy O-line away.
Most fundamentally, suffering is universal. Sports misery is just more palpable, more often. But the short-term memory muscle it helps build is transferable: In life as in sports, in tackling each opponent as it comes, from cancer to the Cowboys, hope springs eternal. That new QB or draft pick might just be what turns the franchise around.
As for me, I’ve had multiple surgeries in the past couple years, including a live donor liver transplant — and five procedures since the transplant to address stubborn biliary issues.
None have quite done the job. But there’s always next season.
Omar Garriott (@socialchanger) is a Northern Virginia native working as a tech product marketer in the Bay Area. He is two-plus years cancer-free.
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