This personal essay that appears below was true when I first wrote it in 1995 and it was published in The Boston Globe Magazine. It was the kind of piece that I could have peddled to other markets every year at this time--the kind editors call "evergreens" because they retain their appeal for more than one season.
But then, in 2003, our hometown team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, made it to Super Bowl XXXVII. I admit it: I was swept up in Super Bowl fever. I didn't watch the entire game, just the last quarter. The act, of course, broke my non-viewing record, transforming my story from an evergreen I could pitch to editors every January into a deciduous piece of prose that had shed its timelessness, and with it any chance of making future sales.
The thing is I'm still the non-sports fan described in the story and it is Super Bowl Sunday. Besides, I like the piece and hope others might as well.
A final note: I changed the name of a pivotal character to Tony. I know there are editors who wouldn't allow that, and for good reasons. After all, a reader might wonder, what else is made up?
In its original publication, I used the boy's name. At the time, it didn't occur to me that my sweat-glands and all depiction of "Tony"," while honest was unnecessarily cruel and might cause pain and embarassment to my former schoolmate. But now, I'm the editor and publisher of this web publication. I can make my own decision, and rectify what I think was a mistake 10 years ago when I first wrote the piece.
We have entered an age of transparency, one where writers and readers of memoir, and even fiction, are shedding, willingly or not, a different kind of cover, the camaflouge that serves to conceal lies, composites and other feats of literary legerdemain.
Writers, myself included, fear that if they lift the veil and reveal the man behind the curtain, or "the art of misdirection" that magicians rely on, that readers will drop away like leaves in an autumn windstorm.
Readers deserve more credit. Tell them what happened and they'll still hang around to see how it did. Be upfront with your methods and sources, as newspapers have begun to do. They'll respect you for it, I believe, and will stick around for the journey through the forest we plant with words.
And now, without further ado, here's why I won't be joining the millions watching Super Bowl XL.
By Christopher Scanlan
I won't be watching Super Bowl XXIX today. But then, I haven't watched any of the other XXVIII. Blame it on Tony and a sweaty basketball jersey.
Tony and I played freshman basketball together for St. Mary's Boys High in the mid-1960s. Or, to be more precise, Tony played. I warmed the bench. Except for one fateful afternoon when we traded places.
Actually, the reason why I won't be joining the 130-plus million television viewers expected to tune into the action at Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium goes back even further, to 1959, when Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford were the faces on the baseball cards my friends and I flipped for at the Boy's Club and I was a rookie benchwarmer for a Little League team sponsored by the gas company in the Connecticut suburb I grew up in.
I was nine and had quickly established myself as a Little Leaguer with little talent, less coordination and an overwhelming fear of the hardball. In the outfield I tended to put the glove in front of my face whenever a ball approached. When they handed out uniforms at the start of the season _ cool pinstripe pants, a green shirt and cap _ there weren't enough to go around, so I had to settle for the shirt and cap.
It didn't really matter. I spent the season on the bench, eating Toasted Almond Bars and grape ice cups from the Good Humor man parked behind center field. As far as I can recall, I never played, except for one humiliating afternoon when I was sent into the outfield, where my prayers that the ball would not come were answered, and then sent in as a pinch-hitter against the best pitcher of the league. He only needed four pitches to strike me out.
Entering my teens, I remained small and scrawny, a clumsy flop at backyard football, tennis, golf, you name it. I lagged behind the pubescent progress of my friends whose voices were deepening, whose chins were sprouting hairs, who really needed to wear jock straps.
Fortunately, the month before I started high school, I came down with mono, which spared me the indignities of freshman football. Unfortunately, I recovered by the time basketball season began. All my friends were playing and I couldn't make a compelling case why I should sit it out. I was a boy and boys played sports. No matter that I couldn't dribble, was a full head and shoulders shorter than my teammates and lacked the upper body strength to make a one-handed jump shot.
We were the Blue Knights, garbed in white cotton jerseys and blue silk shorts, with those colors reversed for away games, which is where Tony comes into the picture. Tony was a plumber's son, a friendly, stocky kid who had started shaving, I think, in grade school. It was our last away game of the season and Tony showed up with the home uniform in his gym bag. Our coach looked around and ordered me to give up my shirt to Tony, who was one of the starting players. I swam in Tony's jersey. He looked like a sausage in mine.
Tony was a dynamo. Up and down the court, he pounded. He dove into tangles of players to snatch a loose ball, made heroic drives to the basket. His face streamed sweat, turning his brown hair lank. Moons of perspiration grew under his armpits. Exertion sketched steeples of sweat on the front and back of my jersey.
By the fourth quarter, we were at a familiar point, losing by a wide margin. The coach called a time-out and scanned the bench.
"Scanlan, you're going in. MacNamee, Curley," he said to the tallest boys on the squad, "Try to get the ball to Scanlan. See if we can get him a couple of points." I'm sure he thought he was being charitable, but I had to pipe up. "Uh, Coach."
The coach didn't like interruptions. "What?"
"I don't have a shirt. Tony's got it."
"Oh, right," Coach said. "Tony!"
Tony looked up from the water dipper, beads of sweat falling from his brow, salting his drink.
"Give Scanlan his jersey back."
I can still feel it on my hairless skin: clammy, cold, ripe with the sweat of the boy-man who had been wearing it for the last hour. It was the crowning indignity of a sports career studded with humiliations.
Looking back, this was undoubtedly the epiphany that led me to repudidate my birthright as an American male, one of those sudden flashes of insight where a person cuts through the fog and sees his true self. I wasn't any good at sports. I had no prospects. More important, I hated it and dammit, I just wasn't going to play anymore.
I ran for the Student Council. I went out for the school play.
I began to write and turned in a short story in English class, a melodramatic thriller entitled "Congo Drums," that featured such scintillating dialogue as "Bwana, the drums: They...they are Communists!" Sister Eugene Marie gave me an A-minus, and in the margin, she penned, "I think you'd do well in a school of journalism."
There was no way she could know how crushed I felt by her prediction. I had been hoping to be a rich and famous novelist. As it turned out, Sister was right. I became a journalist and now I teach in a journalism school. But, as they say, that's another story.
At the age of 13, I was through with sports.
So today, I anticipate a typical Sunday. Sleep as late as three children under seven will allow, dawdle over bagels and the Sunday papers, talk to Mom in Connecticut, doze on the couch, recharging for the week ahead. What my day won't include is the marathon television experience my siblings, friends and 134.8 million neighbors endured last year.
This is not a political statement, a gridiron version of a "Don't Wear Fur" or "Ban Nukes" protest. I just happen to be that rare American male who has absolutely no interest in professional sports. Monday nights I watch Murphy Brown. The baseball strike caused no mourning in my house; the last time I attended a major league baseball game the Yankees were playing the Washington Senators, a team that doesn't even exist anymore. Channel surfing, I may glance at a sporting event, but as the President might say, I don't inhale.
What's wrong with this guy? Nothing, my wife will tell you. She says she's happy she's not married to someone who spends his free time surgically attached to the couch.
As you might imagine, this aspect of my personality leaves me out of many workplace conversations. I did try to get into the spirit once during a World Series a few years ago. I made a point of looking at the headlines before work. At an appropriate pause in a conversation about the game, I slipped in my observation about the score, only to be met with blank stares and then rude laughter. I had been looking at an early edition and talking about the wrong game.
But a few years ago, I began to see what I might be missing. It was during the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith, I found myself glued to COURT TV, the cable channel devoted to the legal system. At work, I snuck away from my desk to watch the gavel-to-gavel coverage. Late into the night, my wife and I sat up, watching the day's testimony we'd missed.
I came into the office, eager to debate the cross-examination skills of Roy Black, Smith's lawyer, or sneer at the wooden skills of the prosecutor. It dawned on me that COURT TV was just like the sports coverage that preoccupied my friends' and co-workers' time. It had action. It had instant replays and play-by-play commentary and color provided by lawyers with flashy ties. There were even game highlights.
And I found myself addicted, able to spend hours watching tedious
cross-examinations, fascinated by the take of a former federal prosecutor or a
defense lawyer on the stupidity of putting a particular witness on the stand.
Before I became a father, I had secretly feared I might have a son, a boy who, naturally, would expect his Dad to teach him how to oil his glove, make a layup, kick a field goal, watch the Super Bowl together. I was relieved when we had daughters. I didn't count on micro soccer which our three girls began playing last fall. Unlike their father, they have complete uniforms. Which is why on Saturday mornings, you'll find me prowling the sidelines of a soccer field, shouting improbable things like "Come on, Bears, Defense!," and "Good hustle, Jaguars!"
At their first game, our youngest was reluctant to play goalie. She agreed to take the position only after her coach said I could stand behind her to lend moral support. I cringed when the ball, followed by a herd of five-year-olds, approached. But she stood her ground, and blocked the ball with her foot. "Way to go, Michaela," I shrieked.
Distracted by her proud Dad, she turned around and we jumped up and down, cheering her triumph. We were so busy congratulating her, it was a snap for a kid from the other team to kick the ball in for a goal.