Nostalgia Blast: My life as a sports fan as told in 15 momentous moments

It’s about time that I push out a sports-themed Nostalgia Blast, because sports has definitely taken up a massive share of my time and headspace the past 19 years. I chronicled my time as an athlete in an earlier post, so here I will be diving into my experience as a fan.

Rather than touch on my gradual progression from athletics amateur to (sports) journalism major, I want to look at 15 turning points over the course of my sports fan lifetime. These landmarks were crucial in establishing who I am today, but perhaps even more interestingly, who I am not. Some experiences, like my Ravens Rookies Kids Club membership, helped me become a fan of a time, while others are significant in that they prevented me from going down a vastly different path. Together, these disparate points should help illustrate just how much my experiences as a sports fan have changed my life.

For each point, I will give the event, what it meant, and imagine a scenario in which the opposite path came true. Enjoy!

1) The Event: I get a Sports Illustrated Kids subscription for my birthday.

Implications: For my seventh birthday, I get the NFL Preview for Sports Illustrated Kids and my interest in the NFL takes off. I memorize each team’s outlook, cut out the trading cards and devour the stories. Then, when the NBA preview comes out, I enlighten myself on that sport and start following the cover athletes, the “Big Three” Boston Celtics. My SI Kids days continue for about five more years, at which point I pivot to the big-time Sports Illustrated.

What If: I don’t get the Sports Illustrated subscription. I hear about the successes of the 2007 Washington Redskins from classmates, but none of it sticks (as with previous Super Bowls). I eventually get into sports, but without the exponential learning curve that the accessible, memorable magazines provided.

2) The Event: I spend each of my 25 hard earned dollars on a clearance Tony Romo Jersey

Implications: Planning to buy a Skins jersey at Dick’s Sporting Goods, I see that the Chris Cooley and Clinton Portis jerseys are out of my league at 50 bucks. On the other hand, one medium Tony Romo navy jersey is on the clearance rack for 25. I know they’re the mortal enemy of the Skins, and at 13-3, a Goliath, but the blue and silver and the sparkly stripe speak to me. I join the Cowboys’ bandwagon and never hop off.

What If: I don’t pick the Romo jersey, pass on the Skins jerseys and don’t give much thought to the other clearance jerseys, a Brandon Marshall Broncos and a Vince Young Titans. Instead, I pick the runner-up in my jersey sweepstakes — Ed Reed (a jersey I would later buy 13 years later). I become a full-fledged Ravens fan and enjoy their 2012 Super Bowl run immensely. But in not buying the Romo jersey, I eliminate any reasonable chance of my Cowboys’ fandom, and become a one-team guy. I also spare myself a lot of pain, but also plenty of pride.

3) The Event: I join the Ravens Rookies Kids Club during the 2008 playoffs

Implications: I wanted to get involved and attend some NFL events, but the Washington franchise doesn’t have one available and Dallas is too far a drive from the East Coast. I base my decision amid the AFC North, where the two next closest teams reside: the Steelers and the Ravens. I go with the Ravens, and it’s a good choice. A couple weeks in, rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and the Ravens reach the AFC title game. A couple months after that, I go to the Ravens’ training camp and meet Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and a couple other big-time names. As a Ravens fan, there’s plenty of highs over the years (Super Bowl wins, Lamar Jackson) and great times.

What If: I choose the Steelers. Immediately, Pittsburgh wins Super Bowl XLIII, a huge adrenaline rush for a brand-new fan. I don’t get to attend games or events as frequently, but I make it on some occasions. I absolutely loathe the Ravens (in this scenario, I just want to make that clear) and endure the ups and downs of names like Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown. And I grow tremendously jealous when the Ravens draft Lamar Jackson in the first round, while Pittsburgh keeps rolling with an aging Big Ben.

4) The Event: The Orlando Magic defeat the Boston Celtics in 2009

Implications: After pulling for Paul Pierce and Co. in my first season as an NBA fan, I jump ship when the Celtics lose in a shocking upset to the much snazzier Orlando Magic. I’m drawn in by the pinstripes and dominant play of Dwight Howard, and Orlando’s Finals appearance cements me as a fan for life. The well dries up in the years to come, with the Magic missing the playoffs nearly every season in the 2010s and wasting away in the abyss of the mid-lottery.

What If: The Celtics beat the Magic. I don’t become a Magic fan, and after the Celtics defeat the Cavaliers and send King James home, I become a more fervent C’s supporter. But when LeBron James hangs up his Cavalier uniform and joins the Miami Heat, I fill my Florida sports team void by pulling for the Heat. After weathering years of bandwagon allegations, I enjoy a much better and more relevant decade of watching basketball.

5) The Event: Greivis Vasquez and the Maryland Terrapins lose in the 2010 NCAA Tournament’s second round to the Michigan State Spartans.

Implications: It didn’t really mean all that much at the time. Maryland dipped out early, a common refrain in their March Madness appearances. I followed Vasquez’s career for a while in the NBA, but there were no lasting bonds between myself and the Terps and I made it a priority to apply to out-of-state colleges when I reached high school.

What If: The Terrapins ride Vasquez’s stellar play all the way to the Final Four. I watch every single game, and combined with my dad’s employment with the university, a UMD fan is forged for life. Over the years, I attend games in College Park, and when college applications come around, the Terps are at the top of the list instead of the bottom. And my parents probably save a few bucks on tuition.

6) The Event: My mom does not allow me to get a console, spurring me to load up on PC games.

Implications: I was a video game outlier in elementary school, the one kid who didn’t have a Wii or an XBox. I got my fix in a bit at friends’ houses, but I was always significantly worse, while at the same time much more obsessed with playing. I also missed out on the social aspect of playing video games as consoles started to include more online play. With this roadblock to gaming, I scavenged Goodwill stores and became a PC gamer, wearing out classic discs like Backyard Baseball, Madden 2001, NBA Jam 97 and Zoo Tycoon. I have not bought a console since and remain as avid a PC gamer as there is, albeit with much more updated titles. 

What If: I get a Wii in elementary school, and an XBox in middle school (as was par for the course). I get better at games like Madden and NBA 2K, but without much tangible reward. Even worse, I never understand terms like “Aluminum Bat” or recognize names like “Pablo Sanchez.” My two Backyard Baseball season championships with the Boston Red Sox and Mighty Monsters are never immortalized in the record books of a clunky Windows XP. 

7) The Event: I miss out on a position as a Sports Illustrated Kid Reporter

Implications: I made the short list for SI Kids finalists, and it was a dream come true. I wrote my entry on three reasons why Tony Romo was a baller and it hit a chord with the judges. Suddenly, I was one of the last 100 kids in the running for a dozen or so reporter spots at my favorite publication. Unfortunately, I did not make the final cut. The rejection served as little deterrent for my sports writing career.

What If: I make the final cut and become a SI Kid reporter in third grade. I learn what it’s like to work with SI editors and find an audience for my many articles. My college friend Patrick Andres, who made it as an SI Kids reporter the following year, looks back on his time fondly and met athletes as famous as Mike Trout and Kyrie Irving. I couldn’t have held the microphone steadily in the presence of those guys! Either way, I likely end up in the same place with an enduring love of the games as a common denominator and unstoppable motivator.

8) The Event: My parents routinely tell me to go to bed before primetime games.

Implications: As a kid, I had two mortal enemies: PG-13 ratings and 8:20 Eastern Standard Time kickoffs. My parents rarely let me stay up for games (Super Bowl XLIV between the Saints and the Colts was probably the only time I stayed up for a big game until seventh grade). Worst of all, I miss the Red Sox and Ravens clinch their championship victories and instead hear from second-hand sources the next morning. Even the LeBron news comes the next day, and that was at 8:30!
What If: I do stay up for primetime games. I get to see a lot more of the Dallas Cowboys (including the Odell Beckham catch) and lean a little bit less on the classic Ravens-Bengals bouts at 1 ET on CBS. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like watching the Ravens win the ‘ship as a 12-year old, but suffice it to say — I missed some good real-time moments. At the same time, the way I compensated for missing the games wasn’t bad either, and the early mornings I spent watching NFL Primetime under the covers and reading game recaps that my dad printed out likely look a lot different.

9) The Event: Billy Cundiff misses a potential game-tying kick wide left in the 2011 AFC Championship.

Implications: Just when it seems like 2011 is the Ravens’ year, reliable Pro Bowl kicker Billy Cundiff goes wide left on a 33-yarder and the Patriots advance to yet another Super Bowl. I was absolutely devastated, maybe more than after any sporting moment of my lifetime. But some good comes out of it. The Ravens cut Cundiff and sign undrafted rookie Justin Tucker, who emerges as the best kicker in NFL history. The Ravens as a team don’t do half-bad, winning their second Super Bowl in franchise history the following year behind an on-fire Joe Flacco. Ray Lewis and Ed Reed go off into the sunset and I get the championship I had been clamoring for from the day I became a fan.
What If: Cundiff makes the kick, and the Ravens score in OT to go to Super Bowl XLVI. Up against the New York Giants (their opponent in 2000, too), Baltimore goes up big behind huge performances from running back Ray Rice and the defense. More interestingly, Joe Flacco is still going into his final year of his rookie contract and does not have his outlier 2012 season. The Ravens either extend him after a pretty good 2011 playoffs for a more modest price or wait and buy on the cheap after Baltimore fails to replicate its magic in 2012. The Ravens become less tied to Joe Flacco and do not dedicate themselves to positioning him as an elite, franchise guy, and he leaves sooner than 2018. The Ravens draft a future franchise quarterback much earlier, and suffice it to say, he’s a lot worse than Lamar Jackson. (Note: I kinda needed to get this one off my chest as therapy for the lingering trauma of the Cundiff miss). 

10) The Event: I become addicted to Nerf footballs.

Implications: Don’t get me wrong, I love leather footballs. I threw them around all the time with my dad and became familiar with them through my six seasons of flag football. But, man, those neon Nerf footballs were something else. They were plush but still had a firm outer shell, had amazing rubber grips and could flat-out fly. Whenever I wanted to predict an NFL score, I would act out the big plays with a Nerf football in my basement and then write the score like a divination professor at Hogwarts. I loved the feel of those things so much that I slept with a Nerf football tucked in my arm for two years, and when one cracked open, I’d pay ten bucks for another immediately.

What If: I never learn of the wonders of the Nerf football. My arm probably becomes a little bit stronger having to throw the real football and my hands take more of a beating from the friction of the tackified football. And the leather-and-laces football makes for a less-than-comfortable bedtime companion.

11) The Event: I don’t make the seventh grade basketball team.

Implications: I was pretty confident going into Frost Middle School that I could make the basketball team. I practiced plenty, did rec leagues every winter and had an energy and a drive that exceeded my skills on the court. But I didn’t even make the first cut. The next year I dialed up my efforts, logging all of my practice hours and working on my post game. The biggest change, however, was my attempt to further build my endurance and conditioning by running track in the spring. In my first track mile, I dropped my time from 7:43 to 5:32, jump starting my distance running career. I didn’t make basketball in eighth grade either, but my path was already pretty clearly headed towards cross country and track.
What If: I somehow eke out a spot on the Frost Eagles roster. I sit on the bench for most of the season, as an undefeated team barrels through opponents. The next year, I take on more minutes, but we already won every game handily without me in eighth grade, so I never flip an outcome in my final middle school season. Encouraged by two Frost seasons, I spend my summer with the Wootton High School summer team and spend a couple years chasing after a varsity roster spot. Eventually, I hand in my basketball dreams and try out running halfway through high school. I never reach my high school running peak, but still finish as a varsity athlete and have some good times.

12) The Event: Boston gives Jon Lester the deal he deserves at the beginning of the 2014 season.

Implications: The Red Sox were just coming off a World Series championship, and if not for the otherworldly heroics of David Ortiz, my favorite player and relative Jon Lester would have certainly won MVP. Yet during spring training camp, Red Sox management shockingly lowballs him, citing hesitation to sign a pitcher in his 30s. A couple months later, Lester goes to the Oakland Athletics in a trade, and when free agency rolls around, he chooses to sign with the Chicago Cubs instead of returning to Beantown.
What If: Jon Lester signs the deal with the Red Sox at the beginning of 2013. He might sign with another team in the twilight of his career given the natural turmoil of the MLB economy, but his prime years are spent in Boston, not Chicago. Even if the Sox win another series as they do in real life, Lester doesn’t have the inspiration of lifting up a woebegone Cubs franchise and helping them break the Curse of the Billy Goat. I have a whole lot less fun and only slightly bandwagon on the upstart Cubs, but stay a Red Sox supporter for life.

13) The Event: Dez Bryant’s catch in the NFC Divisional is called incomplete, sending the Packers to the NFC Championship.

Implications: Bryant secured a deep fourth down pass from Tony Romo and extended his arm toward the goal line. Due to contact with the ground, the ball popped free and Bryant secured it. Under the current rule (known as the Calvin Johnson rule), the receiver needed to secure possession until the ground. The pass was ruled incomplete, giving the Packers possession and a trip to the 2014 NFC Championship. I was devastated and immediately went up to my room to kick my bed and pout. I wanted the Cowboys to make it past the divisional round so badly, and it would be Tony Romo’s last ride with Dallas as well. 

What If: Bryant’s spectacular play is ruled a catch. DeMarco Murray runs in the go-ahead touchdown and the Cowboys advance to play the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game. It’s a great matchup between two strong ground-and-pound teams, and in the quarterback battle between a prime Tony Romo and a turnover-prone Russell Wilson, Dallas has the advantage. Still, the Legion of Boom defense and the nasty Seattle weather prove too much for even Romo, who fails to avenge his 2006 playoff loss and drops his final playoff game. While most of the Dallas timeline remains the same under this scenario, Cowboys fans can boast about reaching the NFC Championship Game and quiet the haters a bit.

14) The Event: I go to the UNC Sports Journalism Camp before my junior year of high school.

Implications: I had a great time at the Sports Journalism Camp at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Not only did I spend four days at my dream school, but I also toured the basketball and football stadiums, talked to professional journalists and UNC players and grew to see sports journalism as a viable profession (I also met Harrison and Patrick, who turned out to be dormmates once I got to college). I produced three pieces that I was proud of, but the most meaningful development was my conversation on the last day with Tim Crothers, the professor who ran the program. He gave advice on the college process and writing in general and greatly encouraged me to write a sports column for my school newspaper the following year. In all, it was a fun and transformative experience, even if I did not end up going to UNC.

What If: I never go to the UNC camp. I don’t experience an environment with such collective fervor about sports journalism, and I don’t meet guys who I am still friends with today. I also never talk to Professor Crothers and, without the encouragement to write a sports column, I stick to beat writing and cover the football team. Without my Varsity Letter column, which won two national awards that I put on my college application, I might not get a second glance from the Northwestern admissions staff, and end up covering football in Happy Valley instead of basketball in Evanston.

15) The Event: I apply to Northwestern.

Implications: Northwestern was the latest addition to my college application process. I never considered it because 1) I wanted to go below the Mason-Dixon line for college 2) I thought I would get into my top schools of UNC and Texas 3) the selectivity for my school (around 10%) made any prospects of getting in undependable 4) the price was sky high and 5) the sports were less than stellar. Still, my dad encouraged me to shoot a shot and somehow I got in for regular admission. I ultimately chose NU over Penn State and University of Maryland, and the decision was worked out better than I could have imagined.
What If: I never apply to Northwestern in the first place. I end up in the Honors College at Penn State, which offered me a good bit of scholarship money to make it close enough to University of Maryland financially. I have a blast going to football games in Beaver Stadium watching an actually good Big Ten team, plus enjoy tracking a relevant Penn State basketball team. But this path is as significant for the experiences I lose. I don’t find a better, more passionate group of friends than I have at Northwestern, nor a more loaded pipeline of journalism talent than at the Daily Northwestern. I don’t have the experience of living near a big city and going to pro sports games, either. When the Big Ten shuts down for the spring and fall, a central tenet of my decision to go to Penn State collapses. I’m pretty satisfied with the way things worked out.

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