Giving Thanks for the World of Sports, 2011

Each year at this time, I take to heart the words of George Washington’s declaration in 1789 that on this holiday, all people should acknowledge “with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.”

It isn’t always easy.  Those of us who love the world of fun and games have been recently compelled to consider such awful subjects as the sexual abuse of children, kidnapping for profit, concussions and their effect on the human brain, and the shutdown of two sports so the wealthy and the wealthier can fight over how to divide the riches our love generates for them.

In such times, scorn and bile come naturally.  It would be a simple matter to express thanks to the thousands of football coaches who do not stand accused of raping ten-year-olds, to all the baseball players who abstained from beer and fried chicken as a mid-game snack, to the basketball stars who refrain from gay slurs on the court, or the international soccer stars who keep their racist thoughts to themselves.

Sincerity is tougher, but it’s worth the annual effort.  I am genuinely grateful to the following people, and many others like them:

Tim Tebow. Who knew the anachronistic talents of one lightning-rod individual could be so entertaining?  Who could have imagined that a single player – through all his copious strengths and weaknesses — would make the Denver Broncos the most interesting NFL team in a long, long time?

Tim Tebow is the best single-wing tailback to play in the NFL since the 1950s.  In an era of universal pass-pass-pass, Tebow is an overthrowback to a rougher, tougher age.   Denver’s linemen clearly love playing with him; after so many years of retreat-and-protect, the guards and tackles get to go on the attack for a change, run-blocking against defenders built for quickness rather than power.  Is it any wonder the opposition is worn down at the end of the game, after fifty-five minutes of unfamiliar punishment?  In that context, are Tebow’s late-game heroics really so surprising?

Sure, the last five weeks may be a Wildcat-like illusion, and Denver’s 4-1 stretch mostly the product of a great defense, some lousy opposition, and a whole lot of luck.  Tebowmania might well be just a mid-season aberration, but in the No Fun League, it’s wonderful to have something so different and so odd to dissect and examine.  Mr. Tebow, I thank you.

Darren Clarke. Cigars, pints, and the Claret Jug should always go together.  Clarke’s Open victory at Royal St. George’s left nary a dry eye or glass in the British Isles.  It was the third major championship in thirteen months for Northern Ireland – a country with a land mass slightly larger than Connecticut’s, and a population slightly smaller than Houston’s.

In the last ten years, Clarke went through the hell of caring for a spouse he lost to cancer, then found life and love and his golf game again, culminating in July with his first major win.  His fellow pros showed their regard for him by crowding around the final green to watch him finish and receive his trophy.  For his manly grace in dealing with some of life’s greatest extremes, thank you Mr. Clarke.

The Green Bay Packers. Only one professional football team generates the widespread identification and passion so common to college football.  Across Wisconsin on Packer Sundays, hoards of endomorphs in green and gold lift brats and brews to their beloved team, their moods rising and falling with every play.  With a Super Bowl trophy in hand and an undefeated season in the offing, 2011 has been a very fine year for the biggest little team in the NFL.  Thank you, Aaron Rodgers and all the rest, for burnishing the legend of Titletown, U.S.A.

Nyjer Morgan. This won’t be a popular sentiment in St. Louis, but the antics of Tony Plush and his alter ego injected a little fun into the baseball world.  By either name, Morgan played the game with obvious relish and delight, bringing life to a sometimes stolid Brewers team and spotlighting the grim seriousness of their NLCS opponents.  Thanks, Mr. Morgan, and better luck next year.

Novak Djokovic. The twilight of the Federer-Nadal era was sure to bring forth a Third Way in some form or other, but it didn’t have to emerge in such a transcendent package.  Djokovic’s 2011 campaign was one of the greatest seasons professional tennis has ever seen: three Grand Slams, a 70-5 match record to date, the number-one ranking, and six consecutive finals wins over Rafael Nadal – two of them on clay.  For holding onto his entertaining personality while reaching the top of his sport, thank you Mr. Djokovic.

To Derek Jeter, for enduring the jeers at his poor start and the hosannas at his revival with his trademark equanimity; to David Freese, for living out every baseball-loving child’s fantasy for his very own hometown team; to Yani Tseng, for consistent brilliance, and for letting us get to know her better by speaking publicly in her ever-improving English; to Mark Cuban, for thinking big and having fun and building a winner while being the kind of loud-mouthed sports owner we’d all like to be – to these and many, many others who sweat and grunt, who swing and miss, who block and tackle, who curl and luge and dive and flip, who strive and succeed and fail for our entertainment, my deep and humble thanks.

(published November 27, 2011)






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