There was a parade through downtown Wink, Tex. A marching band with horns, drums, glockenspiel. Baton twirlers. Cheerleaders. Spectators lining the street in that tiny West Texas oil patch. A big deal. Certainly impressive to a 6-year-old, though my older sister couldn’t abide one more example of the constant fuss over the local high school football team.
In fact, I don’t recall any member of my family having an interest in sports. But the communal hullabaloo over the local lads in that little town, way back then, subliminally recruited me to be a member of the fun-and-games tribe.
It might have been later that day, or the next week, that I sat in the stands and watched a player for the Wink Wildcats—outfitted in orange, head-to-toe—sprint 80 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. Woo hoo.
To a first-grader, those players—barely old enough to shave and still too young to vote or shape the world—were herculean. They were Wink’s guardians against the foreign invaders from far-off McCamey and Iraan and Marfa—dusty Texas settlements exactly like Wink but somehow perceived as home to “others.” The Wildcats’ weaving, breathtaking journeys across the gridiron—leaving opponents grasping at air—were heroic.
A year later, my family moved to California. Wink no longer was “us.” But the spectacle and the immutable drama of football, and sports in general, followed me to five more states, through high school, college and a half-century as a journalist. Whether spectating from the bleachers, hanging onto radio play-by-play calls, pouring over newspaper accounts, I was hooked on the grand theater of sports.
I suppose it figures that I took up sportswriting. It was a career choice something like that of a fellow I interviewed at a New York racetrack years ago. Known to almost everyone around the backstretches of the nation as Hee-Haw, he said he had gotten his first taste of betting on thoroughbreds when he was 12 and subsequently took any job he could find—buyer and seller of horses, jockey agent, errand boy for a Triple Crown trainer—simply to stay close to those betting windows.
He followed his passion. Isn’t that the advice we all hear from graduation-day speakers? My vocation of chronicling sports hardly was as financially risky as Hee-Haw’s gambling zeal, and meanwhile I long ago ceased to see jocks as heroes. They are not defending a community’s way or life, or representing some higher moral ground. No connection exists between athletic greatness and personal goodness. It’s safe to say that I soon turned to writers and reporters for my role models.
But athletes do have the entertainer’s stage, upon which they absolutely demonstrate skills to be applauded in their context. It turns out, too, that my fascination with the sports domain came to include how it mirrors everything in the Real World: Splendid accomplishments, disappointing failures, cultural differences, big business, glorification of celebrity, and ugly incidents of cheating and racism and sexism.
I’m still drawn to it. A few days ago, I dropped by the field in my Babylon, N.Y., village to catch the second half of the high school game. Babylon’s school colors, like Wink’s, are orange and black. Babylon, like Wink, has a big cat mascot—Panther as opposed to Wildcat.
As I settled into the stands, a Babylon player took the kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown. And the band played on. Woo hoo.