The tears of a fanatic

110512 falcons CC32I wept.

I know. Big boys don’t cry, especially over a football game. It’s ridiculous. It wasn’t a babbling gusher or anything, but I made sure to hide the swollen eyes and quivering lip from my wife. I was a little surprised myself by the unexpected display of emotion. It seems I was simply overwhelmed by a moment of pure joy.

I’m one of those people who gets thoroughly attached to his sports teams and the athletes who play for them. It’s a bit bizarre, but I can still name the entire starting lineup from the 2008 Georgia Bulldog baseball team that made it to the national championship game. I learn their names, their hometowns, their shirt size, their favorite brand of cereal, and their high school grade point average. I need to know if they use waxed or unwaxed dental floss. Their fortunes are my own. If they win on Saturday, I arrive at work on Monday on a cloud. If they lose, I feel like I’ve been docked a week’s pay.

As a fan of Atlanta’s sports teams, I would be living in a tent if they actually withheld a paycheck with each loss.

There have been many seasons when the City Too Busy to Hate has fielded teams too distracted to win. Inept owners and terrible luck became their signature. Brett Favre, one of pro football’s greatest quarterbacks, started his career with the Falcons. He was a complete bust until he left Atlanta. Nick Esasky was an All-Star third baseman with the Reds and Red Sox. He arrived in Atlanta with a bad case of vertigo, and never played a game. The city has had two hockey teams, only to lose them both. For most of my life, the city of my birth has been a punchline for the sporting world.

Oh, how I’ve hungered for Atlanta to have the last laugh.

There have been so many opportunities to bail and adopt other teams. I won’t do it. With every losing season, I dig in even deeper. I’m deeply invested in a losing stock, but I refuse to sell. Atlanta is a town filled with millions who come from somewhere else. They bring their banners with them. Packers. Steelers. Yankees. They root for teams that have hoisted championship trophies time and time again. They tempt me to abandon my roots. I am stubbornly convinced that I will be richly rewarded for decades of suffering.

Atlanta does have one title. One. It happened in 1995. The Braves, once perennial losers, climbed the baseball ladder so quickly it made us all dizzy. They made it to one World Series, and lost, then another, and lost. The third time was, indeed, the charm. Then came another World Series loss, and another, and just like that, the magic disappeared.

Now comes these Atlanta Falcons.

I started rooting for the Falcons in 1980, the year they steamrolled into the playoffs only to lose an unlosable game to the Dallas Cowboys. I stayed with them as they hired and fired the hapless Marion Campbell, a man they’d hired and fired once before. I traveled to Miami to witness the Falcons’ first appearance in the Super Bowl, and felt the elation ebb away with the arrest of a key defensive back the night before the game. It was as if fate had punched a hole in our hot air balloon. The team, and the experience, fell flat.

This time, it’s different. It feels different.

This time, there’s Matty Ice, who warms my heart. Quarterback Matt Ryan goes about his business with fearless calm, never bothering to draw attention to himself. There’s Julio Jones, who doesn’t let injury stop him as he stiff-arms larger defenders to the ground. It’s a team that refused to doubt after early season losses. They’re playing with a grit that leads you to believe they understand this town’s hunger. Matt Ryan was 5-years-old when the Falcons finished their 9th losing season in 10 years, one of  the lowest moments for a franchise full of lows. Ryan hasn’t lived with our frustration, but he’s fighting to cure it.

So, excuse the fat, wet bubble that appeared in my eye as the clock ticked down toward perhaps the biggest win in Falcons history. I’m a sap, a stupid sports sap who fell in love with the Dirty Birds nearly four decades ago. They’ve broken my heart so many times, it would make a stirring romance novel. For me and thousands of other long suffering fans, this season is like a thrilling apology. It’s the misbehaving pet that ran away years ago, only to return with a tail-wagging leap into your lap. It’s the girlfriend who broke up with you at the prom, then calls to profess her undying love.

I pine for all of my sports team. Falcons, Braves, Bulldogs, Hawks. I know that it’s dumb to invest so much emotion in the performance of athletes I’ve never met. It’s not like I have a say in their wins or losses. It’s not like they’re thinking about my mental well being when they trot onto the field. And yet, I can’t help myself. It’s really beyond explanation.

For me, the Super Bowl will be played at a most inconvenient hour. My alarm will ring at 2 a.m, Monday morning. If I stay up to watch the game, I will get, at the most, four hours sleep. More than likely, I won’t sleep at all, especially if the Falcons win. If that happens, I won’t want to sleep for a month. After all, there will be no more need for dreams.

And I will cry. Oh, yes, I will most certainly cry.

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The shrapnel of grief

uga sadIt’s not supposed to happen this way.

In my line of work, it’s inevitable that you will confront tragedy. Grieving strangers suddenly aren’t strangers anymore. They pour out their hearts. You offer compassion and a sympathetic ear. Often, when I’m present, the interview ends with a hug. Some may see that as inappropriate, a violation of some journalistic canon. I don’t care. When I see suffering, I hug.

It’s not easy to walk away. You carry some of that second-hand grief home.

That’s the way it goes. Most of the time.

It’s not supposed to go like this.

At 2 a.m., as I was rising for another day of chasing news, a police officer was knocking at the front door of a friend’s house just a couple of miles away. A car crash was sending waves of sadness across my community, into my church, and deep into my heart. I didn’t learn for another five hours that I knew one of the victims. Word reached me as I was standing on the side of an Atlanta street, reporting on a series of car crashes impacting people I’d just met.

Halle Scott was 19-years-old. Her parents are in my Sunday school class. We’ve socialized together, worshiped together, prayed together. Hundreds of times, we’ve joined each other in prayer over others encountering hardship. It was only a few months ago that Halle attended a Sunday school class I helped teach for students home from college. My mind won’t let go of her peaceful face as I did my best to impart what little spiritual wisdom I possess.

After learning details of the crash, I tried to keep reporter Jerry separate from grieving Jerry. For a few hours, I struggled to focus on the remaining tasks of the day. Thankfully, my assignments did not involve coverage of the wreck that took Halle and three other University of Georgia students. That would have forced reporter Jerry and grieving Jerry to collide.

It’s not supposed to happen that way.

At noon, I was done with reporter Jerry. I broke away from work and headed to church. There, I found an entire room injured by the widespread shrapnel of grief. The entire building wept. I bowed. I asked God to bestow peace upon a family in desperate need of strength. I held my daughter’s hand and watched her weep. She and Halle were on the high school cheerleading squad together. Rachel was supposed to visit Halle in Athens on Saturday.

It’s my job to confront grief, not my daughter’s.

It’s not supposed to happen like this.

Life isn’t fair. Halle was a wonderful child of powerful faith. In the name of the Lord, she traveled to faraway places to worship and serve others less fortunate. She was bold in her faith, unafraid to let you know her devotion to God. Her parents are equally strong in their convictions, and I’m comforted in knowing they can lean on Christ. They have a Sunday school class, a church, an entire community for support. They have me, if they need me.

So many times, I’ve reported on tragic losses that just aren’t fair.

It’s never involved anyone I know.

The car wreck that has impacted an entire college campus and well beyond will be in the news for awhile. I can’t bring myself to watch the coverage. I’m a newsman who can’t watch the news. When I see pictures of Halle, I think of her mom, her dad, and her brother, and I have the same thoughts as parents across the entire state. That could have my my child. The next time, that police officer might not be two miles away. Is my faith strong enough?

As a news reporter, there really is no exit strategy when it comes to tragic events. At some point, you need to detach from the grief, but you can’t. It lingers, even when it isn’t yours. After a few years, it gets pretty weighty.

It isn’t reporter Jerry who comes to the Scott family, ready to carry as much weight as they need. This is Jerry, a brother in Christ, a friend ready to listen, cry, celebrate, mourn, fetch, hug, and hug again. I can pray. I can ask God to wrap sweet Halle in his loving arms. I can ask Him to fill the hearts of all who are hurting with the assurance that Halle is in an amazing place. I can pray that it brings her family comfort.

Perhaps, in the face of incredible tragedy, that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.

 

Knowing Richt from wrong

richtI love Mark Richt.

He deserves my love. He deserves my respect. He’s earned my admiration. Mark Richt has been kicked in the gut, and he is standing tall. Taller, in fact, than the very people who kicked him. During what has to be one of the lowest moments of his life, Mark Richt is a giant. Every time he opens his mouth, he sets another example of decency and virtue.

There is no need to continue the debate over whether or not he deserved to lose his job as football coach at the University of Georgia. That ship has sailed. What’s left is to cling to the standards he set. Mark Richt never compromised. He loved his players. He loved his school. My school. He knew the importance of pleasing wealthy alumni and fickle fans. He also knew it was far more important to honor and please his Lord.

Mark Richt doesn’t know me, and that’s okay. We met once, very briefly, years ago. It was one of the many coach-reporter encounters he’s had in his life, and he won’t remember it. On the other hand, he’s had a tremendous impact on me. I see in him a man of peace. As pressure and criticism rains down on him, he is steady and unafraid. He’s given it all to God, and in God he has assurance. The demands of unreasonable fans don’t scare him. Gators don’t scare him. Yellow Jackets, Tigers, and Rolling Tides don’t scare him. The Lord tells him to fear not, and Mark Richt is an obedient follower of Christ.

I wish I had that kind of faith, that kind of strength.

Mark Richt’s wins aren’t always kept on a scoreboard. His most important victories are measured in character. Talk to his former athletes. Ask Marshall Morgan, the once automatic kicker who found himself short on confidence. Prior to a big field goal attempt, his coach embraced him.

“No matter what happens,” Coach Richt assured his kicker. “I love you.”

Marshall Morgan made the kick.

Richt has booted players for various infractions, but he never abandoned them. Instead, he encouraged and continued to guide the very athletes who let him down.

Now, Georgia has booted Richt. His reaction?

“I love our fans.”

That includes the fans dissatisfied with the lack of championships, the fans who demanded Richt’s ouster.

“I respect the media.”

There were writers who called for Georgia to can Mark Richt.

“I love everybody, quite frankly.”

Not everyone loved Mark Richt. There are people who celebrated after the University of Georgia announced that Richt had lost his job. Imagine people partying over your demise. Mark Richt didn’t deserve such disrespect. Some of his harshest critics pointed to a program that was above reproach.

“We need a football coach,” some would say. “Not a preacher.”

My biggest fear is that Georgia will backslide when it comes to integrity. A national writer actually suggested that the Bulldogs need to soften up when it comes to discipline, that the new coach needs to be “freer” when it comes to second chances. No way. Mark Richt set a high standard for good behavior, and that standard should not be compromised. Georgia doesn’t need to be like everyone else. We should not be ashamed of requiring our athletes to act like decent human beings. They need to know there are rules and consequences, that the world is not one big rug where you can sweep your transgressions. Mark Richt did it right. He lifted his team high in terms of morality, and the next coach should have the strength to keep it high.

I pray that the character of Mark Richt will remain a part of Georgia football forever. It is his influence that caused Georgia to lift Devon Gales after a devastating injury, and turn a rival player into a Bulldog fan. It is Mark Richt’s compassionate spirit that leads his players to charity work. There’s a reason why other college coaches voted Richt as the man they would want tutoring their son.

Mark Richt loves the Lord. He is comforted by God, and that is why he answered questions about his firing without bitterness or resentment.

“I’m really at peace that it was part of His (God’s) plan,” said Richt. “I want to continue to be as obedient as I can be to the Lord.”

Mark Richt isn’t worried about tomorrow. He’s not concerned about the championships he didn’t win, or the fans he disappointed. His eye is on a Lord who loves him, who loves all of us, even as we fail.

Mark Richt is a champion.

And I love him.