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The year sports broke me

Sometimes it’s more than a game

Pittsburgh Penguins v Columbus Blue Jackets - Game Four Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

For most of my life, sports didn’t make me cry. It’s not that I have a heart made of stone; there are so many movies and TV shows that turn on the waterworks. The finale of The Good Place, when (SPOILER) realized that (SPOILER) was going to (SPOILER)? I was a wreck. When I saw Marley & Me in the theater just months after my first dog died? My sincerest apologies to everyone sitting around me and my family as we bawled through the last half hour or so. I ascribe to the Jim Valvano philosophy that if you laugh, cry, and think, then you’ve had a complete day.

Sports, though, could never trigger that reaction. I’ve always been obsessed with sports, so it’s not like I wasn’t emotionally invested. Sure, I’d feel sad if I lost. But crying? Not even when I broke my finger playing basketball as an eight year old. Only once did I cry: when I was in second grade and my youth soccer team lost the championship game for the third straight season. It hurt to see the other team and their parents celebrating. Weren’t we a good team that worked just as hard? Didn’t we deserve that joy? That’s when I learned that sports aren’t fair.

Even when Ohio State won the national championship in 2002 and 2014, there was a wave of emotions but no tears.

As for my favorite pro teams:

April 27, 2013: I wrote about this game last month. After three years of being a ticket holder, I finally convince my best friend Pat to attend this game. He enjoys himself, but I couldn’t convince him to join me for games the next season.

April 23, 2014: Game 4 vs. Pittsburgh. I was able to talk Pat into joining me because it was a playoff game. Despite being a casual fan at best, he gets caught up in the emotion of the third period and overtime. As we chant “C!-B!-J!” while leaving the arena, he is hooked for life.

No live sports moment has topped this for me, but I didn’t cry.

April 28, 2014: I luck out and get fifth row seats for this game. I had to bring Pat, because he’s obviously a good luck charm. I have a framed panorama of Nationwide that was taken right before the opening face-off of this game. If I look closely I can see Pat and myself. He was a massive man, so his size and my luminescent skin stand out. I get choked up as the crowd and players salute each other after the game, but I don’t cry.

June 19, 2016: The Cleveland Cavaliers erase a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the Golden State Warriors, breaking a 52 year championship drought for major Cleveland sports (all due respect to the Lake Erie Monsters, who won the Calder Cup a week earlier). I’m not a big NBA fan so I wasn’t super invested in the outcome, but I’m thrilled as a Cleveland fan to get that monkey off our back. I tear up, but I wouldn’t call it a cry.

November 2, 2016: Unlike the Cavs, I have been deeply invested in the Cleveland Indians since the 1990s. The 2016 World Series is a roller coaster of emotions, as the Indians blow their own 3-1 series lead. Remarkably, the ending of Game 7 doesn’t make me cry. I’m still happy about Rajai Davis’s game-tying home run in the eighth inning. It was a miracle that the Tribe got as far as they did with a decimated starting rotation.

As a bigger Cleveland fan than me, Pat cries after both of those Game 7s.

November 4, 2016: Pat’s girlfriend, Becca, takes him to the famous “We Want 10!” game against Montreal. I am watching on TV while exchanging texts with Pat about how insane, ridiculous, and fun this is.

Pat and Becca had initially bonded by talking about hockey. Looking back through their early text conversations, Becca later gives me credit for them hitting it off because I gave him those playoff tickets.

December 18, 2016: Seth Jones scores an overtime winner in Vancouver to extend the Jackets’ win streak to nine games. Pat and I watch the last period and OT at the Champps at Lennox after watching Rogue One. Pat is depressed and exhausted following a hospitalization the month before for fluid in his lungs.

December 22, 2016: The Streak reaches 11 as the Jackets obliterate the Penguins 7-1, led by a Scott Hartnell hat trick. Pat and I watch with our friends from our weekly trivia game at the Grandview Buffalo Wild Wings. MrSwift was there on our team, too, if I recall correctly.

December 31, 2016: The Jackets get a huge road win over the similarly red-hot Minnesota Wild in the Unsustainabowl. I have Pat and Becca over to my house to watch this game and the Ohio State-Clemson Fiesta Bowl. Ohio State gets shut out but that’s just a footnote on the evening, as we’re so happy about The Streak continuing, and the Blue Jackets sitting in first place in the NHL.

January 5, 2017: I have to work late so I am unable to make it to Thursday night trivia. The Jackets see their streak come to an end with a lackluster 5-0 defeat in Washington. I listen to the first period at the office, then watch the rest at home.

January 11, 2017: I get a phone call in the morning: Pat is gone. He told other friends that he was back in the hospital the day before, but not me. I think he didn’t want me to worry. Fluid had spread to his other lung and he crashed before they could operate.

I can’t cry. I feel like it’s what a normal person would do in this scenario, right? Instead I’m just numb.

January 16, 2017: I give the eulogy at Pat’s funeral. I talk about how much sports were part of our friendship: Jackets games, Buckeyes games, trips to Cleveland to watch the Indians. I express hope that the Indians can return to the World Series. For Pat. He was so excited that they had added Edwin Encarnacion.

I finally cry as the casket is loaded into the hearse. The finality hits me and I can’t hold it back.

I briefly considered taking a break from The Cannon, but instead it proved to be a great escape. There were some bumps that spring, but it was still the most successful season in franchise history. It was much better to talk about playoff seeding than draft position. I didn’t burden the other writers with what I was going through, since Jeff Little had passed the day before Pat. We were all hurting from that.

April 18, 2017: I attend Game 4 of the playoff series against the Penguins. The Jackets were on the brink of elimination and had lost Zach Werenski to a broken face, but manage to battle to a 5-4 win. I definitely cry several times that night. I went to several games throughout the spring, but after 2014 I had counted on having Pat next to me for the next Jackets playoff game.

September 14, 2017: Jay Bruce hits a walk-off double to lead the Indians to their 22nd straight win. It’s a magical run as the Indians follow up their pennant run with the second-winningest season in franchise history. I think of Pat after every game, and how much he’d love it.

October 6, 2017: Corey Kluber gets shelled in the early innings of Game 2 of the ALDS, so I assume it’s a loss as I turn off the radio feed and enter Nationwide Arena for the Jackets season opener. As the Blue Jackets dominate the Islanders 5-0, the Indians manage to mount a comeback. I meet Becca at the Three Legged Mare after the hockey game to watch as the baseball game enters extra innings. The place goes nuts as Yan Gomes hits the walk-off single. Things are looking promising for both of my teams.

October 11, 2017: After a narrow 1-0 loss in Game 3, and a bad 7-3 loss in Game 4, the Indians finally fall to the Yankees in Game 5 of the ALDS. I turn off the TV immediately after the final out, unable to bear any coverage of the celebration.

Then it happens: the most I’ve cried due to sports. Maybe the hardest I’ve ever cried. There weren’t just tears. This was shoulder-quaking sobs. Unnatural wails that make me cover my face with a pillow, lest I disturb the neighbors. Months of grief, hope, and misplaced expectations come pouring out.

My mom texts me about 15 minutes after the game ends, “are you OK?” “No,” I reply. She calls to comfort me and I admit out loud what I know to be true: I’m not really crying about the game. I’m crying because I miss my friend. I felt foolish, letting myself believe that if the Indians could win, it would...make his death worth it, somehow?

The Indians were supposed to complete their unfinished business. I would walk to a mutual friend’s house and we would celebrate together and drink to Pat’s memory. Instead, as I learned on that soccer field 24 years earlier, sports isn’t fair. You don’t always get that storybook ending.

The good news is that no loss since then has hit nearly as hard. The bad news is the wins haven’t felt as triumphant as they did in 2014, or late 2016. I wonder if it’s my subconsciousness protecting itself: if I don’t invest as much emotionally, then I can’t get hurt again.

The clinching victory over Tampa Bay last spring was exhilarating. That was a step back in the right direction. I hope that one day I can witness the Blue Jackets lifting the Stanley Cup, and that I will cry happy tears. I know my friend will be there when that happens.