There aren’t too many words that remain the same across all the languages on this world, but those are two of them.
Then again, there’s sports. Some would argue math is the universal language, and they’re right – but it’s application to the world of sports is what makes it so widely spoken. The box score is common ground for all of us. The results at the end of games, season upon season, weaves up an emotional fabric that criss crosses through all of us.
For fathers and sons, common grounds can be hard to come by. Language only gives us “taxi” and “radio.” That’s simply not enough to connect the generations. I am not claiming that sports is the best venue for communication – but it is very ingrained with passion, want, and hope. A place where emotions can exist and be worn on the sleeve.
I have a DVD of one of the best games I have ever been to with Dad. I purchased it at a Tops supermarket in 2010. You know you were at an important event if a recording of it is still on sale in supermarkets 17 years later.
January 3rd, 1993. Buffalo sports fans know that date well, but to summarize, it was the Greatest of Games. The Comeback. The Day the Bills recovered from a 35-7 deficit against the Oilers – the largest come from behind victory in NFL playoff history. The game didn’t sell out within 72 hours previous to kickoff, so it wasn’t aired on local TV. To be in the stadium that day was extra special.
I was 18 years old, a fresh, naive product out of high school. I am not going to get into a spiel about being a teenager and what it means to grow up under the protective plastic bubble of the mid-90’s Suburbia, but I will say this: I didn’t know anything about letting go, and appreciating the moment.
I went to the game with Dad, along with a bunch of uncles, grandparents, and great uncles. It was a gathering of generations of males from my family. I remember the crisp smell of the air that day, the shouts of bravado interchanged between fans, and the anxious march along the parking lots towards the stadium.
The first half changed a lot of moods. Being down 28-3 didn’t mix well with all the beer folks drank up in the parking lot before the game. After witnessing Warren Moon connect on 19 of 22 passes for 220 yards and 4 touchdowns in the first half, and sitting through the nightmare that was the Oilers holding onto the ball for 21:12 of the first 30 minutes, many in the stadium had enough.
Enough of the game, enough of the cold.
It was cold outside, obviously – but the chill of the what had just happened in the first half was the frost that really bit at everyone’s toes. That’s where the feeling started. In the toes, then straight up some anonymous nerve that lead into the heart. I sat down on that cold aluminum bench at the beginning of the game full of hope and eager for my anticipation to be rewarded. 30 minutes of playing time later, all that emotion became iced over, and it was a very, very heavy burden to carry. I didn’t know what to do, so I just sat there, with my hands in my pockets.
“You wanna’ go?”
Dad was asking me that question.
“You wanna’ go? Game’s pretty much over, and it’s cold. Everyone’s leaving. I don’t know. We always stay, but if you want to go, well, it’s up to you.”
Up to me? That was a jolt that hit that anonymous nerve and really startled me. Apparently, all the generations of uncles, great uncles, and grandfathers decided to leave that most critical of decisions to their youngest: was it time to break the tradition of staying to the end, no matter the result?
So, that naive, sheltered 18 year old kid looked out over the field, and through a cloud of wintery breath, he softly said “We paid money for these tickets. We’re staying.”
Good decision, yes. But the real impact for me was a sudden realization, or empowerment, that I could find a way to cope with the coldest weather. It’s something that has served me well throughout the years as a Buffalo sports fan. And shoot, was I ever rewarded for my allegiance to the mathematical formula of sports and hope:
At some point during the 3rd quarter, the streams of fans that had left the game had mysteriously found a way past the gate keepers and back into the stadium. The seats filled back up. Bodies became pressed together again. Things got warm.
My grandfather went to the men’s room when the Bills scored their first points of the second half. He was in the men’s room again when they scored again.
“Every time I leave to piss the Bills score,” he said, laughing. And then he got up to leave again. He kept on leaving, and the Bills kept scoring. There’s that empowerment again. I took note.
The Bills took the lead in the 4th quarter on a 17 yard touchdown delivery from Frank Reich to Andre Reed. For the first time all season, the Houston defense (ninth in fewest points allowed that season) had allowed over 29 points.
Maybe the game or the drama of it all was simply too darn good to end in regulation, so when Al Del Greco kicked a 26 yard field goal to tie it up and send the game into overtime, the mood in the stands didn’t falter. Instead, it swelled.
The “team who scores first wins” of the NFL OT gripped our eyeballs, but the momentum and heartbeat of the game was the resounding decibel that everyone felt in their ears as fans screamed at the field to force fate.
The language of the game had become a primitive, guttural howl. The rawest of exposed emotion.
Houston won the coin toss and possession of the first drive, but the fans would not be denied. The howl turned into an empyrean roar when Nate Odomes picked off Moon’s 50th, and last, pass of the day.
We would not be denied.
There’s a blur in my memory from that point on. The noise of the stadium, combined with the rattling noise in my lungs as I tried to push air past my throat as my own voice gave out is about all I can recollect.
Then Steve Christie hit that 32 yard field goal to give us that win.
The pre-game anticipation. The unbelievable descent of emotion in the 1st half. The unreal ascent of emotion in the 2nd. The roar around me. The beating of all those hearts. All those cold, cramped up muscles. All of that exploded at once, in a beautiful, absolute celebration.
It felt like the fans were being carried out of the stadium that day. No one wanted to leave.
On that day I learned a lot about myself, about hope, about crowds of men, and about family. No, that team never did win a Superbowl. But it taught its fans a very strong lesson on how to get up, to keep moving on – to stick to your hope, to your crowds alongside you, to your family.
And never, ever, give up on any of that.
Just another game Dad and I have been to.