When the sports world goes dark…

Over the last few weeks, life as we know it in this country has been flipped upside down due to the spreading of the coronavirus. 

Lives have been lost, businesses have been shut down, schools are closed, weddings are canceled, public gatherings are forbidden, toilet paper is a novelty. I could go on and on. 

While the loss of sports is minuscule in comparison to a lot of those things, it has still had an enormous impact on millions across the nation.

It’s no secret that sports has a huge influence over our culture, and for many people — including myself, if I’m being honest — the moment when people realized that the coronavirus was much more serious than the common flu was when the NCAA Basketball Tournament was canceled.

Over the course of a 48-hour period, the entire sports world was shut down. Everything from the NBA to Little League was put on hold. 

As an avid sports lover, I still haven’t gotten over how surreal these last 21 days have been. Sure, I’m incredibly disappointed that as we’re entering a great season in the sports world — March Madness, NBA Playoffs, The Masters, MLB Opening Day — it all gets ripped away. But the gloominess of having no sports goes much deeper, at least for me.

I hurt for all the stadium workers and vendors who, in the blink of an eye, lost a paycheck that they desperately needed. I hurt for little leaguers who were excited to enter their first year of competitive baseball and don’t understand why they are unable to play with their friends.  

Above all, I hurt for the high school and college seniors who possibly played their last competitive game without even knowing it. The athletes who didn’t get to experience senior night or play the sport they have loved their whole lives in front of their family and friends one last time. The people that worked so hard all season for a goal and then had it ripped away from them without warning. 

I experience the most empathy for these seniors because I know what they are going through.

I played football, basketball, baseball all through growing up and lettered in all three sports in my sophomore and junior years of high school. I had a goal of playing baseball in college, but I was thrilled by the possibility of one last hurrah in my senior year of high school sports. 

And then, unexpectedly, it got taken away.

At the end of my junior year, I was experiencing nasty daily headaches. But I continued to play and go about my life like everything was normal.

When the summer came, however, I just couldn’t take it anymore. 

The headaches got worse and worse every day. As time passed, I developed numerous other symptoms that continued to completely hamper my quality of life.

In a span of 365 days, I went from being a happy, healthy, three-sport athlete, to having a feeding tube inserted in my stomach, an ice-pack on my head at nearly all times and an inability to even walk from the car to a doctor’s office.

I missed my senior year. I didn’t get to graduate with all my friends. I was in excruciating pain every day and I couldn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. 

Despite all the other issues I was having, I often thought about how I would never play competitive sports again. It tore me up that I would never again hear the shrieking cheer of my loving mother from the stands whenever I did something well, even if it moderately embarrassed me — like when I hit my only high school home run in a meaningless non-league game and tried to play it cool like this was a normal thing I did and she got so excited that her folding chair collapsed, but she kept on screaming in approval. 

I thought about all the time and the hours I had put in and how it was all taken away by my body’s betrayal. 

Besides my Christian faith and my unbelievably supportive family, where I found some semblance of delight was watching Chip Kelly and the Oregon football team pull off the most successful two-year stretch in program history (2009-10).

I hung on every snap as the Ducks won back-to-back Pac-10 titles, made an appearance in the Rose Bowl and even made it to the National Title game. My father admitted to me years later that he used to pray that the Ducks would win because it was one of the only things that brought his son joy during this trial. Normally, praying for your favorite team to win would be absurd, but I think my pops deserves an exception.

Even if it was only on Saturday afternoons in the fall, for three brief hours, I was distracted from what was ailing me. 

I wrote a column in January about sports being the great unifier. We have also seen numerous examples in the past of how sports can be a great healer as well.

After 9/11 when the New York Yankees returned to the ballfield two weeks after the worst terrorist attack to ever occur on U.S. soil, they were greeted with both tears and chants of “U-S-A” as they joined members of the NYPD and the FDNY on the field during the pregame ceremony. 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Saints returned to the Louisiana Superdome for the first time in over a year on Sept. 25, 2006 to take on the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football. Steve Gleason blocked a punt that was recovered for a touchdown on the fourth play of the contest, a play that signaled the rebirth of a city that was in dire pain — there is even a statue outside the stadium to honor the legendary block. 

There are numerous other examples of sports allowing people to heal, but the point is, sports have great impact. As a country, we are so blessed just to have the ability to play and watch sports. 

Around this time every spring, I’m usually complaining about how the Seattle Mariners will be a huge disappointment to me once again. Now, I’m reminiscing about all the fun summer nights I have spent at Safeco Field and how I can’t wait for the mediocre Mariners to return.

I will never take those moments for granted again. 

It’s so easy for people to get lost in the mundaneness of everyday “normal” life. In the moment, normality can seem tiresome and tedious. 

But for most in this country, normal life is something to be thankful for. 

During this time, I am so thankful that I have a house, a job, a bed, food, water, my health and an unbelievably supportive, encouraging and loving wife. I am also thankful all that sports has given me in my 28 years on this earth.

As an athlete, I am grateful that I learned the values of discipline and hard work, as well as building camaraderie with teammates and learning how to deal with success and failure in a healthy manner. I am also grateful that I got to experience the joys of scoring a touchdown or knocking down a 3-pointer.

As a fan and former coach, I am grateful for all the relationships that sports have given me. For all the high fives with strangers at Autzen Stadium to the deep friendships that have been cultivated through a passion for sports.

Sports represent different things to different people. In this country, they represent a sense of normalcy. 

When sports come to a standstill, there is something abnormal and tragic going on in the world.

I can’t wait for things to be normal again. 

(Matt Rawlings is the associate editor of the Keizertimes.)