It happened in the Spring of 2004. The date that changed my life forever. It changed the way I looked at myself, the world, and at college sports forever. Here’s what happened...
I was a graduate student, diligently working on an endless dissertation. It was a beautiful spring day in Chapel Hill, NC. As an aside, I hated spring until I moved to NC.
In PA, as most of you will know, spring is a fickle, cruel affair. It will be warm and sunny one day, only to sleet or dump huge wet snowflakes the next. The only constant is the wet, sticky mud. My childhood spring memories are of cold wet feet stuck in boots with an inch of red mud glommed to the soles.
But not in Chapel Hill. That’s where I discovered real spring. Everything blooms, I swear to you. I’ve seen lamp posts covered with giant white blossoms that smell like honey. Even the sidewalks sport tiny blue flowers and give off a nice febreeze kind of fragrance. Or at least that’s the excuse I use to mitigate my behavior on the bus…I was high on spring.
After teaching, I jumped on the campus bus to go find food. And standing just in front of me, was a beautiful young girl, just coming back from a volleyball game. I don’t remember exactly what she looked like, but here’s what I tell my friends…
Volleyball Girl was about 5’6” or 5’8”, blond and athletic. And she had a great pair of volleyballs. Inflated just right and not those fake vinyl jobs either…real Tachikaras. Exactly what you would expect a beautiful spring day to throw at you in Chapel Hill.
As an aside, in my head I’m still about 20 years old. Old enough to be responsible most of the time but young enough to get ornery when called for. However, my outward appearance is subject to change without notice.
So I climbed on to the bus and stood next to the Volleyball Girl and struck up a conversation.
Yes I was married. But I couldn’t help myself. It was spring in NC. Even the sidewalks were in bloom. Buildings sang restful songs and the air smelled good. Really good.
And I know a little bit about volleyball. It was my “default” sport in college. No I didn’t play varsity. Hell I was too lazy, too disorganized and too slow to play varsity anything at Penn State. But I loved to play and watch sports. Lacrosse, flag football, racquetball, softball, wiffle ball, beer pong…I played it all. But volleyball and I were intimate.
I spent many evenings in the I.M. building playing pick-up games. Sixes, twos, fours, you name it. And later on in life, when I escaped PA for south Florida, I played on the beach for several years.
So, there was no question I was going to talk to Volleyball Girl. Maybe even find out if they played pickup games somewhere…but I never got to talk volleyball with her. Because the answer to my first question, “do you play volleyball for UNC”, was…
Sir. She fucking called me SIR. Like I was her youth pastor, or her professor (which I wasn’t but could have been), or her DAD…
Oh dear god you could hear my ego deflate, like one long, pathetic subsonic fart.
Because while I felt like a 20 year old, on that beautiful spring day in NC, I still looked like the flabby 35 year old graduate student that I was.
And everything changed.
Because I found out, from one two-word sentence, that I was no longer of that generation. And I realized that I was one broken condom, one stupid hookup away from having a child nearly her age.
My wife loves that story, because it hit me hard. It softened me up and mentally prepared me for what was to come later…when we got pregnant.
I saw “we” because it changes everything. As an aside, I wish I had a computer chip filled with the emotional changes that buffet your world when this happens. It would be the best contraceptive ever invented. Hell, one dose and you’d be celibate for a month. It’s big time.
This is running long, so let me come back around to football.
My parents were 20 years old when I was born. And I do that math a lot, because I was 36 when my first was born. In other words, my folks had a 16 year old kid at that point. And as a parent, at some point I view anyone under 23 as potentially my child.
It’s messed up, I know. My therapist and I are doing some solid work in this area…
But really, that’s where I am with Penn State Football. Because “IT” isn’t related to this team, to these kids. And they are kids. I mean jesus, the things we did as 18-22 year olds…
So they have to deal with being young and dumb AND the stupidity of the NCAA.
And in my parental mind, I’m incredibly proud of our kids. And I’m proud of those high-school kids who are brave enough to ignore the ranting, grunting, raging public to commit to Penn State.
That’s not to say that I won’t scream out “GODDAMMITTT” when they do something criminally stupid on (or off) the football field. But 99% of the time (75% for you Fickin), I’m proud of these kids. Just, stupidly, tearily proud…
Because somebody somewhere taught them what it means to be brave. To fight for what you believe in. To be strong in the face of adversity. Not to quit because it gets hard. Those are life lessons that will carry on with them forever. Somebody did a great job as a parent.
And that’s what I want to give to my children.
As a parent, I’m terrified for my kids. I worry about who they will become. And when I see our kids playing on Saturday, I see an example of what happens when you do it right.
Win or lose, I never stopped watching. Because this isn't about football and it won't be for years to come. This is about kids with character. Kids with strength and dignity. And this is what I love about Penn State football. Win or lose, I'm proud of those kids.
Oh and Emmert? I got your football culture right here, bitch.