The Crying Game After an emotional sports moment, a hard-bitten scribe sets about tracing the tracks of his tears

December 18, 2000

On the recent night that Cris Carter--a recovered drug abuser
turned NFL Man of the Year--made the 1,000th reception of his
remarkable career, for a touchdown, for my hometown Vikings, on
national TV, and was then surprised on the field by his family,
and kissed on the face mask by his daughter, and embraced by his
teammates, and applauded by his opponents, and given a gruff nod
by coach Dennis Green (who couldn't hide the fact that his eyes
were two full sinks about to spill over)...on that night, I sat
slumped on a sofa in New York City, all by myself, and felt
something strange collecting in my clavicle: tears.

This doesn't often happen to us, the gravy-stained Grinches of
the press box. But occasionally it does, and our hearts grow
three sizes that day. Or at the very least, we're reminded that
sports remain an oddly irresistible force, capable of moving
immovable objects.

My father is almost literally one of those, a square block of
granite who played football in the '50s for Purdue and Tennessee.
While visiting him a few Thanksgivings ago, my brothers and I
rented Rudy and--halfway through that fiasco--I casually remarked,
"This might be the corniest movie I have ever...."

Which is when I turned and saw my old man--lower lip quivering,
eyes screwed to the screen--leaking tears like Chad Lowe at the
Oscars. Naturally, my brothers and I had a good, long horselaugh
at his expense. "You bozos don't know anything," he barked
through his sniffles. Then, to the screen: "You show 'em, Rudy!"

Throughout the '70s my dad mutely misted up during every annual
broadcast of Brian's Song. Whenever that kid hits the shot in
Hoosiers, he looks like the Indian chief in the litter
commercial. He loosed a silent Niagara of tears at the part, in
Apollo 13, in which NASA engineers devise a scheme to return the
imperiled astronauts to Earth. When, at that scene's climactic
moment, I elbowed him in the ribs, he blurted--in a sold-out
theater, on the Fourth of July, as rocket scientists filled the
screen--"Thank God for the nerds!"

There is, alas, no predicting what will set him to sobbing like
Jimmy Swaggart. (And there is no predicting what will not: When I
mentioned to him, with embarrassed understatement, that I kind of
got--uh, well, you know--misty-eyed as Carter caught his thousandth
pass, there was a long pause on the other end of the telephone
line. Finally, after an awkward eternity, he said, "You need
medication.")

This much is certain: When my dad does choke up, it's almost
always over sports. Sure, he thinks that today's pro athletes are
overpaid "pansies," coddled "candy-asses" who would benefit from
immediate conscription into the U.S. Army--his solution to most of
society's problems. However, the games they play somehow still
captivate him.

So, in his world, there is crying in baseball, and in football,
and in phone-company commercials in which eight-year-old girls
score their first soccer goals. I'm not sure why this is, but I
have a theory. He grew up in Indiana, the setting of so many
sports movies, and his own life story is no less hokily
inspirational than Hoosiers or Rudy or Knute Rockne: All
American. He was raised without a father and had no money and,
for a time, no house. He was a high school football star living
in a trailer, and a football scholarship got him to college, and
college to a career, and a career allowed him and my late mother
to raise five kids in far better circumstances than those of his
youth. So he still believes strongly in the redemptive power of
sports, even as he must disdain those athletes who think that
being abandoned at birth by one's father is license to neglect
one's own kids.

He did no such thing. No, my dad unmistakably raised me, as was
evident the other night, when a short pass had me weeping like an
old, old woman. They were the tears of a clone--I've become my
father--and I found them encouraging. I mean, if sports don't move
you, don't cover sports. Robert Frost wrote, "No tears in the
writer, no tears in the reader." So, however uncool his habit is,
I am now grateful to my dad.

Thank God for the nerd.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)