It’s a frosty night in Icecrown and I’m atop the spiral tower of the Citadel waiting to begin the final attempt of the season. Breathing in the thin air of this colossal height, I imagine what victory might feel like. When I look at the opponent, despair bottoms out my stomach. Practicing daily for years has led to this moment yet still I anticipate only defeat. But I am not alone in this struggle, I am part of a team. Together, we’re going to take one last swing at the mighty Lich King.
At this point, you may be thinking, what the hell is a Lich King?
For those of you confused, I’m talking about a computer game played by millions involving a fantasy world where wizards, knights, shamans, and other assorted heroes do battle with the forces of darkness. And yet, to some of us, it is much more than a game. It is a sport. A digital sport. Scoff if you must, but keep reading.
In the kindergarten summer of my analog youth, I played little league baseball. I think it was little league. It may have been a step lower than little league but suffice to say we were all very little and adorable out there on the field. One of the happiest times of my childhood was being on that team. I remember the evening practice when we got our uniforms. Dark blue and grey, the uniforms were unloaded from the boxes out of a car trunk. At first, I don’t recall being aware that uniforms were a part of baseball, I was only six and had many Batman-related concerns, but when I put the uniform on and realized what it meant, my perspective shifted in a permanent fashion. I wasn’t just me anymore. I was part of a team. The uniform legitimized my acceptance in ways I was far too young to understand fully. Even now, I mostly remember how serious it felt.
In the parlance of suburban youth, kindergarten baseball just got real.
We were an expansion team to the baseball league, which meant we were the new or extra players the other teams couldn’t (or wouldn’t) take. Later on in life, after I was allowed to watch inappropriate movies, I would describe our team as Revenge of the Nerds, except without the babes. Try as hard as we might, we didn’t win a single game. Well, I take that back, we won two games, both against the other expansion team and both I missed because I was sick. Let’s not read too much into the causality of me being absent and those victories. I like to think I was a great right fielder in a league where the ball rarely made it past the first base. My best guess is that we simply weren’t very good. Me being a disabled kid might have contributed to our dismal record, but if ever that was the case, I was never made aware of it. Our coaches were concerned about us having a good time, learning values like sportsmanship and fielding grounders rather than winning. At the end of the season, the coaches, and some of the parents- including my father, took us camping near a creek. It was fun.
We lost every game I played, but losing wasn’t an unfamiliar sensation. My father had already impressed on me the underdog spirit.
Growing up in Nashville during the early 90’s, my father could have chosen to support another football team less associated with his workplace and no one would have judged him for it. However, my father is not that kind of man. He was the project architect for Vanderbilt University during a time when Vandy football was less than spectacular. Vanderbilt lost with unbridled abandon. My father and I would go to the football games, the details of which I don’t remember much except one time he explained a safety. It was scored on Vanderbilt of course. My father and I had a deal though that kept me a loyal supporter and I would hold him to it for years to come. Every half-time, after the marching band, my father would take me to the frozen yogurt stand to get frozen yogurt. Chocolate and vanilla swirl. Never peanut butter. At one point in its life, the yogurt had been soft serve, but the incarceration in the mobile freezer rendered it into a hard, edible block. If I learned anything from those games with my father, it was that being an underdog means you don’t sweat the losses, as long as frozen yogurt is involved.
One year Vanderbilt beat Kentucky. My father, champion of the underdog, was thrilled. I picked up a taste for winning.
Several years later, we moved to Huntington and became Marshall University fans. I suppose in a way we were Marshall fans first given that my mother, my aunt, and other relations are alumni. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Thundering Herd, go watch the movie We Are Marshall. In the mid 90’s, Marshall experienced a surge of football excellence thanks to a good coach and a great team. Like many small towns, their names are still revered by the fans. Continuing our tradition of Saturday football, my father and I attended many games. Instead of the usual moral victories, we actually got to enjoy being on the winning side more often than not. Of course, I still got frozen yogurt every half time. Perhaps being a winner means that you don’t sweat the dairy treats, but I took no chances.
Frozen yogurt every time, no matter what.
Marshall’s golden era of football peaked for me during the undefeated, 15-0 season-ending game. Fans remember it as the Snow Bowl because it was snowing. The field was covered in an obfuscating white layer. They had to keep clearing the snow away so the players could see the lines. My father and I hunkered under our jackets and a blanket. We sipped watery Swiss Miss hot cocoa to keep warm. I like to think we’d have been there if the team’s record had been 0 – 14, but probably not. Two quarters down, half time came around and, by some infernal design, the frozen yogurt stand was still there. I’m sure the Universe would have understood if I wanted to give this one a pass, but I was raised not to be that kind of man. With solemn reverence, my father bought the usual chocolate and vanilla swirl. I ate the entire block.
I have never felt colder in my life.
In the years after, my interest in attending games waned. I’d like to say it was because my interests diversified, and they did, but more than likely it was because the frozen yogurt stand stopped showing up. Without frozen yogurt, what else was there for me? I couldn’t connect with the game the same way my father and other fans did. When we watch sports or competitions, it’s an easy assumption that most of us could never play at that level. But. BUT! It is also undeniable that most of us harbor a fantasy that maybe, just maybe if we had practiced more or tried out a second time or stuck with it long enough, we could have competed at some higher level of our given sport. It’s a safe conclusion that most of us aren’t fooling anyone with these dreams, except maybe ourselves. For me, I knew I would never play college ball or high school ball or middle school ball. This fact was self-evident every time I couldn’t run faster or lift more or move better than any of my peers. I wasn’t going to be picked last, I wasn’t going to be picked at all, and knowing this can make one reject the entire premise altogether, fair or not. Without a fantasy, without a sliver of a dream, I felt outside the cult of sports.
Fear not, I wouldn’t be left out forever. An inclusive dawn is on the rise.
Thanks for reading Part One. Part Two of the three part series is next.