For the Love of Sports

Despite what you might conclude after reading this story, my husband Terry and I lived harmoniously, grateful for every moment together.  We married in our sixties, two college professors who loved to eat and drink well, go to the theatre, teach, read, and write, but the harmony wouldn’t have been so sweet if I hadn’t enjoyed the feral chase of football, the intricate geometry of basketball, the swift attack of hockey, and the grit and precision of tennis. Golf didn’t interest me. The Tour de France confused me, but Terry, not an early riser, was up every morning watching the sprints, the time trials, the mountain runs taking place six hours ahead of us. In 1968, he’d witnessed a snatch of the glory when the peloton whizzed by.

He was a Queens boy who grew up crafting his curve ball, shooting baskets in the neighborhood, hustling bowling and pool. When he became a professor of Economics at Stevens Institute of Technology, he switched to Tai Chi and tennis. You wouldn’t have thought he was an athlete to look at him; he was overweight, sometimes substantially so, and splay-footed—but he’d enter a room on feet so silent he often surprised me from behind.

Every evening, we took our wine glasses into the tv room and watched at least part of a game, each sport in its season. The gap between seasons and the all-star breaks left us feeling lost.

We  agreed on the Rangers and the Knicks. Growing up, I’d been a Yankee fan but, fortunately for our relationship, I changed my allegiance to the Mets when George Steinbrenner swaggered onto the scene. As a young woman, I spent every Sunday during the season sewing or knitting while I watched the football Giants: Harry Carson, Rosey Brown—I’d met Lawrence Taylor once. After I watched Joe Theisman’s leg bend and break on live television after a hard tackle by Taylor, I moved away from football, but began watching again when I married Terry. “I don’t like the violence either,” he said, “but I’ve been watching the Giants all my life! I can’t give up on them.”

After Hurricane Sandy, I said I wanted a house in the country, and over the following years we puttered around the Catskills, Long Island, and the Adirondacks looking at properties. Last December, we visited a friend in Rutland, Vermont, and Terry took off to look at a couple of local properties. He hadn’t been gone an hour when he called me, “I’m coming to get you. I’ve found your house.” He was right. It was all on one floor, including the laundry facilities, with an office for him, an office for me, a screen porch to keep away the bugs, and a nice back yard. As a city kid, Terry had his reservations about country living, but Rutland offered something special for him, too—year-round indoor tennis courts.

We moved in March, and a few days later, everything shut down, including the tennis courts. I was disappointed, too. We had fun playing together though we were differently motivated. I loved batting the ball around for fun; no points, no winners, while Terry was a student of the game, hitting balls against the wall for hours, playing against the ball machine. If we traveled to a place with tennis courts, he’d hit balls against the wall until somebody came along, usually another guy, but sometimes a woman. They’d hit together on Tuesdays and Fridays, then somebody else would come along and they’d hit on Mondays and Wednesdays. Then his tennis partner would bring his wife to dinner and suddenly we had a social life. I was surprised that young men with blazing serves and rockhard bodies wanted to play with him, but they did, sharing a good-humored camaraderie and a reliable schedule. Tennis dates gave shape to his life after he retired; he got into the sunshine, kept his weight down, and tested his endurance.

Concerned at his lethargy after the COVID shutdown, I suggested the tepid gruel of a ping pong table in the basement, but such gear had been cleared from the shelves by others who were also looking to entertain themselves while isolated.

There were no games, no pitchers-and-catchers, no playoffs. Instead, we watched TCM, a couple of tv series, Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah. He took a look at the rebroadcasts of  classic games, but the camera work was clumsy, the picture cloudy. We laughed remembering how excited we’d been watching these fuzzy games when we were children.

By May, he was growing pessimistic. “COVID’s going to be around a while. I might be eighty before we go to another Mets game.” Or eat at fine restaurants, or tap along at a jazz club, or watch yet another great actor take on Shakespeare, or ride the subways as he’d done growing up. He missed the energy of the city, connection with his teams, and down there in the dark, tangled jungle of his heart, he missed hating the Boston Celtics.

The first fresh sports program we watched was on May 24th, a documentary about Lance Armstrong. Afterwards, Terry leaned against a kitchen counter and remembered Armstrong. “He was so beautiful to watch, so still and quiet on the bike. Did you notice that? I remember a time when he was losing to a German rider and in this one moment he turned his head slightly, and then he….” Terry began to sob, could not go on. The words came in little clutches as his body convulsed. “…moved past, just…right past him.. right past him.” His words were buried in sobs. “It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

He stopped, wiping his eyes, smiling. Pausing.

I’d never seen him like this and didn’t know how to react. He was working through something and I didn’t think it was a moment to cradle him in my arms. “This is ridiculous,” he said, “I don’t know why I’m doing this.” He swiped his forearm across his tears. “With all this COVID and stuff why would I cry about this?”

I tried to jolly him out of it. “Nobody ever wrote a memorial mass about a sports team— Mozart’s Last Inning.”

He laughed, but kept talking about Armstrong, how maybe it was right to punish him but why for life? Why was he banned from all sports, not just cycling? His face was breaking down, his tears unstoppable.

He was too stricken to suffer alone, and I put my arm around his shoulders and stroked his head. “It’s so sad.” I massaged the muscles of his back and stroked his arms.

“I don’t know what came over me,” he said and turned to fill his glass with cold water, which he sipped slowly. He let out a massive sigh and announced that he was okay now.

I was tired and went to bed before him. I was already half asleep when he came in and gave me the benediction of a long, beaming smile. He didn’t voice a sentiment—he’d already reached deep into his heart once that night; he just gave me a reassuring smile so I could sleep unworried. We’d talk more tomorrow.

He said “Good night,” went into his office, and at some point during the night put a translucent plastic bag, the kind you put your produce in at the supermarket, over his head. I found him dead the next morning.

He’s not around now to ask why he ended his life, but I try to reconstruct his despair. He’d said many times that if he fell grievously ill, he would prefer to commit suicide. “I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think the best way would be to walk up to the top of a mountain on a frigid day and just never leave.” But he wasn’t ill, at least not physically.

It would be fatuous to declare that he committed suicide because he couldn’t watch the Mets, but it’s not fatuous to say that his favorite teams sucked up a lot of his emotion, formed a sturdy pillar of longstanding dedication, and were a part of his identity. The lack of these allegiances wasn’t enough to cause his suicide, but it was important enough to be the last straw.