I used to be the sort of person who hated sports. I went to baseball games because I liked to drink beer and I watched football on television because I liked to spend my Sundays eating sweet potato fries and drinking a Bloody Mary. Sports served as a vehicle for food, absent of any emotion aside from the occasional heartburn. Then I attended graduate school at the University of Alabama and everything changed.
Before I attended graduate school, I hated sports because I couldn’t figure out how to connect myself, a fiction writer, to the team. The wins and losses felt inconsequential because they were. Like most things, sports are only consequential to the people who care about them. Sports are a game, but they are also a narrative. The announcers create a narrative to keep the viewers interested in the game, regardless of who is playing or what the score is. The coaches create a narrative in their interviews; they feed a narrative to the players to keep their mind right. The viewers, too, create their own narrative—one where the game is a reflection of themselves.
I fell in love over Alabama Football. There are two loves to fall into here: my fiancé and the football team. My fiancé, Brian Oliu, is a nonfiction writer who writes a lot about games. People ask how we met and usually we say something vague about the University of Alabama English department. The bigger story is that we met at the bar watching football games. Brian is good at making people love things that they don’t expect to love. I complain to him a lot that sports are never covered the way that I want to see them covered and maybe that’s why it took me so long to care about sports. That’s one of the reasons I pitched this series. I wanted to see writers I love talk about the sports that they love.
I think writers have a unique relationship to sports in that writers like to try to find and create meaning in everything and sports are a location that is ripe for meaning-making. We project ourselves, our emotions, our works in progress onto these teams until they evolve into something greater. In this series, I’ve asked five different writers to write about their favorite sport, player, or team. In effect, I’ve asked them how they connect their body to the bodies of others. How we embody a team until they become us.
For several years, I didn’t like to say the word “lost” in relation to the Alabama football team. Instead, I referred to it as “when we did not win” or on occasion, “The Event.” Painter Chuck Close suffered a spinal artery collapse that caused him to lose most of the movement in his arms and legs. In order to paint, he had to tape paint brushes to his wrists and it entirely changed his form, which had previously been meticulous. He referred to that day as “The Event,” the same name that I call the 2013 Iron Bowl when Auburn beat Alabama in the last second.
Logically, I want to be able to disconnect my emotions from sports. As a child, I hated losing and would follow any loss, no matter how minor, with a plethora of tears that caused me to be made fun of. In order to combat this I started saying, “I like to lose” or “I lost on purpose” to make it seem like I didn’t care. The difficulty was that once I stopped caring about winning or losing, I started to hate playing games. I still hate playing games and not in the romantic sense, but in the sense that I groan at the notion of a game night. Once the loss is rendered harmless then the win, too, loses all its meaning. It’s not possible to participate in the high of a victory without experiencing the pain of a loss.
My brother was eight years old when he broke a window in our house after the Minnesota Vikings lost a playoff game. I judged him because I didn’t yet connect myself with the Vikings or even Minnesota. It was not, after all, as if his body was in the game. I didn’t understand until that 2013 game, where I sat on the floor behind the pool table of a dive bar, the floor littered with cigarette ash, and sobbed because my team wasn’t going to the National Championship.
I thought we were going to win because I went running that morning. The sky was blue, that kind of blue that only occurs in songs about Alabama. A blue so indelible that I still remember it two football seasons later. I used to play this game when I was running where I mentally correlated how my runs went with the outcome of the football game. If I could make it to the end of the block, the next mile, up that hill, back to the house, then surely Alabama would win. It had worked every week up until that week and that Saturday I felt good, powerful. Culturally, there is a connection between Alabama Football and running forever; the Gump at the bar and the Gump on the running path. It would be almost two years before I ran on a football Saturday again. Not only had my run failed to ensure the win, but I felt that it had somehow caused the loss. My tired legs translated to a tired team, to a missed kick, to me sitting on the ground and crying.
It is not such a sacrifice to give up running on Saturday mornings. People like people who don’t run on Saturdays. People like people who instead get donuts with their boyfriend. People like people who sit on their porch with little lizards darting around. I never said, “I am going to stop running on Saturdays in the fall because I’m worried that if I run we will lose.” I stopped quietly. The way that as a child I stepped over cracks in the sidewalk in case the placement of my foot would somehow rupture other parts of the earth. Even so, I couldn’t help but connect myself to the football team. The practice field is on the other side of the parking lot from the Aquatic Center and when I drove to swim practice on Monday and Wednesday evenings, I could see the ball as it flew through the air, hear the tapes of fan noise as it grew louder and quieter again. That noise still in my head as I swam laps across the pool. That noise still in my head in the mornings when I sat down to work on my novel.
I try to tell people that writing a novel is just like running and no one ever believes me. In the memoir Fast Girl by Suzy Favor Hamilton she writes, “Sure, I wanted to win. I liked to win. But, in truth, I needed to win…If I were to lose, I’d let everyone down—my parents, my coach, my community—and that can’t happen.” Writing, like running, is joyful, but only when one can get away from the deep and unending fear of failure. Sometimes it seems like it would be better not to write at all. There are many people who never write anything and I imagine that they feel fulfilled in a way that I never feel because they aren’t burdened with the constant guilt that they aren’t writing enough or well enough. Hamilton says, “As the hours before a meet ticked away, my stomach became a fist of nerves, and I had one thought: If I could just break my leg, I wouldn’t have to run this race.” I don’t know what the writing equivalent is of breaking a leg, but I expect that it involves a lot of low-pressure leisure activities.
When Alabama Football lost to Ole Miss for the second year in a row in 2015, I started screaming, “My novel, my novel!” as though there were an inextricable link between my draft and the team. I had never put on a uniform and gone on the field with the team just as the team had never sat down in front of my laptop that is covered in bits of food and dust and other unpleasantness in attempts to complete a novel, and yet, these things felt connected and I cried and ate candy in bed as though a boy had just broken up with me.
Whenever the team loses, I post on the Internet, “Roll Tide Forever.” This is what it means to love unconditionally, but it would be a lie to say there weren’t moments where I wavered. When we lost to Ole Miss for the second year in a row, I thought about what it might be like to just stay home on the weekend. To sit on the couch and not stress about actions of people unrelated to myself. I could give it all up. I could become one of those university members that says things like “We need to change the football culture around here,” their nose 10,000 feet in the air, feeling assured that their interests are so much more meaningful than lowbrow football. They’re not, of course. They’re just other hobbies that have been granted meaning by the people partaking in them and it’s unlikely that they’ve been granted meaning by so many people simultaneously—as the 102,000 that gather in Bryant Denny on Saturdays or the numerous others watching on television. Sports are only lowbrow to the people who know nothing about sports. Sports are only lowbrow to those who have never felt their hearts beat so fast that their fingers go numb as their team runs out onto the field.
I don’t believe in god, but I do believe in Alabama Football. Watching a football game is the closest I’ve ever come to praying. I returned to the bar the week after the team lost to Ole Miss. Nick Saban gave a speech where he said “If it was up to you, we’re six feet under already. We’re dead and buried and gone.” I sat on those bar stools, red and wobbly, already starting to fray with the weight of the season. I leaned my elbows on the bar and placed my hands on the wood and whispered, “I love you,” over and over again. “I love you,” to Jake Coker, a man whose face is covered in acne and looks like he needs to shit every time he throws the ball. “I love you,” to Adam Griffith who was adopted from Poland and only recently united with his drug addicted parents. “I love you,” to A’Shawn Robinson, who later that season, after winning a National Championship would declare himself “the best bald man in college football.” Prayer only feels like it’s making a difference if you’ve been praying. Here’s what happened or here’s the narrative I tell: I sent my love into the universe and Alabama Football won its 16th* National Championship. I don’t know how to tell it any other way.
*Alabama claims 16 National Championships. 14 are recognized by sources outside of Alabama. Personally, I am all for claiming as many National Championships as possible. Who won a National Championship is entirely based on who is narrating the story.