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March 22, 2010

Powered Up: Why we love these silly games

I have a job that most people reading this column would pay to do. I know that. I watch football and basketball practice and games for a living. And they pay me to do it. Pretty good gig.

But the best part of my job may be the times I get to step away from it. When your job is to cover games, you lose a big part of being a fan. It's just a fact. Yes, I grew up rooting for Missouri. Watched or listened to pretty much every football or basketball game since about 1990. When I moved to South Dakota, I'd call back to KOMU, where I worked in college, and get satellite coordinates. If I couldn't see the games that way, GameTracker became my best friend.

That part of it is gone now. When you're covering a game, you don't get caught up in the ebbs and flows like the fans do. Win by 20 or lose by 20, I've got a job to do and it really doesn't change. When the game is over, my job is really just beginning.

But here's the best part of what I do: Unlike a traditional beat writer from a newspaper, I get a few chances to simply watch the games. I'm still not a fan like most of you reading this are. But when I'm not covering a game, I get a chance to simply sit and watch. It's my job and my goal to give subscribers to our site the best coverage of Missouri they can have. But this weekend, financial constraints required that coverage to come from a freelancer in Buffalo. I stayed home and watched four solid days of basketball.

On Friday, I watched the Tigers beat Clemson in as complete a performance as they've put together all season. Then yesterday, I set up camp in the living room with my 12-year-old son. His coach was kind enough to cancel baseball practice because he knew those kids wanted to watch the Tigers in the tournament. It's not chance you count on getting that often. I was nine when the Royals were in the playoffs for the last time. I never went to a post-season game because, frankly, it was expensive. And besides, the Royals were in the playoffs all the time (six times in my life to that point). I'd get to one eventually. Twenty-five years later, I'm still waiting.

My seven-year old was there yesterday too. But the game and the rantings of his brother and dad were mostly just background noise to his Pokemon game. Mom had something else to do. She came home with about 20 seconds left and said, "At least they made it close." She has a passing interest. She has no real choice when so much of my life revolves around Missouri sports. She filled out a bracket (because according to her, I needed someone I could beat in the pool). I type this next sentence with full disclosure that my wife is the love of my life. But, with all due respect, the NCAA Tournament isn't really a mom thing. It's a father-son thing.

My oldest is about the age I was when I really became a sports fan. I remember the 1985 World Series, but not too clearly. I was 11 in 1988 when I really began to follow sports closely. I died a little that year when Kansas won the national title in my home town (if you grew up in Kansas City as a Missouri fan, you get it). I died a lot the next two years when the Tigers lost as a three seed (once in the Sweet 16 and once in the first round).

Basically, that's a long way of saying that when I was growing up, Missouri basketball was my passion as a sports fan. Loved Royals baseball, came to love the Chiefs (not so much anymore), followed Missouri football and hoped this was the year they might find a way to win six games. But Missouri basketball, that was the season I waited for. Chevious and Peeler and Smith and Booker and Crudup. Piatkowski's miss, unbeaten in the Big Eight, winning the 1991 conference tournament as a seven seed. Great memories. Northern Iowa and Xavier and Khalid Reeves and Damon Stoudamire and Tyus Edney. Awful ones.

For three years in college, I worked in the sports information department and at KOMU. I covered the teams and I still had some fan left in me. For five years after that, I moved for a job to South Dakota and watched from afar. In 2003, I got the job working at PowerMizzou.com and have covered my alma mater for the last seven years. And the fan pretty much has disappeared.

But every now and again, I get the chance I got on Sunday. I get to just watch. And, you know what? Maybe I'm not supposed to say I rooted for Missouri to win and Kansas to lose. Maybe I'll get an email from my employer telling me to delete this article five minutes after I post it. And if I do, I will, because, well, my paycheck is more important than you guys knowing how I feel. But this weekend, I got to just sit and watch the team that I grew up loving and the team that I grew up hating play in the NCAA Tournament.

Again, I want to stress, I still probably don't watch games the same way you guys do. But for the last four days, I didn't watch games thinking, "Okay, who do I need to interview? What was the key play? What's the one question I have to ask?" I got to watch games just to watch games.

And the best part of it all was I got to do it with my boy. When you grow up with a father who covers sports for a living (and I speak from some experience here) you can't help but be a sports fan. It's what your dad does. You idolize your dad (although when you're 12, those days are either over or just about to be, at least for a few years). If it interests him, it interests you. My mom insists I'm good at math because I started learning how to calculate batting averages and earned run averages. My dad was on the Royals' beat when I was four and when he came home after games at 1 a.m., I'd want to be woken up and told the score (at least that's what they tell me. I don't so much remember).

So, yesterday, we sat and watched the Tigers and West Virginia. He groaned at every missed layup, I might have taught him a new word or two on every questionable call. He learned the best lesson March Madness can teach you, which is that a win by your team or a loss by its rival supercedes any importance of you winning five bucks in a bracket contest.

I started off writing this intending to impart to all you Missouri fans how proud you should be to be a fan of this team. How they may not play well, but they always play hard. How they have a coach who gets every last drop of ability out of his players. How the future is bright. How the program is finally beyond even thinking about the depths of five years ago.

And all that is true. But in the course of writing this, I reached a more important, more sentimental idea. My dad was a student at Missouri when the Tigers played for a national championship in the Orange Bowl. He's told me some great stories about the road trip to Miami. He covered the perfect Big Eight season and the Tyus Edney loss and the Stull years. Over the course of time, his passion for those things was passed on to me. Over the next 10 years, we covered the Insight Bowl together, shared a room in Shreveport, sat a few seats apart in the press box at back-to-back Big 12 title games and had drinks in Boise as the Tigers moved toward the doorstep of the Final Four.

And now, that passion is moving to another generation. My son gets his bracket and a pen out after every game. He watched every last second of the loss to West Virginia. He has a Brad Smith Jets' jersey and will probably ask for another NFL memento after Sean Weatherspoon gets drafted. He now knows the name Ali Faroukmanesh and is convinced that Kim English didn't charge.

We love sports for all kinds of reasons. These guys do things we can't do. They represent a school we went to or a city we grew up in or a team we've walked with through thick and thin. But mostly, we love sports because they do the one thing almost nothing else can do: They bond guys together through a common cause.

Another season is over. I will not watch another Missouri game-with my son or without him-for another six months. But in April, when spring football ends, I'm going on a weekend trip to Dyersville, Iowa. I'm taking my dad and my two boys. We're going to the Field of Dreams. My sons will, in the spirit of one of the greatest movies ever made (the male version of a chick flick romantic comedy) get to "have a catch" with their grandpa. That right there is a dream.

I don't know what your reasons are. But that's why I'm a sports fan. That's why I hope that part of me never dies.


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