What sports have meant in 2020 amid COVID’s hellish grip

This year has brought hurt and hardships, pain and suffering. And yet, through it all, humanity lives on, marching to better days ahead.

He looked like a mannequin. Peaceful and resplendent in a deep blue suit, still and calm.

The reality, though, was a corpse. Another dead man in a deadly year. My cousin, gone at the age of 31. At least he looked dignified on his final day before being turned to ash.

I just wish I could have knelt beside his casket. I wish I could have touched his beautiful face, his thick, black, Italian hair.

Instead, in 2020, a tearful goodbye over a FaceTime call would have to do.

This year, for millions of Americans and billions of human beings, has been hell on Earth. It has been burnt up through the horror of an unspeakable pandemic. One which has left loved ones to have their last breath alone, for elders to miss family on their final holidays, for children to only see friends through a screen.

There is no adequate verbiage in the English language to describe the pain and suffering endured on mental, emotional and economic levels. There has been little time to smile, and little refuge from the cavalcade of terrible news.

Yet, for all the grief shared within and beyond borders, there has been sport, providing a distraction from the horrors we’ve endured.

Yes, sports have largely been played out in empty arenas and stadiums this year. The NBA and NHL went into bubbles. Baseball became a regional happening with the playoffs held in California and Texas. The NFL has been the most normal, save for smaller (and in some cases) no crowds.

Nothing has been the same, and yet there have been sounds and visuals which matter so much.

Processing death — something legions have been forced to do in recent months — can be a lonely experience. For my cousin, his final moments were spawned from a decade of drug use finally culminating in the end of his existence.

Coronavirus didn’t get him, his demons did.

And yet a proper goodbye remained impossible, cause of death be damned. Instead of driving the 13 hours home from Illinois to New York, I made a phone call, offered my sub-sufficient  condolences and then sat in my windowless office.

I listened, over and over, to Everybody Hurts by R.E.M. I found Acoustic #3 by the Goo Goo Dolls and put it on loop, the words eerily resembling the story of his life.

For many nights, this was the ritual once my wife and daughter fell asleep. I waited for quiet and the comfort of solitude, and then I cried. I thought of our myriad summers together growing up and as our teenage years concluded, growing apart.

I thought of our times fishing and swimming, of biking and hiking, of eating a big Italian dinner every night at our grandparent’s house, and playing video games deep into warm New York nights, hearing the crickets and owls keeping time with their quizzical noises.

The memories flooded, and so did my eyes.

My cousin died in April, leaving behind wreckage that will take many a lifetime to sort through. For months afterward, he never left my mind. I imagine this was similar pain for so many who lost loved ones during this year, whether to COVID or otherwise. The grieving process was impossible to have, because life was, and is, impossible to lead.

Months later, baseball started up and my beloved Oakland A’s were back.

Instead of listening to the same sad songs and having the same memories play through my mind, I could tune in and emotionally, tune out. Glen Kuiper and Ray Fosse gave me three hours of emotional refuge when I needed it most.

To say it was life-saving would be unnecessary hyperbole, but it was life-changing.

Days later, the NFL was back in training camp. Now, instead of my nightly phone call with my father being focused on the country ablaze with a seemingly disastrous illness, we talked about our Kansas City Chiefs. We talked about what we hoped to say, what we believed could be a wonderful ending to their Run It Back tour.

Hope. Belief. It was a different tenor. For months, it had been the absence of both those essential words to the human experience.

Those who don’t watch sports, who don’t invest themselves in them, don’t and never could understand the transformative process of rooting for a group of wealthy strangers. It’s ultimately a collective bigger than ourselves, and it’s a community.

The very fabric of sport is teamwork, the one-for-all and all-for-one mentality. This is true of life when we rise to meet the best parts of ourselves.

For centuries, fans across all genders, nations, sexualities, creeds and religions have invested their souls into their fandoms. Why? Because it means more than the wins and losses. It is in most cases the shared experience of a moment with those who believe alongside you, who share the same dreams.

With millions out of work and hundreds of thousands in America meeting an early death due to COVID-19, this year has taken a sledgehammer to the collective heart of our nation. The streets have been emptied and stores have been shut down. Schools have gone virtual and racial tensions have boiled and bubbled over.

The great newscaster Dan Rather once described the famous year of 1968 as “one goddamn thing after the next.” Certainly, 2020 has lived up to its chaotic best, meeting Rather’s words head-on.

When I watch sports, there’s a peace of mind amidst the anxiety awaiting me every time I step outside. I know the next bad bit of news is waiting when I turn my phone on in the morning, or when the evening news flashes across my TV screen. This is our reality.

For a few hours on autumn Sundays or summer nights, the crack of a bat or the crunch of a well-timed tackle distracts from the losses we’ve all sustained. It makes me forget about my cousin who died too young, who was mourned by too few, who will never know what life ending up being on the other side of this miserable hellscape.

No, he now resides on a mantle. He’s gone, and sports won’t bring him back.

And yet, in our darkest hour, athletes giving their best somehow provides a glimmer of hope that not all has been lost, even if some of our most important portions have been.

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