Tackling time

The night before my birthday 10 years ago, I sat in the press box at FedEx Field, covering the Washington Redskins’ Monday Night Football game against the Minnesota Vikings.

I wore a gray-and-blue pinstripe pantsuit that seemed professionally fashionable at the time, with the stack-heel, buckle-strap gray heels I climbed stadium steps in until they fell apart.

I worked with nervous focus as sports luminaries chatted around me. (A few weeks into the season, at Dallas, I sat beside Sally Jenkins. I couldn’t say anything, but it was A Moment.)

Somewhere in the building, Redskins owner Dan Snyder was showing TomKat (Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes) around.

The crowd was loud. The stadium was ugly. The Redskins lost, 19-16. (I had to look up the score.)

There was, as always, the low hum of deadline adrenaline, the rush for quotes, the blur of trying to meld stats and words into grammatically correct, narrative-advancing sentences.

There was the unfamiliar navigation back to the parking lot, the three-and-a-half-hour drive home, the exhausted energy that worked its way through my muscles as I waited for sleep.

On the morning I turned 33, there was my byline, on a MNF story about the team whose burgundy-and-gold colors clad my childhood heroes and shrouded my earliest sports memories.

Things have changed in 10 years. I’m back in the city of my college degree, and my journalism advisor, Henry Price, would give a mighty snort at that statement, which he would derisively tag as “November Sierra.” No shit, things have changed in 10 years.

That change has been for the better, the worse and both. Having just wrapped up a wonderful week of birthday celebrations that included secretive plotting by people who love me and a trip to a beautifully blue coast I’d never seen before, I find it hard to wish things could be as they once were.

What I wish, I think, is for parts of things. I wish I could point to this day, that person, this house, that sky, all of that laughter, and cobble everything into a magic room I could keep in a closet, like Hermione kept entire apartments in her purse. I wish I could open the door whenever I needed to.

The assembled pieces would make little linear sense.

One of the walls would have blue-and-yellow stripes. A fat orange cat would be on the couch. A game of Uno would be going on at a table with a lazy Susan in the middle.

Another wall would face the ocean, and there would be a small ledge littered with quarters. An orange cone would mark a parking space in the distance. A sweet haze of cigarette smoke would drift on the wind, chasing a voice I try to remember.

 Another wall would open onto the skyline of a city best seen from the steps of an art museum, its famous steps indistinct shadows. A montage would play across the darkening sky: cheesesteaks and baseballs and beers that taste like Fruity Pebbles. Red velvet cookies and life-sized Tiddlywinks pieces and smiles on faces I love.

The fourth wall would open onto a small screened-in porch and a napping man with a salt-and-pepper beard, fingernails dirty after a morning of cleaning out gutters and raking leaves. Around the corner, an unseen gardener would be planting lilies, ever hopeful that I might learn to grow something.

As I walked into this odd, day-and-night room, I’d put on an Eagles jersey, with duct tape on the back covering the traded quarterback’s name and spelling out mine. The jersey would match those worn by two other people in the room, one several sizes smaller.

There are sharp edges that want to intrude on this picture, poking at my mind with other details that threaten this scene with reality.  If I shake my head to clear it, the NFL game currently on my television comes into focus.

My relationship with sports, with this sport in particular, is also full of fond memories and nagging details. My love for this game, born and bred and nurtured on Sunday afternoons at my granny’s house, runs deep. People have not understood it, questioned it, mocked it. I have been one of them.

People who play this game get sick and die, far earlier than they should and with alarming regularity. A study released last October showed that 87 of 91 former NFL players who donated their brains to science tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disease thought to be caused by repeated blows to the head. 87 of 91.

Sufferers have trouble remembering things and communicating. They often behave oddly, erratically. Sometimes they solve the worsening problem with a gun. Sometimes they take others with them.

When Junior Seau shot himself – in the chest, so his brain could be studied - in 2012, he was 43. As of Monday, I am 43.

The NFL has other problems, some also potentially fatal. Players beat wives, girlfriends, strangers. Not all players, to be sure. But enough, and too many repeat offenders. Teams extort money from loyal fans and taxpayers to build shiny new palaces not, apparently, financed by ever-growing ticket, parking and concession prices. The overall product has become packaged to within an inch of its life, pay-for-patriotism stuffed down fans’ throats and endless replays, live look-ins and offense-first rules leeching all rhythm from a game that is beautiful in my memory.

So many things are beautiful in my memory. Is that how they were, or how I want them to be? Are they worth revisiting, reinvesting, or will too much handling turn them to dust? Is remembering - is nostalgia - an inherently selfish indulgence? 

Still I watch, feeling vestiges of an old love stir. I would build a collage from this sport-specific love for one of the walls in my magic room. Its pictures would be of the Hogs, of Darrell Green with a Tootsie Roll in his sock, of John Riggins bowling over defenders, of Art Monk going across the middle. There would be smaller inset shots of Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lott, Earl Campbell, Mike Singletary's eyes, Jim Kelly, Shannon Sharpe, Peyton Manning, Richard Sherman. Baggage enough in that top-of-my-head list, sadness and scandal, but also abiding affection.

I am not sure how much of that love has survived or will survive time, or how much is supposed to.

But still, I watch.