This morning I watched a passel of middle-aged women trundling by my
window. They were out walking. Now and then one of them would pull up
close and pat the other on the shoulder and then drift off. The way they
were knit together they looked like a gaggle of schoolyard girls.
One would be hard pressed to find that relaxed body language, mental and
physical communion, in a group of guys, unless, of course they were on a
football or baseball field. Maybe he doesn't grasp it but that rhythmic
and easy kind of closeness is a big part of the reason that the 39-year
old Brett Favre has retired from his retirement and has returned to the
Green Bay Packers.
In the eighties, when Hall-of-Famer Mickey Mantle was dying from liver
ailments, he wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated repenting for his
drinking and his poor parenting. Mr. Mantle acknowledged how hard life was
after he shed his number 7 jersey for the last time. The Mick regretted
not taking good care of himself and admitted that he might have been a
little more productive at the plate if he had trained more but the real
sigh came when he wrote about how simply and sorely he missed the guys on
Professional athletes are the envy of most men, and not just for their
gazillion dollar salaries and the privilege of making their play their
work. No, they also enjoy a kind of camaraderie that it is virtually
extinct outside the precincts of sport and the military. Just glance at
the glossy magazine sports photos and at the pure joy in the faces of
mature men as they wait for a teammate who has just blasted a walk off
homerun, or tumble on one another after a buzzer-beating three pointer.
Beyond the arena and the playing fields, how often do you see men wildly
hugging one another or, when the scoreboard tells a sad story, enmeshed in
acts of group consolation?
The other night, I was sitting sleepless in my own personal dugout.
Instead of counting sheep I was tuned into a major league baseball game. I
don't even know which teams were playing but one image made it into my
record book. One of the hurlers who was getting bombed, was yanked. Head
hanging he trudged to the dugout, flung his glove down and sat dejected at
the far end of the bench. A few seconds later, a teammate went over to
fetch a bat and spontaneously leaned in and for a fleeting second, put his
palm to the despondent pitcher's face and whispered a couple of words.
This tender kind of gesture might be common in the realm of male sport but
it is not something that you are likely to glimpse in the corporate world.
John Elway once confided to me how dark the first quarter of his life
after football was. There is much anecdotal evidence and some statistical
data suggesting that for all of their houses, fast cars, and stock
options, depression is usually waiting for retiring athletes in the
parking lot. And as Mr. Mantle noted it isn't just the loss of adrenaline
rushes that hits you like a ninety mile per hour fastball. It is the
sudden absence of a kind of human connectedness.
When the winds of fate blew the door shut on my own football career, I
felt that chill of being locked out of the special bonds of sports
brotherhood. These links are forged in the exotic hothouse of men both
playfully and seriously united in a common cause. In this context, you
often find yourself near-best pals with fellows whom, at a superficial
level, you might seem to have little to share. In workaday life we are not
as good, not as discerning at locating our common humanity.
To be sure, there are good chats and tight friendships after sports. Men
come out of their caves to hunt golf balls and deer together and to attend
this or that function but generally our most sacred times are the hours
spent alone or within our clans. But this tendency towards the solitary,
does not mean that men do not crave something more, something like the
connection that I glimpsed between the women out for their group walk.
That warm and playful something is there in sports. And Mr. Favre, the
weepy and wily quarterback, who rejected a twenty million dollar offer to
go into exile, is wise enough not to cut himself off from that rare source
of fellow feeling before his time.