I'm at a bit of a crossroads. Normally, I am the first to wear my sports-loving heart on my sleeve: I can always talk about last night's game around the water-cooler. I am in several fantasy leagues. I wrote a book about my love of sports a couple years ago -- and am working on another. I just bought my boyfriend a 55" TV for Christmas so we can enjoy our 24/7-viewing of any-game-that-happens-to-be-on even more.
But last year was a tough year for me. I don't know if I'm getting older and other things seem more important (spending time with my family, thinking about starting a family, Obama's healthcare issues, Cairo).
But I'm having a hard time right now caring about sports. Which is kind of alarming -- because my two favorite teams, the San Francisco Giants and the Pittsburgh Steelers, have had amazing seasons.
And sure, looking back, there were some great, heart-pounding, goosebump-inducing moments in 2010:
• The incredible Winter Games to start off the year.
• A classic match-up between the Lakers and Celts in the NBA Finals.
• An exhilarating Stanley Cup Championship with the Blackhawks coming out on top.
• An at-least-we-didn't-completely-embarrass-ourselves performance by the US in the World Cup.
• A lingering-into-November, please-shorten-the-season-MLB World Series between two extremely likable teams (thankfully, neither of which were the Yankees or Red Sox).
But it's the low-lights that have really made it hard for me to be a fan these days -- especially as a woman.
• LeBron's "Decision" -- insulting to sports fans everywhere, of any gender.
• Tiger's ridiculous sexcapades.
• Favre's alleged sexts and refusal to leave us all alone.
• Kim Kardashian's desperate rotation of athletes.
• Horrendous sports husbands Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Wayne Rooney, Tiki Barber, David Beckham and yes, Brett Favre again.
• The amazingly unprofessional and immature Jets coach Sal Alosi tripping Nolan Carrol of the Dolphins, during a punt return.
• And of course, the hardest one for me personally: Ben Roethlisberger behaving badly. Really badly, according to police reports filed.
This is the one that's really stumping me. It's my team. I'm a Yinzer. It's the team I have grown up with. It's one of the most storied franchises in the league. It's the Stairway to Seven, as we are going for our unbelievable seventh Super Bowl ring. And I'm having a hard time mustering up excitement. Maybe police didn't press charges, but no one can deny that this guy is, at the very least, a jerk (I struggled over what word to use, and this seemed to be the only publishable one). There seems to be an epidemic in sports. A severe outbreak of jerks.
So what to do? I'm in a sports-induced funk.
I had the chance to go to Dallas for the festivities. And I didn't. I'd rather stay here in the dreary Northeast and watch the over-produced spectacle with my family, eating little smokies and pierogies.
And just last night, my 8-month-old puppy Wrigley (named after her parents' favorite ballpark), devoured my beloved Terrible Towel. (Here is Wrigley in Solitary Confinement, as punishment.)
That said, I need a sign. I need a sports-loving intervention here. I need someone to make me believe again.
I'm not too surprised that the Gatorade folks would deliver me just the dose of what I needed. It didn't come in the form of their G Series pre-, during or post-workout regimen.
It didn't come in the form of Replay, their wildly successful (at least with me) program where they give former high-school athletes the chance to regain glory.
It didn't come in the form of an inspiring Super Bowl commercial.
It came in the form of a brief phone interview with 2011 NFL Draft hopeful Mark Herzlich. The Boston College linebacker and cancer-survivor is in Dallas as one of 14 would-be NFL rookies, where NFL Films is set to chronicle each of their offseasons, as they train and prepare for the draft in April.
While in Dallas, each newbie has been paired with a current NFL player, who has been asked to share his experience, provide advice on training and nutrition -- and of course, all of the elements NFL players have to deal with on the field and off. Then, the footage will be edited into short films for the "Everything to Prove" series.
James Laurinaitis was designated as Mark Herzlich's mentor. Here they are working out at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute at the Super Bowl. I was scheduled to talk to James first.
So from icy New York City, I got an incoming call from icy Dallas. The caller ID said "Super Bowl XLV" was calling. I was tired. Irritable. CNN was on mute, playing in the background, as the chaos in Cairo unfolded.
I looked at my list of questions for James, and sighed. Here we go:
EB: Talk to me about the Gatorade training you've been doing ...
JL: They asked the older players to come down and talk to younger guys about the NFL, nutrition and to see what Gatorade was all about. This year, they have a pretty cool set-up. They have the bike, the Bod Pod, a machine that measures calories burned to breathe and stay alive. Pretty high-tech stuff. Just watching it all, changed my whole view of Gatorade -- when I was young, I thought it was sugar and water. I had no idea all the science behind it!
EB: You know, last year in Miami, I faced off with D'Brickashaw Ferguson. I want you to know I kicked his butt!
EB: Why do you think they didn't make the super bowl this year? It was all me!
JL: Yeah, that bike is pretty intense. (Awkward silence.)
EB: So anyway, what's going on down in the Big D?
JL: It's getting exciting -- there was an ice storm here. But I was born and raised in Minnesota, so I'm OK with it. It's been really cool to see whole spectacle here -- all the madness.
EB: Who are you pulling for?
JL: I'm pulling for Green Bay. AJ Hawk was a buddy of mine at Ohio State. And I do think Green Bay will win. I think they have a lot going on. Aaron Rodgers is one of the best QB's in the game -- and he'll solidify that with a "W." Green Bay is hot right now. Pittsburgh has more experience, but that could work against them. Green Bay is ready.
EB: (Internal Monologue: Whatever dude.) So talk to me about the Rams ... you guys are a great young team. Sam Bradford had a hell of a year ... tell us about where you think the team is going.
JL: We went from 1 - 15 to 7 - 9 ... We have a lot of young guys proud to be a part of the organization. We are slowly climbing. Sam, of course, helps a lot. But it all comes from the top down.
EB: Many know that your dad and two uncles were professional wrestlers -- you were surrounded by mentors who knew how to deal with fame and fortune. Talk to me about how they mentored you and prepared you for a career in the NFL.
JL: My dad is my mentor. He was definitely in the limelight, and that helped to prepare me for what to expect. He taught me how to handle media, how to handle success and adversity, how to be humble, how to remember who you are. Life is about relationships. It's about the people you keep close. He taught me not to get caught in your own hype.
EB: So what advice are you giving to Mark?
JL: I've just been telling him to keep doing what you did in college that made you successful. Find a vet to talk to, and find out what it takes to stay in the NFL.
I guess I was feeling better. James seemed to be taking his role seriously and seemed like a pretty cool guy. Now it was time to talk to Mark.
EB: Hey there ... first of all, how are you feeling? (That was kind of dumb, I'm sure everyone asks him that.)
MH: Actually, I'm feeling great!
EB: (Phew. He didn't think it was dumb.) So what is Gatorade having you do down there? I heard you've been riding the bike and hanging out in the Bod Pod.
MH: Yeah, we're going through all kinds of training down here with Gatorade.
EB: Just so you know, I did the training last year with D'Brickashaw Ferguson ... I kicked his butt! Why do you think they didn't make the super bowl this year? It was all me!
MH: (Laughs politely).
EB: (Nervously rambling.) But did they make you wear the mouth apparatus and were you drooling? Cause I sure was. And they were filming it.
MH: Yes, they did. It was pretty intense. So don't worry, you're not alone.
EB: (Laughs in relief.) So they have you matched up with mentors right? What will you be doing down in Dallas?
MH: James and I will be walking around, getting to know each other. It's all about having a contact in the NFL. We haven't really gotten to sit down and talk about a lot of life-lesson stuff, but it's great to find someone who plays a similar position as you ... and it's great to just know someone who knows what you're going through.
EB: So you and James just met -- but who are other mentors in your life?
MH: My parents have been great mentors throughout my whole life. They have always pushed me to be my best, but allowed me to be myself. They let me live my own life, but told me that whatever you do, work your hardest. I've taken that with me throughout the entire process. That's been my mindset my whole life, but it really helped me when I got sick.
EB: So I just have to tell you that you're a real inspiration to me. I'm not really even into college football, but my boyfriend has now forced me to give both of my weekend days to football, during the fall. And I credit you with getting me into college football. I watched all the coverage of your story -- from your cancer diagnosis to your chemo treatments while still being a big part of the team, and from your pen-pal relationship with the Franciscan nun in the convent, to your current status as a cancer survivor and NFL-hopeful. Tell me about some of the things you learned from this experience.
MH: It's definitely been a maturation process ... you grow up faster when you have to deal with something like that. But to be someone that people look up to, not just for athletics, was something I had not planned on. But it was awesome. It is awesome. And it's become something I have cherished -- and something that I'm constantly working to improve, now that I've become this ... well, this pseudo-celebrity, I guess. Not like the people walking around here! Like Adam Sandler and Marisa Miller, I just saw them! But if there is a little that I can do with what I've been given, that's is something I cherish.
EB: So do you still write to your pen-pal?
EB: (... and then I laugh at the thought of this big, strapping, bald guy in Dallas at the Super Bowl, amidst all of the "madness" as James put it, chatting with me about his pen-pal the nun. Maybe I shouldn't have asked him.)
MH: I'm definitely still in touch with Sister Barbara Anne. In many ways, her life has completely changed. She lives in a convent in South Bend, Indiana, and our relationship was well-received and well-documented. What struck me, was that it was something that really didn't have anything to do with football. A lot of people wrote to me who were football fans, but her letter really stood out. First, it was because her handwriting was immaculate ... it really caught my attention. And then she just sent more letters and more letters. I started writing back, and that's how it all began. But now, people have been writing her from all over, asking for prayers and support. And I really think she has gotten great pleasure from it. It's given her real purpose.
EB: (Jesus, this kid is possibly the nicest person I have ever spoken to in my entire life.) So we've done a lot of looking back. Let's look forward. What's next?
MH: With the draft in April, I am spending all my time at the IMG Academy in Florida. I wake up at 6am, work out all morning, take an hour break, and then work out all afternoon. It's been really beneficial so far ... but the only goal so far is to perform in the combine. I just need to do my best there, and see where the cards fall.
EB: You know lately, I've been a bit jaded about sports. It's harder to find heroes because all we hear are the salacious headlines all over the place. Tiger and Big Ben and the rest. Your story made me believe in heroes again. So thank you.
MH: You're welcome. That's nice to hear.
EB: Now listen to me. You and James, don't get into any trouble. I need you to remain my hero, OK?
MH: Oh don't worry, I'm leaving tomorrow to go train ... I'm missing all of the big parties.
EB: Oh good. They're overrated anyway.
MH: (Laughs) Yeah, you're probably right.
I hung up. Exhilarated. Yes, Cairo coverage was still ticking along the bottom of the TV -- but CNN was also doing a story on the Super Bowl. Two storied franchises. The two best defenses in the league. A veteran QB and a young, fast phenom in his first Big Game. I think back to my interview with Aaron Rodgers, where he discussed his mentor Joe Montana, and I smile.
But it was today's short, 15-minute phone interview that shifted my mindset and made me a believer, once again. Thank you, Mark Herzlich. Maintaining hero status can be an enormously daunting undertaking. But something tells me you can handle it.
I am suddenly inspired to make my famous artichoke dip for the game tomorrow, and hope that memories of my icy Dallas interview will warm the cockles of my once-again-sports-loving heart for a nice long time ... or at least until the possible NFL lockout.