Many sports fans are undoubtedly reveling at the moment. Baseball season is underway after the earliest Opening Day in MLB history. The bracket-busting craziness of March will end tonight with college basketball’s final game of the season. And it is Masters time in Augusta.
Sometimes I think we live sports-crazed lives, although no more or no less so than soccer fan-atics in Europe and South America. Actually, though, athletic contests of all kinds seem to be threaded through the fabric of our everyday existence.
We routinely intertwine sports idioms and general expressions. We have marveled at the Loyola-Chicago basketball team in decidedly non-sports terms as a “Cinderella” team at the “Big Dance.” On the other hand, my mother often dismissed situations as “par for the course.” And the business world is rife with those who “call the shots” or “drop the ball,” even as everyone desires a “level playing field.”
However, I find the best examples of life-imitating-sports-imitating-life in movies. Stories of athletes regularly translate aspects of the human experience into instructive combinations of drama and inspiration.
Certainly, one recurring element featured in sports films is that of hero, with the life and times of Lou Gehrig a prime example. Yes, The Pride of the Yankees is a quaint and classic black-and-white movie in the style of the 1940’s. But the engineer Gehrig’s mother wanted him to be became the baseball player his father knew he should be. Yankee fans, who admired and adored their first baseman, learned the true measure of their beloved “Iron Horse” as he faced his career-ending illness by describing himself as: “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.”
The sports world also celebrates its underdogs, with no better tale than Hoosiers. The competition of life often comes into sharper focus during tourney time, and this account of high school basketball in Indiana is the quintessential underdog story – tiny, rural school; hardnosed coach seeking redemption; reluctant star player – as a community and its team experience a magical season capped by victory over the guys from the big city. This film always reminds me that, on the court of basketball or of life, it is the size of the heart and not of the venue that really matters.
Of course, that Hoosier team would have never won the tournament in 1954 without teamwork. A special brand of teamwork draws me again and again to A League of Their Own. Although the familial bonds of sisterhood united and divided Dottie and Kit, I am more strongly drawn to the larger sisterhood of the female professional baseball players who filled the national pastime gap left when their male counterparts headed to the distant battlefields of World War II.
Unexpectedly-solid performances by Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell as well as Tom Hanks’ assertion: “there’s no crying in baseball” are simply icing on the proverbial entertainment cake. What I find more heartwarming are the shared albeit short-lived experiences of these lady athletes, lessons that remained embedded in their hearts for a lifetime.
We Are Marshall depicts teamwork of yet another kind, in the face of devastating tragedy, as the Huntington, West Virginia college and community struggled to rise from the ashes of a plane crash that decimated their football program. Central to this film is how grief affected each person so individually. It took an outsider, Coach Jack Lengyel, to put the pieces together again – patiently and with understanding, insistence, and encouragement. The story of Marshall University’s Thundering Herd once again thundering across the field stands as an example equally applicable to recovery from the tragedies of life.
I also watch sports films to find stories reflecting the importance of family. The Blind Side is one such film that always gladdens my heart. As the wealthy Tuohys made room in their home and their hearts for homeless teen Michael Oher on his way to NFL stardom, each family member learned to interact with their new son and brother – and their differing ethnicities. The bottom line, however, is that in the very act of giving we may receive in return more than we ever imagined possible. Now that is a life lesson worth learning.
It is in a seldom-aired, made-for-TV movie from the 70’s that I find the most beautiful family story. Something for Joey shows Penn State football player John Cappelletti and his younger brother, who suffered with leukemia. The older brother struggled to balance life at school, on the field, and at home, all the while keeping Joey’s limitations close to his heart. In his Heisman Trophy acceptance speech John sobbingly revealed his understanding of heroism on the true playing field of life: “… many people think that I go through a lot … but it is only on Saturdays … only in the fall. For Joseph, it is all year round … an unending battle … this trophy is more his than mine because he has been a great inspiration … “
These favorite films of mine, sports or otherwise, clearly share certain commonalities. All are inspired by true stories from the world of sports. All deal with “the thrill of victory” or “the agony of defeat,“ as intoned weekly by Jim McKay so long ago. And through these films we can learn perhaps – in microcosmic form – how to navigate our ways through the thrills and agonies of life itself.