I know exactly when I fell in love with sports.
The sky was gray; the air was chill. I was sitting on the living room floor, not yet tall enough to block Daddy’s view of the sharp-edged console television on which the two of us were watching a grainy black-and-white telecast of his and, thus, my Baltimore Colts. The players’ legs, moving up and down in unnaturally sharp angles like pistons, were skinny. Their arms were even skinnier, protruding nakedly from the thick bottle cap of shoulder pads clamped down over each helmeted head.
I’d been engaging in this Sunday afternoon ritual long enough to know the basic rules, understand the most frequently called penalties and anticipate the moments of high drama. I knew when commentary was appropriate and when it was better to remain dejectedly silent. The movements no longer appeared frantic or random.
But I was still learning, and Daddy was infinitely patient in answering whatever questions I posed. On this particular Sunday, the question arose as the quarterback — I don’t remember if it was Johnny Unitas or the wannabe on the other team — dropped back to pass and the entire defensive line charged toward him like mad bulls. The entire play collapsed, and the broadcaster’s voice, a scratchy baritone, floated over the room, “The blitz results in a loss of 10 yards on the play.”
Blitz. What a funny word. It sounded like a nickname for one of Santa’s reindeer. It rhymed with glitz, and that malt liquor with the red bull on the can. It required lips and teeth and tongue in a rapid sequence that resulted in only one syllable. Blitz.
“Daddy, what’s a blitz?”
“It’s when all the players on the other team come after the quarterback. For that one play, they don’t have any other job.”
I rolled it around in my mouth. It felt like something that would approach hard and fast. It tasted like something powerful. Blitz. I had just fallen in love.
Not long ago, I came across another word I didn’t know. I was reading a book about a spiritual journey, and though the author explained its definition and usage, I had to do my own research.
“Repechage” is used primarily in rowing. It is the method by which a competitor who loses in an early round is given another opportunity — a second chance — to compete later in the bracket. It’s from the French word that means “fishing out” or “rescuing.” It sounds a lot like grace — port and starboard grace; sculling grace; sweeping grace; grace in the middle of a cox and eight.
And what of baseball and its sacrifice? The runner’s ultimate goal of making it home? There is grace, too, on a baseball diamond, and an ice rink, and a track.
I fell in love with sports in the moment of the blitz; the moment in which physical exertion for competition and entertainment became inextricably meshed with words (not to mention my daddy) — words that carry me far beyond the muscles and tendons that stretch and contract in extraordinary feats of physicality; words that themselves stretch and contract in meaning and metaphor; words that preserve and redeem and baptize all my days with grace.