Sometimes, when his house full of Tar Heel fanatics huddles up around the TV, the Ramblin’ Man gets to feeling a little sidelined. Hard as he tries, “tackle” and “net” conjure visions of mountain streams, even during football and basketball seasons.
“OK, dad,” the conversation usually began. Or “OK, darling.”
Actually, it was never “OK, darling.”
But I’ve been in on this chat many times, either with my son, Jack, or my wife, Julie, and there was a common refrain.
“This is the game with the ball that has two pointy ends,” one of them would say. “Not the ball you bounce up and down on the floor. Got it?”
“That’s cricket, right?” I’d counter. I can be as snarky as they can. But to be honest, that was just an educated guess.
I have never been a giant sports fan. I’ve had my brief flings with a sport or a team. Like the Miami Dolphins in the late ’70s. By and large, however, sports are a bit of a meh to me. I’ll listen in on all the barstool yammer, but my heart isn’t really in it.
I’ve had my brief flings with a sport or a team. By and large, however, sports are a bit of a meh to me.
As for my sporting bona fides, I actually have a significant pedigree, if only by association. I attended UNC Chapel Hill during the Heavenly Days of Glory: Michael Jordan was there during my junior and senior years. Sam Perkins showed up. James Worthy. Those were also the years when Lawrence Taylor spent his weekends trying to catch the guy with the pointy ball. To not have been a sports fan during those years would have required months of isolation. And I really, really liked the post-victory street parties at UNC’s Little Frat Court. So I kept up. Sort of.
I was even photographed for the Japanese edition of GQ when my pal Ben Byerly and I were crossing the street at the Bell Tower, headed to Kenan Stadium for a football game. A photographer stopped us and asked if we would pose. We were both wearing rugby shirts, and at the time, evidently, rugby shirts were considered the zenith of collegiate game-day fashion.
We thought the incident was hilarious, especially since the long rugby shirts tended to cover up the chewing tobacco pouches in our back pockets. I bet that wouldn’t have gone over well with the fashion magazine art directors. Ben and I didn’t give the incident much thought until the magazine came out and was displayed at Alexander Julian’s father’s clothing shop on Franklin Street. Michael Jordan has done all right, but I don’t think he’s been featured in GQ Japan.
If I ever tried to weasel my way into their frequent, in-depth, and months-long sports conversations, they would cut me off with withering scorn.
All of which is to say that my relationship with organized sports has been less than title-worthy. And now, thanks to some sort of twisted karmic and cosmic irony, I live in a family with a wife and son for whom Carolina basketball and football are the two primary ruling forces that hold together the protons, neutrons, and electrons of the entire universe. Give either Julie or Jack a little shake, and Points Per Game and Field Goals Attempted statistics fall off like hair from a molting cat. If I ever tried to weasel my way into their frequent, in-depth, and months-long sports conversations, they would cut me off with withering scorn.
Say, for example, that in the interest of appearing interested, I were to comment on a particular pass, or shot, or foul. They would turn on me like hyenas. “Really?” they’d taunt. “Name a single player on UNC’s football team. Name three of the starting five for Carolina. OK, just two. Name a basketball coach other than Roy Williams. What’s the name of the Wolfpack quarterback? Come on, Dad/Not Darling. You live three blocks from NC State.”
Beat down by a 9-year-old, and with neither aid nor pity from my bride, who — more often than not — piled on, I was practically unwelcome in my own home. Or at least in the TV room. No wonder I took to the woods.
I don’t know how other people watch their favorite team on television, but this is how it goes down in my world. Jack, now grown, and Julie both have the game playing on a television — they could be hundreds of miles apart, and that does not matter — and at least two apps open on their iPhones: Bleacher Report, which keeps a running tally of statistics that would dwarf the safety monitoring at most nuclear power plants, and 247Sports’ Inside Carolina, which documents every sweat droplet that appears on every Carolina player and contextualizes it against the landscape of every sweat droplet exuded by every Carolina player in every other game ever played. Julie and Jack text, sometimes nearly constantly.
RJ can’t give up another foul. Bacot has bounced the ball 11.67X in the last second. Take him out? Sam Howell has no time in the pocket. Glad we have those 5-stars coming in.
One of the first times that Jack’s girlfriend, Carly, watched a UNC basketball game with Jack, she finally asked him: Who in the world are you texting every seven seconds?
“My mom,” Jack replied, and I’m quite sure he didn’t even look up. And then he felt the need to add: “This is how I watch Carolina basketball, by the way. And that will probably never change.”
Carly has resigned herself to second-class status in the 3,178 days per year during which there are televised sports. In this regard, she and I are soul mates.
illustration by Patrick Faricy
And then came the great awakening. The moment when everything changed in an instant, and that instant is when I first wrote a check for Jack’s UNC tuition. Nothing gives you skin in the game — a sports metaphor (I think) — like making a financial investment. Once, and only once during Jack’s four years in Chapel Hill, I made a sportsy comment during a game. I think I recognized the name of a second-string basketball player entering the rotation. Jack was particularly proud. He instantly named me Most Improved Sports Fan.
But to be honest, it didn’t last, and he didn’t mean it. When I tried again, it was back to the chopping block.
“Oh, look,” Jack sniped. “Dad is using a sports metaphor. Isn’t he cute?” Then he and Julie turned their backs to me and faced the screen. It was like a delicate fawn taking its first tentative steps in the sun-dappled forest — right when the wolf shows up. I’ve learned to just keep my mouth shut. Thank goodness there are only four quarters in a Carolina basketball game.
One of the last old-school fish houses in Onslow County stands sentry on the White Oak River. Clyde Phillips Seafood Market has served up seafood and stories since 1954 — an icon of the coast, persevering in pink.