We remember Spring Break in Panama City through 6-overtime Big East tournament games (Syracuse v. UConn), pledging a fraternity through watching the biggest sports upset in modern history (Giants over Patriots), getting drunk off everclear and pounding McDonald's cheeseburgers through pay-per-view boxing (Mayweather v. De La Hoya). Sports becomes our lexicon, our memories' reference point to previous times and events in our lives. It becomes our means for remembering how we felt, how we saw the world, how we lived.
And I cannot honestly tell you why that is, I'm not a psychologist. But I can tell you there are clearly early events in our lives which we witness that feel special. That feel magical. That makes a sport (or sports in general) seem like the most important thing in the world. That, as corny and cliche as it may sound, make us fall head over heels for players who can hit jump shots, or field ground balls, or break open field tackles. These are moments which are not only transcendent, but that offer our young minds a certain level of clarity, a certain level of understanding. That finally let us get that it's OK for even the manliest of men to cry after his team loses a playoff game.
For me, one of these moments was NFL Championship Weekend in 1994. Even though by that point I had determined that I was a Cowboys fan (at least until the Rams moved to St. Louis 2 years later), it wasn't their loss to the 49ers that Sunday afternoon that I remember so vividly. It was the other game, the AFC Title matchup between the San Diego Chargers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, that I can still rewind in my mind; that I can still see so clearly it seems like they just played yesterday.
I can still feel the excitement of the Steelers driving down the field with a Super Bowl birth on the line. I can still visualize myself, rising from my seat on the carpeted floor of my family room, standing up and knowing that what I am about to see is important. I can still never forget Dennis Gibson breaking up O'Donnell's pass and listening to Dick Enberg describe the scene as Gibson and Means and Humphries and Junior Seau ran out on to the field at Three Rivers Stadium in the purest form of triumph and exaltation I had ever witnessed.
I can never forget that day, that moment. I was just a chubby 7-year-old whose parents wouldn't let him play the sport for another half-a-decade. But I was more than that. I was a kid who had just fallen in love with football--even if I wasn't close to realizing it yet.
Which is why that's the moment I keep going back to now that I've heard that Junior Seau is tragically dead of an apparent suicide. It was as close as Junior Seau would ever come to being a Super Bowl Champion, perhaps his greatest moment of professional glory.
But that doesn't tell the whole story, because it was also a moment of magical significance to at least one 1st grader who had no clue who Junior Seau, or even the San Diego Chargers, were. It was a moment that I will never let fade from my memory. In my mind it is the best football can ever, or will ever be.
Now, Junior Seau's death is certainly a tragic reminder that we, as fans, often put too much emphasis on professional sports. That football (or baseball or basketball or hockey or soccer) is a game, and not life or death.
But it also reminds me of something else. It reminds me of a Sunday afternoon when I learned that there was something magical about a game I had never played or even really watched. It reminds me of a turning point in my life, a moment when I learned what it was like to live. A moment when I learned how it felt to watch something so great you knew that you would hold onto it for the rest of your life.
And I would like to thank Junior Seau and the rest of those '94 Chargers for that. Junior may be dead, but in the heart and mind of one 7-year-old...he will never be forgotten.
He'll just be that player jumping up and down on the field in joy; that man who has worked his heart out in a good cause and forever lies on the field of battle--victorious.