This World Cup was probably the most important sports experience of my life.
For the first ten years of my existence, my family had dinner at my grandfather’s house once a week, but I really never knew him. He was an introspective man, British from toes to top, and I remember him talking about only two things ever: theology and tennis. When Wimbledon was on, my very British family would huddle in my grandfather’s small living room while he would wax eloquent about how John McEnroe is a good player, but wonder why does he have to be so rude all the time?
I couldn’t tell you who won Wimbledon in any of my middle school years. But I could tell you how my grandfather felt about Jennifer Capriati’s tendency to grunt at her forehands.
In the summer of 1992, my family and I took a trip from south Florida to Atlanta. We got Braves tickets through a friend from our church who knew my brother was a lifelong Braves fan. Since our ticket hookup was through one of the Braves’ coaches, we got to wait outside the locker room before the game and meet Steve Avery and Greg Maddux, both in their prime. I’ll never forget how tall Steve Avery seemed, or how small my brother looked next to him.
We don’t dedicate ourselves to a sport because of Xs and Os. Wins and losses matter, players connect us with teams, and highlight reels are what we post to our Facebook pages, but the sports that ignite passion in usâ€”they gotta have something deeper.
For the rest of my life, I’ll never forget how it felt to sit outside that locker room with my brother, sharing the excitement of seeing our heroes in real life. I’ll be a Braves fan forever. Just like I’ll always feel like John McEnroe is kind of a d-bag, no matter how sophisticated he seems sitting in the announcer’s booth.
The Alabama fan who tattoos that big ugly “A” right next to his meaty sideboob isn’t celebrating an institution of higher learning. Somewhere along the line, for some reason, Alabama started meaning something to him. He remembers sitting on the dirt floor with his father listening to football games on his transistor radio, or sitting around a pig roast while his uncles reminisced about Bear Bryant. Or, you know, whatever it is Alabama people do. You get the point.
This was the greatest World Cup I can remember. From the first kickoff to the last whistle, the drama never stopped. Goals came. The tournament equaled the highest-ever goals-scored number. The U.S. played well. I sat in a Buffalo Wild Wings in a small town in Tennessee packed to the gills with flag-draped American fans. I got texts from friends asking about intricacies of the game. I saw 1,500 fans packed in a sports bar in Nashville. For a month or so, the home of Miley Cyrus and Amy Grant cared about soccer. These things are all extraordinary.
But when I think about this World Cup the single-most enduring memory will be my 10 year old son yelling at the TV. He’s watched soccer since he was a fetus. But he’s never felt soccer until this tournament. When Mario Gotze scored a wondergoal in the 113th minute to sink Argentina, it’s hard to say whose scream was louder – my son’s or mine. When he’s grown, and he looks back on the tournament, I suspect that he won’t remember what Gotze’s goal looked like. But I do suspect he’ll remember sitting in his dad’s bedroom, yelling at the TV with his old man. In the end, we all just want to feel connected to the person next to us. To feel like that person cares about the same things we care about.
That’s the beauty of sport. The reason this World Cup matters has nothing to do with how our team did. Sure, Tim Howard gained some fans. Major League Soccer will probably see a ratings bump. Young soccer players were inspired. Sponsors will splash some cash at whoever the next American superstar is. But none of that matters.
For the last month, in bedrooms, bars and break rooms around the country, people came together and shared moments. They cared about something. And billions of people around the world cared with them. In this world of wars, conflict, genocide, rebellions, shootings, and a million reasons to protest, the whole world came together and cared about something together. And that means something.
But more importantly, thanks to soccer, my son and I sat in a room and yelled at a TV together. I’ll never forget that. And I hope he won’t either.
Find me on Twitter: @fastacton.