Only a game.
We invoke the words easily. In resignation after a hard loss. In disbelief when a player signs for millions. Even in frustration when uprooting a partner from the couch, AKA Fantasy Football Central. “Good grief, it’s only a game!”
But we’re not used to whispering them in shock. Not until last Monday, anyway, when reality hit harder than any linebacker. A player fell. A nation watched. And the bright lights of the NFL faded into the background. When the league said the game would stay canceled, no one was really surprised.
After all, it’s only a game.
And at a moment like that, so many things loom larger than the score.
You didn’t have to be a Buffalo Bills fan to feel it. I’ve never been within 100 miles of Buffalo. My wife barely follows football at all. Both of us were stunned when Damar Hamlin collapsed from an on-field cardiac arrest. We had a lot of company.
After all, sports has a way of insulating us from reality. It’s entertainment, and like any good movie, play or TV show, it plunges us into another world for a couple of hours. Life’s frustrations fall away for a little while, subsumed in the action.
But once in a while, the walls don’t hold.
Maybe it’s an earthquake. Or an attack. Or a young man abruptly going down like his strings were cut. Whatever the cause, reality breaks the film, stops the play, shakes us out of the dream. We get reminded that we’re not watching a video game. That the helmets and numbers are people, as vulnerable in some ways as any of us.
We’ve spent hours, months, years watching these people. But sometimes it’s only in these shattering moments that we really see them.
And that’s in a world of cameras and spotlights. When we walk back into our world, surrounded with everyday people instead of superstars … how much more do we still not see?
We all do it. Not maliciously, but we do. Faces in our life become like cars on the highway, a blur only noticed when one of them veers near our lane. We go through the routine, used to everyone playing their part, not really looking closely.
And then something happens to make us pay attention and … we look. We see the struggles below the surface, maybe for the first time. And we wonder how we could miss it for so long.
It shouldn’t take a crisis. But attention takes work. And it’s a work we often put off until we have to.
So this year, if you do nothing else, take a moment to see. Friends. Neighbors. Family. The stranger on the street. Look up from your own world and into someone else’s. Find the connection that makes us human.
It doesn’t have to be somber or grim. It may even lead to great joy or comfort. But it won’t start by itself. We have to be the ones to do it and to go where it calls.
That’s how we build a neighborhood. A community. A nation.
As I write this, Hamlin seems to be on the mend. It’s a relief, to be sure. And long after most of us have forgotten his name, I hope we remember the care and connection that the moment sparked in so many of us.
After all, it’s only a game.
And when we break out from our own sidelines, there’s a lot that’s worth seeing.