Mile-High Hopes?

Sure, I could have written about CU this morning. I didn’t for two reasons: 

1) There doesn’t seem to be a lot of need to. Everyone and their cocker spaniel is writing about the Buffs, Coach Prime and a transformation that’s right up there with Bruce Banner’s. 

2) I’m kind of afraid of jinxing the whole mess. Sure, it’s silly, but after seeing a “Yay, Nuggets” column get followed by the Heat’s only win of the NBA Finals, I am taking no chances. 

So instead, I’m turning my eyes to the Boys in Orange. After all, there’s only so much harm I can do there, right? 

If you felt a wind gust through the Front Range last week, it might have been the WHOOSH of deflated expectations from a horde of Bronco fans. After all, on the surface, we got a new coach, a new season and the same result: a 17-16 loss to open the campaign, just like 2022. 

It’s been hard to take, especially for the parts of the fandom that can remember the Broncos being at least a playoff threat for 30 years and then again in the Peyton Manning years. There’s history here. But ever since The Sheriff walked off the field, that history has been … well, history. 

That said, I have to admit something. Sure, I gritted my teeth through that Raiders game, too. But I still left with something that sorta, kinda, maybe, if-you-squint-real-hard, looks like hope. 

No, I don’t need the concussion protocol. 

The opening game came down to two big things: dumb penalties and a bad extra point. Both of these are correctable. More to the point, it did NOT come down to a disappointing day from Russell Wilson, who finally started to look like the quarterback we expected to see in 2022. I’ll emphasize the word “started,” especially since he didn’t exactly pour on the yardage in the second half.  But I’ll take a sharp completion percentage, two touchdown passes and – most importantly – no interceptions as a starting point. 

By the time this appears in print, Game 2 will have played and I’ll look like either a genius or an idiot. So it goes. But I’ll stand by this: for the first time in a while, it feels like there’s potential here. 

Yes, that’s a dangerous word. As Linus from “Peanuts” once put it, “There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.” And when we’ve been burned so many times – OK, when we’ve burned OURSELVES so many times – it can feel instead like Charlie Brown rushing up to try kicking the football yet again. 

I’ll be honest: I do not expect the playoffs this year. But I do expect better. As long as we have a coach that’s willing to work, able to work and given a chance to work. (That last has not exactly been a guarantee with the revolving door Denver has seen in the last few years.) 

That’s where anything worth doing starts. With the willingness and the opportunity to try. 

As I’ve said and quoted before, hope isn’t optimism. It’s optimism plus sweat. If you believe that better is possible, you have to show that belief by committing to it. That’s true whether you’re talking about a sport, a job, even a country. 

That doesn’t mean being blind about faults and weaknesses: “My team/party/country right or wrong.” But if you can set your sights higher than where you are and put in the effort to travel that path, then even a failure can make you stronger. Even a stumble can be forward motion. 

We may have a lot of stumbles ahead. But if we keep them in the right direction, we’ll get there. Jinx or no jinx. 

After all, we’ve seen what can happen when a team hits its Prime.

Unconscious Victory

Talk about someone who was on a roll.

You might not have heard of Delaney Irving. She doesn’t have the grace of a Michael Jordan or the control of a Nikola Jokić. But like them, the Canadian teen has a championship of sorts, a really cheesy one. Even if it’s one she’ll never fully remember.

Irving, you see, took part in the annual Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling in Britain. That’s exactly what it sounds like: roll a wheel of cheese down a hill and run after it until you both cross the finish line. And as the CBC, Reuters and many others reported it, she did it the hard way … by tripping, knocking herself unconscious and rolling across the finish line.

“I think next year I just want to watch,” she confessed to the CBC after waking up to her win.

Now there’s an athlete after my own heart.

If you’ve met me or read this column for a while, you know that I’m … how shall I put this? … not exactly poetry in motion. Unless you consider Mr. Bean or Chevy Chase a poet, anyway. If there’s an awkward, stumbling way to do a simple task, have no fear: I’ll find an even clumsier one.

That’s how I managed to slam the bathroom door into me twice while trying to rescue a puking dog.

It’s how I managed to turn the act of retrieving a grocery bag into a parking lot ballet that required three stitches in my chin.

And yes, as the Longmont theater community will remind you, it’s how I managed to walk completely off stage and into the orchestra pit in the middle of an opening-night solo.

To my sort-of credit, I’m still around to write about this. I’ve even learned the vital survival skill of laughing at myself when life decides I really need a slapstick moment. But amid the laughter, there’s an even more vital quality to be found.

It’s equal parts persistence and commitment, but neither word quite says it. It’s the quality of putting it all on the floor. Holding nothing back. Being ready to fail, but only after doing everything you can to put yourself into a position to succeed.

In sports, it’s the team that knows one bad call won’t make or break them, playing a solid game with no effort left unexerted.

In fiction, it’s the Frodo Baggins type of hero – unable to destroy the Ring by his own strength, but using every ounce of strength to make its destruction possible.

And in life … well, in life, it’s a lot like Delaney Irving. Unable to control all the circumstances, but doing everything you can do. And maybe even getting the win despite yourself.

You set yourself up. Even when you fall down.

You may fall down a lot. There’s always the risk of saying “I gave it everything I had and it just wasn’t enough.” It leaves you without excuses or what-if’s.

But it also teaches. It trains. And it stretches you.

And each stretch brings you that much closer to where you want to be.

So by all means, trip. Stumble. Fall. (Heaven knows I do.) But do it because you’re trying for something better. You just might get it, even if you fall.

Keep trying, even if it’s just to roll a cheese downhill.

After all, where there’s a wheel, there’s a whey.

Blitzed

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.

A family.

**

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.

Nugget of Hope

I rubbed my eyes to clear them. This couldn’t be right.

No illusion. The sports analysis still said the same thing: the Denver Nuggets were the favorite to win the West. With about one chance in eight of winning it all – better than anyone but the Boston Celtics.

This had to be a joke. Or at least a Jokić.

No slam meant on the Nuggets, by the way, who along with the Avs, have contrived to make half of the Colorado sports year exciting again. But I’ve lived most of my life in Colorado. And in many of those years, the Denver Nuggets were the Little Engine That Almost Could.

Alex English. Dikembe Mutombo. Carmelo Anthony. Time and again, the golden boys of basketball turned up some of the game’s brightest stars from yesterday’s Dan Issel to today’s Nikola Jokić. They made run after run at the playoffs, sometimes with moments for the ages. (I still remember Mutombo’s expression of joy as he lay flat on the court after upsetting the top-seeded SuperSonics.)

But they never brought home a championship. Barely even came close. The Avs brought home Stanley Cups. The Broncos discovered a way to win Super Bowls (and I wish they’d jog their memory). Even the Rockies managed to at least make the World Series once.

The Nuggets? The numbers tell the tale. Since joining the NBA in 1977, they’ve made the Western Conference finals four times – and been shot down every time. Three of them by the Lakers.

NBA Finals appearances: zero.

But as Nuggets fans know, even numbers only go so far to describe heartbreak. So many times, it’s seemed like this had to be the year, whether from on-the-court awesomeness or blind Cinderella magic. But the moments that are mere bumps in the road during an 82-game regular season can bump you out fast in a short playoff series. And bumped we were – again and again and again.

It hurts. Maybe because it’s so familiar. And I don’t just mean on the basketball court.

A lot of us have been there. Maybe all of us. Year after year of doing the right thing, maybe even doing it well … but somewhere, at least once, falling short when it counted. Not because of laziness or ignorance or anything else wrong, but because the moment just wasn’t there.

A moment that you know deserved to be better.

We get up again, of course. That’s literally how we’re made. Biologists describe humanity as a persistence predator. That means our early successes weren’t from having mighty strength, sharp teeth or blazing speed, but from a sheer refusal to quit, walking on and on long after our faster prey had worn itself out.

Funny thing. Hope works the same way.

Excitement can die off fast. Optimism melts like fog when the heat of the moment hits. But hope walks. Step by step, mile by mile. Maybe not catching its target right away, but never leaving it. Always keeping it in sight, however exhausting it might be.

Sheer stubbornness. At its worst, it’s the most exasperating quality humanity has. But at its best, it’s the one that carries us through when everything seems lost.

Even when it hurts.

So best wishes to the Nuggets. Sure, in a world full of crazy, one NBA season might not seem like much. But if they can break through the wall at last … well, a little more joy and sunshine never hurt anyone.

And if they don’t … then it’s time to do what we always do. Dust off, stand up and move forward again.

And again.

And again.  

And that’s no joke at all.

Stepping Up

For just a moment, I felt a kinship with Pavel “Frankie” Francouz.

Mind you, this has nothing to do with shared athletic ability. Coordination, musculature, endurance … sure, I can spell all those words. But in a world where some people move with the grace of Bruce Lee, I’m more like Inspector Clouseau on roller skates. I’m certainly not at the level of Francouz, a backup goalie for the Colorado Avalanche.

But in Game 2 of the conference finals, the backup became the star. And that’s something I do know about.

If you saw the game last Thursday, you know what I’m talking about. Starting in place of an injured teammate, Francouz was unmovable, stopping 24 shots in his first career shutout. Between that and a two-minute offensive explosion by the rest of the lineup, it added up to a 4-0 shellacking that left the Edmonton Oilers wondering “What the heck just happened?”

It’s the moment every understudy dreams of.

Heaven knows I did.

Pre-pandemic, I did a lot of amateur acting. In my first few productions, a quick memory for lines – everybody’s lines – got me jokingly dubbed “the universal understudy.” I appreciated the compliment, kept a close eye on the leads just in case … still with a role myself, but always ready and waiting for an opportunity.

And waiting.

And waiting some more.

Backups, whether official or otherwise, do a lot of that. Oh, sure, there can be pre-planned appearances to give the regular starter a rest, or chances to lend a hand during practice, and so on. But most of the time, if you’re on, it means something has broken down. And you with your gifts – the gifts that were passed over the first time around – you’re the one who has to step in and help keep things moving.

That’s intimidating. Even terrifying.

And if you do it right – if your big break doesn’t break you – it can also be exhilarating.  

“It’s a special feeling,” Francouz told The Sporting News after the game. “It’s tough to describe. It doesn’t happen every day, it was a special night for sure.”

No doubt. And those moments – on the ice, on a stage, anywhere – are moments of hope for the rest of us, too.

Because lately I think a lot of us feel like understudies in a show where we’ve barely seen the script.

At the best of times, imposter syndrome  can be challenging, that feeling that everyone else knows what they’re doing and you’re just making it up as you go along. These aren’t the best of times. We’ve been dealing with a constant drumbeat of crises, each blow landing before we’ve had time to fully process the last one. A global plague. A massive drought. A slaughter of innocents that too many seem powerless to stop. On and on and on.

As a nation, as a people, we’ve passed through the fire before. But it’s easy to say that was someone else, more capable, more ready. We’re just … us. Aren’t we?

So were they. So is every generation. And even if they were outright demigods, we’re the ones who are here now, this day, this moment. It’s our turn on the ice, our gifts that have to meet the moment without warning.

It’s all right to feel unready. But the spotlight is on. The net is waiting. And with the willingness to step in to take our place – yes, our place – the terrifying can become the miraculous.

Ask Frankie.

Twenty-four shots. Twenty-four stops. A moment of glory that even Inspector Clouseau couldn’t break from a hero no one expected.

That’s a goal – and a goalie – worth imitating.

Game On

It’s an exciting time to be a sports fan in Colorado.

This year, the Denver Nuggets have BLASTED their way through the first round of the NBA playoffs!

This year, the Colorado Avalanche are setting themselves up as the NHL’s TEAM TO BEAT!

And this year, the Colorado Rockies are … are …

Hmm.

Well, they’re showing up. I think.

If you’re a longtime Rockies fan, this is probably a familiar refrain. Most seasons, the Rockies get some April love, a fast start, and then quietly sink into the mire of “Maybe next year.” But this year – ah, this year, the Rockies set out to accomplish something different. And did.

Yes, this year Colorado’s Men In Purple managed to burn their record to the ground before even getting out of April. Woohoo! Go, team!

We could argue about the reasons forever (after all, that’s what the internet is for). It could be the fault of the ownership. Or the space aliens beneath DIA. Or maybe even space aliens in the ownership – it’s been that kind of season.

Whatever the reasons, this is when we see That Fan start to emerge. You know the one.

“Who needs that bandwagon crowd, anyway? This is when you find out who the REAL Rockies fans are! If you can’t stick with the team in the bad years, we don’t want to see you in the good ones!”  

I understand the attitude. Heck, I’ve suffered through some bad Rockies baseball myself. At the same time, this isn’t Valley Forge in the American Revolution, where we’re called on to say who the sunshine soldiers are and who’s ready to fight for life and liberty.

It’s a game. It’s meant to be fun.

For some of us, the fun is in the art of baseball itself, the tactics and psychology that lie behind every pitch and swing. For some, it’s the familiar faces and personalities, the players that have become almost as familiar as next-door neighbors.

And yeah, for some, it’s the excitement of being part of a crowd that’s watching a team of skilled athletes (and even the worst players are a lot more skilled than me and thee) taking the game to another level. Winning. Winning regularly. Feeling the electricity that comes when you KNOW you’re truly seeing the best around.

That’s just as legitimate. And if they fade into the background in the in-between years, it’s not that they’re fake fans … just less intense ones. Ones that demand more than just nine purple suits and a start time.

The priorities are different.

And if we’ve learned about anything over this past year, it’s about priorities.

When your life gets upended by a worldwide crisis, you quickly learn what’s important to you. The things you must do. The things you can’t do that you miss – or that you realize to your shock that you can do just fine without. The things you never had time for before that suddenly become a means of survival.

In particular, we found we needed people. We needed their stories (and streamed an awful lot of them). We needed their faces, their voices, their reminders that they existed at all, even if at a distance. Some of us found we were ok with the distance, while others were straining at the leash for something more.

As this country slowly comes out the other side, I hope we remember those discoveries. I hope we remember what worked in our life and the ways we found joy in a stressful time. Most of all, I hope we remember how important the people around us are, and don’t dismiss them until the next time they’re taken away.

I also hope, someday, that we remember what good baseball looks like in Colorado.

Maybe it’s time to talk with the space aliens.

The Game’s Up

Fantasy football draft weekends have certain rituals that cannot be avoided. Keep the sports magazines close at hand. Test the connection to the draft website. Make sure the caffeine is well-charged.

And this year, there’s one added  detail. Cross Andrew Luck off the quarterback list.

If you’ve paid even one scintilla of attention to the sports world lately, you know what I’m talking about. Luck, the highly-talented and often-battered 29-year-old quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts finally decided that he had taken one injury too many and retired.

“It’s taken the joy out of the game,” he acknowledged in a hasty press conference about a week ago.

The decision drew boos from the fans in the stands. No surprise. Fans are notorious for calling on players to tough it out and earn their paycheck. Players with a history of frequent injuries often get wisecracks rather than sympathy (I still remember Chris Chandler becoming “Crystal Chandelier”) and musings on how the old school would have kept going with one leg and no arms, uphill, through a snowstorm, both ways.

Players know better. They should. They’re the ones who take the shots, who have to decide how much pain is enough.

All for the game. You know, that thing that’s supposed to be fun?

If there’s no joy in a game, why are you playing it? Whatever the score, you yourself are bound to lose.

Oddly, that’s when my mind went back to the 1980s. No, not to the horrific Joe Theismann injury. To Matthew Broderick.

Some of you may remember the film War Games, about a teenager who accidentally hacks into NORAD’s supercomputer and nearly triggers World War III. The final scenes are well known, where the computer runs scenario after scenario of global thermonuclear war – from the most predictable strategies to the least likely incidents – and comes up with the same result every time: No winner.

“A strange game,” the computer concludes. “The only winning move is not to play.”

In short, the computer had to be taught the concept of futility. That some games cannot be won. That some battles have to be walked away from rather than fought.

It doesn’t take a silicon genius to learn that. Or an NFL superstar.

In fact, if you have any kind of chronic illness – physical or mental – you likely have learned that constantly.

Regular readers may remember that my wife Heather has a number of chronic illnesses. The list includes Crohn’s disease, MS, and ankylosing spondylitis (the last of which is guaranteed to crash any spell-checker on the planet). She’s accomplished a lot despite all that, including being a wonderful mom to our disabled ward Missy.

But she has to pick her battles.

It took me a while to learn that as a young husband. Like a lot of people – including a few football fans – I thought that if you pushed hard enough, you could make anything happen. That disappointment would only make matters worse.

I know better. A lot better.

Sometimes all the effort does is leave you in the same situation, but with less energy and more pain.

You have to know when the game is worth playing.

This isn’t a recipe for despair. For me, hope is one of the most powerful virtues there is, and hope requires work and commitment to be more than just vague optimism. But hope needs to be paired with judgment.

And if the judgment is that you’re starting a chess game with just three pawns, one king, and a knight, then you’re better off leaving the board and looking for a deck of cards.

So you have my best wishes, Mr. Luck. May you find joy in the path ahead.

And since you’re free – have you got any good fantasy football tips?

Tugs and Stumbles

When the weather gets hot, I sometimes find myself thinking of the company picnics that my Dad’s work used to have.

You may remember something similar. Lots of food, with an emphasis on potato salad. Lots of people, many of whom only saw each other at something like this. And, invariably, the sorts of games that never got played anywhere else, unless your school had a field day and no compunctions about having some kids win or lose.

For example, there was always a tug of war – one rope, with a not-so-small army of kids and adults gathered on each side, each trying to pull like crazy until the middle of the rope passed to their side. The losers got the fun of sprawling in the dirt or grass with rope burns on their hands; the winners got a ribbon or small prize … and, usually, their own collection of rope burns on their hands as a memory. (There may be a reason this doesn’t get done much anymore.)

Or, for the ultimate in ridiculousness, there was always the three-legged race. Take two people, have them each strap one leg together, and then try to have them walk forward. Unless you have a lot of timing and teamwork, the result is a lot like Goofy after the mallet has fallen on his head; lots of staggering and very little progress. The first pair that can stay upright long enough to cross the finish line wins; the last pair gets to find out the best way to remove grass stains.

This sort of thing doesn’t seem to be done much anymore, which may be one reason we’re all living longer lives these days. (Never underestimate the potency of a potato salad that has sat outdoors for three hours.) But as I watch the state of national politics, I can’t help feeling that we’ve lost some valuable training.

Mind you, we’re all still pretty good at the tug of war. We prove that during every primary and general election, when most of us plant our feet in the ground and refuse to be swayed by anything that could sway us from our chosen position. “Never him!” “Anyone but her!” We pull and tug and haul until main strength decides the contest one way or the other. Of course, at a picnic or field day, you never had a team that tried to pull in five different directions at once, with the result that everyone on your side went sprawling, which demonstrates one of the many ways in which sixth-graders are still smarter than many American voters.

But we’ve lost our talent for the three-legged race. And that’s a pity. Because while the tug of war will get you through an election, you need the three-legged race if you really want to govern – different people learning how to walk together in order to reach a common goal.

Of course, most political “fields” don’t have a commonly-agreed-upon finish line. Sometimes it’s not even clear how long the race is. But like it or not, we’re strapped together and have to cooperate to make even a little progress … or else learn to enjoy the taste of Weed & Feed.

“Winning was easy, young man; governing’s harder,” George Washington notes in the recent musical “Hamilton.” (Yes, I’m still on that kick.) In many ways, it’s like the difference between a wedding and a marriage – one requires short-term planning to achieve an easily defined goal, the other requires long-term survival skills and cooperation, however hard the situation may get.

Many local governments haven’t completely forgotten the skill. It makes a difference when you have to live next door to your opponent. But at the national level, maybe it’s time to look for folks who actually know how to cooperate and step forward, instead of trying to break the ankles of everyone who doesn’t share their (sometimes very eccentric and bizarre) path.

It’s not easy. But then, no one ever said this would be a picnic.

Turning Tales

Many of my baseball-loving friends have the blues. And they couldn’t be happier.

Some of that blue belongs to the colors of the Kansas City Royals, questing for their first title in 30 years and desperate to wrap up the unfinished business of last year’s almost-world championship. No question, these are Royals in search of a coronation.

The rest have a darker shade to their uniforms – appropriate, since these are the friends who know the blues indeed. These are the brethren of the Chicago Cubs, the legendary hard-luck team that has not even seen a World Series game in 70 years without buying a ticket. The team that has not won a championship in over a century. The team cursed by a goat, now praying to be freed by the prophecies of the Back to the Future movies.

I promise, I’m not kidding.

If both teams manage to make the Series at once, I think Facebook may just explode. After all, these are fans who have not just been loyal, they’ve done penance. The moment is at hand – Luke Skywalker in the Death Star trench, Frodo Baggins at the edge of Mount Doom, Rocky Balboa ready to get the tar beaten out of him.

Er, never mind that last one. But it does make a compelling story.

And that’s a primal power indeed.

Stories surround us and penetrate us, binding the galaxy together – no, wait, that’s the Force. But it’s a small difference. This is a big world we live in, too large for us to take it all in at once. By shaping a story, we make it something we can hold and understand, something that makes sense.

It’s why sports can have such a draw. This is a story in its basic form, redrawn every day on the playing field: good guys and bad guys, victory and defeat, beer and hot dogs.

It sits at the heart of our politics. In a democracy, candidates compete to tell us the most convincing story, with themselves as the hero who can ensure success or avert disaster. Sometimes those stories are true. And sometimes … well, you know how to finish that tale.

It’s why good journalism can be some of the best writing around. Every person on this earth has at least one story worth telling; a skilled reporter can let you into that story as though it were your own and reveal the wonder that lies beneath the most everyday persona and event. Whether it’s a mighty flood or an airplane-throwing contest – and I’ve written about both – anything can be compelling if you find the heart beneath. (I’ve always said that the heart of every one of my columns is the question “Why do I care?”)

Granted, like any power, it can be misused. Often – maybe too often – we impose the story we want to see on the world around us, regardless of the facts. Researchers have recently suggested that our brains aren’t wired to seek the truth, but to cling to the items that support what we want to believe. Call it Simon’s Law: “Still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.”

But stories make us human. They fuel our curiosity and build a community. And if a story survives long enough, it can bind us across the centuries, tying us to anyone who ever invoked our version of “Once Upon A Time.”

Yes, even Cubs fans.

So if sports make you crazy, take heart. You’ve got a tale or two of your own that means just as much. From the outside, it may seem just as odd as celebrating men who swing lumber and fling horsehide. Let someone in. Share it. Revel in it.

How to do it? That’s another story.

And one that no one can tell as well as you.

Joy in the Net

At five minutes, the World Cup final stopped being an ordinary game.

At a little over fifteen, it became a legend.

I don’t use the word lightly. But what else can you say when a U.S. player kicks the ball from midfield – from 50 yards out, the sort of kick that nobody’s tried since junior high school – and it lands in the net? When it’s not just a fluke goal, but the capstone to a barrage, the fourth goal to strike home in less time than it takes to order a pizza?

That’s when you know you’re in unmarked territory. And oh, man, did it feel good.

Not just because the game was a rout. After all, I’m a Denver Broncos fan. I know all about routs in championship games, usually from the wrong side. There’s a point where every additional score becomes a physical blow, where it starts to feel like the age-old nightmare of going to school in your underwear – exposed before the world with nowhere to hide and no way to escape until that final whistle blows.

Even when you’re on the right side of that, it can start to feel cruel.

But this one didn’t have the same harsh aftertaste. Not to me, anyway.

It’s hard to say exactly why.

Maybe it was the Japanese. In blowouts, we talk all the time about having nothing left to play for but pride. On a night where no one could have blamed them for surrendering – had the rules and the refs allowed it – the women of Japan refused to just mark time. They fought. They rallied. On a wildly uneven stage, they even allowed a moment’s worry that maybe, just maybe, patience could undo the American lightning strike.

Maybe it was the sheer unlikelihood of it all. In the U.S., everyone knows soccer as a low-scoring game, too low-scoring for the tastes of many. To see the early shots go in, and in, and in like a video game or an NBA matchup (is there a difference?) added a level of wonder, almost awe.

But mostly, I think it was the joy.

You could see it in the U.S. players. You could see it in the U.S. crowds. This had become … fun. A pleasure in its own right. You know, like it was a game or something.

For 90 minutes, a simple joy had taken over the grass.

I’m not sure we appreciate how rare that is.

It’s not easy to get unalloyed joy into the spotlight anymore. Too many of us know the backstories or have learned to wait for the other shoe to drop. The steroid use that makes a record a mockery. The dark history behind a famous name. It creates a weariness, a reluctance to trust or let go. A certainty that if we do, we’ll get burned once again.

And the worst burns come from the greatest trust. The ones that seemed to personify the joy of a child in a grown-up’s body (never mind any names). Those are the ones that can make you wonder if any pleasure is as innocent as it truly seems.

So when something like this comes along, can anyone be blamed for grabbing on with both hands?

OK. A World Cup victory – even a 5-2 World Cup victory – is not going to cure cancer, end war or restore Pluto to its rightful state as a planet. But if, for just a moment, it restores some joy and happiness in this place, hasn’t it done all we could ask?

Hasn’t it done what sports are supposed to do?

So one last time, as the cheers fade into history. Thank you, ladies of the U.S. soccer team. Thank you for the thrills and the excitement and the memories that even now may be inspiring a new generation to try and try and try.

Thank you for the unapologetic fun.

For everyone watching, this was truly a net gain.