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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Loyalty, Tears and the Joy of Fandom

Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania.  A Friday night in the late fall.  A seven year-old girl's breath clouded in front of her face as she chanted.  De-fense, clap clap.  De-fense, clap, clap.  Her fingers were numb from cold even inside her knit gloves.  Her father chanted and clapped beside her before they both erupted in boisterous cheers.  Their team completed a defensive stand and sent their punt return team on the field.  The North Schuylkill Spartans were about to get the ball back against the arch rival Mount Carmel Red Tornadoes with just enough time for a game-winning drive.  But joy turned to sadness for the father and daughter as the Spartans' most sure-handed player dropped to his knees and let the punt slip between his hands.  The Red Tornadoes recovered the muffed punt and won for what seemed like 147th consecutive time.
Pennsylvania high school football
North Schuylkill vs. Mount Carmel
Another year.  Same stadium.  Same little girl.  This time she was with her grandfather.  And this time their Spartans kneeled to run out the clock and capture a victory against the Red Tornadoes.  The home team turned off the scoreboard immediately after the clock hit 0:00.  But the fans who waited their whole lives to see a victory like this knew the score.  Old men and young children celebrated in the dark long after the final gun sounded.

That all happened 25 years ago, but it still feels like it was yesterday.  As you read those paragraphs, I'm sure many of you were reminded of similar moments in your own lives.  Moments with family and friends and the teams you loved.  For many, a new moment was added to the memory banks on Sunday.  Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the most beloved driver in NASCAR, won his first race in 4 years.  No, it was not the Sprint Cup Championship.  It wasn't even the Daytona 500.  Nonetheless, grown men cried in living rooms, bars and man caves around the country as the #88 took the checkered flag.  I know this for a fact.

NASCAR celebration
Junior's pitt crew celebrates
All true fans feel to a certain degree like they are a part of the team.  But perhaps more than any other fan base, the members of Junior Nation feel like they are a part of Junior's family.  And why not?  They've watched him grow up.  They've known him since he was a just a kid on the circuit, wearing his Budweiser cap backwards.  They were there when his father died at Daytona in 2001, and they saw him win on that same track just six months later.  They watched Junior struggle in the wake of Senior's death and ultimately leave the organization that bears his name.  They stuck with him while his Hendrick teammates won championships and the media scrutiny grew.  And today, those fans watched as Junior, now a grown man, broke the longest winless drought of his career.  None of this was lost on Dale.  Immediately after climbing from his Chevy, Dale thanked his fans for sticking with him and virtually apologized for making them wait so long.

You don't have to be a fan of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to understand why Sunday was special.  You don't have to be a NASCAR fan.  Really, you don't have to be a fan at all.  Shared sadness and shared joy are a universal part of the human experience.  It's the disappointments that make the victories sweeter.  It's the investment of time and emotion that make success so rewarding.  That little girl in the bleachers twenty-five years ago felt the same flood of emotions on Sunday as she shared Dale's victory with her family and friends.  That little girl, now a grown woman, is just one of thousands who felt those feelings.  And that is why we love sports.


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