When Stepfan Taylor was controversially “stuffed” on the goal line in overtime against Notre Dame, Joey Beyda — the kid who had kicked, screamed and yelled at every close play in the last decade and a half of Stanford football — just got up, turned and walked silently out of the Lantana lounge and back to his room without a word, off to write his column. And then every time someone brought the game up over the next week, he told them that that the refs had made the right call.
It was fundamentally un-me. It was wrong. Of course, it was my own fault.
When The Daily was deciding how to organize its football beat this September, I made it known early and often that I would not, could not and most definitely should not cover games from the press box. A son of two Stanford alums, my 15 seasons of Cardinal football had made me way too attached to the team for that role. Telling me to shut up and take notes quietly in the press box, smack dab in the middle of Stanford football’s spontaneous heyday — I had seen just two bowl-eligible teams in my first 11 years of fanhood — would be akin to making David Shaw abandon the power run or asking Stanford to admit athletes with sub-par GPAs: Some things are just too foundational to give up.
At the same time, I found myself with once-in-a-lifetime access to the team I had grown up loving. After pouring so many hours into sports journalism in high school and as a freshman here, how could I pass up the chance to interview players who were filling the shoes of my childhood idols? How could I ignore the opportunity to share my passion for Stanford football with the student body, whose interest was at an all-time high after back-to-back BCS bowls?
So I carved out a little niche for myself. Besides working on features of lesser-known players and team-defining trends, I would write game analysis columns from a fan’s point of view, watching from the stands before presenting my unique, semi-emotional take on where the team stood, if not why it won or lost.
The features, I hope, were as enriching for readers as they were for me; I would like to continue them in the future. But those analytical columns were another story entirely.
Every time I wrote one of those pieces, a little part of the fan in me died. It wasn’t as fun to watch games anymore, even though for the first time I could say I had met most of the players on that field. Whenever I had a point to make I didn’t discuss it with the people I was watching with; instead, I stored the witty lines in the back of my head for later regurgitation into Monday morning’s Daily. Even though I was standing in the Red Zone and not sitting in the press box, every play was another chance for realistic, unbiased analysis of the variety I just wasn’t accustomed to giving about Stanford football.
So after filling these pages with 120,000 words over the last two years, I (temporarily) quit writing for The Daily the day after that Notre Dame game. It was time to take back the fan in me.
At Big Game the next week I pulled out all the stops. A constant stream of booing and heckling at everything Cal left me voiceless by the end of the second quarter. That was truly a shame, because I couldn’t shout anything after the longest run by a Berkeley affiliate all afternoon: the halftime dash by a Cal streaker. (Zing.)
I honestly couldn’t care less that Stanford’s offense stagnated in the second half and that the Bears were just a late red-zone conversion from making it a game; we had the Axe, and nothing else deserved mention.
The next night, I watched the San Francisco Giants dominate Game 6 of the NLCS from literally the worst seats in AT&T Park — so high up in left field, I actually felt my nose start to bleed a few innings in. But from a vantage point not much better than the helicopter shots you see on TV, I was still raucously calling balls and strikes like a veteran umpire. Sitting in Sunken Diamond’s low box last spring covering Stanford, that temptation had never arisen.
The Giants’ World Series run embodied so much of what I was growing to understand about sports. Burdened by midterms and classes, the analytical, utilitarian fan in me didn’t even tune in to watch Game 3 against Cincinnati or Game 5 against St. Louis, when San Francisco was on the brink of elimination and needed to win three in a row to advance. But after the Giants came back from the dead twice, I told myself I would not miss a single pitch of the World Series. I didn’t.
Yet the most powerful lesson I learned came courtesy of a team I feel no real connection with, the Indianapolis Colts. Last week, a video began making the rounds of a lifelong Colts fan dying of a terminal disease whose last wish was to meet starting quarterback Andrew Luck, Stanford’s own. The Indianapolis organization brought the fan, Danny Webber, to a game and introduced him to coach Chuck Pagano, Luck and other players.
Most of us at Stanford who stumbled upon the video did so because of Luck, whom we’re all guilty of idolizing. My fellow Daily columnist Sam Fisher extended this sentiment last week, writing about how the video reminded him not just of “how great of a person Andrew is,” but of the other people — specifically athletes — who are “truly amazing on this campus.”
I hate to disagree so vehemently with Sam, but that video really has nothing to do with Luck or other athletes. It’s about what it meant for Danny Webber to be at that game, as Sam pointed out, “for his last happy day on this Earth.” It’s about the viscerally ecstatic look on Danny’s face when he first was wheeled into Lucas Oil Stadium, the tears in his eyes after he met Luck. It’s about the face-painted Colts fans with fake blue dreadlocks and goofy, plastic, horse-shaped megahats that went up to meet Danny and share that game with him.
Devastatingly, Indianapolis lost to Jacksonville that day — but I bet Danny didn’t care a bit. He wouldn’t waste his last Colts experience on the final score. So how can I, in good conscience, take the Saturday-afternoon Cardinal games that have delineated my childhood autumns and reduce them to nothing more than a statsheet, a play-by-play, to be analyzed, scrutinized, brutalized — while I still have them?
No. It’s not for me.
You will never read another bit of Stanford football analysis with my name at the top, but that’s not the takeaway here. And I’m not trying to criticize the practice of sports journalism; I have immense respect for what it contributes to the industry, and I know from experience that sportswriters can be excellent followers of the teams they do not cover.
My point is that, even for the fans out there who aren’t trying to write a column every week, it’s way too easy to overthink sports. With online forums, all-access shows and fantasy leagues, we all try to play GM, coach or sportswriter, and we all get a rush doing it. But at what cost?
Take a step back. Take a sporting event at face-value. Take a break from studying film, researching next week’s opponent and predicting the score. I see it (and, until last month, participated in it) way too often, and if you’re not making money to put yourself through that gauntlet, it’s a waste of a sports experience that could be so much more meaningful.
I’m back to writing for The Daily, but on new terms: I’ll only analyze the sports I’m still reasonably detached from and, when it comes to football, I’ll focus even more on the human side of things than I used to. I’d like to think that my personal connection to Stanford football didn’t compromise the quality of my journalism, but I can say with certainty that, in the short run, my column compromised the quality of that connection.
And now I get why: There’s really no substitute to plain, old, dumb fanhood.
Joseph Beyda is back. Let him know what he’s been missing at firstname.lastname@example.org.