Cutting Down the Nets and Putting On a Green Jacket

I will return to the primary purpose of this blog- health and wellness- soon, but outside the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup Final and the World Series, the next nine days, starting with tonight's Final Four matchups between Gonzaga and South Carolina followed by North Carolina and Oregon, the national championship game on Monday night, and then the Masters golf tournament from Thursday to next Sunday, is my favorite time of the sports calendar.

Sports has played a monumental role in my life since the age of nine. That year, 1980, saw my hometown Sabres reach the Wales (now Eastern) Conference Finals before losing to the New York Islanders, who went on to win their first of four consecutive Stanley Cups; the Bills begin their campaign by ending a 20-game losing streak against the hated Miami Dolphins, prompting fans to rush onto the field and tear down the goalposts, perhaps the only time in NFL history that happened after a season-opening victory, and ended with their first playoff berth in five years; and of course, the Miracle on Ice, when a scrappy and determined group of American college hockey players did the seemingly impossible and beat the mighty, if not invincible, Russian team in Lake Placid on their way to capturing the Olympic gold medal.

Unlike many kids today, who spend so much time playing video games, surfing the Internet, and chatting via social media, I was always participating in sports when I was young. Whether it was a pick-up game of touch football on my street with the neighbor kids, shooting hoops during lunch breaks at school, or playing on my grammar school's baseball and basketball team and youth soccer at Buffalo's largest park, I was physically active and a darn good athlete. In high school, I stuck to the two sports that were my best: football and bowling. I played football all four years, the first two on the JV team, and the last two I started every game at nose tackle on the varsity team. Perhaps my greatest accomplishment came during my sophomore year. That season I played right defensive end and alternated every play at fullback. One game in Rochester, the other fullback got hurt late in the first half. Subsequently, I had to play every snap at fullback, defensive end and every special teams play- I never once got off the field the entire second half. We lost the game but I never forgot the exhilaration and exhaustion of that performance. The biggest highlight of my high school career was winning a game at Rich Stadium, the then-80,000 seat stadium of the Bills. At the conclusion of my senior season, I was voted 1st Team All-Catholic Defensive Lineman and earned a spot on the Western New York All-Academic Football Team. Furthermore, I bowled one year on my high school JV team and two on varsity, earning 2nd Team All-Catholic my junior year.

So obviously sports has been an integral part of my life. Here is an excerpt from my book, The Lost Son: A Rock 'n' Roll Road to Redemption, in which I discuss the important role that sports and athletics plays in our society:

As I drove back to the campground that night, I rode along on a natural high and felt fortunate to have witnessed that great moment in sports history. It made me reflect on the huge impact athletic competition has in our society. Perhaps the best aspect about sports is its unique capacity to connect people from all different walks of life through a shared, communal experience. Every four years, the Olympic Games and the World Cup unites the entire globe through a thrilling spirit of sportsmanship. In my hometown, I had never experienced as keen a sense of community or as much civic pride as when the Sabres made their Stanley Cup run that past spring or the Bills played in four consecutive Super Bowls in the early ‘90s, with the exception of Buffalo’s notorious snowstorms, when all of its citizens pull together to help their neighbors overcome whatever Mother Nature flings at them.

On a personal level, I thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie of my teammates, proudly suffered the battle scars inherent of hand-to-hand combat and trench warfare along the front lines of scrimmage, and experienced both the exhilarating highs of victory and the painful agony of defeat during my high school football playing days. Even while on this trip, I was able to forge bonds with my roommates in the India House Hostel (in New Orleans) via a shared adoration for the ancient game of golf, with the Danish hostel guest through an impromptu one-on-one soccer match, and with the two guys from Chicago at Arches National Park (in Utah) as we discussed at length the prospects of our respective hometown football teams. Certainly, professional sports had become corrupted in many ways by the close of the 20th century, but fans could still appreciate a majestic home run, a crunching check, a perfectly thrown touchdown pass or a gravity-defying slam dunk, and hopefully, that will never change.

As for the Final Four, I don't have a strong rooting interest for any of the teams- I am just hoping for three great games and a worthy champion. However, I do have a soft spot for Gonzaga because: my late father took a particular liking to the Zags for the past several years for apparently no reason other than they were always perceived as underdogs, and Gonzaga U, like my alma mater Canisius College, is a small, Jesuit-affiliated school that plays Division I basketball but does not field a football team. So Go Bulldogs! but I won't be too disappointed if South Carolina wins since they are also playing in their first Final Four. As for the national champs, I've got nothing against North Carolina, but since the school has already won five NCAA Tournament titles, I do prefer some other team get their chance to cut down the nets on Monday night.

Meanwhile, as Jim Nantz somewhat annoyingly refers to it in so many commercials at this time of the year, the Masters is "a tradition unlike any other." The British Open is the oldest and arguably most prestigious of golf's major championships, and the U.S. Open is the most difficult, but nothing compares to the timeless, natural beauty of Augusta National, a course carved out of a north Georgia pine forest by the legendary Bobby Jones in the early 1930s. The Masters is not just a golf tournament but a harbinger of spring on a playing field like no other in the world, from its unforgettable Magnolia Lane entrance, to the azaleas and many other gorgeous flowering plants that line the fairways, and from Rae's Creek that meanders through the famed back nine, to Butler Cabin where the previous year's champ welcomes the newest victor to the club by presenting him with the hallowed green jacket earned by each Masters' champion.

I'm not going to make any predictions, but it will be interesting to see if the hottest golfer in the world right now, Dustin Johnson, can win his fourth tournament in a row and add the Masters to the U.S. Open title he won last year, whether Jordan Spieth can overcome his meltdown in the final round of the 2016 Masters to win his 2nd green jacket in three years, or perhaps even 46-year-old fan favorite Phil Mickelson can match Tiger Woods and the recently deceased legend, Arnold Palmer, with his 4th Masters' title. Whoever wins, I'll be watching from home and wishing that I could be there to stroll the grounds and enjoy the fragrant smells of Augusta National, which I envision as a slice of heaven on Earth.

#FinalFour #Gonzaga #TheMasters #sports #BuffaloSabres #BuffaloBills #MiracleonIce #AllCatholic #TheLostSon #CanisiusCollege #AugustaNational #NCAATournament

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© 2017 by Peter McNeela.