The Times West Virginian

Bob Herzel

January 1, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: Lessons learned through my rear view mirror

MORGANTOWN — A year ago I celebrated my Christmas with a bang, so to speak.

At least, that’s what they tell me.

I don’t remember it, of course, having passed out while driving on I-79 and rolled my Ford Focus four or five times.

The state trooper who came on the scene, a friend of mine, approached the scene, took a look at the car and later told me he thought to himself, “No one is getting out of this alive.”

But, in truth, the Ford people had built themselves a pretty good car, for my injuries were far less than anyone would have imagined. In fact, I even kept writing my stories out of my bed in Ruby while undergoing tests.

In one way, I even considered the beating my body took as it rolled over and over in that tumbling automobile worth it, for it kept me from attending the Pinstripe Bowl in New York and having to watch another West Virginia University football disaster.

Things like a car accident that could have brought an end to one’s existence at holiday time often lead to a bit of soul searching, and I certainly was no exception.

And, as I began looking back on a life in which sports were always the most dominating aspect, from the moment Bobby Thomson hit his “Shot Heard Round the World,” an event that made such an impression on a 10-year-old that 13 years later he would name his son Robert Thomson, I began questioning the role sports played not only in my life but in the lives of so many others.

With me, sports had turned from an obsession into a profession. If I couldn’t hit a curve ball, I sure could describe one, and because of that I was able to live out a rich and rewarding career.

The problem was it had become more life than career, but I was being paid to immerse myself in sports— knowing how many base hits Pete Rose collected in his career, knowing how many touchdown passes Geno Smith threw against Baylor, knowing Tavon Austin’s 40-yard dash time was an expected part of the gig.

What I couldn’t understand was how fans could find this as important as I did and to be so involved that their happiness would seem to hinge on the result of a football game or, this thing that is called fantasy football, on how they could find themselves rooting against one team while at the same time rooting for its quarterback to throw five touchdown passes.

When you are lying in a hospital bed late at night, unable to sleep because thoughts are running through your mind faster than even Austin can go, you wonder about such things.

As this year went by, much changed in the outlook that I had adopted.

Indeed, there was a transition taking place that gave me insight into the minds of those who considered themselves fans, the very same people who had been reading my articles over the years.

Often articles that seemed to be reasonable and on point to me were looked upon by fans as an attack rather critique of something that obviously was wrong to anyone looking through an unprejudiced eye.

Slowly as the year went by, a year that was now being viewed by me as overtime, I came to see and understand the attachment fans had to sports.

Watching what transpired over the summer in Pittsburgh with the Pirates was as uplifting a turnabout for an entire community as I had ever seen and could not have been matched by anything, not even the discovery of a vein of gold running beneath the Boulevard of the Allies.

Conversely, having seen the change in our own community that Rich Rodriguez’s football and John Beilein’s basketball had brought, to see the depression that has set in due to the slide of both those sports over the past two seasons has demonstrated the power sports has over the mood of an entire community.

But it is even more than that. To watch a friend, Jill Sammartino, a recent WVU graduate from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., rooting for her team, the Dallas Cowboys, at that, other friends at WVU such as Melissa Becker of Cincinnati wearing her Bengals’ jersey on football Sundays and demanding that Reds’ games be playing in the restaurant in which she worked offered a view you don’t get from the press box.

Even in a college town like Morgantown, where you would often run into academic types, it seemed that many of them would enjoy talking about Garrett Ford rather than Sigmund Freud.

Sports, it turns out, are a strong fiber within our society, something more than just a pastime or a Saturday social. They help shape what a community is and how it sees itself, so much so that it is unclear if sporting teams take on the identity of the community or the community takes on the identity of the sporting teams.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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