Last week came to me bearing a revelation. I used to watch football, see a ball doink off of Ed Dickson's meat-mitts, and get angry. You bum!, I'd think, How do you drop that? It was practically freaking gift-wrapped. When a slow roller would somehow sneak beneath the normally golden glove of Manny Machado, I'd shake my fist and tell him through my TV, "Stick to your fundamentals!" The reason I felt it was OK to scream and holler at professional athletes was that, like a lot of guys, I was pretty sure that under the right circumstances-say I suddenly decided to devote 30 or 40 hours a day to working out-I could turn my body into a chiseled mountain of muscle. I firmly believed I could turn my life-train around and be the jock I never was and that the reason I never was was a simple one: I never tried.
Then, Thursday came, and with it, my birthday. I'm 41 now; my 21st birthday will be able to buy beer next year. I woke up and my back hurt, and not just a little bit either. The bottom of my spine felt like it had been cracked with a ball-peen hammer, packed in broken glass, and sprinkled lovingly with rusted nails. I wouldn't have moved at all, just laid there until the pain went away, but, as old as I am, I'm not old enough for Depends, so I scraped my carcass off the mattress and shambled down the hall. My spine was curled like a knotted question mark, and it was hard not to imagine the play-by-play call of my pathetic non-scramble. "He's at the 30," Vin Scully would say, then, after a long pause, he'd add, "And now a word from our sponsors." Then, four minutes of Cialis ads later, he'd continue, "We're back, and he's still at the 30."
Quick aside: The one thing I've learned from boner-pill ads: Apparently both buying an old muscle car or restoring a vintage motorcycle have one-to-one correlations with erectile dysfunction. I have no idea how they still manage to sell '67 Camaros. Hyundai's entire ad campaign should be, "Hyundai. Have you ever seen a Hyundai in a Viagra ad?" But I digress.
I just rewatched the play from last week's Bills game when Joe Flacco's perfect spiral collided with Dickson's hands and deflected upward for an INT, but this time I watched through a different filter. I tried to imagine myself in Dickson's place and no longer thought, How could you drop that? Too aged to be angry, I instead thought, My God. That ball would have shattered every bone in my old-man hand. I finally had to face the music: I will never star at both middle linebacker and tight end as the first two-way pro bowler in Ravens history. Baseball is out too. I used to have vision so keen, eagles would ask me to read the small print. Now? By the time my eyes caught up to a major-league fastball, the rest of the team would be on the bus and two towns away.
I don't want you to get the wrong idea, I am still a remarkably powerful man, like the love child of Bruce Lee, Brad Pitt, and a mountain gorilla, just not in the morning. Or after I've been sitting for a long time, now that I think about it. Oh, or late in the evening; I get so sleepy. Either way, I need to rethink my fantasies. What do middle-aged guys do? I mean, besides beach-camping with Cialis and their muscle cars. I guess I could start playing Fantasy Mid-Level Manager-I've got Bill Johnson starting at director of sales, here's hoping he closes the Globo-Mart deal and puts up some points!
Old guys spend a lot of time lamenting, I've gathered, let me give that a try. I really should have played for the Ravens when I was younger, and I should probably forget about becoming Baltimore's second heavyweight champ. I coulda been somebody. That was solid, but you can't dwell on past failures forever, maybe it's time to shift my heckling toward people more successful with my new goals, "Hey! John Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer for the New York Times! Way to dangle that participle. Over-Rated! Over-Rated!" Burn. How about one for the playground, "Hey you! Dad spending quality time with his kid, yeah you, the one being understanding and loving, Pussy!" Of course, all the heckling I've done in the past is starting to feel a bit hollow, like I've wasted my youth.
Maybe I should look at this new realization as a blessing. Perhaps it's time to rethink all of this time and energy I've been spending watching other people who've dedicated their lives to achieving their goals. This might be the perfect moment to stop being a spectator and filling my time with the statistics and minutiae of other men's accomplishments. Now that I've accepted that I'll never play pro ball, it could be time to abandon these adolescent fantasies and work on my own life. I could skip my morning Sporting News ritual and go jogging instead, and I really don't care who wins the NLCS, I could not watch the baseball playoffs and spend that time writing pitch letters or maybe work on my book. Of course, George Blanda played in the NFL till he was 48, and Satchel Paige stuck around the majors til he was 59, so I've still got 18 years to break into the Big Leagues. Who wants to come over for Monday Night Football and help me yell at my television?