More than Stats and Scores: the Saving Power of Sports

Boston Bruins

Every morning the final score of the Boston Bruins game was written down on a scrap piece of paper on the kitchen table in my childhood house. I could count on it. It was my own sports page written out in my father’s precise block letters.

I was eight years old and only allowed to watch the first two periods of every game. Because most games started at 7 p.m., the third period started exactly when my father said I had to go bed. It should be considered a ring in Dante’s Hell—watching the seconds of the second period tick away like that, knowing I would once again not see the how the game would shake out.

I remember the silences, those brief moments when a period ends and a commercial begins. Those silences were agonizing. I use the term agonizing in its real sense … they gave me physical pain. The silence put something in my chest or gut that made it difficult to breathe.

Those silences still give me anxiety.

It was years before I actually saw the conclusion of a game. I found a small black and white television in the closet—something that ran off of batteries, something that was more radio than television. I snuck it to my room and hid it under my bed. I was able to watch the third period of Bruins games on that small device. The sound was always turned low, just enough to hear Bruins announcers Fred Cusick and Derek Sanderson call the end of the game.

If the small battery-powered television didn’t work, I had the notes. Bruins win 1-0. Bruins lose 3-1. Simple. To the point. The only information I needed. It was written as my father would speak. No excess of words.

I needed Bruins games. I needed sports. I needed the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics. For a time I needed the New York Giants, but that’s another story. I had batting averages and RBI numbers memorized. I did this out of the love for the sport but also for a deeper reason I only really understand today.

Sports kept me alive. The literal sense of life, the act of not being dead. Sports gave me something I still can’t explain. Perhaps it was on oasis of thought or something more. Perhaps I was in thought overdrive during games.

The anxiety in my life grew worse and extended beyond those silences between game action and commercials. The anxiety was coupled with a depression I did not understand. A depressed body does not necessarily know it’s depressed, it just is.

I had played sports my entire life, and the grand pinnacle of my sporting career was being named Junior Varsity Captain of my high school soccer team. At one point I was recruited to play for a team in Wales. Looking back it’s easy to see how minimal these accomplishments are compared to what other true athletes achieve. I mean, I never even played Varsity sports. But at 14 years old it felt giant.

Then I quit.

No warning. Nothing. I could not explain it to anyone. I loved the competition but the physical force of depression and anxiety were the only things I felt.

I withdrew socially from the world around me. But when I had too much fear to go into a coffee shop and order a cup of coffee I was still somehow able to sit, when I was lucky enough, with 30,000 other fans at the Boston Garden. My total panic attacks were erased at Fenway Park. I did not have the familiar pangs of depression.

But outside of sport I felt only half human.

At 15 I was hospitalized for depression and anxiety. I was fed pills and ushered to group meetings. Inpatient care is full of monotony and medication. At least that was my experience.

It was October 13, 1995 when I was sent to a hospital to deal with these issues. Yes, smack dab in the middle of the MLB playoffs. There was one television in a common room that was shut off at 9 p.m.—just enough time to see an inning or two. We were not allowed to have radios in our rooms.

I was eight years old again. The seconds leading to 9 p.m. were torture.

I truly believe I would not have made it through that time in my life if I had not heard the night counselor sitting in his office one night with his television on. He was watching the World Series.

The Braves were playing the Indians. I listened through the walls, but that wasn’t good enough. So night after night I would sneak out of my room, make my way down the dark hall, and watch the World Series through his office window.

I didn’t know it at the time, but he knew I was there. He took on mercy on me. He was in his 60’s and was a recovering alcoholic. Looking back, now I know he understood I simply needed that. Sports was part of my recovery.

When the final out in the final game was made he turned around and waved to me. We were supposed to be punished for leaving our rooms at night. But he simply walked me back down the hall, to my room and said, “hope you’re not an Indians fan.”

It was there I learned I was suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder and Severe Depression. Naming the disorders somehow gave me some power over them—but not a lot.

Sports and writing gave me power.

I’m 34 years old now. Those things still give me power over my own life.

Yes, a sporting event can be a ridiculous thing. Some places boo national anthems. Athletes do hysterical and sometimes horrifying things. They are people. But I’ll always take issue with anyone who claims sporting events are merely something to pass the time.

My wife and I are expecting our second child in December. We know it’s a boy. I can feel a kick now and then. I think about my father leaving me notes on the kitchen table in the morning when I was eight years old—giving me the final score of the Bruins game. I imagine I will do the same for my own son. The most pure sports writing I could imagine.

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Tom Fitzgerald