Yesterday, I did something for only the second time in my life. I went to a regular season football game at MetLife Stadium. To raise the stakes, as a native Philadelphian, it was an Eagles-Giants game. These contests are always close, more of a scrum than a thing of athletic beauty. The winner is more like a battered survivor than a triumphant victor.
The sky was overcast for most of the game, and the temperature was in the high 30s to low 40s. Unlike a September game in balmy 70-degree weather, it felt like a real football game, with multiple layers of cloths, gloves, scarves, and hand warmers. We were not in the nosebleed seats, but I still needed my long-range glasses to appreciate what was happening on the field. I was nervous and sat quietly the whole time. And it got me to thinking.
My father was not a star athlete, but he was more than adequate. He roller skated to school as a young child and could gracefully get around a rink on ice skates. Even at age 70, he could swing a bat and make contact with pitches thrown at 70 miles an hour in a batting cage. My mother was a Brooklyn girl and sports were not a major feature of life in the Bais Yaakov of Boro Park. But she was in decent shape and could walk miles with the best of them. My mother easily kept up with her friends on vacation. While the details of professional sports eluded her, she was aware of the big picture and unlike her mother she at least knew the difference between football and wrestling.
Growing up in Philadelphia, I would be taken to Connie Mack Stadium and my father and I would consider ourselves lucky if we could go to a SF Giants game and watch Willie Mays play. We would marvel that anyone could hit a home run to right field over that ominous high wall. Meanwhile, my mother would be oblivious and quietly knit.
One thing we bonded over was rooting for the Philadelphia sports teams. The main focus was the Phillies and the Eagles. The Sixers did not generate as much passion and the Flyers were a little late on the scene. My father never really developed an attachment to them. What characterized his fandom was a deep-seated pessimism, an unremitting expectation that the Phillies bullpen would blow a lead in the 8th inning or that the Eagles would sputter in the fourth quarter. No lead was safe. My father was unable to watch a game to its completion because he always anticipated being disappointed. When the Eagles would play on Monday Night Football, he would go to sleep early before the game ended. It was my job to call the next day, to analyze the outcome, to commiserate over another blown lead. My mother had to calm down my overwrought father.
The interesting thing is that I seem to have inherited this trait. That is the hook to this monthly series of short essays. I am increasingly worried from the Wednesday on before an Eagles game and have a tough time falling asleep after a game regardless of whether it ended in a loss or a win. I cannot sit calmly through a game. I pace. I am certain that the outcome is contingent on the cosmic balance between my good and bad deeds during the previous week. I root for them, but I always expect the worst. The 10 game Phillies losing streak in 1964, McNabb vomiting late in the game against the Patriots – could it be otherwise? But I follow both teams to the bitter end of each season, looking forward to that long winning streak or running the table in December. My grandson actually expects the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Bruins, and the Celtics to win it all. He is usually not disappointed. I can count on a little more than one hand the number of championships in all the major sports that I have experienced in my entire lifetime. Truth be told, when the Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2017, it could only be considered a glorious but misdirected divine gift. Someone in heaven must have mistaken Foles for Brady.
You will dismiss all of this as so much childhood – and adult – foolishness. But you would be mistaken. As I look back, I realize how it humanized my parent-child relationships. We are enjoined to honor and respect our parents. The 11-month year of aveilut and recitation of kaddish is our final act of respect that we can give them. We strive to maintain our memories of them and sustain their legacy. This can be a heavy burden and puts them on a pedestal. That is as it should be. There is much vital energy spent on the meaning of shul, the rewards of work, how to raise children, balancing family claims, learning Mishna Torah, and perseverating over the world’s problems. But there is a deep-seated need to feel our parents close to us, that they share in our regular, irrelevant, and not-so-productive uses of time. Following the Philadelphia sports teams was one of the things that worked this way for the Trachtmans. We mostly groaned together and occasionally celebrated the occasional wins that we impatiently waited for. We enjoyed every moment. Of course, one should always be on the side of honor and respect. But we are lucky if we can share this mundane bond of warmth and camaraderie with our parents. I was a fortunate one who did, thanks in part to Philadelphia sports.
The Eagles lost – no surprise.