I recently met a man over a game of pool. The meeting started off like any other. Neither of us had any idea who one another was, but as he was racking the balls I thought that he might enjoy the company, so I asked if he was interested in an opponent. He was, and the game commenced.
The conversation started off light enough — general small talk about the weather, jobs and such.
But the setting for our match wasn’t at your typical watering hole or a mutual friends house or anything resembling the like. It was in the hospital.
Needless to say we weren’t exactly kicking back cold ones relaxing after a hard days work, but rather using the game to get our minds off exactly why we were where we were in the first place.
“What are you in for?” he asked.
“Panic attacks. Sometimes I get them so bad I’ve got to go to the emergency room. But this is the first time I’ve ever ended up having to stay overnight for one. I’ll be okay, though. I already am starting to feel better. They usually come in waves, and it’s just finally getting warm outside. Once I’m not so cooped up things will be great.”
He made a nice bank shot and remarked, “That’s good. You’re too young to be in the hospital.”
So I asked him, “If you don’t mind me inquiring, what are you in for.”
“Suicide attempt,” he said. “I’ve tried to kill myself seven times. I’ve swallowed pills, cut myself, you name it. This time I tried to throw myself in front of a car. I did $10,000 worth of damage to the car, and all I did to myself was screw up my ankle.”
I stood bewildered a bit, as most people would. I took my next shot, promptly scratching on the 8-ball.
“Nice playing with you,” he said as we shook hands. “Let’s go watch the game.”
It was last Monday night. The NCAA Championship was minutes from starting, and a small crowd of patients had gathered in the rec room around the television. I was introduced to everyone and nobody seemed out of the ordinary at all. Working-class men and women told jokes and complimented me on how my sideburns and hat complimented my scrubs. What began clearly as a stay in the hospital quickly turned into a stay in Anytown Living Room, U.S.A. — a room monitored with cameras, but albeit, a living room. It could of been anyone’s. I found out why everyone was there as I got acquainted with each person. Depression, anger, drinking, suicide attempts and others who had been stricken with the same sort of panic attacks as myself.
Word got out I was a sports writer and to my surprise the room lit up. Everyone immediately wanted to know who I had interviewed, what my job was like, what I thought of their favorite teams and who I thought was going to win the game.
Kansas and Memphis tipped off. As the game was under way, I watched every problem, every heartache, every pain, and all anguish vanish into thin air as a room full of people most others would consider troubled or unfit were transported by a group of college kids doing their best to toss a round orange ball into a steel hoop.
It was indescribable. It was perhaps the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen.
I’ve been a sports writer for more than five years now. I’ve been a sports fan for my whole life. I’ve seen some pretty amazing things in my line of work. But until the moment that the national championship game tipped off, I didn’t truly understand it. I didn’t understand how a simple prediction against someone’s favorite team could drive them to actually want to harm me. I didn’t understand how anyone could hold the outcome of any sporting event so dear, that when their favorite team lost it was like a member of their family had just passed away.
I always knew sports were an escape, but I didn’t know just how powerful they were.
We love them because they distract us. They give us something to talk about. They are the common ground for millions of people who otherwise would have nothing to say to each other.
Journalists often complain about the pay that comes with the field, the hours, and the ever-growing reality that the industry is changing so much with the times.
For hours during my stay in the hospital, I had patients asking me about C.C. Sabathia, Grady Sizemore, John Daly, Tiger Woods, Jim Tressel and every other professional athlete or coach that I’ve had the privilege to either interview or simply meet.
That’s the trade-off. Us journalists for the most part don’t make a lot of money doing what we do. It’s simply how the profession is.
But to give that group of people a few hours of conversation that transported them away from whatever demons they had — it was priceless.
It’s funny how things work out sometimes. I had a panic attack that sent me to the hospital full of patients with problems far worse than my own. And they’re curiosity calmed me down and sent me on my way with a clear head and a better understanding of my own profession, sports and their relation to everyday life.
One patient remarked as I was leaving, “Say hey to Ben Roethlisberger for me if you ever get the chance.”
You got it, friend. Stay strong. Sports will always be there.
E-mail B.J. Lisko at firstname.lastname@example.org