Something happened today in the world of sports that made me yell and slap the table in celebration, and it wasn’t Northwestern beating Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten tourney, (though I am excited about that, and about the matchup with Illinois set for tomorrow). Nope, the happening in the world of sports that most excited me, believe it or not, was Brett Favre announcing his return to the Packers for the 2005 season. As soon as I read that I was pumped for this coming season.
Am I mad? Have I gone insane? Not at all. This is not Bill Laimbeer we’re talking about. It’s not John Starks, it’s not Hugh Hollins, and it’s certainly not Charles Martin. This is Brett Favre, one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the game, one of the greatest competators in the history of sport, a guy who is our rival only because he plays for the Packers, not because he’s pissed us off in some assholish way. This is not a man who has made enemies with the Bears by being a jerk or being a cheat; this is a man who has made enemies with the Bears not just by being a Packer, but by being THE Packer, a position he has held for over a decade. For thirteen years and twenty-six games, Brett Favre has made it his business to dominate our team, and I hate him for that. But you still gotta love the guy. How can you not? He makes the game more exciting, and he loves the game. I cherish his career, and that’s why I’m glad he’ll be back for 2005. Playing the Packers won’t be the same without him. Imagine turning on a Bears-Packers game in 2006 or 2007, and seeing someone other than number 4 under center for Green Bay. It’ll feel weird, won’t it? I’m not ready to say goodbye to Favre, and not just because I want to watch him play. I’m not ready to say goodbye to Favre because Rex was out for almost all of last year, and if this Bears team is going to return to the playoffs under Rex and Lovie, then I want them to go through Brett Favre to do it. I want the Bears to wax Brett up and down the field. I want him to take his Soldier Field curtain call before the game with Bear fans cheering him respectfully and passionately as they honor him like he deserves, and then I want a dominant Bear pass rush to kick his ass all afternoon. I want him to throw five interceptions—actually, I want the Bears to intercept five of his passes; there’s a difference—and then watch on the sideline as Rex hooks up with Muhammed, Gage, and Wade for touchdown after touchdown. I want to send those Packer fans back to Green Bay knowing two things:
1. That Brett Favre truly was one of the greatest players of all time, as even Bear fans gave him a standing ovation at Soldier Field, and…
2. …that the Brett Favre era of Bears-domination is over. Long live the Chicago Bears.
Spending three nights in Vegas brought a question to mind, one that I’ve wondered about many times before but one that really consumed me these past three days: is poker a sport, and if so, why?
This gets back to the old debate about the difference between a sport and a game. Some things are obvious; football is obviously a sport, while Monopoly is obviously a game. Poker seems to be a game—after all, it is a card game—but then again, tomorrow I am going to see the Cubs play in a Spring Training game. So what gives? After thinking about it for a while, I decided that there must be something that makes poker a sport, since ESPN and every other sports station is broadcasting it these days. It is, at the very least, a very sporting game.
“It’s not a sport,” Meghan says, after very little deliberation. “You don’t use your muscles. There’s nothing athletic about it. Isn’t that the whole idea of sports? A competition that makes you sweat?”
“It’s a competition.”
“But it doesn’t make you sweat.”
“Well, what about racquet ball?”
“What about it?”
“It’s not a competition.”
“Yeah it is.”
“Yeah, in an individual game. But there aren’t tournaments or leagues.”
“Racquet ball is a sport.”
“I agree. I’m just trying to figure out a definition.”
“Call your brother. See what he thinks. He plays a lot of poker.”
“Oh, good call.”
Like many college kids, my brother has gone big money into poker. When Meghan and I got to his apartment the night before the Super Bowl, he and Mank were hosting a game at their place. And it never ends. Those two kids play all the time. They even play online at night, in their own rooms, screaming and hooting from behind closed doors as the money on their credit cards goes up and down. And they have poker conversations, the way that Ben and I talk sports. MJ will tell Mankameyer about how a guy got whatever hand he got and then how it was so ridiculous that this guy did whatever he did and Mankameyer will tell him how “that sucks” and they will console each other over the perils of playing poker with people who “really don’t know what the hell they are doing.”
Mike picks up after a few rings. It sounds like he just woke up. It is 2:30 in the afternoon.
“Hey,” he says drearily. “Hey bro. What’s happening?”
“Nothing. I didn’t wake you did I?”
“No, I was just resting.”
“Ahhhhh. Listen, I’ve got a question for you.”
“I’m gonna put you on speaker so that Meghan can hear. That cool?”
“Yeah. Hey Meghan.”
“OK, here’s the question: is poker a sport, and if so, why?”
At that, he sits up. I know this because I can hear him swing his body upwards. I’ve gotten his full attention with poker, and he just launches into it.
“Not only is poker a sport, but it is a mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing one. See, if you’re playing poker, and I don’t mean just playing a game here or there, but if you’re really playing poker, then you’ve got to be ready for a game whenever one comes up, because you want the best competition and you need to be playing on a regular basis to stay sharp. If you’re really playing poker, like the guys in the WSOP, then you’re always thinking about moves and strategies. And then the act of betting and bluffing, that’s a physical act, because you have to be in total control of your body. It doesn’t matter with some people, like if you’re playing with guys who don’t play much and aren’t that good, but in the games that I play in—in Hold ‘Em—with the people I play with, you really need to know how to bet, and you need to be so keyed into the game, because one slip up on one hand or one bluff, and you’re screwed. So if you really want to be playing…the guys on TV, that’s their life, so for them they have to be living it and thinking it all day long. It’s a mental thing, it’s a physical thing, and they have to hide their emotions in order to be effective…so, yeah definitely, it’s definitely a sport.”
“Wow.” When MJ wants to, he can really sell a point. Meghan and I are nodding. “Mike, I gotta say, we’ve been in Vegas for three days and I’ve been pitching that question to dealers and players and waitresses, and that is the best answer I’ve gotten. I’m not sure if I agree with it, but if I’m hopping on the poker-is-a-sport train, it’ll be because of you.”
“What?” He sounds tired again.
“I said that’s a good answer.”
“Oh. Oh cool. Hey, can I talk to you later? I wanna get back in bed.”
I laugh. “No problem man. Thanks for the time.”
“No problem. Thanks for calling. Love you bro.”
“Love you too. Peace.”
For dinner tonight, Meghan, Shanna, Don, Bonnie, and I go to the Gordons’ friends’ home. Randy and Rosemary Hayden live outside Phoenix with their two children Kevan and Kurtis, though I quickly discover that our good friends the Haydens are, in fact, Packers fans. Rosemary grew up in Milwaukee, and while Randy grew up in Glen Ellyn, he moved to Milwaukee later in life. Kevan and Kurtis are around my and Meghan’s age, and though Randy and Don worked together in Illinois in their 20s, the entire family is Packers’ crazy. Their license plate rests snug in a Packers license plate holder, and fluttering above their mini-van is a Packers flag. Another Packers flag hangs off of the front porch, which one can only reach after walking past the Packers mini-windmill in the front lawn. As such, I decide not to eat their barbeque.
I’m half kidding. They are very nice people, as most Packers fans are. Bears fans and Packers fans are cut from the same lightweight nylon mesh cloth. We are both passionate, knowledgeable, respectful, and loyal. Randy and Rosemary are extraordinarily gracious and hospitable as are their two sons, and though football came up a few times, the conversation remained polite. Even after I told them that I was excited about Favre’s return because I wanted to see the Bears “wax his ass up and down the field,” and even after Randy returned that comment by casually wondering “which Pro Bowl quarterback would be starting for the Bears,” we still were getting along fine. We had burgers and dogs—they took my odd eating habits in stride—drank a few beers, and while the adults were reminiscing and laughing it up, Meghan, Shanna, Kevan, Kurtis and I were watching some Dave Chappelle stand up, telling stories about whatever came to mind, and, well, laughing it up. They really are wonderful people.
And then, Kevan gets a look in his eye.
It is a mysterious, engaging, and excited look, like the one that Sean Connery gave Harrison Ford in Last Crusade when Henry was telling Indy about the three tests that would lead them to the Holy Grail.
“Jack,” he says, without much warning, “do you want to see something?”
Without waiting to hear my answer, Kevan turns off the TV and he and Kurtis get up and begin walking down the hallway. It isn’t a long hallway, but it is a bendy one, and as we pass by a bathroom and two bedrooms, I get a deep, sick feeling as to what we are going to see. Meghan and Shanna follow behind, both with absolutely no clue as to what Kevan wants to show us. But I know. Somehow, I know.
Finally, (it seems like forever), we get into Kevan and Kurtis’ parents’ bedroom. My eyes get big. In the back of the room, I see it, hanging there, on the wall. A regular eight by eleven piece of paper inside a plain, black frame. It all seems very simple and unimposing. But I know.
“What is it?” Meghan asks.
I breathe deeply. “It’s stock,” I say, shaking my head and smiling at the same time. “Randy and Rosemary own a piece of the Green Bay Packers.”
It is amazing. It is beautiful. It is awful. It is incredible. And it provokes two entirely opposite emotional reactions at the exact same time. I just stand there, staring at it, in awe and in anger, repeating to myself over and over again: “That’s awesome. That sucks. That’s fucking awesome. That fucking sucks. You guys suck. That thing rocks. This sucks.”
There’s no denying it: the fact that the Green Bay Packers are owned by their fans is one of the absolute greatest things in the world. Not just in sports. In the world. It’s incredible. And it’s so incredible that it absolutely sucks, because I know that Bears fans will never get to experience anything as wondrous as being a stockholder of our football team. I’ve always felt that teams belong to the fans. Well this team really belongs to the fans. What an amazing, terrible, wonderful item. Just hanging there. On the wall.