As a kid, the name of nearly every player on the sports teams I followed was imprinted in my brain. Yet the relationship with those players was, with few blessed exceptions, entirely remote. Meeting a Chicago Bear at a promotional meet and greet at a Sears in the western suburbs was worth every minute of the interminable wait. My cousins and I would spend hours standing outside a chain link fence in a parking lot at Jack Murphy just for the chance to get Mark Parent’s signature on a baseball.
As I’ve grown older, the distance between fan and athlete has narrowed. But I still feel an intense sense of privilege at being able to meet, however briefly, an athlete I root for as a spectator.
I doubt it will be the same for my daughters.
In the last week, our eldest was at Maryland women’s basketball game on Sunday, a D.C. United season ticket holder event on Tuesday, and a college gymnastics meet last night. At each, the highlight for her was the chance to interact with players or coaches.
At RFK Tuesday night, our four-year old found Coach Olsen mingling with fans before the questions and answers session, peppering him with non sequiturs that Bennie looked eager to escape. But before he did, she learned that the coach had a four-year old kid and pondered when, exactly, it would be appropriate to share with him what happened when the frog’s car broke down. A couple of days earlier at Comcast, she shared her plans to celebrate her fifth birthday at Chuck E. Cheese’s with Maryland’s Katie Rutan and Chloe Pavlech after the women’s impressive win over Boston College.
Last night was the best of the week. Maryland’s gymnastics team has adopted the practice of granting kids autographs from everyone on the roster after every home meet/match. It is not a minor commitment. There are scores of children – overwhelmingly girls – at Comcast for these events. Attendance last night was announced at over a thousand.
And the gymnasts don’t just sign autographs. They really seem to love interacting with the kids. After walking through the line, our daughter has decided that maybe gymnastics is something that she can do and she’s been practicing her tumbling throughout the day. It was and is amazing.
Almost as impressive for me were the number of football and basketball players at the meet last night that came out to support the team. Watching Dez Wells earnestly hand out flowers as the final scores were announced it seemed, to me, as a genuine gesture of respect for fellow athletes. For our daughters, we make a big deal out of going to see the men’s basketball team and the football team play. Seeing Seth Allen and Dexter McDougle (among several others) in the stands supporting the team signaled how big a deal the meet was as well.
Not that it was necessary. The event spoke for itself. The perfect ten that Katy Dodds netted from one judge followed an electrifying floor exercise. Stephanie Giameo's beam routine drew audible gasps.