By Tommy Tomlinson
The Charlotte Observer
| February 1, 2004

HOUSTON -- The woman writes to the Observer with an excellent question: “It’s only a game, isn’t it?”

Soldiers are dying in Iraq. America is getting ready to elect a president. The world is full of feuding, fighting, starving. But people care more about the Super Bowl than all those other things put together. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

Matt Willig tries to answer the question. Willig is a 12-year NFL veteran, now a backup offensive lineman for the Carolina Panthers. He wears No. 71. He is 6 feet 8, 315 pounds, but when you reach out for a handshake he cradles your hand in both of his.

“When I think about the Super Bowl, I think about my brother,” he says.

Craig Willig loved that Matt made it as a pro football player. He’d call Matt wanting to know about the details of the game, the gossip in the locker room, just what it was like to be on a team.

Craig died last off-season. He was 40.

This season Matt didn’t know whether he would get to play any more. As teams started training camp, he didn’t have a job. But in August he signed with the Panthers. And today, six months later, he will play in the Super Bowl.

“My brother,” Matt says. “How he would’ve enjoyed and loved to be a part of all this.”

This is why sports matter. Joy. Love. Being a part of something.

In real life they are hard-earned pleasures. Most of the time they require work that comes with no guarantee. We meditate, go on bad dates, join this club or that, hoping for something that will flood our hearts. Some people never find it. Those who do know how hard it is to keep.

But in sports the table is overflowing. All the joy and love and belonging you can handle is right there when you walk through the stadium gate, or crowd in front of the TV, or turn on the radio.

Here in Houston during Super Bowl week they have an event called the NFL Experience, where fans can browse football-related exhibits and buy souvenirs and take part in contests.

The thing that draws the biggest crowds is called Run To Daylight. It’s just a five-lane strip of artificial turf where people can run a 40-yard dash. Every day hundreds of people line up for it: middle-aged guys with beer guts, women in clunky heels, legions of kids in oversized sneakers.

They sprint for the finish line and dive into the cushions at the end and get up laughing. And you think of the Panthers’ Steve Smith three weeks ago, catching that pass against St. Louis and breaking into the clear, all alone on the dash to the finish line, his teammates screaming as they ran downfield to pile on top of him.

The people who cheered that touchdown, the people cheering for the Panthers today, include thousands upon thousands of new fans. My friend Joe’s mom, who had watched maybe one play of football in her entire life. The woman who writes in asking for some quiet advice about why the quarterback is more important than, say, the center. The guy who swore after Rae Carruth and Fred Lane that he would never fall for the Panthers again.

Some say these people aren’t real fans. Bull. Love and joy and belonging don’t have rules, and the source of all that feeling has unlimited sockets. Go ahead and plug in.

I will warn you, the more you learn, the more complicated it gets. You’ll find out that a lot of athletes think laws were meant for someone else. You’ll find out that teams are more interested in power and speed than character. You’ll find out that some of these Panthers — millionaires up and down the roster — complained during Super Bowl week because their hotel wasn't choice enough.

Eventually these things drive some people away from sports. They can’t divorce that ugliness from the beauty of the game.

Except: Frank Sinatra, by most accounts one of the biggest jerks who ever lived, still sang “The Way You Look Tonight.” Vincent Van Gogh, so mad at the world he cut off his ear, still painted “Starry Night.” James Brown, just arrested on a charge of domestic violence, still gave the world “Cold Sweat.”

You can write them off if you want to. But as we look through this world for joy and love and belonging, we don’t get to choose the delivery system. You can’t pick the person you fall in love with. It just happens.

And it just so happens that the Panthers have delivered us a season we will remember when we are old and gray and sitting in rocking chairs.

Joy. Love. Being a part of something.

We need the Super Bowl, we need sports, precisely because of the dying in Iraq and the election at home and the feuding and fighting and starving. There is so much sadness, too much to take in all at once. At some point it makes you numb. You need to be reminded that there are good things in the world and that you can still feel them.

So this morning Matt Willig will eat his game-day breakfast (bacon omelet, with bacon on the side) and he will wonder what his brother would say.

Middle-aged men will run the 40-yard dash and dive into the cushions.

All around the Carolinas people will chew their nails and pace the floor and shiver a little just before kickoff.

Because it matters.

Cry if the Panthers lose. Cry more if they win. Go out in the street and holler. Hug strangers, high-five the dog, roll around in the grass like a kid.

No apologies.

The Panthers made it. The home team is playing in the Super Bowl.

Feel it.


Reprinted with permission of the Charlotte Observer.

Back to Top