My dad and I at the 2019 home opener for the Chicago Cubs. While the absence of sports certainly was not the main issue of the COVID-19 pandemic, it certainly had a lot of weight for myself. Photo courtesy of Coop Daley / North by Northwestern

March 11, 2020 to July 23, 2020. The longest period of my life. The four and a half months without sports. Without a nightly basketball, baseball or hockey game, the days turned to years and time seemed to drip by as I barely survived on old sports highlights, new documentaries or sporty video games.

Okay, okay. Yes, I’m being a little hyperbolic, but I wouldn’t sell myself as dramatic. Sports is one of the most important aspects of life in the United States, with several websites – including journals and the ever-present Wikipedia – writing claims along the lines of “sports play a critical role in the country’s culture.” After all, one of the reasons COVID-19 officially became such a worrying factor in early March was because all the major American sport leagues postponed play until further notice.

For me, sports reach further than culture; they’re how I measure the days and how I converse with some of my best friends. If I get enough work done by 7:00, I’ll be able to watch the Stanley Cup Playoff game. Sundays in the fall are off-limits for social hangouts – that’s when the Bears play. Almost every one of my phone calls with my dad has some knock at a sports team in it, whether it’s accusing each other of not following along with our teams or just discussing the issue of the day.

As a result, I’m incredibly lucky to be in the position I’m hold at North by Northwestern. None of the articles I’ve written has ever felt like hard work, just extensions of the thing I love. I get to go to games, watch them and just explain what happened to a new audience. With the roar of the crowd and the intense action at the forefront, it’s one of the most exciting jobs in the world, and I often found myself dumbfounded at the luck I had, seeing some of the best games of the year.

But while sports were gone, I started questioning exactly what it was about them that made them appeal so much to me. After all, I recognize that basing one’s entire personality off of sports teams is not exactly a recipe for success. I think there’s a lot more to be desired in sports journalism that appeals to all people, not just the most extreme of sports fans who obsess over things like “shooting percentage from 30-40 feet but not 35 feet” or “strikeouts while it’s colder than 60 degrees.”

While that’s the ideal for myself, the pause in sports still made me incredibly stressed, as one of my primary loves was on pause until further notice and would return in a way almost never seen before. As a result, I became distant from my family and sometimes had trouble engaging with them, whether it was long pauses in conversations with my dad or having nothing on the TV to watch around them. What’s more, with no new ideas and a lack of local resources, it was hard to find new stories to write without incredible individual effort – something difficult to drum up in the midst of a pandemic.

Through this difficulty, however, small cracks of hope pushed through. The ESPN docu-series The Last Dance, which recounted the story of Michael Jordan and the legendary Chicago Bulls of the 1990s, came out three months early, and its regular airings on Sunday nights became a regular watch for us. For the first time in years, my dad and I began regularly playing video game hockey on the Xbox again. I found myself finding fun in the little competitions we were having with each other.

This bond became even more evident when sports did make its official return, as our favorite hockey team – the Chicago Blackhawks – somehow made the playoffs in an extended format and were playing in the postseason for the first time in three years. They played nine games, and my dad and I were glued to the screen for every game, sometimes staying up until 1 a.m. just to watch the team lose in the final moments.

Every time they scored, it was exhilarating. But still, something was missing. The crowd noise, artificially punched in by the league, was not the same. That something was even harder to witness in person: When I returned to covering sporting events in person, Welsh-Ryan Arena felt incredibly empty. You could hear everything the coaches were yelling, and it led to some in-depth looks on how the game was played. But it just was not the same as last year, when you could watch the crowd go absolutely crazy over getting free chicken sandwiches… despite being down by more than 20 points.

I don’t love sports because of crazy statistics, insane athletic abilities or even just pure competition (though that is pretty fun). The reason I love sports is because of the human element: the roar that goes up from the crowd from an amazing play, the feeling of connecting with thousands of people all experiencing the same emotion, a shared love of a single entity, jumping for joy for fantastic wins and feeling low at defeats. It’s a human connection, a shared passion, and a desire to feel together, just for a few minutes.

What’s more, sports – and my participation in various events – have not only contributed to some of my greatest memories but also my best friends and lifelong connections, whether it’s with my dad or with the friends I made in marching band. After all, when you sit through the cold wind and howling rain desperate to see something amazing happen, you tend to bond with the people around you.

My section mates and I after the final home game of the 2019 Northwestern football season. While the absence of a regular marching band season allowed me to get in more sports coverage, it was lacking in something critical to me: the human element. Photo courtesy of Coop Daley / North by Northwestern

Sports goes further than just simple recreation, and my sports journalism this year has reflected this. When sports were still on pause, I got the opportunity to start working for a Japanese baseball tour company called JapanBall, creating content in the absence of their regular tours of the country. While the main area of work was discussing the aspects of Japanese baseball unseen in other places, one of the things I loved making the most was our podcasts because we got to talk for hours with some of the most interesting people in the game, like former managers, players and historians.

There’s a reason sports movies don’t focus on just the games nor just the players. Almost all of them feature a greater theme: dedication, teamwork, connection, recovery and love of the game. Sports journalism reflects this too: Some of the best stories revolve around the people on or around the team, and what they’re playing for. Look at Northwestern this year: the football team, slept on by every major outlet, races to the top 10; the women’s basketball team, snakebit by the pandemic, finally gets revenge and postseason play; the dominance of the women’s lacrosse team – all great stories that were fantastic to witness and watch in real time, with great people to chat with along the way.

I’m not glad the pandemic happened by any means. I’m very thankful, however, to have made other connections with sports during this time. When the fans return to the stands this fall, I will be beyond glad to hear them chant things at the referee while I laugh with my fellow colleagues in the press box and text my dad exactly how Northwestern beat his alma mater via the transitive property, i.e. Northwestern beat Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh beat Wake Forest, etc. Sports is fun, love and excitement, all wrapped into one, and I hope to never be without them again.

See you in September.