By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports columnist
I’ve done a lot of interviews over two decades of sports journalism – but one I’ll never forget was with Kevin Campbell, a veteran English Premier League soccer player I spoke to in my early days as a reporter.
Seeking to gain some insight as to what Campbell’s thoughts were on retirement but struggling to find the appropriate words, I clumsily reminded him: “You’re a year older than you were last year.”
Campbell leaned back in his chair, shot me a quizzical look and then charitably decided to give an inexperienced newspaper scribe a free pass over what was a patently absurd statement.
“Aren’t we all?” he smiled.
And so here we are now at the close of a year beyond compare. Yes, all just a single year older than we were back when 2019 ticked over into 2020. But doesn’t it feel like more?
The ongoing pandemic has brought tragedies both individual and collective, ending life for so many and altering it for everyone. We no longer feel time in the same way and nowhere was that more obvious than in sports.
The realities of COVID-19 brought our beloved games to a complete halt for a four-month span that seemed interminable. If you couldn’t remember what day of the week it was, or even what month, you weren’t alone. Like millions of others, you might have tuned in to marble racing, Taiwanese baseball or Russian table tennis. You almost certainly treated The Last Dance like an event in itself, not just a television show.
Yet the return of the major leagues is now more than five months past, beyond the length of the shutdown, and it still somehow feels like sports has only just come back. Time has been ticking, but not with uniformity, at least not in our minds.
Kobe Bryant’s awful passing in a January helicopter crash that claimed the lives of eight others, including his daughter Gianna, is so fresh we not only recall where we were but how we physically felt. However, when in future years we mark modern history as being pre- or post-COVID, it is already an event from an entirely different era.
People don’t journal much anymore (who has the time?) but sports writers have a little advantage in recalling prior thought by being able to dig into our archives.
So it was that on Jan. 1, a manifestly more buoyant and optimistic version of myself wrote excitedly about all the sporting treats awaiting in 2020.
I positively salivated over the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, how they would be held in front of packed stadiums in a country that adores the Games like no other. I couldn’t wait for the unique European soccer championships, an event for the first time making use of swift travel options to simultaneously use 12 different host countries.
Both occasions hope to take place in the summer of 2021, but at this point, even completing them without major incident would be a triumph. Reduced (or maybe even no) crowds for the Olympics and a cutback on the number of Euro venues would seem to be a given.
The New Year 2020 column wondered if Tom Brady would still be a member of the New England Patriots (no), whether Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers would finally break through (yes), and speculated that Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens might parlay their regular season excellence into a shot at the Super Bowl (also no).
I proved stating the obvious didn’t end all those years ago with Kevin Campbell, when I wrote that whoever won the NBA Finals would have seriously added to their legacy (duh), though as it transpired, that was a pointed understatement.
And then I wrote this, which I don’t really know how to contextualize.
“There will be all kinds of unexpected occurrences served up, stories and tales and plots we couldn’t even begin to imagine right now.”
As athletic heroes got used to doing their thing without spectators, it was a reminder of how we should celebrate those who do more vital work while neither expecting nor receiving applause. The frontline workers I know are too busy and too exhausted to reflect on what they represent in the big picture, so let’s try – briefly and simply – for them. They are the superstars of life, in every way.
As social injustice became the most necessary of talking points and patience ran out with civil inequality, athletes united. To varying degrees, the leagues listened. Figures like James, Patrick Mahomes and Naomi Osaka showed it is possible to be a champion in sports and also champions of a cause.
We’ve been talking about a return to normal for a long time now, long enough that it is hard to figure out what normal will really mean when it eventually comes.
When you go so long without knowing what to expect, all you can do is hope. We are hoping for better and there is reason for that hope. Just as all of us have found ways to get by and adapted to new realities, so too have the sports we care about.
Sports is less important than so many other things in life but sometimes it can be a worthy metaphor for elements of it. Being able to power on through difficulty is the most sportive of traits and America, with so many other countries, has had new resiliency forced upon it.
Whatever this latest New Year brings, just like before the last year, we can’t begin to predict what comes next. Except that 2021 already has one thing going for it.
It’s not 2020.
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