How sport helped guide me through the darkest period of my life

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It has been little over six months since I lost my mother. During which time, I have had to confront grief, stress and deep depression. All of this on top of having to tackle the everyday issues that we all face.

 

Many have helped me get through this period. Family and trained professionals have tried to guide me through the abyss to see me come out the other side Andy Dufresne, Shawshank Redemption style. Yet the place where I often found the most solace was when glued to my screen watching sporting drama unfold.

 

When my mother passed in early September me and my father made the journey from Lincoln to Oldham four days later to grieve as a family. Yet on that day the first Manchester Derby of the 2016-17 Premier League season was also taking place. For an hour and a half, I sat with my family utterly absorbed by the occasion. My uncle Fernando screaming at the television desperate for his beloved Manchester City to be victorious.

 

I myself had no stake in the game, but for 90 minutes all my sadness evaporated as I watched Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola duel on the touchline while superstars draped in sky blue and red played out a pulsating encounter. It made me forget. For however brief the amnesia the game eased the heartbreak and transported me to a world where I did not matter. All that mattered were the 22 men on the field and the thousands in the stands willing them on.

 

Mum’s funeral was some three weeks later. An occasion that provoked reflection amongst other things. Yet even in the early hours of the morning of that exhausting day I found myself sat with my cousin Chris and two friends debating the right back position. A chance to debate and think in depth and compare player X against player Y provided escapism for my brain leaving behind reality.

 

Escapism has been key. Being alone with your thoughts and all the time in the world is enough to drive any person insane. Yet amid a deep depression those thoughts turn dark. They turn to thoughts of suicide, regret and self-loathing. Nothing is more depressing than questioning with your own mortality and if life is worth it when such pain exists. You can often make a compelling case that it is easier and worth it to end it all. To not have to face the trials and tribulations of life and be reunited with loved ones.

 

The day after I watched Manchester United destroy champions Leicester 4-1 before listening to Arsenal produce a scintillating half of football to gun down Chelsea 3-0. A three-hour period that brought a much-needed catharsis. It was an opportunity to become absorbed in something other than reality.

 

While sport shares many traits with the normalcies of commonplace life it was one of these similarities that I relished most: unpredictability. Mum’s death hit home, harder than ever, that life was unpredictable and sometimes cruel. Yet it was this characteristic that I loved dearly about sport. I appreciated that I knew nothing about the outcome of whatever sport I sat down to watch – and that gave me comfort.

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The day after that I sat in a friend’s kitchen watching the Green Bay Packers open up their 2016 season against the Jacksonville Jaguars. We had to leave at the end of the third quarter. We got back just in time for the final drive of the game where I was less composed journalist and more fanboy watching his team try and hold on for an opening day victory. I was so close to the television that nobody behind me could see a thing. I remember I was sent home from work that day after it all got too much. I broke down in the kitchen, then, emotionally spent, I fell asleep once my step-mum collected me from work. When the first ball was kicked in Jacksonville I was as awake as ever. All my difficulties fell away. The only thing that mattered was Aaron Rodgers and company marching Green Bay up and down the field. While they sweated in 30 degree heat they unknowingly provided a strange therapy for a man, whom felt more like a small boy, who had lost his direction in life.

 

In the immediate aftermath of my mother’s passing I fell into a deep depression. Forcing every emotion that was not a frown. Smiles were forced rather than naturally occurring, even when I had reason to smile I could not find it within myself to raise one. But when football, NFL or darts was on the emotions flooded back and the drama unfolding in front of me made for a sturdy dam keeping negative emotions at bay. All screams, smiles and large exhales were spontaneous. Each televised sporting occasion became my own outer body experience as I rose from the cocoon of despair and grief to be reunited with emotions of joy and exhilaration.

 

In mid-November I was sat watching the Dallas Cowboys defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers in a gripping encounter. Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant ended the game with six catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. Without context, his stat line means little. But less than 24-hours earlier Bryant had lost his father. His Head Coach and teammates paid homage to his toughness in the locker room after the game.

 

Watching an emotional locker room rally around Bryant slapped me back into reality. Bryant could perform due to his dedicated support group. Much like what I had around me. It also reminded me that, as much as we may not want to, life must go on. We must perform our duties in work and home life. He played his position at the highest level less than a day after his devastating loss (fast forward to 1:10 on the video). Bryant used playing sport the same way I used watching and analysing it. An escape from reality, a form of therapy, even if only for a fleeting period.

Not long after I sat in work watching a story on Philadelphia Eagles’ long snapper Jon Dorenbos, whose father murdered his mother when he was just 12-years-old. I shed tears. Not only because the story was touching in its own right but because suddenly I could relate. After experiencing such a devastating loss of my own I could offer sympathy on a personal level. Even if that person had no idea who I was.

 

Sport illustrated better than anything that in a split-second anything can happen and with that lives are changed forever. For better or worse sport painted the picture that in the moment anything is possible. It taught me not to assume anything no matter how stacked the odds are in your favour, or against it.

 

For me, my mum was superhuman. She was going to be around even after rapture. But trying to make sense of a passing of that magnitude is hard to convey in the spoken or written word. Yet unknowingly sport demonstrated it perfectly. Sport is a collage of hundreds and thousands of moments, strung together along an undetermined timeline until a certain outcome is reached. It is only after the final moment can a post mortem be carried out to examine what moments mattered most.

 

My own reflective stage taught me to string together the moments that mattered most when remembering my mother: the trip to Barbados, being with her on my graduation, watching the 2004 F.A. Cup final together and seeing a young Cristiano Ronaldo blossom in Manchester. These moments, in hindsight, mattered more significantly than I could have ever imagined at the time. Just like all the moments in sport matter.

 

For the last six months’ sport has provided a wonderful, yet surreal, haven for myself. A bridge between fantasy and reality allowing for brief moments of distraction while being present in the moment. Everything about sport as an industry made it feel surreal. The level of skill on show, the very nature of it being on television and the vast amounts of money on display allowed for an experience unable to be pinned down in reality.

 

After turning to alcohol, work, family and many other outlets for, not help, but a way out it was in sport that I found the most comfort. After all, all I am after, is an escape.

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