Sports can be more than just a game

Tom O'Connor, Sports Reporter

Living with autism spectrum disorder, I often found it difficult to bridge the crosswalk between solitude and companionship, struggling to read the flashing signals or nonverbal cues.

For years, my restrictive patterns of interest revolved around parrots. My dialogue on this subject would have bored the most fervent zoologist, driving their interest into extinction.

These interests were of little to no interest to my classmates who would, almost immediately, walk away.

With sports as a go-to topic, however, the ensuing silence that I had become so accustomed to, became, to a certain degree, a tenant of the past.

While conversations are much more nuanced than a preference for a single topic, the shared experience of sports formed a nexus between an awkward outsider and the in-crowd.

I would often keep stats on my failures. “I finished 0-3,” I would think to myself.

These slumps had marred my entire social career, for which the only remedy could be trying a different bat or an alternate batting stance.

Over the years this began to change, and sports became my primary interest.

After years of listening to sports pundits speak ad nauseam about the imperfections of athletes, I began to view them as little more than one dimensional figures, playing for the next nine-digit salary or the newest endorsement deal.

But sports, I soon came to realize, were something more.

Countless moments, from the White Sox World Series title in 2005 to the 2017 NBA Eastern Conference Playoffs, when LeBron James became the first player to average a triple double in the finals, created the perfect conversation starter.

This certainly played out on one particular occasion as a Walgreens employee. An issue with the chip reader stimulated conversation, as I noticed the customer sported a Trail Blazers cap.

“Did you see (Damian) Lillard go for 59 points last night?” I asked.

“Yeah, those step-back threes could not have been any more elegant,” he said.

“I heard it was good enough for a franchise record,” I responded.

Sports small talk mitigated a potentially awkward experience, effectively promoting customer rapport. Such an experience was not an isolated incident.

Years prior, my dad invited Alex, a classmate of mine, to a White Sox game, hoping to force a friendship, though the two of us had never been close.

At the close of a grinding matchup against the Royals, Bobby Jenks, who at that time was the closer for the White Sox, walked toward the dugout, game ball in hand.

A group of zealous fans earnestly approached him, constructing a barricade between me and the decorated All-Star, as I was, once again, on the outside looking in.

Jenks pointed to me, as he tossed the ball over the belligerent group, before it landed firmly in my baseball glove.

The experience could not have been any more indicative of my eccentricities, since I had been so frequently shunned from the social stratosphere.

Jenks not only saved the game, but also the social life of a lonely fifth grader.

Alex and I talked the whole ride home and, for the first time, a meaningful conversation unfolded, sharing in a mutual interest.

The following day, classmates asked to touch my hand, believing that it contained a trace of Jenks’ DNA. As the classmates listened to my recollection of the whole affair, I felt, for the first time, a sense of belonging.

Never before had people listened so earnestly in what I had to say.  Sports, it seemed, could broaden my relations with others which, up to this point in time, were rather limited.

While my conversations have gone into extra innings at times, a connection had been forged that, from then on, allowed for more regular socialization.

Tom O’Connor is a junior journalism major. He can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]