Losing It

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton kneels on the field after fumbling in the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Newton was sacked six times and fumbled twice. Photo: Aj Mast /New York Times / NYTNS
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton after a fourth quarter fumble during Super Bowl 50.

It was an ugly game. Most of the scoring came courtesy of the defense. Quarterbacks of both teams were sacked repeatedly, and both suffered humiliating fumbles that led to turnovers. The winning Broncos may simply have been the luckier team--or perhaps better at exploiting Carolina's errors, and at recovering from their own.

So this was not a passing game. Despite that, the quarterbacks were still at the center of the pageantry, the hoopla, and ultimately, both the credit and the blame. Peyton Manning, at 39 well past his prime, was overjoyed to claim his second championship ring. Cam Newton, a 26-year-old whose best days have not yet come, was so shattered at losing that he was caught on camera with his head in his hands, weeping uncontrollably.

I'm not a big football fan, though it always grabs me when I glimpse it at the sports bar where Amy and I shoot pool. There is something hypnotic about this brutal sport that turns exceptional athletes into limping pensioners before they've even reached middle age. The relatively small number of games compared to basketball and baseball (necessitated by its inherent violence and players' need of recovery time) make the stakes of winning and losing much higher. In baseball, it can take seven games spread over a week to determine the world champion. In football, there is just one. It doesn't matter that it's an honor just to be competing in the Super Bowl: winning is everything.

So of course a young man, barely an adult, felt those stakes far more deeply than his elder rival. At 26, everything is heightened: break up with your girlfriend, lose your job, flunk a class in grad school, have your car break down, all of it feels like the end of your world. And these are things everyone goes through. Imagine what it must be like to lose the biggest game in the world at 26.

I remember 26 a bit too well. I remember how deeply I took perceived slights, how important it was to me to be taken seriously, how terrified I was of losing the love I'd found. I'd left teaching after just a year to enter seminary, traveling to an alien place that was not, I came to realize, a good place for me. I was completely out of my element in Dallas, Texas, a small town boy in a big city that was faster, meaner, and far more conservative than anything I'd experienced in the Pacific Northwest.

My self-esteem was low, and now I was studying subjects I'd had little preparation for. Academic theology is built on philosophy, and I'd never had time for anything as cerebral as that. All my college and graduate classes had been aimed at practical matters: how to teach a child to play an instrument, how to modify a choir's vowels to arrive at the right timbre for a particular piece, how to turn a piano piece into an orchestration for concert band. There were a few dips into the theory of aesthetics, but nothing to prepare me for the language of soteriology, hermeneutics, or any of the other philosophical disciplines I was expected to have under my belt. For all that, I did well without realizing it: I skipped an awards ceremony at the end of my first year assuming I had no reason to be there, and thus missed out on being honored as one of the top students in my class. Low grades shattered me, breaking up with my first girlfriend was devastating, and losing a church choir directing job almost did me in.

Half a lifetime later, I can look back on that callow 26-year-old and marvel at his innocence, his tenderness, his utter lack of perspective. I know that $300/month choir job was not right for him. I know (and he knew, really--he just didn't know how to initiate the breakup) that first girlfriend wasn't right for him, either. And I know those low grades, which were still passing grades, were subjective and had no real effect on him receiving his degree. All those apocalyptic experiences were, in the end, just life happening to him.

That's what I'd like to tell Cam Newton, too. No, you don't have a Super Bowl ring to wear. And yes, it's the second time you've lost. And you're right, you may not get the chance to be in that game again. This may very well have been your last chance at being a world champion. So yes, it feels very much like the end of the world, and I completely understand why you couldn't keep those tears under wraps as the game ground to its conclusion. You'd literally taken a beating from the game's first minutes right up to its bruising conclusion, as time and again the Bronco defense threw you to the ground. I could see it in your face every time a pass didn't connect, or you had to give up possession altogether. This game was no fun. Nobody was having fun. In fact, "game" wasn't the right word for what was happening on that field: it was an ordeal to watch it, let alone to have to play it.

So I'm cutting Cam Newton some slack. If I was 26, and losing the Super Bowl, I'd be bawling, too. Not at 54--I've been through enough failures and defeats that it takes a lot to wrench a tear from these withered ducts--but I'll bet even mercurial Cam Newton tones down by the time he's my age.

So let the poor man alone. 

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