I have a “bleeding heart”. It seems to run in my family. I am constantly calling my mom a “bleeding heart” because it doesn’t take her more than two minutes talking to a stranger for her to discover that the person is struggling somehow. Immediately, she begins offering emotional support. She becomes overly sympathetic, and it used to drive me crazy growing up. I didn’t get it – Why did she care so much? It had nothing to do with her or her life. Couldn’t she just put it aside so we could continue on with what we were doing?
Ironically, her mother’s favorite plant in the garden was the Bleeding Heart. When I moved into my house 10 years ago, my mother brought me one from my grandmother’s house, to plant in my backyard. It’s a perennial, so it comes back every Spring. I get to enjoy it year after year now. And since my grandmother has since passed away, it’s served as a beautiful reminder of her.
I hadn’t realized that I suffered from this affliction until recently. When I googled the definition of the term I learned that it’s actually considered to be a derogatory remark. But to me, it simply means being excessively sympathetic. Or, another way to look at it, overly compassionate. Which interestingly, brings me to my next point. I promise, there will be a connection to football here in a minute… just bear with me.
My absolute favorite author in the world is a Southern writer, a man by the name of Pat Conroy. If you’ve never heard of him, he wrote the story The Prince of Tides which was made into a movie many years ago starring the lovely Barbara Streisand. Unfortunately, the movie never lived up to the written genius of Conroy’s work, but then again, that hardly ever happens in these situations. But the genius behind Conroy’s stories are the words he uses to tell the story, and his creative, poetic language. I’ve read that book three times, and certain paragraphs at least ten times each read, just to taste the imagery over and over again. Conroy has written some other fantastic books as well… I believe I’ve read most of them. But the one I’m reading now (for the second time!) is his memoir titled, My Losing Season. Conroy was an athlete. He played basketball from childhood through college, and the bulk of this story covers his time playing as a cadet at the Citadel. If you know me or have read anything I’ve written before, you know that I thrive discussing, reading and writing about the emotional side of sport. And that is precisely what Conroy does in this book. It’s almost like we’re soul mates he and I… both athletes, both highly-sensitive and emotional creatures with a love for sport, but both with a sometimes crippling compassion for people as well.
Side note: I actually took a trip to Charleston, SC about 8 years ago so that I could physically see the places that he described in his books. We toured the houses along the Battery, and toured a house that he either visited or lived in once, I can’t remember now. I even made G drive me to the Citadel so I could see the yard, the gates, and the buildings of the school where he suffered as a “mediocre” athlete, but also where he learned to be a great writer.
When I began rereading this book a few months ago, football season had just ended. I was suffering from some of my usual feelings of conflict… loving too many teams, too many players, and feeling like I didn’t belong in this world of “fandom” that I’d submersed myself in, where people bleed the colors of their teams. One night, somewhere in the beginning of the story, I read these words by Conroy:
The world of sports lacks compassion; its judgments are pitiless.
Whether Conroy meant the words the way I read them, I will never be entirely sure. But they spoke to me. The way I interpreted them was like this: There is no room in sports for compassion or pity. This was, to quote Oprah Winfrey, my “A-ha! moment”. It all made sense to me suddenly. I am unable to detach myself enough from my “bleeding heart” personality to cling to one, and only one side, every moment of every day, because I care too much about too many. On different occasions I want different teams to win, or players to score, or teams to lose. I have my reasons at the time, but it always depends on how I’m feeling about a particular team’s or player’s situation. The one hurting the most is usually the one I’m supporting the most. It sounds ridiculously stupid, I know. But that’s where I am right now. And please understand that I don’t mean to imply that if you support only one team, that you are not a caring person. I know there are die-hard football fans who are compassionate and sympathetic people. And surely there are others out there with my same personality type that have figured out how to separate their compassionate selves from their fan-selves. I’m simply saying, I can’t figure out how to do it. So if you want to know why I can’t tell you what color my heart bleeds, this is why.
This past week’s Champions League competition was a perfect example of how my heart gets squeezed, torn, and eventually bleeds during these competitions. As I said a few posts back, last season I became a fan, and a significant one at that, of Borussia Dortmund. The more I watched them, the more I loved everything about them. From their team unity, to their fast-paced, exciting football, to their quirky, entertaining and charismatic coach, to their dedicated fans… I grew to love it all. But I knew I had a problem on my hands when they were drawn in the same Champions League group as Real Madrid. My stomach dropped, but I figured I’d deal with it when I got there.
Well, I got there on Tuesday. I kept repeating to myself, and anyone willing to listen, “They were never meant to meet like this!” My compassionate soul went into overdrive. A big part of me wanted Dortmund to win. I had my emotional reasons. Just to name a few… I wanted the underdog to win (despite the fact they had won the first leg, they were still considered the underdog up against a team like Real), I wanted them to redeem themselves from last season’s CL debacle (where they had failed miserably to get out of the group stages), and I wanted them to put on display their high-quality, entertaining football so that they’d be recognized as the threat across Europe that I believe they are. Plus, I’ve simply grown to love them. 🙂
But of course, in order for them to win it meant Real had to lose. And this is another team I’ve grown to love. I know them better than any other team I follow, thanks to some of the social circles I run in online. I’ve traveled hundreds of miles and spent hundreds of dollars to see them play, twice. I’ve also become close friends with a few Madridistas who certainly play a role in developing my sympathies towards the team. And then, of course, there’s Mesut Özil. It’s no secret he’s my favorite player. He’s the one I follow the closest. He’s the one I can only ever wish good things for. He’s also the one that has had a very rough start to this season for his club, and has been struggling with confidence and overall form issues. It pains me to watch, because well, I’ve simply grown to love him too. 🙂
And I had other reasons to sympathize with Real Madrid. They’ve been suffering. They’ve dropped unnecessary points early in the season. And even the matches they’ve won have lacked the kind of exciting football that the fans demand. Also, there have been rumors (whether true or not, they hurt the team) of discord between players and Mourinho. So this win would’ve helped to relieve some of the pressure, dispel rumors, and restore fans’ faith in the team. Not to mention a CL championship would mean achieving La Decima – their 10th European Cup crown. As a fan of the team, I had sympathetic reasons to support them as well.
So in the privacy of my basement on Tuesday I watched these two teams duke it out. I couldn’t sit still. I watched most of it standing up, which I’ve never done before, not even during the clasicos. I paced back and forth, I even found comfort jumping up and down for no reason. And I discovered I was cheering for Dortmund… and only Dortmund. I was beginning to experience what I imagine it feels like to put a “bleeding heart” aside and go for the kill. It was working!
When they were up 2-1 near the end of the game I was thrilled. Borussia Dortmund were actually going to beat Real Madrid at home. It was going to be a HUGE deal. And I think it would’ve secured their spot in the final 16. People were going to talk about them for days. My friend V on the other hand, who bleeds white, was near tears. The compassionate side of me started to rear it’s ugly head and I almost got distracted. But I stayed the course, as the minutes ticked down. And that’s when the impossible happened. With only a few minutes left in the game, Real Madrid were awarded a free kick just outside of the box. And there stood Mesut Özil. Next to him was Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the best free kick takers in the world. But despite the fact that Ronaldo almost always takes these types of free kicks, I had this strange feeling it was going to be Özil. And suddenly, my heart began to bleed.
I was about to abort this post at this moment in my writing because it all sounded so silly to me. I could only imagine how it sounded to people out there who might choose to read it. But before I deleted it, I decided to look back at the passages I had highlighted in Conroy’s book. Just in case there was something that I could apply. The first one I came to was this, and it gave me actual goosebumps:
He could risk everything, because he had taken possession
of his time on the court and had perfect faith in his skills
and instincts. The important thing was to be alive in
the moment, open to every possibility and configuration,
and make that moment yours only, again and again.
You cannot risk what does not belong to you…
This was a moment. A moment for Özil to step up and show up and, possibly, shut up his critics. It was a moment to do his part to help carry his team that much closer to the precious La Decima. It was a moment to not only trust in himself, but to ask his coach, teammates, and the fans to do the same. I was suddenly without breath, and without time to think about how I wanted this to go. All I knew for sure was that I sympathized with him in this moment. He needed this. HE NEEDED THIS. And so I prayed. Ok, not really. Because I know God is unhappy with my idol worship right now. BUT – I did HOPE. I HOPED with all my being that this ball was going to go in the net. For his sake – not mine. And therefore, I was officially screwed.
I think we all know what happened next. He took that kick and it went in. He scored the equalizer for Real Madrid in the final minutes of the match with a gorgeous free kick that curled over the wall, bouncing on the line at the near post, and into the net. The sheer surprise and joy on his face was so genuine, it’d be hard to deny the specialness of that moment no matter who you support. His teammates tackled him in pure jubilation and the fans went crazy.
It was precisely the emotional side of sport that I can’t seem to get enough of, but leaves my heart bleeding. Not just one color. But many.
Thankfully, despite the disappointment on the faces of the Dortmund players for having lost 2 crucial points, after the game was over and done with the team walked away proud and with their heads held high. They graciously accepted the result as fair. This helped to soften the blow for me.
I believe that the saying “Only time will tell” applies here for me. I’m still growing as a fan of football. I’m slowly figuring out what I like and don’t like. I’m slowly learning the ins and outs of how club football works, from various coaching styles to the buying and selling of players. And I’m slowly starting to put aside my bleeding heart for the duration of a football match. I almost did it this time… I made it to 89 minutes. I’m going to shoot for the full 90 next time. Or I’m just going to accept that I am who I am and stop worrying about what others think. Neither is very likely, to be honest. But there’s one thing for sure. My heart will always be in it.
*I found an explanation of the legend of the Bleeding Heart, complete with how to use the flower petals to tell the story. You can read it here.
**I highly recommend this book to anyone who has been an athlete, a coach, or simply enjoys sports stories. I know it’s about basketball, not football. But honestly, so much of it is interchangeable it really never mattered. I admit, some of the descriptions of the games get a little tedious. You can skim through some of that. But the rest is just such an interesting, insightful look at the role athletics took in one young man’s life. It also covers the trials and tribulations that come along with going to a military college in the South, as well as dysfunctional family dynamics. An exceptional read, in my opinion.
*** None of the pictures or gifs are mine!