Column: Not just a game

By Mike Szwaja

Four years ago, a punky freshman with a brain full of useless sports information walked through the Daily Illini’s doors not knowing what to expect. It was his dream to some day cover the Blackhawks beat for the Chicago Tribune, so he decided to begin fueling that dream by writing for his campus’s independent student newspaper.

He was originally assigned the men’s tennis beat with another student – they were to split the duties – but a request by then-sports editor Chris Neubauer, who now works for Pro Football Weekly, changed the freshman’s life. Neubauer needed sports columnists and urged his staff to apply for the open positions.

“The Cubs just won the World Series, write me a column.”

That was Neubauer’s prompt for the unsuspecting, inexperienced freshman, who went to work and wrote a column so good he couldn’t believe he actually wrote it. Long story short, the Cubs column got him the job.

Four years and more than 100 columns later, I’m still mad I never got to use that Cubs column. This is my penultimate column. I’ve been asking loyal readers how they want me to end it all next week, and I’ll use their suggestions aptly, but for now, I have a message for all you sports nuts who are kind enough to give me a couple minutes of your time every Friday.

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Never stop loving sports. Don’t let anyone ever tell you, “It’s just a game.”

It’s not “just a game” for so many of us. Was it just a game for the 10,000 students who flooded Green Street after the basketball team defeated Louisville in the Final Four? I think not.

Some of my friends have this running joke: Check to see if the Bulls won before you go out with Mike, because if they didn’t, he will not be in a pleasant mood. That’s a little drastic; I only let a Bulls loss ruin my night if they really screw up, like if they blow a 13-point lead with eight minutes left in a game with playoff implications.

It goes both ways, though, which is why an obsession with sports can be healthy. The stress level on this campus is sky high right now.

Me? I’m cool; the Bulls are in the playoffs again, and they’re actually winning. Stressed? Between papers, group projects and finding a job, yeah, I’m a little stressed, but the Bulls have given me something to smile about.

I know what you’re saying, “But, Mike, what if they blow this 2-0 lead?” Yeah, we won’t get into that. My point is that the Bulls have served nicely as a therapeutic release, a type of release some people on this campus don’t have right now.

I have to thank my parents for making sports such a huge part of my life. They’ve regretted it a few times I’m sure – they probably want to, but cannot forget my mood in the days following Notre Dame’s tear-inducing loss to Boston College in 1993.

Without my mom – the biggest Paul Konerko fan there is – or my dad, with whom I’ve shared the best sports debates of my life, I could have never written these columns. And without them, sports could have never been that therapeutic release in my life.

I also have to thank all the readers; your feedback was encouraging, whether you loved me or hated me. To all the Cardinals fans who wrote in response to my bashing of the city logistics in St. Louis, your love for your hometown is admirable and unmatched.

Thanks have to go out particularly to the following readers: Tim Danlow, Nilay Gandhi, Anthoney Kinney, Steve Kurland, Tom Pietrasek and Winton U. Solberg, all of whom were extremely gratifying in their comments on my work during the past four years. Your comments affirmed that I actually knew what I was talking about some of the time.

This has been so fun, enjoy the finale next Friday. And remember, sports can be much more than “just a game.”