Over The Top

The strangest thing happened the other day. It feels like a half-remembered dream. We were sitting on the couch together, Elizabeth and I, and there was a Kansas City Chiefs football game on television, and Elizabeth was screaming. And she kept screaming. And she kept screaming still.

This is Elizabeth, understand.

“Come on, stop him! Stop him! Come on!”

“What are you doing?”

“Go! Go! Run!”

I did not recognize this young woman. I did not know her. She sat the front edge of the couch, as if she was about to pounce, and she screamed at the television, and I looked at her, and she screamed at the television, and I looked at her, and no matter how long this cycle revolved, I couldn’t make any sense of it at all. It was like staring at a fluffy cloud and being asked: “What does it look like,” and the mind blanks because, incredibly, the cloud doesn’t look like anything at all.

I have been using the word “wonder” a lot lately. I have been saying it in radio interviews, in television interviews, on podcasts, in conversations, in essays, in tweets, in author talks. I have been using it so much that “wonder” has warped into one of those words that sounds a little bit off, a little bit funny, a half-word, wonder, wander, under, winter, ponder, blunder, warbler, Dunder, Mifflin.

I’ve been using “wonder” a lot because it is the word that motivated me to step outside of sports and write a book about Harry Houdini and his lasting impact on the world. This was, as interviewers have cheerfully and repeatedly reminded me since the book came out, an odd thing for a sportswriter to do.

But that word, wonder, I’ve spent a lifetime chasing after it, so many us spend our lifetime chasing it. What is it, anyway? There are countless possibilities, but I have come to think of wonder as these little explosions in the mind, tiny blasts and booms and rumbles that hit you just right and make the world seem just a little bit bigger. Juan Soto turning around a high fastball. Joshua Jay doing a card trick for the blind. Lamar Jackson faking and making defenders crumble and fall. A poem. A song. A Greco-Roman wrestler.

Mostly, I’ve found wonder as a father. I suppose that’s pretty common. I found it taking Elizabeth to see Hamilton and taking her to Harry Potter World. I found it watching Katie play piano and watching her continuously try to make the world a better place. Parents hold these stories close.

I hold them particularly close now. Elizabeth is 18. She’s a senior in high school. She will be leaving for college soon enough that I can hear it in the distance, like Edgar Allen Poe’s tell-tale heartbeat.

When Elizabeth was born, we nicknamed her Beth. We had decided on the nickname months in advance. A boy, we would call him Joshua and nickname him Josh. A girl, we would call her Elizabeth and nickname her Beth. These are the sorts of choices that first-time parents obsess over; we had no fewer than 50 conversations on the subject. As the big day approached, we somehow knew she would be a girl — we both had dreamed it — and so we practiced thinking of the nursery as Beth’s room, of the car seat as Beth’s car seat, of our lives as Beth’s parents.

For days, I gathered material for the The Kansas City Star column to run the day she was born. The headline: “To Beth. It’s First and Forever.”

And then she was born, and we held her, held our Beth for the first time, and we immediately and simultaneously found ourselves stopped cold.

She was not a Beth. She was an Elizabeth.

And to this day, we have never called her Beth.

We don’t know why this happened. There was something adamant about this baby, something wordless but insistent about the way she carried herself. “I’m definitely not a Beth,” she somehow transmitted to us through her gaze and tears and small smiles. When she grew old enough to speak, she made it clear that, yes, we had received the proper message. She was not a Beth. She is an Elizabeth.

Elizabeth has always been like that, sure in her identity, sure about she liked and what she did not like. She liked princesses and reading, she liked drawing and reading, she liked Avenger movies and reading, she liked Mad Men and reading, she liked Broadway and reading, she liked horror movies and reading, she likes movie makeup and reading.

The thing she never liked was sports.

Maybe this came from being the daughter of a sportswriter. She grew up knowing that the Super Bowl and Olympics and World Series meant that Dad was going away. But beyond that, there was something born in her: A deeply embedded non-competitive streak. She never enjoyed winning much because it meant someone else losing. I vividly remember when they would give out candy at the end of her dance classes — she was 7 or 8 — and everyone would rush to be the first in line, but Elizabeth would stay back, let everyone else go first. She was always like that. Everything about sports (watching AND playing) repelled her.

Well, she did like going to baseball games. We had been taught at trick by Bill and Susan James; they convinced their daughter Rachel to come to baseball games by letting her bring along a book. Elizabeth liked that too; she would bring a book, and she would order her beloved nachos, and she read all game long. It suited her. Now and again, something interesting would happen in the game, and the crowd would roar, and she would look up from her book as if in a daze, as if surprised that all these people had just shown up. She would glance down at the field, take in some part of what was happening, and then return to her blissful world of reading.

“I like baseball,” she would say sometimes.

“Well, you like reading at baseball games,” I would remind her.

“No,” she insisted. “I watch some.”

We all grew used to this rhythm. Elizabeth and sports were separate circles in the Venn diagram of her life. It seemed permanent. When Elizabeth began her college search, one of her key demands was that the school not be immersed in sports.

And then … Patrick Mahomes came along.

I had forgotten this about myself as a young person: I was touched with madness. In my entire childhood, I missed one Cleveland Browns game on television*, on radio or in terror. The “in terror” option was when the Browns were neither on television nor radio, at which point I would have no choice in those dark ages but to sit on the floor, shivering in fear, and switch television and radio channels back and forth in the hopes of getting an update, any update, about the game. These updates were about as slow as news from the front during World War I. Sometimes I would call the paper, The Charlotte Observer, to see if they had a score.

If they had known I was that kook, they NEVER would have hired me.

*The game I missed was Oct. 19, 1980, Browns vs. Packers. I missed it because my mother had promised to buy me a typewriter and that was the only day of the big sale (and the game wasn’t on television locally anyway). I wandered the store in a daze, trying to pick up anything I could from the way people around me were acting. As it turns out, the Browns won that game on a last minute pass from Brian Sipe to Dave Logan, which is good because if they had not, I might have never left the house again.

When the game WAS on television, I would take five days to prepare for it. My schedule was as such:

Monday: Float around all day if the Browns won; die repeatedly if they lost.

Tuesday: Die repeatedly if the Browns lost. Tentatively begin worrying about next week if they had won.

Wednesday: Have my first meal of the week if Browns lost; Begin to gauge chances of a Browns victory on Sunday.

Thursday: Break down the game position by position in an effort to determine the likelihood of a Browns loss and, thus, the likelihood of my going through repeated deaths.

Friday: Look for reassurance from anyone — the media, friends, family — that the Browns would actually win.

Saturday: Try to watch college football or other sports to take my mind off of the game, though this didn’t work.

Sunday: PANIC!

No, it wasn’t the healthiest cycle. I should clarify that phrase “I had forgotten this about myself.” Obviously, I remember being obsessed with the Browns.

But until watching Elizabeth screaming at the television on literally every single Kansas City Chief play, I had managed to suppress the truest memories of that obsession.

When this whole thing first happened, when Elizabeth announced that she had become a Chiefs fan, when she made quarterback Patrick Mahomes the screen saver on her phone, when she began insisting on watching every minute of every game, when she began memorizing players and their numbers, I felt like I was watching the movie “Vanilla Sky,” like, I had no idea what was going on, and each new scene only confused me more, and finally I just gave up on hoping to understand and tried to enjoy the confusion.

But then I saw her watching these games on the edge of celebration, on the edge of tears, at the crossroads of alarm and elation, and she yelled at the television, and all it clicked into place. She is me. I was her. Yes, it was the dazzling brilliance of Patrick Mahomes that triggered it, but it hit me for the first time that it could have been anything.

The bomb was ticking inside her all along.*

*Elizabeth just walked into my office to say that a friend had asked her to go to lunch and she had laughed and replied, “Are you crazy? This is Patrick’s first game back.” How many opportunities did I turn down in my life for the Browns? And, yes, she calls Mahomes, “Patrick,” and thinks of him as a friend.

Believe it or not, none of this is that “strangest thing,” mentioned at the top. No, that came suddenly and unexpectedly. Elizabeth is learning about football at light-speed. Each week, she spends the seconds between screams asking questions, constant questions, about penalties and history and strategies. She can hold her own in football conversations now, but there are gaps because her passion sparked only a year or so ago and before that it’s all darkness.

So we were sitting there watching the Chiefs game and she was screaming and freaking out and falling apart and celebrating …

“That was beautiful! That was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen! I’ve never seen anything like that? That was so beautiful! I can’t believe how beautiful that was!”

— This was Elizabeth after the Chiefs Damien Williams broke a 91-yard touchdown run.

And then the network went to New York for an update. I don’t even remember the teams or players involved. I only remember that the highlight was a bland one of a running back diving in from the 1-yard line.

How many times have you seen that in your life? In an instant, right off the top of my head, I can recall a hundred instances of Walter Payton or Marcus Allen or Priest Holmes or Earl Campbell or Herschel Walker or Cam Newton or LaDainian Tomlinson or any number of others jumping over the top for the touchdown. It’s one of the most common things in football, the touchdown dive. I barely noticed.

Elizabeth, however, went into joyful hysterics.

“Oh my gosh!” she shouted. “He just jumped over them. Did you see that? How did he do that? He was just like, ‘Boop! I’m going to jump right over you.’ Wow! Dad, did you see that? Did you see that?”

And I realized that this was the first time she had ever seen a running back dive in from the 1. I turned and looked at her, and she had that look on her face, that look she had when we went to see Hamilton together, that look she had on the first day of kindergarten, that look she had when she saw the Eiffel Tower, that look she had when we first brought our dog Westley home.

And, not for the first time and I suspect not for the last, I realized that I had NOT seen it. We rewound, and we watched it again, and this time I did see it, maybe. There was the running back performing a miracle, jumping over over 20 hulking men like Evel Knievel launching his motorcycles over 20 busses. Elizabeth gleefully cheered this daredevil, and I looked at her closely like I have all of her life, and I felt this unspeakable joy and this terrible pang because she still teaches me about wonder, and I already miss her.