In Comeback Season, Cathy Day, author of the highly praised novel The Circus in Winter, tells the heartwarming story of how she got back in the game of love thanks to her favorite football team, the Indianapolis Colts.
In 2005, Day, an Indiana native, moves to Pittsburgh to start her dream job. She's thirty-seven, a college professor, an acclaimed writer and still single. Psyching herself up, she thinks, "This is the year for the Colts and for me." Instead, both Day and quarterback Peyton Manning face heartbreaking end-of-season losses: the man in her life decides to punt, and the Colts fall to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the eventual Super Bowl champs. Her blue heart broken, Day vows that if the Colts can come back in 2006 and try again, so can she.
Inspired by Manning's legendary perfectionism, Day spends the off-season "in training." She gets in shape, imagining that she's Rocky Balboa running through the Philadelphia streets to the tune of "Gonna Fly Now." She quits smoking. She reads dating primers. She watches Sex and the City. She takes notes. She asks everyone she knows, "Um, do you know any men my age who aren't married?"
Come preseason, Day reluctantly joins an online dating service and goes on practice dates while the Colts play practice games. Indy goes 1-4 in the preseason, which is better than Day's record of 0-4. Lonely and dejected, Day returns home to watch Colts games with her family, who are full of well-intentioned relationship advice much of it bad.
The 2006 season finally arrives. Each week that fall, the Colts battle a new adversary and Day faces her enemies: her own romanticism, indecisive men, and her biggest foe, the singles industry. Friends and family deliver impassioned pep talks but can only watch anxiously from the sidelines as Day marches bravely into bars and coffee shops to meet perfect strangers. On the way to the Super Bowl, she discovers that the key to winning in both love and football exists somewhere between Trying Everything and Letting Go.
Honest, touching, and frequently hilarious, Comeback Season tells a timeless story about our need to feel connected to people and to places. This year-long chronicle of one woman's journey will resonate with anyone who's ever looked for love...fumbled...recovered! and kept charging down the field.
|Product dimensions:||9.10(w) x 5.90(h) x 0.60(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The last thing he said to me, "Rock," he said, "sometime, when the team is up against it, and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper."
-- Knute Rockne All American
THE 2005 SEASON
Don't Stop Believin'
When I was a little girl, I told myself a story about the kind of life I wanted to live someday. I didn't know how to tell a story back then, so I looked around for a blueprint, a story whose plot I could modify for my own purposes. It needed to be about how to live an extraordinary life -- an escape story. So I read lots of books, of course. Pittsburgh's Andrew Carnegie built the public library in my hometown. Even though I haven't set foot in that library in over twenty years, I can tell you exactly where the sports biographies were shelved when I was a kid. My parents thought it was a little strange: their chunky, bookish daughter who really didn't enjoy playing sports devouring biographies of Satchel Paige, Johnny Bench, Lou Gehrig, and Jackie Robinson.
The sports story provided me a straightforward formula, my own version of the Horatio Alger story. Replace "wants to go the distance with Apollo Creed" or "desires to win Olympic gold medal" with "wants to be an author." Replace "must face bias and an unsupportive father" or "fights fear, fatigue, and a Russian adversary" with...well, I don't think I knew who or what I was up against, but I knew it had something to do with being a girl instead of a boy. I knew it had something to do with being from a town in the middle of nowhere Indiana. I knew it had something to do with growing up in a family that rarely read books, letalone thought about writing them. If playing football is a guy's ticket out of "Life in the Steel Mills" or "Life as a Neighborhood Bum," then writing was my ticket out of "Life as a Small-Town Girl." I wanted to take the midnight train and go anywhere.
And I did. My story came true.
That's where this story begins. I've just moved to Pittsburgh to start my dream job teaching fiction writing at the University of Pittsburgh. My office is in a stately building called the Cathedral of Learning. My first book is out and doing pretty well. I've moved to the Steel City from New Jersey so that I can live closer -- but not too close -- to my family in Indiana. I may be thirty-seven but, as my grandma says, I still have my figure. I have finally achieved my professional goals and am ready to focus on my personal life.
If this was a movie, then this would be the part where, after pounding a lot of frozen meat with my fists and running down dirty, narrow streets, I reach the top step of the Philadelphia Art Museum. Triumphantly, I jump around in slow motion, framed by the pink, rising sun. But later, when I'm in the ring and call out "Adrian! Adrian!" nobody answers.
The night of the November 28, 2005, regular-season matchup between the Colts and Steelers, I brazenly make a bet with my fiction workshop at the University of Pittsburgh: if the Steelers manage to beat my home-state Colts, I'll give the class extra time to turn in their final exam. There's good-natured razzing all around as we pack up to go home. It's half an hour before kickoff when my bus, the 71C, lets me off in a strangely deserted Shadyside. When I moved to Pittsburgh a few months ago, I got the same advice over and over: the best time to drive anywhere is during game time. Everyone is either packed into Heinz Field (though still waxing nostalgic about Three Rivers Stadium) or holed up in front of a large-screen television. As my bus pulls away, I know that my body is walking down Ellsworth Avenue in Pittsburgh, but the rest of me is back home in Indiana with Colts fans: walking in downtown Indy toward that white, domed spaceship on the horizon; sitting in a sports bar in a big-box shopping center; descending into a finished basement decorated with upturned horseshoes. I wonder what it would be like to fly over Indiana this Monday night, if all those TV sets, all those living-room picture windows blinking a flickery blue light would look like a million stars scattered across the cold, black earth.
At the door to my apartment building, I see two guys wearing yellow and black holding pizzas and beers. Because I am a nice girl from Indiana, I hold the door for them, but in the elevator I can't keep my silence.
"Going to watch the game?" I ask.
"You bet!" they say.
This is how a Hoosier trash-talks: I say sweetly, "Well, I hate to say it, but I'll be rooting for the Colts." They look at me like I'm insane. "I can't help it," I say. "I was born in Indiana."
They shake their heads like this is the most idiotic thing they've ever heard.
I try a more rational appeal. "Look, if you had to move to, say, Kansas City, you wouldn't all of a sudden become a Chiefs fan. You'd still be a Steelers fan, right?"
"Shit yeah," they say in unison.
"Well...that's what I'm saying." A stiff silence follows as we wait for the elevator doors to open. I get off first, and as I'm walking away, one of them yells, "Go Steelers!"
So what's a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?
I left Indiana -- probably for good -- fifteen years ago. When I was eighteen, my parents moved from Peru, Indiana, a small town two hours north of Indianapolis, to Aurora, Indiana, an exurb of Cincinnati, which is where I saw my first major-league baseball game and understood what Susan Sarandon meant in Bull Durham: "I believe in the Church of Baseball." I went to graduate school at the University of Alabama and became a Tide fan. My academic career took me first to Mankato, Minnesota, training camp for the Vikings, where I was introduced to ice hockey and the Twins. Then I moved to Baltimore and went to Camden Yards to watch the Orioles and Cal Ripken. After that, I taught in New Jersey, a state of diffuse loyalties and identities. Was I supposed to follow the Eagles or Giants or Jets? And now I live in Pittsburgh, where I'm learning the cultural importance of Mario Lemieux and the Terrible Towel.
Twenty years of moving and making new friends and learning new jobs and moving and starting all over again -- following sports, following a team, was how I made each new place home. But my fandom has always been fleeting. When I move, so do my loyalties. I have no idea whether Alabama beat Auburn last year or how the Orioles are doing. However, one thing has never changed: no matter where I'm living, I still love Indiana sports.
By the way, "Indiana sports," when you grow up in the northern half of the state, includes Chicago (unless they're playing an Indiana team, of course).
On January 26, 1986, four generations of the Day family gathered in our living room to watch Super Bowl XX. The Chicago Bears cremated New England 46-10. In the photograph commemorating this event, my thirteen-year-old brother brandishes his first beer, my dad and my grandpa sport Bears jerseys, and my eighty-seven-year-old great-grandfather holds a VHS cassette of "The Super Bowl Shuffle." A year later, I sat in my college dorm's TV room, watching mournfully as Walter Payton played his last game. The Bears lost that day. Afterwards, Sweetness sat on the bench with his head in hands, and my heart broke a little, so I called my dad to see how he was doing.
You need to know this: my father has read two books since he graduated from high school: my story collection and Never Die Easy: The Autobiography of Walter Payton.
In 1998, when the Bulls and Pacers were battling for the conference championship, my long-term boyfriend Alex (a native of Chicago) and I got so vicious we couldn't watch the games together. When the Pacers lost to the Lakers two years later in the 2000 NBA finals, my heart broke -- as it had for Walter Payton -- as Larry Bird's three-year coaching stint in his home state ended with a loss. When I heard that IU beat Duke in the 2002 NCAA tournament, my heart swelled for Mike Davis as he tried to escape the shadow of Bobby Knight. The week of Indiana's championship game against Maryland, I got a little hysterical. I was teaching in New Jersey at this point, and I wore cream and crimson every day and hummed the IU fight song (which is also my high school fight song) at the Xerox machine.
That night in 2002, I sat down to watch the IU game alone. After seven years together, Alex and I had broken up the year before, and I realized that since then I had neither watched nor attended a single sporting event. See, all those games I mentioned -- in Alabama, Minnesota, Baltimore -- I went to with him. I'd moved to New Jersey for two reasons: to be closer to him and to keep myself in the kind of teaching job that gave me time to write my book. The book was almost finished, but the relationship was kaput, and I realized that I was in a place where I knew almost no one. When the game started, I wondered how it had come to this: I was a single woman in her thirties sitting alone watching television. At halftime, I called my dad on the landline and my brother on my cell phone and we "watched the game together." Sort of. And IU lost.
Here's a funny story: Shortly after the breakup, I went to Boston to spend Thanksgiving with an old college buddy and her husband. There, I experienced my first Fix-Up. They invited a friend (that rare commodity, the Straight Single Man in His Thirties) to join us for dinner. He asked me what I did for a living. I told him the truth: I'm a college professor and a writer. After dinner, Straight Single Man kept touching my ass and talking about a book he'd just read. Later, he confessed he really hadn't read it; he just figured that's what I'd want to talk about. Later, he told my friend he wasn't interested in me because I probably wasn't the kind of girl who'd watch football with him on Sundays.
Monday Night Football. Colts versus Steelers. The elevator door closes on the cry of those Steelers fans. My cat greets me at the door to my apartment. I open my mail -- bills. Check my messages -- none. I put on my pajamas and turn on the TV. Munching popcorn, I watch Peyton Manning throw an 80-yard touchdown to Marvin Harrison on the first snap. Then the phone rings, and I must track two games at once: the football game on TV and the pseudo-dating game I've been playing with the man on the phone. I met him at my faculty orientation meeting, and we've been hanging out for three months. He's smart. He laughs at my jokes. We talk on the phone for hours sometimes. He took me to my first Penguins hockey game. When he picks me up to see a movie or eat dinner, he touches my knee and says, "You look really nice tonight." I haven't heard words like this in five years so, of course, I'm crazy about him.
Wait. We're coming to the agony-of-defeat-skier-plummeting-down-the-mountain-Favre-picking-Vicodin-out-of-the-toilet part of the story. Did I mention he has a girlfriend who lives in New York City? Did I mention that he's been mentioning her less and less lately? I can't stand the tension anymore.
"Look," I tell him, trying to follow the Colts versus Steelers game. "It's fourth-and-four. What are you gonna do? Are you gonna go for it? Or are you gonna punt?"
He says, "What, do you mean I've been flirting with you? No I haven't." An hour later, he admits that yes, he has, but no, he's not leaving his girlfriend. An hour after that, I tell the Punter goodnight and hang up. The Colts have beaten the Steelers on Monday Night Football, but I'm not celebrating. I've just said good-bye to my only friend in Pittsburgh. It's late, and Shadyside is quiet and dark. Another love-life postseason has begun.
You need to know this: in the game of love, my team has always lost in spectacular fashion. As with the Colts, some seasons begin with great promise, but something goes awry in the playoffs. Afterward, I sit on the bench with my head in my hands and my heart in my stomach. I walk to the locker room, where a teammate gives me that postgame pep talk. "There is a Super Bowl ring in your future! I just know it, Cathy! Now you're a free agent, and some team is going to snatch you up!" I know I must believe this. I know there's always next year. As Tim Robbins says in Bull Durham, it's a very simple game once you learn your interview clichés. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes it rains.
A reporter sticks a microphone in my face.
Reporter:Cathy, what went wrong?
Me:Well, I'm disappointed. I put myself in good position, no question. But he had home-field advantage. He just wasn't able to take that next step, and that's disappointing. It is hard to swallow.
Reporter:Are saying it's not your fault?
Me:Well, he knew my offensive line had problems, but I know I didn't protect myself like I should have.
Reporter:Cathy, you're coming off a tough loss. You're thirty-seven years old, you've never been married. This season began with such high hopes. Everyone -- especially your mother -- really thought this was the year. How do you feel right now?
Me:Are you kidding me? How do I feel?
Reporter:Yes, how does a player pick up the pieces, year after year, come back and try again?
Me:I used to know the answer to that question. It was: You just do. But I honestly don't know if I have it in me to go through this again.
Reporter:Are you planning to retire? They say you still have a few good years left to play.
Me:Look, right now I just want to get drunk and sleep for two days, okay?
Reporter:This is Suzy Hightop reporting live. Back to you, Bob.
The Colts' amazing thirteen-game winning streak ends on December
18 against San Diego. I drive from Pittsburgh to Indiana for Christmas, but I'm in no mood for the holidays. I put on a red sweater and try to enjoy the day, but I can't shake my recent loss in the game of love. Over and over in my head, I replay my relationship with the Punter, trying to calculate what went wrong. Was it my offense or my defense? Did I have my head in the game? Or did I overthink? Was it me or him? Am I cursed?
My sister Andrea finds me alone on the back porch. "I want you to come inside," she says. "You need to stop thinking about him. You need to stop dwelling."
I look up at her. "How do you do that?" I really want to know the
"You just do it. You think about something else. You snap out of it."
"I've never been very good at that," I say.
"I know," she says softly, then gives me a hug.
Later Andrea, her husband John, and their son Clay drive home to their house in Harrison, Ohio. My brother Scott and his wife Sara drive home to their house in Batesville, Indiana. Me, I have no house -- not even in Pittsburgh. My parents' house is the closest thing I have to a home. I feel like I'm nineteen -- not thirty-seven -- and home for the holidays like a college girl.
All my life I've been a believer. I believed I would become a writer. I believed I would fall in love. I believed that this was the year the Colts would win the Super Bowl. But I can feel my faith in those things slipping away.
To prepare for the Colts versus Steelers playoff game on January 15, 2006, I replicate most -- but not all -- of the conditions of their first matchup. I'm in Pittsburgh, alone in my apartment, eating popcorn in my pajamas with my cat. But this time I don't make a bet with my students, brag on the elevator, or talk to the Punter. Later, I'll learn that 74 percent of TV sets in the Indianapolis viewing area are tuned to this game. I'm sharing the experience with three quarters of the population of central Indiana. I'm in Pittsburgh, I'm in Indiana. I'm in both places, I'm in neither. It's like waking in a dark hotel room, those "Where am I?" seconds when you're momentarily placeless. And isn't this the story of my life?
I'm in Pittsburgh, but in the RCA Dome the Colts are struggling. During the fourth quarter I call my family. Briefly I wonder if calling them is a good idea, since I wasn't talking to them -- but rather the Punter -- during the last Colts versus Steelers game. The Punter and I aren't talking anymore, but should I call anyway, for the sake of the team? No! I decide, I should not! Just then Steelers' running back, Jerome Bettis, a.k.a. "The Bus," loses the ball at the goal line. All around me I can hear Pittsburghers scream. At Cupka's Bar on the South Side, the heart of a die-hard Steelers fan literally stops beating, and he falls from his barstool. He misses what happens next: Nick Harper, whose wife had stabbed him twenty-four hours earlier, swoops up the ball and runs downfield. On the phone, my family shrieks "Goooooooooooo!" Everyone in the state of Indiana is on their feet yelling "Yessssss!" and everyone in western Pennsylvania is on their feet yelling "Nooooooooo!"
Then Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger appears, trying to get in position to stop Nick Harper. Ben lunges and falls to the turf but manages to get his hand on Harper's kneecap. Later, sports commentators will refer to this desperate, backpedaling dive as the "Immaculate Tackle" in honor of another legendary Steelers' game-saving play: Franco Harris's "Immaculate Reception." The tackle is hardly "immaculate." It's a fluke! But it's enough to bring down Harper, who -- if it hadn't been for Bearded Big Ben -- would have run the ball for a touchdown. Later the heart-
attack guy will say from his hospital bed, "It hurt me more to see [Bettis] fumble the ball, and to perhaps end his Pittsburgh career that way, than us losing the game. It was more than my heart could bear." On the sidelines, Bettis's coach and teammates reassure him. "That will not be your last carry in the NFL!" But why not? Did Walter Payton win the last game of his NFL career? No. Did Larry Bird end his coaching career with a win for the Pacers? No. Why should Jerome Bettis get what they didn't?
But there's still hope, Colts fans! Because all we need to tie the game and send it into overtime is for ace kicker Mike Vanderjagt to nail a 46-yard field goal. And unbelievably, Vanderjagt chokes. Wide right. The walls of my apartment building vibrate with ecstatic joy. Down on Forbes Avenue, my Pitt students pour into the streets. Peyton leaves the field, and I feel my heart breaking. How can your heart break for a man you don't even know? "Mom," I say into the phone, "how's everybody doing?"
"Well, Scott took off his Peyton Manning jersey, and your dad just kicked a bucket full of spare car parts all over the garage."
After we say good-bye, I pace my apartment, trying to calm down. I log onto the home pages of the Indianapolis Star and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to see the headlines. At a Pittsburgh hospital, the heart-attack man regains consciousness and asks his doctor who won. In Batesville, my father and brother go for a long walk together. They never walk anywhere, not even to the corner store for a gallon of milk, but they just don't know what else to do with themselves. I wish I had someone to commiserate with, but there's no one around except Steelers fans.
It's the day after the Colts lost to Pittsburgh. At a faculty meeting everyone's talking about the game. A colleague notices me sitting quietly and says, "Oh right, you're from Indiana. Too bad."
"It's not too bad," I say brusquely. "It's a freaking tragedy."
He thinks for a second. "Yes, I'd have to agree with you. It's a Greek tragedy. Or perhaps Norse."
Someday he might write a paper comparing the Colts' 2005 season to a play by Sophocles. Me, all I can do is compare it to my stupid love life. But isn't the correlation obvious? Aren't these Colts fans posting on an Indianapolis Star message board saying the same things I've said to myself after losing a big game of love?
"Sometimes Peyton can think too much."
"I love the Blue, but how can this organization not be cursed?"
How many times in love's postseason have I asked myself the question "What's wrong with me?" Here's Colts coach Tony Dungy's answer: "That's the hardest thing, because you do kind of get that in your own mind. You hear enough, 'What's wrong? What's wrong?' Really, most of the time there's not a whole lot wrong. It's very, very disappointing, but you do have to resist the idea that something needs to be overhauled, and I think we'll be able to do that."
I sit down to write an encouraging letter to the Colts. I want to tell them, "Guys, I know about heartbreaking losses." I want to tell them, "Don't stop believing!" I start writing, and somewhere along the way, I realize I'm writing a pep talk, not for them but for me.
So that's how this whole thing starts. I tell myself, Cathy, if the Colts can come back in 2006 and try again, so can you.
Table of Contents
2005 SEASON Don't Stop Believin' 3
TRAINING MONTAGE Nothing (and Everything) Happens During the Off-Season 13
PRESEASON Back Home Again in Indiana 35
1 @ GIANTS A Game Called "Who's Better?" 57
2 TEXANS The Uneven Playing Field 72
3 JAGUARS Schadenfreude Chili 90
4 @ JETS Against the Odds 102
5 TITANS There's No "I" in Team (But There Is a "Me") 115
6 BYE WEEK Oh, the Movie Never Ends 130
7 REDSKINS Shake It Off, Johnny, Rub Some Dirt on It 144
8 @ BRONCOS When the Going Gets Tough 154
9 @ PATRIOTS A Good Old-Fashioned Locker-Room Speech 167
10 BILLS Who Will Be Mr. Friday Night? 185
11 @ COWBOYS Curses! 202
12 EAGLES What Would Peyton Manning Do? 213
13 @ TITANS Defense! Defense! Defense! 233
14 @ JAGUARS Do You Believe in Miracles? 244
15-17 BENGALS, @ TEXANS, DOLPHINS Are We There (at the Playoffs) Yet? 255
WILD-CARD PLAYOFF GAME CHIEFS Someone to Watch the Game With 271
AFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF @ RAVENS Ravenge 281
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP PATRIOTS Exorcising Demons Everywhere 297
SUPER BOWL XLI BEARS On the Road to the Super Bowl 310