Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Day My Childhood Ended

So there I was: pounding away on the treadmill, zoning out ... about to slip into the rabbit hole of a day dream.

Then, one of the gym's TV monitors caught my eye - for once, one of the screens actually had something worth watching! It was an ESPN Classic replay of a historic boxing match: James "Buster" Douglas vs. Mike Tyson. Iron Mike was my hero back in the day - I was in awe of his aura of invincibility ... and then it all came crashing down with a Buster Douglas uppercut. Tyson was knocked out ... left hobbling on his knees, looking for his mouthpiece.

You see, this was probably the greatest upset in the history of boxing - and it signaled the day my childhood ended.

It was February of 1990. I was home on a Saturday night, playing Nintendo without a care in the world. I was light years away from a driver's license - so what did I care that I was home on a Saturday night? The match took place in Japan and wasn't televised through normal channels - it was probably a Pay-Per-View offering. So when the local news carried the story of the shocking upset, all they had were still photographs of Tyson getting knocked out, video unavailable due to the PPV embargo. I was stunned. Devastated. Before that, I thought the only way to defeat Mike Tyson was as "Little Mac" in the videogame Mike Tyson's Punchout.

I knew there was no Santa, no Easter Bunny ... but I still had my sports heroes - my invincible heroes.

In the years that followed, Tyson was revealed as a self-destructing monster that went to jail for rape. Two years later, my Oakland A's traded away my all-time favorite baseball player, Jose Canseco, who was also revealed as a bad guy many years later. Next came Marcus Allen, my first boyhood football hero, who ended his misery with the Raiders and signed with the hated Kansas City Chiefs in 1993. The last straw for me, the blow that completely closed the door on my innocence, was when my basketball hero, the U of M's Chris Webber, whined and cried his way out of Oakland by forcing a trade from the Warriors to the Washington Bullets in 1994.

It was a four-year stretch of misery that forced me to look in the mirror and say: "grow up." I remember my Dad threatening not to let me play high school football unless I'd completed the 80 hours of "Catholic Community Service" mandated by my high school. I cried about it privately and emerged from my bedroom as a man - I sacked up, signed up for volunteer work at Kaiser Hospital and negotiated a deal with my Dad and played football. I took control of my life and probably grew a chest hair or two in the process.

I realized then that life was real - that life was hard. There was no time for real-life heroes - it was all a manipulation by marketers and PR folks. So, I moved on with my life sans sports heroes. Now, as they say, I just root for laundry.

As long as Super Mario and Captain America aren't revealed to be rapists or steroid abusers, I think I can continue to have faith in humanity - at least fictional, 2-D humanity. For if it wasn't for electronic reality, I wouldn't have no reality at all.

'Nuff said.