Michael Katz

Michael Katz

Dear 2020,

Don’t let the door hit ya where the good lord split ya.

If it seems like this last year was longer than normal, there is some truth/science behind that: We had a Feb. 29, so technically it was a really long year. Did we really need that extra day, given everything else? Methinks not.

January rolled around and, for the most part, things were fairly normal. The University of Wyoming football team ended its 2019 season with a New Year’s Eve win over Georgia State in the Arizona Bowl. We had the College Football Playoff. So far so good, right?

Things took a turn for the worse at the end of January when Kobe Bryant was tragically killed in a helicopter accident along with eight others – lives taken far too soon, including one of his daughters. Kobe was my Michael Jordan. I grew up 30 minutes from Staples Center. He was the athlete who got me into watching sports. I cried that Sunday afternoon when the rumors circulating social media turned into a painful reality. He was gone, and with it a piece of my childhood disappeared, as well.

That was, quite literally, the tip of 2020’s iceberg.

We made it to early March largely unscathed before the next punch was thrown: the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were canceled, as were all NCAA spring sports, due to a novel coronavirus no one completely understood. From there, the snowball rolled down the hill: cities were shut down, businesses closed, and Zoom happy hours became the not-quite-adequate substitute for hugs and handshakes.

Then it came time for college football in Laramie. And then it was gone for a month because of COVID-19. And then it came back. But even when it was back, it was still an exercise in teeth clenching to see what games would actually be played on a weekly basis.

I have an old-school daily planner next to my computer that goes a couple of days into 2021. I’m not kidding when I say that, in the Jan. 1 box, I wrote (edited for publication) “Thank goodness.” The end of this year can’t come soon enough.

But I’m the type of person that likes to find glass half full ways of looking at life. If you constantly focus on the bad things, you’re going to be miserable. Yes, there are some tangible reasons 2020 wasn’t all terrible. My Lakers and Dodgers won titles, the latter for the first time since before I was born.

More important, though, were the lessons I learned about myself and about the world over the past year. Would I trade those experiences and lessons if it meant a year of normalcy? Without hesitation. But that’s not how things work, and sometimes the best we can do is learn from the Clayton Kershaw-like curveballs it throws our way.

To end 2020 on a high note – if that’s even possible – I put together a list of things I learned about not just myself, but about the work I do and the community I live in. Doing so has allowed me to take lessons from this last year, rather than crumple it up into a ball and shoot it into the nearest trash can yelling “Kobe!” I refuse to let 366 bad days beat me.

So, here is my list of life lessons from the mind of a 32-year-old who is already looking to the next horizon.

1. 4.5 months is a long time without sports

Not counting the Korean Baseball Organization that aired at like 3 a.m. every night (yes, I watched), we didn’t have live, major sports for more than a quarter of the year. Think about that: every time you turned on ESPN from mid-March through late July, when MLB got going, it was either a rerun of a past event, a talk show or the cornhole championships, which I also watched because I am a degenerate sports fan.

Like all of my other sports watching peers, I had to find a hobby. And by “hobby” I mean “something else I can do while eating snacks on my couch with a beer. I started off by playing a lot of video games. I went back into the vault and played games I quit 10 years prior because I couldn’t get through them. Well, once I did finished them, the carpel tunnel set in, and I got bored. Next up on the to-do list was streaming shows on Netflix.

I started with “Tiger King,” which legitimately feels like it happened in 1995. That was a weird mini-series about an illegal big-cat attraction and a maybe murder (?). I got some good memes out of it for a while, particularly since the lead of the show, Joe Exotic, attended Laramie High.

After that thrill wore off, I watched “Love is Blind,” which was somehow even sadder than the show about cats in captivity. People had to get to know one another without actually ever seeing each other face-to-face and propose before setting eyes on them. It was just as odd as it sounds. Yet here I am, having watched every episode, having shared thoughts on it with my friends in a group chat.

I then moved on to watching “Catfish,” that show about people meeting online and occasionally getting scammed. I didn’t just dabble. I watched every single episode.

These were my sports substitutes. It made me realize that 1) I probably need more hobbies and 2) there really isn’t a replacement for sports if you are an avid fan.

2. Football means more to me than I thought

When the Mountain West football season was initially postponed Aug. 24, I thought I would be OK. It was a chance for a breather, I told myself that night. I’d figure out things to do. Well … it wasn’t that simple.

When the SEC and Big 12 forged ahead with their seasons and I found myself sitting in my living room on Saturdays, rather than being a press box, I was honestly crestfallen. Watching football is wonderful, but it isn’t why I enjoy covering games. I do what I do because you build relationships and find stories you can’t see in a box score or a television broadcast.

The joy in journalism – for me, anyway – is conversing with people you might not otherwise get to and finding out why the subject ended up where they are. Even if it’s just a quick bite, learning someone’s mini-biography is invaluable. You learn how different everyone’s life experience is, from childhood on. You make sense of the world by learning as much as you can about the people around you. And, to be honest, sports reporting is no different.

I enjoy talking to players and coaches. I love doing deep-dive features on athletes and how they overcame hardships. Watching games is great, and traveling to new stadiums is something I don’t take for granted. But the thrill of this job is telling stories about extraordinary people, and for about a month, that joy was gone.

So when the season was brought back in late September, I was out-of-my-mind happy. Not just because I’d get to spend my afternoons and evenings in press boxes with free food watching college football. I was happy because I’d be able to do what I love again. Sometimes, you don’t realize how important a thing is until you lose it. When I lost the season and then had it given back, it meant more than I could have ever imagined. It made me feel whole again.

3. There are far more important things than sports

As I wax poetic about how important football is to me, I will naturally contradict that sentiment immediately. Kind of.

Being stuck in Laramie for the better part of nine months is tough. Not because it’s Laramie. I love this place. It’s more that I was 1,000 miles away from family in Los Angeles and, to be honest, this last year or so has been when I’ve needed to see my parents most.

I’m very close with my family (dogs included). Generally speaking, I can fly from Denver back home within two hours. It’s an easy flight. On the ground, however, it’s about 16 hours of driving through flat land through four different states. In recent months, I’ve learned I’m strong enough to make it on my own, which is important to discover. But I’d rather learn that lesson in a different way.

My parents are in their 60s. The last thing I would do is put them at risk of COVID-19, no matter how badly I was homesick. I did make the expedition home by car over the summer. That’s the only time I’ve been home in the past nine months, and for someone who takes family extremely seriously, that’s been the hardest thing of all.

I know there are a lot of people who have it way worse than I do. A young man I went to college with died from COVID-19. It’s very real and very serious. So in the grand scheme of things, being on what is essentially house arrest for several months certainly isn’t the worst thing in the world. Particularly when you have “Tiger King” to watch.

But what this whole ordeal has made me realize is just how important family is to me. When you can take a quick flight home every couple months, if even just for a weekend, it kind of satisfies that need to be around loved ones. When that’s taken, you realize how fortunate you are to have a family you care about and want to see. You also realize the need to cherish every moment you have with family, given the chance. You can bet that the second I get my COVID-19 vaccine and my parents do, too, I’ll be on the first flight to California.

I miss watching the dogs romp around the yard. I miss sitting on the patio and having cocktails with my family as dinner is getting ready. I miss driving by my old stomping grounds that I occupied centuries ago. I miss hugging my parents.

So in the meantime, take that phone call from mom or dad. Send more texts to your family than you think is necessary. Hell, be annoying about it, if you can. FaceTime or hop on Zoom with people you care about. Let loved ones know how you’re doing, and if you aren’t OK, let them know.

There’s never been a time more than now where we all need a shoulder to lean on. Would I prefer physically leaning on that shoulder? Of course. But an emoji is the next best thing.

4. Wyoming is wonderful

California will always be my home. Anyone who knows me is aware of how much I love the West Coast. But if I was going to be stuck essentially by myself (my closest family to Wyoming is a good 400 miles way), there’s a lot worse places I could be than The Equality State.

For one, us Wyomingites (allow me to call myself that, if only for this column) are social distancers by nature. There’s a lot of land here and not a ton of people. So other than normal inconveniences, like not being able to sit at a restaurant or the gym being closed, my everyday life didn’t change too drastically. I was just home a lot more, working at my desk, rather than at a coffee shop.

But I think the thing that really changed my perspective on the whole COVID era was the people I was surrounded by. Not just people at work, but the community of WyoSports readers as a whole.

I never really felt alone, even if it was just through social media interaction. I’ve been in this profession long enough to know that there are bad eggs within every fanbase. I’m a consistently disgruntled USC graduate, and I am a terrible egg at times.

Wyoming is filled with caring, encouraging people, and that supersedes any irrational fandom that may occasionally pop up. People here are encouraging and, more than anything, seem to genuinely care. I’ve written about this before, but it’s rare you can be plopped into a place you had never been and feel like you’re home within a few months.

I think that caring nature is best exemplified by a recent interaction I had with a UW coach. A few weeks ago, my beloved dog Rocky died back home in California. He was my boy, and I was his person. It tore me apart for days on end. I cried a lot.

But offensive line coach Bart Miller – who recently took a job at the University of Illinois – sent me a message filled with his condolences and his own experiences with his dog. He was not the only coach to reach out to me, either. And this warmth extended beyond people employed by UW. It was local friends texting me to make sure I was OK, wanting to know if I needed anything, even if it was just to be a sounding board.

Again, you don’t get that every place you go. You expect it from your longtime friends and your family, but to get that comfort from people you’ve known tangentially for 14 months is truly special. I never thought I would find comfort in people I consider to be largely strangers. But this year has been full of surprises, and finding unexpected kindness was truly one of its best revelations.

OK, enough about 2020. I’m ready for whatever 2021 has in store, and my fingers are permanently crossed that it holds more joy than this past year did. But I think one of the most important things you can do when put in a bad situation is to learn from it, to grow from it, and to try and make sure the hardships weren’t in vain.

I encourage you to reflect, if possible or not too painful, on what you learned from this past year. You might find out you were stronger than you thought. You could discover what’s really important to you. And, if you’re as fortunate as I am, you’ll realize you’re never really alone.

Michael Katz covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at mkatz@wyosports.net or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @michaellkatz.

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