A look at sports and fans, with pieces by Bill Smoot, Gilbert Arzola and Kathy Mangan.
Welcome to Burning Bright, a weekly podcast presenting poetry and prose from Passager.
On this episode, a look at sports and the guys that play them and the guys that watch them.
First, an excerpt from Bill Smoot’s story “Bobby Miller’s Fall” from Passager Issue 70.
It is said that we secretly wish for the failure of others, and that when they fall, we are glad. That was not true of us, back then, in Kentucky, when we were young. No one wanted Bobby Miller to fall.
Even on the playground in elementary school, he had been larger than life, running the fastest and jumping the highest. He was the strongest and the best coordinated. As he grew older, these qualities grew with him. By the time he entered high school everyone understood that Bobby Miller was the best athlete in town.
In his sophomore year Bobby Miller became the school’s first five-letter man: basketball, baseball, football, tennis, and track. Tennis was a late addition. He learned to play one summer, and by the next year he was number one on the team. Basketball was his best sport. It was thought that he would get a basketball scholarship to the University of Kentucky. That was such a big thing that the coaches sat him down and convinced him to drop football so as not to risk injury. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
Part of his perfection was that he was not perfect. People would say, “He’s a good-looking kid,” but no Hollywood scout would pluck him off of the street for the movies. In the classroom he occupied that golden mean above the dummies but below the brains. He was friendly, but not the life of the party. Bobby Miller’s father worked in the local factory, so his family was neither rich nor poor . . .
What Bobby Miller meant to us was that it’s possible to win. Not just win a game — though that was important — but something about him enabled us to believe that the sick could be cured, that the person you loved would love you back, that life would give you a fair shake. The glow that shone on him fell on us all. That’s why what happened at the carnival shook us the way it did.
An excerpt from Bill Smoot’s story “Bobby Miller’s Fall.” Bill grew up in the 50s and 60s in Maysville, KY, a little town on the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Portsmouth. This story is one of several he wrote that’s set in a similar time and place.
Gilbert Arzola grew up a couple hundred miles northwest of Maysville in northwest Indiana. He was the son of a Mexican migrant worker. From his book Prayers of Little Consequence, here’s his poem “Behind the Barracks.”
My father loved three sports. Only two were real.
And one was against the law.
He loved the Cubs — Ernie and Billy and the disaster of sixty-nine.
Friday nights he squinted into a twelve inch
Motorola at Gorgeous George and Dick The Bruiser and
yelled into it as if you could holler loud enough
to chase away fate. And on Sunday afternoons
behind the migrant barracks he stood in the circle of brown-skinned men
watching cock fights. On Sunday afternoons beneath clouds like soft white feathers
the fields were quiet except for the echo of shiny brown faces yelling
into its green and dirt the color of blood
from a rooster with no choice
but to fight.
“Behind the Barracks.” Gilbert Arzola from his book Prayers of Little Consequence.
Kathy Mangan lives near the Johns Hopkins University campus in Baltimore and walks the track regularly. Here’s her poem “The Practice.”
I’m speed-walking the university track,
its rubbery surface giving satisfyingly
under my sneaker soles. In the stadium’s
center, the men’s lacrosse team
performs its drills, girding for the spring
season. It’s late February, the air softening,
plowed chunks of snow trickling —
almost musically — into grates.
Assistant coaches stalk the sidelines, armed
with clipboards and whistles. Helmeted
and padded, the players thrash their sticks
in huge, gloved hands. Sticks clash
and clack, onrushing boys grunt
and howl, stampeding from netted goal
to goal. Their hurled balls whoosh
from cradle to cradle, some thumping
the artificial turf.
The Head Coach hollers Stop!
and stomps into a clot of masked
players. Jeezus Christ! he bellows so hoarsely
Chri-ist breaks into two syllables. You’re all
soft! he bawls. You gotta get phys-i-cal, he growls
into one boy’s caged face.
Every lap swings me under the towering score-
board in an end zone. There, I can hear the girls’
team at play on a lower field. Nice shot, Ashley!
wafts my way. Katie, good try! echoes, and
Shannon, try to assist Josie! a trilled voice
urges. Up here, midfield, cracks and curses
slice the air. The boys — fuck-ing idiots! —
assume their positions.
Kathy Mangan’s poem “The Practice” from her book Taproot. She said, “I was always appalled at the way he treated his student athletes, but then, I’m a soft-hearted poet.”
To buy Kathy Mangan’s book Taproot or Gilbert Arzola’s book Prayers of Little Consequence or Passager Issue 70, or to subscribe to or learn more about Passager and its commitment to writers over 50, go to passagerbooks.com. You can download Burning Bright from Spotify, Apple and Google Podcasts, and various other podcast apps.