I have a strange combination of tunnel-vision desire to win anything I compete in and crippling fear of failure. So when I first heard about a sports spelling bee at ESPNZone this past Tuesday, I only had a couple of days to chicken out and decide not to go even though I officially registered for it by e-mail. The event was Thursday (last night), and I had to call my job several times to find someone with authority to give me the day off work, yet still I came close to not going. Wednesday night, I found myself contemplating how embarrassing it would be if I made the trek downtown and got all riled up only to get knocked out in the first round on some obscure hockey player's name. Then, in a flash, I got the inspiration to go to the Blackhawks web site and look at their roster, just to see if I could perhaps memorize the crazy surnames hockey players seem to possess. And with that, I decided that I was in. If I'm going through the trouble of doing even a little bit of studying for such a goofy event, then by God, I was going to take my shot.
I also have a tardiness problem, inherited from my dad. So I arrived at ESPNZone at 6:35P, five minutes later than I was requested. I rushed out of the train station and speed-walked two blocks to the place, and panting hard, I asked the young black girl at the front desk, "I'm embarrassed to say this, but I'm here for the Sports Spelling Bee?" "Why should you be embarrassed?" she said with a smile. "You might actually win the thing." How nice of her to not laugh in my face, as I'm sure she must have been tempted to do. She directed me to someone sitting at a desk upstairs, who gave me an entry sheet to fill not and told me to hurry into the pre-game briefing and bring her the sheet later. I stepped into a side room--coincidentally, a room where my friends and I sat and had dinner the last time I was at ESPNZone, about five years ago--and as I put on my participant's placard and sized up the competition, I thanked my lucky stars that I wasn't too late. The moderator for the event, a Bob Saget look-alike in a suit more expensive than my wardrobe, was giving the rundown of how a spelling bee works, and because I'm a veteran of spelling bees, I didn't think I missed anything pertinent, so that allowed me to catch my breath and relax. He said at one point that the names in the first few rounds would be rather easy and would be current Chicago sports names, so it would be a get-your-feet-wet situation. Some guy mistook that for getting a free pass in the first round, and we all had a chuckle at the idea. I figured the others competing would be nerdy white men, and I was right. There were fifteen of us, and one was a white woman, and two (including me) were brothas. Considering the prizes for the winner--a VIP party at ESPNZone, two White Sox tickets, and a trophy--I thought there may have been more, but there was no publicity for the event. I heard about it because I'm a member of a Facebook group for former National Spelling Bee participants, and the moderator of the group works for ESPN, so she posted a one-line blurb about it and put a link to the website.
I didn't have time to get nervous after the briefing, because Bob Saget led us to the front where the big-screen TVs show various sporting events in perpetuity and started the show. The sound for all the TVs was turned down, and Bob Saget let everyone know that he was aiming for us to be finished by the time the Magic-Cavaliers NBA playoff game started at 7:30P, to which I thought to myself, Man, he must have some hard names on his list if he plans to have us all eliminated in the next half-hour. He introduced the first contestant as last year's winner, and I started to get a little scared at the thought that hey, maybe there are some guys in this field that are even bigger sports geeks than me and will spell until midnight if they have to. We all stood in order of arrival against the wall and walked to the back of the line when we got a word right, so I, being #15, had to wait until everyone spelled one name before I had my crack. And when the first person got eliminated--he froze on the name Urlacher, which is dumb if you live in Chicago because he's a legend here--I thought, yes, I'm not the first guy out! The woman was about three people ahead of me, and I heard her chatting with someone else in line, telling him, "I'm gonna win." And believe it or not, that actually got me fired up. Not because it was a girl saying that, but because how dare anyone say that out loud. I took offense for some reason. I guess I figured that we're all here trying to win, so for her to verbalize her plan to win regardless of everyone else was more than a little arrogant, and besides, I'm the former Spelling Bee champ here, so if anyone has a right to victory, it's me! When Bob Saget asked me if I had a job that helped me in knowing all these names, I responded, "No, but I must admit. I am the 1990 Chicagoland Spelling Bee champion." I heard some cheers from the people for that, then I saw a yellow flag fly towards me. The judge, a curly-haired guy who couldn't have been older than 23, had "penalized" me for being a ringer, to which I replied, "You never said that professionals weren't allowed!" I was much more relaxed after that exchange.
I have to say, they pulled some fucked-up names not only from the Blackhawks but from the Chicago Fire soccer team that would have eliminated me had I gotten those names. But I didn't. And as the competition went along and people dropped off--the otha brotha, some prick from Milwaukee, some guy in a St. Louis Cardinals cap, the girl, a guy right in front of me with those paraplegic support stilts that attach to your wrists because his legs were all rubbery, and even last year's champ, who didn't know there were two Rs in Correll Buckhalter's first name--I started to have a little more fun with each turn. At one point I wrote out the name on my placard with my finger, like the little nerds do in the actual spelling bee because they're visualizing the word, and at a couple of other points when Bob Saget read off NBA names that had been retired several years ago like Dan Majerle or Detlef Schrempf, I gave him a raised eyebrow and said, "Are you serious?" That got a laugh out of the crowd. But the reality was, either you knew the names or you didn't, and fortunately I knew all of the names I got. However, I'm old, so I don't remember the name that I got right to win. I do remember my celebration when I won--an exaggerated fist pump and four thumps of the chest with both fists like I saw Rafer Alston do for the Magic a few nights ago. I proudly held my trophy up for the patrons to see, and they politely applauded for the geek with way too much glee for winning a sports spelling bee. Then I was interviewed by a reporter for a newspaper in Indiana, congratulated by some of the competitors who stuck around for the end, and asked to fill out some release forms by Bob Saget, who also took a bunch of pictures of me and the trophy. Then I shook his hand and went right back to the train station that I just ran out of a couple of hours ago, shaking my head at how eerily similar the experience was to my win in 1990. All the same emotions--pride, joy, shame at being so happy about something so utterly meaningless, and a little bit of bashfulness at my moment in the spotlight. And the same lasting emotion when all the others have cycled through--the thought that no matter what, I accomplished something, and no one can ever take it away.