This morning, as the PAC-12 clung to college sports purgatory like it was a puffy coat on a January morning, my niece came to town. She is about nine months older than my three-year-old son, my only child, it is always a joy to watch them play together. She lives across the country, and they’re both only children- so the sense of belonging and understanding they have with each other is as special for me as it is for them. About an hour ago they found each other’s baby pictures, which prompted a surprisingly detailed conversation about the origins of belly buttons, and then a discombobulating storm of emotions in me.
What is the emotional equilibrium between the reunion of loved ones and sending expletive laden GIFs about college sports to friends for three days straight? Then it hit me. I am this beautiful child’s uncle, and one day, at a Thanksgiving, a summer BBQ, or God forbid an Apple Cup party, I will be this beautiful child’s drunk uncle.
She will come to me and ask why I care so much about WSU. I’ll respond by talking about the 1997 Rose Bowl, meeting my wife in Pullman, and teammates shooting five-hour energies just before kickoff. She will ask what the Rose Bowl was, and from her point of view, I will get suddenly and inexplicably sad while avoiding the answer.
A few drinks later, she might make the mistake of mentioning college football in a large group we’re both in. A loud cuss word will erupt, and I’ll talk about the Huskies breaking Matt Kegel’s leg for an inordinate and uncomfortable amount of time. She will notice this. I will not.
Somehow, at dinner, she will whisper something about sports at the children’s table, and I will erupt cranberry sauce and ole’ ball stories 10 yards away- this time reaching for drunk uncle staples like ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ and ‘those fools in Olympia’ as I deftly transition to a classic rant about how the PAC-10 almost became the PAC-16 once.
“We were going to have TEXAS and OKLAHOMA!”.
“Sure Steve,” my niece’s father would say, “sure you were.”
“WE WOULD HAVE BEEN THE SUPER CONFERENCE. PETE CARROL WAS STILL AT SC!*”
*Pete Carrol might not have actually still been at USC. But it was close! Drunk Uncle close for sure.
“Yes, we know. We know that Steve, now can you please lower your voice.”
“LARRY SCOTT!! OH, LOUD?? YES, SURE, yes, of course. Sorry. I got a bit worked up there.”
Inexplicably, after dinner the young women, who from that night on will refer to me as ‘her dad’s drunk friend’, will ask me what the PAC-10 was. An understandable mistake given that she is seven years old. Her mom will hold her breath in the chair across the living room while I groggily hesitate to answer.
“Uncle Steven? What was the PAC-10?” she’ll ask with more confidence the second time.
Finally, I’ll nod, stare at the glass of Kirkland Bourbon teetering in my right hand, and say simply: “Something from before you were born that I miss very much.”
“But my Daddy says it’s still around.”
“Yeah Shortta” I will slur in reply, the rings under my eyes somehow deepening in real time.
“Would you like a hug Uncle Steven?”
A nod, a cuddle, and a nap will ensue.
“Why is he always like this?” someone will ask, after they’re sure I’m passed out.
“He’s not always like this.”
“But why is he always like this when we talk about colleges?”
“Because it mattered to him, and it changed,” my wife will say.
“But that happens all the time.”
“But he couldn’t do anything about it, and it got worse.”
“But THAT happens all the time too.”
“And there are a lot of drunk uncles in the world, aren’t there?” The feigned pretention will be transparent in my wife’s tone, but the comment will land anyway.
The room will stare into their cups for a few moments after that, before someone brings out the pie, decaf, and -finally- a new topic. Meanwhile, a drunk uncle and his niece will snooze late into the evening, and well into the 4th quarter.