Zak of All Trades: The communal nature of the fall sports season

Wednesday morning, my sports writers each returned to the office as red as red can be in the face and looking like they'd been hit by a pair of semis after one of the longest days on our coverage calendar — Fall Sports Picture Day.

Spring and winter sports are more manageable with fewer teams to take pictures of, but the fall sports calendar is full and booming with activities — so many that we are forced to send a pair of photographers up just to get the task completed.

They had to start much earlier than their normal day commences — with a schedule that runs regularly until midnight before they even get to leave work, getting up to meet the sun, I know, is quite the task.
I know because I've been in their shoes.

And you know what? I know exactly how they felt. They came back exhausted and knowing most of the work was still ahead of them — writing cutlines that name every single player in every single photo, toning the photos, continuing to call the coaches from some of the other areas who have been stubborn, to put it nicely, about returning their calls for going on two weeks now.

But, while I knew they were exhausted, through their sun-burnt faces I could see something else, too — a little bit of excitement getting ready to grow.

The fall sports season is a rush. Football is the "main headliner," as it draws the biggest crowds and is the sport that people in this area know and embrace so well, thanks in large part to the success of the Pittsburgh Steelers and other programs in the area. We all know the rules of football and can embrace it.

As for me, football is one of my big three. Joining it are hockey and baseball, and if you ask me what my favorite sport is, depending on the time of the year it is, you'll get one of three answers. But football brings a special kind of excitement for me.

Football is a community sport. If you're a sports page regular, you've probably already read a piece our new sports writer, Michael Waterloo, did on the communal aspect of fantasy football. If you haven't read it, check out Thursday's page 6. It was well-done!

While I truly enjoyed the piece, I'm one who will say that I'm not a fantasy football player. I tried it, and there were two problems with my playing: I forgot to update my team quite regularly, and I wouldn't draft any players I didn't like.

The first problem was one that I wasn't prepared for. I'm the kind of guy who sticks with a player through thick and thin, so I was prepared to set a lineup and pretty much stick with it.

By Week 2 of the NFL season, I realized how much work checking injury reports can be, and by the first bye week, I had three players who should have been sitting on the bench. In our league, I argued, everyone made the playoffs, so it didn't matter if I updated them or not through the regular season. I'd still get in. My friends weren't fans of my logic.

The second problem — the drafting issue — was just as problematic. There are a lot of teams I consider rivals to my beloved Steelers, and I absolutely refused to draft anyone who I considered a rival player.
Back then, Ray Rice was one of the hottest topics as a member of the Baltimore Ravens, and my friends couldn't believe I passed on him when my turn came.

They quickly figured out my strategy, though, when I drafted a No. 3 receiver from — you guessed it — the Steelers, to fill my own third receiver slot. Apparently that logic doesn't transfer.

So, I'm not exactly sure that you could say I quit playing fantasy football. I just wasn't exactly welcomed back into any of the leagues I'd tried that year. Besides, even if I could set all that stuff aside — my two issues — I'm still terrible at anything like that. All it takes is a look at my March Madness bracket to confirm that. It's a sad state of affairs.

But, despite my lack of desire to enter the fantasy realm, I still consider football a very communal game. As a baseball and hockey fan growing up, I found that not everyone shared my passion for the sports. When I wore my Penguins gear to school the day of a game, I was the only one. When I would ask someone how the Pirates did the night before — on the rare occasion I wasn't listening to it on my portable radio wherever I was — I was shocked how many people didn't know.

But come Steelers Friday — the day where we were all encouraged to show our spirit by wearing the black and the gold — the place was full of fans. It was a sport for which I could share my passion for the game with others just as passionate.

I watched games with my dad and my brother growing up. I always knew it would be on the TV. It was a communal game for me.

I wasn't much of an athlete growing up, but our football players are far from being the only athletes taking to their respective fields this fall. While I covered Punxsy sports I fell in love with covering soccer games. Soccer had never excited me — and still doesn't on the national level — but you might just see me sneaking into the stands for a Saturday game this year to see how the teams are doing.

The only sport I played in high school — golf — is probably the one that I was least qualified for. I'm a terrible golfer, but if you drive past the Punxsutawney Country Club this year, there just might be a few bright red shirts you recognize. Just don't honk at them during their backswing!

The list goes on and on — cheerleading, junior high basketball, girls' tennis, band camp — so many students preparing to participate in their sports and activities and pour everything they have into it.

These students are a part of our community — a big part of it — and I am proud to say that I support everything they do. And I know I'm not alone. Parents, grandparents, friends of the family and complete strangers will be in the stands watching these games, because every sport in this town is communal. Sports bring people together, and the time of year they come together most often is definitely the fall sports season.

The days of staying home because there's "nothing to do" are in the past, folks. Check out the fall sports schedule, and together we can show these kids they're an important part of our community by sharing in the communal nature of the games that they play.

Go red-and-white!

Zak Lantz is the editor of The Spirit and will always be a Punxsy-proud sports fanatic.