Thursday, February 5, 2009

How athletes cope with the worst month in sports

Let's face it: The Super Bowl is over and now we have...

Nothing. Until March, that is.

Cue World's Strongest Man reruns!

My latest DT column here:

With Valentine’s Day rapidly approaching, I feel it’s an appropriate time to mention that February gets no love from the sports world.

January is witness to the NFL playoffs, the Bowl Championship Series, the perennial Rafa-Federer classic and for all intents and purposes, the Super Bowl.

February brings us the muscled behemoth Magnus Ver Magnusson. From every angle. Pure man.

The month of love also gives Kobe Bryant ample opportunity to wink at you, in hopes it will engender amorous feelings toward a regular season that displays less effort than Grandma playing slots.

No playoffs. No tournaments. No love lost.

So what to do?

A place like USC is stocked with sports-loving, sports-playing and sports-watching fiends. Club and intramural sports are among the most popular student activities, and USC football is the most unifying event on campus.

It seems the natural answer is to consult USC athletes themselves, who are as big of sports fans as you and I.

They can see true sport from a mile away; so I asked them to show us February through their eyes.

“For me, February is not at all a downer for sports fans,” said basketball senior and resident all-everything man Keith Wilkinson. “I don’t think the NBA is very exciting to watch during the regular season, but as far as college basketball, I watch every game I can because these are all teams playing for one goal, and that is to make the NCAA tournament.”

The “Great White Hope” has a point. With the Pac-10 being labeled as a four-or-five bid league, every game will matter down the stretch for Wilkinson and his teammates.

Last February, after all, was when Wilkinson went en fuego, quickly becoming a fan favorite and helping lead his team into the postseason.

Show us the love, Keith — Galen Center is ready for it.

But enough of the basketball — everyone knows it’s out there, because it’s ESPN’s one and only lifeline during February.

What ESPN doesn’t show (and what ESPN assumes fans don’t care to watch) is the beautiful game: soccer. Turns out the sports media giant might be missing the boat.

And by boat, I mean the 6-foot-5, 295-pound USC defensive tackle Fili Moala. Dude gives it up for the other men on the grass.

“They dribble with their feet and still juke people,” said Moala, who is currently spending seven hours per day training for the NFL Draft. “Madrid, AC Milan and all those guys — I appreciate everyone for what they do.”

Ronaldinho versus Moala in full contact soccer. You organize it, I’ll sell it.

Men’s water polo player Jovan Vranes echoes Moala’s sentiment and admits to checking the soccer schedule every day.

“There are a bunch of top-notch competitions going on in Europe or in South America right now,” Vranes said, adding that you can’t find much soccer on ESPN, which tends to favor more sophisticated competitions like chain saw log-cutting and throwing kegs over walls.

And about those World’s Strongest Man reruns — athletes watch them, even if they aren’t quite sure why.

“OK, I’ll admit I actually have watched the Strong Man competitions,” said women’s basketball guard Hailey Dunham. “I think it’s the ridiculous challenges like pulling a fire truck a certain length that grabs my attention. It’s amazing to see how strong these men have to be to perform such challenges.”

Vranes’ water polo teammate Matt Sagehorn watches the obscure sports for a different reason.

“The appeal to me is that watching people who cut wood really fast or run on a floating log or even throw a keg over a wall is absolutely hilarious,” Sagehorn said.

Magnusson versus Sagehorn in full contact water polo sans referees. Again, you organize it, I’ll sell it.

After all, that’s what February is all about — enjoying sports for the sake of competition. Because you certainly aren’t going to find the volume of quality TV programming associated with other months.

And most athletes are cool with that.

Or as Moala put it, “You can watch this little Asian guy pound what, like 50 hot dogs?”

Amen, Fili. Amen.

For the rest of us, we’re lucky enough to be surrounded by a campus full of great sports stories, even if you might not know they’re in the making.

Vranes and Sagehorn’s squad won the national title in December, finishing a perfect 29-0. Women’s golf is in position for its second-straight NCAA championship and third in seven seasons. Women’s basketball gives you all the bravery without the bravado.

ESPN is nice, but let’s face it — February is a month to celebrate live sporting events.

Start spreading the love.

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