By the fifth day, the sand had embedded in my ears, the mountain chill had seeped into my bones, and the overcooked, hospital-grade food had brought my digestive system to the brink of surrender. Life on a NATO military base in eastern Afghanistan wasn’t the worst kind of hardship — many Afghans living outside the wire coveted the security we had inside — but after nearly a week on a reporting assignment there, I was ready to leave. Trouble was, the next helicopter available to fly me back to the Afghan capital, Kabul — the two-hour trip by car was considered an invitation to kidnapping or worse — wouldn’t arrive for several more days.
It was fine, however, because the base had Internet, and USC, my alma mater, was playing Stanford in one of our biggest games of the season.
Had I been back in my office in Kabul, where I shared a shaky Afghan wireless connection with a few other journalists, tapping into a bootleg video stream of the game, or even a reliable audio broadcast, would have been an exercise in frustration. But on the military base, our U.S. taxpayer dollars financed something wonderful called Morale Net — an Internet hookup conceived to allow service members to stay in touch with their families. My room in a prefab metal trailer was tiny and cold, but it had its own Morale Net line, so it was with something approaching joy that I set my alarm for 4 a.m. on a Sunday — just before kickoff in Los Angeles.
These odd calculations about time differences, data speeds, and travel plans you can’t make on Orbitz have become routine for me. I’ve been a foreign correspondent since 2005, working primarily in trouble spots in Africa and the Middle East, which means that I’ve spent at least part of the past seven football seasons in unusual places on the opposite side of the globe. I love my job, but I also love sports, particularly college football, and in my case these two passions don’t go particularly well together. While my buddies back home are heading to bars and tailgates, I’m sitting in dingy airports, drinking tea with tribal elders, or attending parties in far-flung capitals where no one ever cares nearly as much about the score in Ann Arbor or Berkeley as I do. I’ve worn out the refresh key on a succession of smartphones, but GameCast on a three-inch screen does not a football season make.
The life of an expatriate American sports fan can be a lonely one, I’ve learned, especially since our big sports are ours alone. They don’t translate abroad.
In the fall of 2005, eight months after going to Miami to watch USC destroy Oklahoma for the BCS title,1 I moved to Nairobi, Kenya, for my first overseas posting. Following football from Africa was a challenge. Satellite TV aired two or three college or NFL games every week, but rarely ones I wanted to see. There were sports bars, but they were devoted exclusively to European soccer, which Kenyans follow with a madness that someone like me could readily understand — though it didn’t solve my problem. That left the Internet, but back then the online revolution hadn’t quite reached East Africa, and while you could pay three or four times the cost of a DSL line in the United States for a “premium” connection, it would cut out constantly, and would barely be faster than dial-up.
When USC played Notre Dame that season, it was a showdown of top-10 rivals, and I got desperate. My office had supplied me with a nifty piece of technology called a satellite modem. A standard part of a war reporter’s tool kit, it’s a plastic satellite dish about the size of a laptop that allows you to get online from virtually anywhere provided you’re outdoors with a clear view of the sky. It’s fabulously expensive, but it’s the only way to work from the sorts of places I often had to work from. Weeks earlier, I had propped it open by the side of an empty swimming pool at a run-down hotel in Liberia to send dispatches from that country’s first post-civil war elections.2 It was meant for emergencies, and while I certainly thought of this as an emergency, my bosses in Washington might not have agreed. I could only hope that they wouldn’t notice.3
In the predawn darkness, I set up the modem on the balcony of my apartment in Nairobi and logged into the radio broadcast of the game. To keep from waking the neighbors at 3 a.m., I listened through headphones and kept the lights off, using a dim headlamp — another war correspondent’s staple — to fiddle with the modem’s positioning. It was an overcast night, and passing clouds would cut the signal every few minutes. At some point in the third quarter, while I was on the balcony resetting the modem, I felt a light shine on my face. It was one of the compound’s security guards, and at that moment I realized that, with my headlamp and a hoodie over my head to keep out the chill, I looked very much like a burglar trying to break into my apartment. Wild gesticulating gave way to relieved laughter and the guards left me alone, but they never quite understood what I was doing up there. For months afterward, one guard in particular would greet me with the same overly sympathetic smile he otherwise reserved for the older and more senile people in the complex.
USC won that thriller with the “Bush push” — which I almost missed because the signal had gone out for big chunks of the fourth quarter. Clearly, the sat modem wasn’t a great solution. I tried the connection in my office in downtown Nairobi, but driving after midnight through that sketchy neighborhood — home to the infamous Florida nightclub and its bevy of teenage prostitutes — was something I only needed to do once to decide it was a bad idea.4 And all this was just to follow the game on the radio.
So when USC made the BCS title game again, against Texas, I was thrilled to hear that it would air via satellite on Actual Television. I returned from an assignment the day before, set my alarm for 3 a.m. — and then, exhausted from the trip, completely overslept. This was before DVRs made it to East Africa. I woke up in a panic and raced to the TV just in time to see Vince Young cross the goal line for the championship-winning score. I was devastated, but I suppose that Nairobi was a good place for an SC fan to be that day. No Kenyan asked me what Reggie Bush was doing on the sideline on fourth-and-2 with a chance to seal the title.
In those early years abroad I spent way more time than my editors would have liked researching the satellite TV offerings at hotels in Lagos, Addis Ababa, Cairo, and Istanbul. Like a terminally ill man in search of a miracle cure, I tried every new fly-by-night Internet service provider that popped up in Nairobi in the futile attempt to score enough bandwidth to make an ESPN or pirated video stream possible. I’d try to schedule long out-of-town assignments during bye weeks or away from big games, and I ignored my phone for hours to avoid spoiler messages from friends back home.
American sports go year-round, of course, and I soon realized that I was no longer in a place where life and work could stop for every seemingly pivotal showdown. I dialed it back a little. I skipped more games, developed new interests. I abandoned fantasy sports entirely. I found more of a balance, but still I’d find myself checking in for a quick fix on my L.A. squads from places where I probably should have been focused on more pressing matters.
One hot June in Chad, where I was reporting on the war in neighboring Darfur, I stayed up for several nights watching the 2008 Lakers-Celtics Finals in what I’m sure was the only hotel in that impoverished central African nation that was showing those games.5 (If only TripAdvisor covered these things.) A few months later I almost missed a flight out of Dubai because I was glued to my BlackBerry for the final outs of a losing Dodgers effort in the NLCS against the Phillies. The following spring I was in between jailhouse interviews with pirates imprisoned in northern Somalia when I used my satellite phone — again, not what these are meant for — to call my buddy Anuj back in L.A. for a Lakers playoff score. One particularly ornery pirate, his skinny ankles chained to a stake in the sun-scorched jail yard, had just issued me with a threat, growling, “I’ll eat your mother.” Anuj wanted to hear more about that, but I was a lot more interested in what Kobe was doing.
It might seem frivolous, but sports are the great calibrator, and I’ve found that to be even truer as a journalist in foreign lands. It has helped bridge the gap between a bookish reporter and a soldier with a high school education on the front lines in Baghdad. It’s allowed me to break the ice with an African rebel leader with a simple question or two about Premier League soccer. It’s a welcome distraction after a long week on a military base in Afghanistan where the only thing puncturing the daily monotony is the occasional alarm announcing incoming rocket fire — or, as I heard on my third day on the base in October, an emergency appeal for A-positive blood donors, because a wounded soldier was bleeding to death.
That soldier, it turned out, was Sgt. John A. Lyons, 26, of Seaside Park, N.J. His unit was in charge of clearing roadside bombs, an absurdly dangerous task that they were very good at. That morning, after Lyons and three other soldiers dismounted from their armored convoy, insurgents opened fire, hitting him in the thigh. A chopper whisked Lyons back to the base for treatment in less than 25 minutes, but he didn’t survive. I asked to interview the men of his unit, and two young soldiers agreed to sit down with me on a Sunday morning, hours before his memorial service.
That was also the morning of USC-Stanford, which had lived up to all expectations. Riveted to four hours-plus of blurry action on my computer screen, I’d lost track of the clock as the game moved into overtime. As Stanford took the ball to start the first extra period, there was a knock at my door. The soldiers were ready for the interview.
Without thinking, I said I’d be there in 10 minutes.
Right away, I regretted it. Really? I heard the voice in my head ask. Two guys braver than you’ll ever be are waiting to tell you the story of their fallen brother, and you’re sitting here watching a game? I suddenly felt terrible, and after both sides traded touchdowns in the first overtime, I quickly closed my laptop and went to do the interview.
Their story, as you might expect, was far more dramatic than a game. Lyons, who studied political science for three years at Rutgers before he ran out of money and decided to enlist in the Army, was more exceptional than any run-of-the-mill athlete. The way he died, doing his job on a battlefield, epitomized heroism more than what we tend to find in sports. Nothing could have put a game into perspective quite like the half hour I spent with those two young men, and as I walked back to my trailer, I didn’t even bother checking the score on my phone.
I bumped into an older soldier, a reservist doing his third tour in Afghanistan, a Raiders die-hard from California. “You’re starting work early for a Sunday,” he said. Actually, I told him, I’d been up for hours watching USC-Stanford, and had just come in to interview Lyons’ platoon mates.
“Ah,” he nodded, fixing me with a somber gaze. “Hey,” he said suddenly. “Who won that game?”
Shashank Bengali, National Security Editor for the McClatchy group of newspapers, has reported from nearly 40 countries and conflict zones across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, but still counts Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals among his most stressful moments. Follow Shashank on Twitter at @SBengali.
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