In the parking lot, young women wearing yellow Brazil jerseys danced to the beat of samba drums. My mother and I weaved through the crowd, past families who had traveled thousands of miles to be here. They linked arms and swayed, singing through the warm summer rain. As we walked toward the stadium, then through the gates and into the halls behind the seats, their chants reverberated across the pitch: “Olé, olé olé olé, Brazil! Brazil!”
My mom was flustered by the chaos. We’d already gotten lost in a part of the city we never visited, and now I was hurdling puddles, wearing a plastic poncho over the Homer Simpson T-shirt she’d bought me. More than anything, my mother was worried that I’d somehow be disappointed by the day.
Inside, the Dutch fans had already set up. There were massive flags—big enough to cover seven or eight rows of seats—and men and women marching back and forth in the tunnels with scarves and banners, all wearing the Netherlands’ traditional bright orange and chanting as loud as the Brazilians were singing. Some of them wore oversized curly wigs, also bright orange. It was 1994, I was 13, and I had never seen such a spectacle.
This was a World Cup game, a quarterfinal match at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, and as far as I was concerned, it was the most important event in history. I grew up the only child of a single mother, and though my mom worked hard, we didn’t have a lot of money. But knowing soccer was my favorite sport, and knowing World Cup games would be played 40 miles away, she entered a ticket lottery. When her number came up for the quarterfinal, she paid face value: $300 for two seats in the 13th row. This is what we did instead of taking a vacation that year.
My mom watched a lot of sports growing up. In the ’50s, she was a Yankees fan and rooted for Roger Maris. In the ’60s, she got into college basketball. Then it was ice hockey. Then boxing. When I was young and watching Mike Tyson saw through his opposition, she had stories about watching Muhammad Ali fight George Foreman, broadcast live from Zaire. “Ali came out with the rope-a-dope,” she explained. “It just wore Foreman out.” Later, after a company she worked for was bought by a firm in St. Louis and she didn’t like the new management, she rooted against all St. Louis teams for years.
It’s not clear if I first liked sports because of her, or if she
liked sports even more after having a son. On playgrounds and in parks and streets, I played a lot of football and baseball and basketball, but I didn’t like anything as much as I liked soccer. And even if, like most people of her generation, she thought the game was strange and foreign, she recognized the chance to bond. Looking back, I know now that she felt guilty about working long hours. Sports were a way to spend time together—whether it was watching in the living room, or her sitting on the sidelines during games and practices. Even with a tight budget, she always found the money for jerseys or cleats.
There were life lessons, of course. Once, when she heard me taunting an opponent in that singsongy voice kids sometimes employ, she immediately stopped it and forced me to apologize. She reminded me often that being a “sore winner” is just as bad as being a sore loser. She told me that as long as I tried my best, it didn’t matter who won or lost.
When I was 10, she started playing an early version of fantasy football with some of the guys from her office. Rosters were filled out with ink and paper and everyone got the stats out of the newspaper, and then translated them into fantasy points. I was fascinated by what seemed like a competition of sports knowledge, and we went over her team together every week. Mondays and Tuesdays in the fall meant folded up newspapers and a legal pad full of scribbled names and numbers, and she’d take hours deliberating her choices. Her two favorite players were Jerry Rice and a high-scoring kicker named Pete Stoyanovich, who went on to become the kicking double in Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.
She was typically reserved, calm. Except when a game was on. She’d get so carried away, wincing theatrically when a ball sliced foul; stopping mid-conversation to yell “Get him! Get him!” as a defensive end chased a quarterback; putting both of her little fists in the air and shouting in a startlingly deep voice when our team finally scored. No matter what else was going on in the world, in those moments that’s all there was.
As a teenager, I was less fun to watch sports with. I took everything too seriously, and I would sometimes Shhh her during the games.
(Teenagers are not great people; I’ve since apologized.) Still, in the 13 years I played sports, I can count the number of games she missed on one hand.
When I went away to college—to the University of Texas—she started rooting for the Longhorns. We talked on the phone every Sunday, and during football season she never failed to mention what she thought of the game that week. When I became a writer, she excitedly followed along, asking all about my encounters with Tim Tebow and J.J. Watt. She bought newspapers and magazines the first day they came out—and awkwardly showed the clerk my byline while explaining that she was my mother.
When she got sick last year, I wanted to take care of her the way she’d taken care of me. There were scary moments, nights in the ICU, and long hospital stays. It made me feel guilty for not having spent enough time with her. She wasn’t always up to talking, but when she was, we talked a lot about sports. She’d ask for updates on my fantasy teams and praise my receiver-heavy strategy. “But none of them are as good as Jerry Rice was,” she said. When you’re surrounded by tubes and beeping machines, even the arbitrary distractions in life seem important.
She’s been feeling better recently. Not long ago we were having lunch at one of those restaurants with 20 different games on at all times, and we started talking about that World Cup game. How she had been nervous about driving so far and studied a map all morning. How the Brazilian singing and the Dutch chanting actually seemed to blend together. How the soccer field that day looked like the greenest green either of us had ever seen.
She told me she couldn’t believe her good luck at the time, winning the lottery for the best tickets. She told me she couldn’t believe the prices either, but that she never regretted buying them.
We talked about the beautiful footwork of the Brazilian team, with one-named superstars like Romario and Bebeto and Dunga, and the elegant long game of the Netherlands. It was hard to root for either team over the other, but we were sitting in a section of Brazil fans, so we cheered along with them. After the rain let up, she even started singing along. The first half ended with the score 0-0.
The second half was completely different. Brazil scored twice, then the Netherlands came back to tie it. With less than 10 minutes to play, a Brazilian defender named Branco sent a free kick screaming around a wall of defenders and past the keeper for the winning goal. My mom stood up, put both of her fists in the air, and yelled, and we talked about that moment the whole way home. That night, commentators said it was probably the tournament’s best game.
We both remember it so clearly, down to the shirt I was wearing that day. Our memories seem to build upon one another. As we sat there talking about it, I could see her transported to another time and place. She smiled and we came to the same conclusion: It was a good vacation.