Dick Schaap, the late, great sports journalist, had a stock answer for anyone who asked which was his favorite sport: "People," Schaap said. "I collect people."
I feel the same way. When I look back over the 2006 sports year, it's not the games and scores I remember, but the people. We love sport for the way it connects us and creates common, lasting memories.
For some reason, my most vivid memory of last year's Sabres season is it being over. I see Jay McKee walking into the locker room on Saturday morning, two days after the Game Seven loss in Carolina. McKee had a needle in his left forearm, connected through a tube to a bag on his left hip, where antibiotics were pumped into his blood to treat his leg infection.
McKee was a fitting symbol of a brave, battered team. He was sad and exhausted. He had watched Game Seven from his home, believing in his heart that Buffalo was the better team. The greater sadness was knowing that McKee would be a free agent, and that he probably wouldn't be back the next year.
Three days earlier, the Sabres had won in overtime to force a seventh game on Daniel Briere's goal. "There's a special bond in our dressing room," Briere said afterward. "We like doing it for each other."
At times, they do it for the community, too. A few days after the October storm, the Sabres drilled the Flyers here, 9-1. Ryan Miller said they were happy to provide a release for fans during the storm and power outage. "We have power here," said Miller. "We feel the pain."
The Sabres have the power of hope. So does Marv Levy, who came back as GM of the Bills last year. I had my doubts, but Levy breathed hope into the organization. He created a more collegial environment within the Bills and had a surprisingly good draft. The team is 7-8 entering today's finale. Not bad.
The comeback win in Houston was the high point of the season. Afterward, I was standing outside the Bills' dressing room and saw Thurman Thomas waiting with his son. Levy walked by, exultant over the win. He asked Thomas to come in the locker room. Levy seemed thrilled to have a former star there to share the moment.
I finally met Joe Ferguson, who came to town to speak to the Bills Quarterback Club. Ferguson took a lot of heat during his time as the Bills' QB. But looking back, he said it prepared him for his winning battle against an aggressive form of cancer. It made him appreciate how lucky he was to have played in Buffalo.
"I remember a few ballgames," Ferguson said. "But most of all, I remember the people."
Sometimes, one game can mean the world to a quarterback. UB's Tony Paoli had one dream as a football player -- to start in Division I. He traveled the country in pursuit of his dream. Finally, in November, Paoli got his chance at 24. He started his first D-I game and led the Bulls to a comeback win over Kent State.
Sports connects families. In 2006, Tim Dundon took his dad, Mike, to his first Notre Dame football game a week before Mike died of cancer. Nin Angelo watched his son, Brad, bowl in a PBA event at Thruway Lanes, his hometown alleys. Our old friend John Beilein, the West Virginia coach, coached his son, Patrick, for the last time in the NCAAs.
Jimmy Larranaga, the George Mason coach, spent an hour in the locker room on Friday before the Final Four in Indianapolis, talking to a small group of writers about his team's amazing run. Larranaga was a star at Providence College when I was a kid in Rhode Island. We exchanged a few memories of the old days. I felt a surge of pride that it was a PC man who led a sleeper to the Final Four.
It's the memories and the teammates who stay with you. Anthony Benson, a junior lineman for the Grover Cleveland football team, told me he flew back to Buffalo from Florida because he couldn't bear the thought of being away from his teammates in his senior year.
"I really love these guys," Benson said. "They're my troopers, my warriors."
I can still see Canisius women's coach Terry Zeh after his team's season-ending loss at the MAAC Tournament, barely able to speak after saying a tearful goodbye to five seniors, including Becky Zak. Too much of sports is about saying goodbye.
"The tears aren't really about the game," Zeh said. "They're about the memories we had together."
Last August, I took my son, Jack, to his first major league game in Toronto. I can't recall much about the actual game. But I'll never forget the look on Jack's face when the White Sox bullpen catcher, a Korean legend named Man Soo Lee, summoned Jack down from the 18th row and handed him a signed baseball.
One month later, after 20 years, our News softball team won the Malone's league. Go ahead. Dismiss us as a bunch of old guys clinging to our youth. What we refuse to let go is our love of the game, and striving for a common goal. To quote Briere, we did it for each other. And just one time, Jack and his sister, Abby, saw their dad as a champion.
On the drive home that night, Jack asked why I'd cried after the game. "Because I was happy for my friends," I said.
Happy New Year, everyone.