In a story that is at once bizarre and sad, we come upon a group of people paying their final respects to James Henry Smith in suburban Pittsburgh. The sight is not what one would expect to find. He is leaned back on recliner on a stage, a 6-pack of beer and pack of cigarettes nearby, with a high-definition TV playing a continuous loop of Pitssburgh Steeler highlights in front of him. Apparently his family requested this special setup to “celebrate [Smith’s] life.” While pictures of family and friends hung nearby in the makeshift living room, the focus was clearly on Smith’s passion for the NFL’s Steelers.
While I mean no disrespect to a reportedly nice guy who passed away early, it does raise some issues. Smith is certainly not alone in having his passionate devotion to a team be his identity, what people remember about him. (A friend said of Smith: “People will see him just the way he was. This is such a celebration.”) But is that really how a person would want to be remembered… as a great (fill-in-the blank with your favorite team) fan? This story only seems odd because most people don’t showcase their passion for a team in this manner (though a Georgia company that sells sports-themed caskets reportedly does a booming business). But it is not odd that in our day someone’s life might be centered on the Steelers (or Vols, or Red Sox, etc.). It just seems to paint the silliness and triviality of it all in stark light.
Of course we could remind ourselves that everybody is religious; everybody worships something. We are hard-wired for it. We all want to believe in something and identify with something that is bigger than ourselves, to find community with like-minded people, and celebrate that devotion. Maybe sports is a religion after all…. at least for some.