Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Can war and sports coincide?

Sometime today, during a break between training exercises, Supply Sgt. Aaron Troyer of Canal Fulton, Ohio, 20 minutes east of Canton, will pull a pen from the back pocket of his fatigues and fill out his NCAA Tournament bracket. He will give his $5 entry fee to another soldier in his unit and hope this will be the year.

It might be one of the last things Troyer does in the States for a very long time.

How do you feel about the tournament now? What will it be like watching basketball when a war begins?

It could be as soon as tonight, bombs lighting the desert sky, machines chewing the dust. Soldiers on the move, many no older than the players we'll be cheering in the games Thursday, if we see games Thursday. One way or another, we'll be watching kids. And most of us have no idea how that might feel.

Troyer's story

Sgt. Troyer knows. He likes Kentucky to win it. "Illinois is my sleeper team to go pretty far," he said Tuesday. He's at Camp Atterbury in Edinburgh, Ind., 40 minutes south of Indianapolis, completing his training and waiting for the call that will send him to the Persian Gulf. Troyer is in the National Guard.

"I got in it for the school money," said Troyer, 25. He graduated in December from Kent State with a degree in business administration that the Guard largely financed.

"But I've been in six years. I believe in this. If I go to war, I want to be the first person on the bus."

Business as usual?

NCAA president Myles Brand said Tuesday the games will go on as planned. Even though since Sept. 11 we know nothing quite goes on as planned, and might never again. "We were not going to let a tyrant determine how we lead our lives," said Brand.

This is fine with Sgt. Aaron Troyer, who watched on TV as Illinois beat his favorite team, Ohio State, and figured the Illini had some surprises left. Sgt. Troyer would have been disappointed if the tournament had been delayed or canceled.

"It kind of takes your mind off the war. It gives you a sense of being back home," said Sgt. Troyer. And if there is no better reason for playing games than that, then that is enough.

Discovering new territory

We are plowing new ground with this. We have never been poised to hold a national athletic event that coincided with the start of a war. We're never sure where sports fits in times like this.

We're about to find out.

Let the games begin. Sharpen your pencil and your smarts and fill in your brackets. Celebrate, in some small way, who we are. Sgt. Troyer is. It helps him think of home. I don't know about you, but I needed his permission this year.

In return, I pledge not to throw around words like "courage" as they pertain to basketball. There will be no further references in this space to Madness, because there is other madness, and it is real.

Meantime, I like UConn as a sleeper in the South. It wasn't a notion I shared with Sgt. Aaron Troyer, to whom I wish Godspeed.

After all, I have my own $5 to protect.


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