‘Survive and advance’ has a whole new meaning this March

New Orleans Saints receiver receiver Michael Thomas makes a catch in front of Los Angeles Rams' Nickell Robey-Coleman (23) in the third quarter in the NFC Championship game on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019 at the Superdome in New Orleans, La. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
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By Dan Wiederer Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Close your eyes for a second. Deep breaths.

Inhale. Slow exhale. Inhale. Slow exhale.

Whoa. What a week that was. And what a long, long road we have ahead.

Maybe you were an everyday sports fan when this week began, your fists gripping tightly to the way we’ve always known things. Then real life began crashing ashore in such unprecedented fashion with a such a strong undertow.

The coronavirus was spreading from coast to coast, a global pandemic shaking everything.

So maybe you’re still trying to grasp what to do with all of this, how to behave, how to navigate this sports-less world with so many things we used to care about deeply now seeming so trivial.

Even with the daily realization that your health and family require most of your attention, allow yourself a grieving process with the sudden disappearance of sports. It’s only natural.

You have no spring training to keep tabs on, no stretch run in the NBA or NHL.

And, geez, no NCAA Tournament either?

Man, what you would have given Thursday and Friday to have that annual adrenaline surge kick in, to feel instantly invigorated by Greg Gumbel’s voice, to be invested more than you ever should in some upstart from the Patriot League challenging mighty Kansas.

The road to the Final Four is always exciting, always captivating, always so perfectly suspenseful and fast-moving.

But this year the bracket chatter on social media revolves mostly around movie dogs and Halloween candy and quarantine activities. (“Not showering” in a blowout over “Eating pasta” in Round 1.)

And that’s simply the silly stuff, those much-needed, lighthearted diversions to temporarily take our minds off this evolving crisis.

Honestly, we’re all coming to grips with this new form of “survive and advance,” trying to press forward one hour at a time, one day, one week. We all need that March Madness mindset to remind us that looking too far ahead is impractical, sometimes dangerous.

How jarring it has become to see grocery-store shelves so bare. How frightening it is to hear the nightmare coronavirus stories from Italy and Spain and France.

And now Seattle? And Southern California?

How amazing it is to wake up with full energy, working lungs and a healthy family. You remind yourself never to take that for granted.

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Man, how quickly and drastically everything changed. This remains so challenging.

Even as we all process the gravity of everything, maybe your habits and hobbies still have you craving another Giannis highlight reel or a countdown to Opening Day or a little golf on TV. And maybe, instead, you’ve had to redirect a good chunk of your energy and focus to learning about this new and deadly virus that’s spreading so rapidly.

Everywhere.

Schools closing. Restaurants closing. Gyms closing.

Everything closing.

Lockdowns ordered.

Maybe you’ve had to find extra time and extra reserves of energy to keep your family safe and healthy and all on the same page. Maybe you’ve had to call your parents, your siblings, your in-laws to share everything you’ve been learning and to absorb what they’ve discovered too. To strategize your social-distancing plans, to coordinate meal exchanges, to comprehend the full meaning of “shelter in place.”

Maybe you’ve also had to find the right tone and words to explain this to your kids.

Sure, leisure activity is still out there. Jogs around the park. Long overdue FaceTime calls. Streaming documentaries. Sports stuff too.

The NFL, for better or worse, went ahead this week with its free-agency carnival. Which, for several days anyway, offered a needed fix of football, that familiar offseason theater that seems to smell like tailgate charcoal.

Tom Brady? A freaking Buccaneer? For real?

DeAndre Hopkins traded to the Cardinals?

A new collective bargaining agreement that will add two teams to the playoffs next season?

Crazy stuff. That is, of course, if next season will even be a thing when we get to the fall. As quickly as everything is evolving and changing and becoming more intense and extreme, there are no longer any guarantees. Of anything.

Deep breaths.

Inhale. Slow exhale.

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Think about it. Maybe you were a prominent NFL coach this week, in position to celebrate the re-signing of your future Hall of Fame quarterback for a 16th season by your side. Only that wasn’t the biggest news of your week. Far from it.

It was that the fatigue you felt last weekend was not normal. It was COVID-19. Your test came back positive. You, Sean Payton, had the coronavirus. And while your symptoms were never severe, you were now in the middle of a wake-up call, a famous face and important voice in a worldwide crisis.

Maybe you were a major NBA star, a 10-time All-Star and former MVP who entered a new reality with questions about where you picked up the coronavirus and how you will isolate and recover. Now you, Kevin Durant, were added to the list of famous COVID-19 cases, on a roll call that includes Tom Hanks and Idris Elba and the wife of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Maybe the suspension of all these seasons wasn’t such a hasty overreaction after all.

It’s truly dizzying. All of it. Confusing as heck.

Maybe you’re a devoted Bears fan and you were instinctively pulled into this week’s discussion about all the moves being made at Halas Hall. (Or more exactly, the moves being made by executives and coaches who normally work at Halas Hall but are adapting their routines as well.)

So now you have a new quarterback debate to go nuts with.

But why not Teddy Bridgewater? Or Cam Newton or Derek Carr? And what was with the hard charge to sign long-in-the-tooth tight end Jimmy Graham?

Man, the table was set for a full-throated week of Bears conversation. Until reality set back in and you remembered this new surreal existence we’re in.

The eerily empty streets. The regular briefings from the mayor, the governor and the White House. The rapidly collapsing economy.

Suddenly, the Bears’ offensive-line needs feel incredibly inconsequential.

Patience. Presence. Peace of mind.

Deep breaths. Inhale. Slow exhale.

Maybe you were a sports writer this week, still dialed in on your job but trying your damnedest to strike the right tone, to retain proper perspective. Maybe on Tuesday morning, when news surfaced that the Bears had given a $70 million contract to veteran pass rusher Robert Quinn, you were in the middle of Chapter 17 of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” juggling your new duties as a part-time at-home schoolteacher and thrilled to watch your first-grader’s eyes grow large as Fawkes the phoenix rescued Harry from Tom Riddle.

Maybe it was collisions like that — chronicling Leonard Floyd’s release in one moment, overseeing a math assignment the next — that provided clear eyes and proper direction.

Instead of late nights with Charles Barkley and Ernie Johnson, Jim Nantz and Grant Hill, you’re now carving out time nightly to search “Dr. Anthony Fauci” on YouTube, appointment viewing of the highest order.

You’re learning about droplets and herd immunity and the frantic search for effective drugs.

Sure, you would have rather spent time this week watching your alma mater in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years. You would have loved texting with your dad and brother about how cold-blooded Ayo Dosunmu is and whether the over in the Providence-LSU game was worth pursuing.

But throughout the week, you also came to realize you were just as sad for the teams you coach — the Pistons and the Timber Rattlers and the Green Fire Dragons — whose seasons were canceled or might never start. So now, at your son’s request, you’ve become obsessive about the seven-day weather forecast to slot in driveway shootarounds and batting practice and soccer silliness to the daily schedule.

Maybe you’re finding yourself intensely present in so many more moments, realizing it’s never an unwelcome interruption to be asked to a crib-side tea party or a “Lego Challenge” build. You’re now soaking in daily “change-of-scenery walks” with your kids and realizing your 16-month-old daughter really loves screaming hello to dogs and geese.

And maybe you return from those journeys with feelings of pure gratitude, only to then read texts from doctor friends — in emergency rooms and operating rooms elsewhere in the country — offering a sobering peek behind their curtains.

The growing strain on hospital resources has become intense. The constrained coronavirus testing protocols, they tell you, are mind-boggling. The need to move into separate living quarters from their spouses and kids has added to the exhaustion.

But, hey, they also wonder, what do you make of Jordan Howard heading to the Dolphins? And for real: Foles or Trubisky?

Damn, these emotions can become intense.

For the most part, sports has gracefully lowered its curtain and shut out the lights. It feels so unusual and yet so necessary. You’re still getting used to it and realizing it may be this way for a long time.

Maybe, you joke to yourself, the government will soon greenlight golf as an acceptable activity. It’s outside, right? Always a group smaller than five?

But then you see Dr. Fauci is back on TV and there’s a new graph to interpret and the numbers and pictures being shown are unnerving.

Maybe it’s best just to be safe, to learn patience, to take this a little at a time.

Close your eyes. Deep breaths. Inhale. Slow exhale.

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