BELGRADE — Tuesday marked the merciful end of March, which by my count lasted approximately 274 days.
Somewhere in there, many Netflix binges and FaceTime chats ago, I was perched in front of my laptop computer in Missoula, tracking the results of state high school basketball tournaments underway in four communities across Montana.
I had lunch in a restaurant on that blustery Friday, before an eerie Stephen King-esque storm blew through about the time the Montana High School Association prudently canceled all four events.
I haven’t sat down in a restaurant since.
That afternoon, I hiked with my son to the ‘M’ above the University of Montana and watched the Griz football team scramble like clusters of ants across the turf at Washington-Grizzly Stadium and imagined it full on a crisp autumn afternoon.
Never in my wildest nightmares — even with the inevitable creeping tentacles of the coronavirus scant hours away from officially arriving in Montana — could I imagine that it would be the last semblance of live sports I’d witness in person or on TV until … when?
The dreamers say still this spring yet. The optimists say summer. The realists are hoping for this fall but wouldn’t lay their paychecks on it — those who still have one.
Remember how we lamented 2016 and gave it a swift kick in the keister on Dec. 31? We’d now take 2016 back in a heartbeat and apologize for being so harsh.
We had March Madness. A World Series. A Super Bowl.
Whatever lousy news we had in 2016 about the grim reaper visiting a seemingly endless string of rock stars, actors and other celebrities, we could at least partially inoculate ourselves with the normalcy and consistency of sports.
Here in Montana on Tuesday we had more victims of the pandemic, an earthquake and a snowstorm that rendered any forecasts of an outdoor escape gloomy at best.
In a previous life, I would have at least been able to revel in Michigan State advancing to another Final Four, the St. Louis Cardinals beginning pursuit of an NL Central crown and countless athletes displaying their prowess on the tracks, softball fields, tennis courts and golf courses of Montana.
Instead I was scanning the landscape for locusts.
Now we shelter in place and ponder the proverbial elephant in the skybox: Football in the fall.
If there’s a sliver of silver in the COVID-19 lining, it’s that the pandemic is happening (peaking?) in the late winter and is mostly impacting spring events, which are as meaningful to the athletes and supporters as the other sports but don’t produce revenue crucial to sustenance.
It’s draining on an already-compromised psyche to even consider autumn without it. And it's financially frightening for any athletic department.
Already, Big Sky Conference schools have suffered a nearly 50% reduction in revenues from the NCAA due to the cancellation of March Madness. Now, ADs are shivering at the prospect of the loss of football revenue, the economic engine for nearly every athletic department west of MIT and east of Gonzaga.
It's unnerving to think what the sports landscape will look like when we come out on the other side of this pandemic if the other side is March 2021.
As one AD put it, “without football we’re (bleeped).”
Whatever chance we have of football in the fall — and the cancellation of Wimbledon in June sent an uneasy chill down my spine — I’m reasonably confident of this: Any control we DO have is inextricably linked to how we respond to COVID-19.
So stay home.
Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not next month.
Six feet apart beats six feet under.
It's a message that should resonate, especially in the Deep South, where stubborn skepticism remains as thick as the drawls in some quarters. The offspring of the mayor in "Jaws" have apparently Peter Principled their way into governors' mansions, given the reluctance to close beaches.
Even then, assuming we all do our part, the notion of packing 20,000 to 100,000 people into stadiums so soon seems chancy at best. Let’s not forget that the 1918 Spanish flu came in three waves, the worst being the middle burst in October after a summer respite.
At least three members of my immediate family are especially vulnerable to this virus, including a daughter who works in one of those big stadiums. I can't begin to tell you what assurance I'd need to feel secure, short of a vaccine.
In any event, we’ll learn a lot more about folks' comfort levels when season-ticket renewals start coming in — or not.
Of course, in the grand scheme sports seem largely irrelevant next to the global loss of life and suffering. On a happier note, we're connecting and re-connecting with family and friends, if at a safe distance.
But we also need sports at times like these, just as we need music, art, theater and other parts of life that empower and enliven us as humans.
Without them, life is strangely and sadly empty, especially in what typically is the greatest sports month.
We're about to discover that April is indeed the cruelest month, but to March and its 274 days I say good riddance ... and don't come back without the Madness.