Nostalgia for Names

Perhaps it’s the prospect of going home for Thanksgiving that’s inspiring the nostalgia. Who knows?

At any rate, a few days ago a close friend sent me I think this link to the Wikipedia page for the Colorado Avalanche’s 2000-2001 season. I haven’t thought about that team in ages, but every name on the roster registered with me in an instant, clear as day. Growing up a Boston Bruins fan, I was invested in Ray Bourque’s success with the team, and I played an embarrassingly large amount of NHL 2002 (or maybe it was 2001, I don’t remember) as the Colorado Avalanche. Shjon Podein never put up more than 32 points in a single NHL season, but in my head he sticks out as one of the all-time grinders of the late 90s.

My memory is cluttered with people like that; athletes who assembled highly respectable careers in a major sports league but nevertheless would never show up on a casual list of figures worth remembering.* Darren Van Impe, Grant Ledyard, Darren Bragg, Chad Eaton, Vincent Brisby, Andrew DeClercq, German Titov…some names stick long after they’re relevant. For most of them it was nothing more than the coincidence that their time on a Boston sports team overlapped with my formative years as a Boston sports fan, or that their time on the roster of an out-of-town team overlapped with the years I spent playing that team in the EA Sports version of the game (the 2002 Pittsburgh Penguins, for example).

But one name triumphs over all in this regard: Mike Kafka.

Mike Kafka is a free agent quarterback who has thrown sixteen regular season NFL passes. Mike Kafka is, by NFL standards, anonymous. But even though Mike Kafka and I have never met, he holds a special place in my heart.** As a redshirt freshman Kafka started for Northwestern in a Friday night matchup against Nevada, which ESPN had, for apparent lack of a better option, decided to televise. I have no particular allegiance to, or interest in, Northwestern or Nevada football, but that night I wound up perched on a couch, in silence, next to a troubled friend too distraught to even speak to me. But the circumstances being what they were, it seemed wrong to leave.

So I sat, for all intents and purposes by myself, and watched Northwestern vs. Nevada, and I watched Mike Kafka get the shit kicked out of him. According to Wikipedia he ran for a career high that night, but he also took a hell of a beating. The way I remember it, Northwestern couldn’t block a soul, and whether by design or by necessity, every down turned into Mike Kafka doing his best Fran Tarkenton impression.

The coincidence that brought Mike Kafka to my attention is slightly more relevant than the one that alerted me to the existence of Aleksey Morozov (a friend having a tough time vs. me playing NHL 2002 a lot), but there’s no particular reason for me to remember those players as opposed to any of the other collegiate athletes or middling Russian hockey players I could have encountered. So much of what passes for dearly held details is instead almost comically contingent. But it’s difficult to imagine things turning out any other way.

*The quality of the careers in question ranges from no-name journeyman (how many of you remember Damon Buford?) to successful but not famous by any means (Steve Avery, for example. Raise your hand if you remembered he was an All-Star with Atlanta. I didn’t)
**I mean, unless it turns out he’s killed puppies or something. I have no reason to think he has, but I’m just covering my bases here