You've got to be tough to be a member of the Writers' Bloc -- tough, opinionated, always ready to tear apart a fellow Wildcat with a point of view that dares to differ from yours.

But even the toughest have a tender side. And, as Christmas approaches, the guys and gals of the WB reveal theirs.

What are you hiding, guys? | From Gerri Hirshey
On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me:

A flat screen plasma TV ...

and I didn't see him again 'til spring.

Yesterday I was wading through the crowds at Costco when a guy wheeling a monster TV on a dolly hollered, "Comin' through, watcherback, comin through."

Plasma TV
For a man, a plasma TV equals Nirvana.
And, though nobody asked, he announced: "Present to myself. Bowl games."

The female cashier brought him up short: "Don't play me that song, darlin'. You're just gonna hide from the holidays like every male I know."

I thought about it as I navigated the desperate traffic of other domestic elves in the parking lot. My earliest holiday memories -- Thanksgiving, New Year's Day -- involve my dad, uncles and male cousins, sated by the groaning board, retreating from all us dish-washing females, like so many old aristocrats, to vintage port and cigars in the billiard room. Except it was my Aunt Bridget's living room where they bunkered around the glowing tube.

My dad, a confirmed holiday Grinch known to twitch at the sight of tinsel, welcomed the proliferation of holiday bowls and other sporting extravaganzas. Sugar, Cotton, Orange, Gator -- he cared not which. He watched it. If enforced merriment is not your thing, it's a reasonable haven.

Like mistletoe and nog, the traditions persist in our house. Three generations -- my father-law, my husband and our son -- commandeer the sectional in loose-fitting trousers in the semi-dark. They murmur another language among themselves; when higher-frequency female voices speak, their hearing becomes selective at best.

I wonder ... and I throw it open: What, gentlemen, are your tenderest holiday memories? Your cherished sporting traditions? When you think of Christmas, do you hear "Jingle Bells" ... or the yowsa-yowsa soundtrack of Madden for GameCube?

There's no crying in football | From Alan Grant
The 1986 Gator Bowl was the only postseason game of my college career. It was my first Christmas away from home. It was rainy, and a stress fracture would keep me out of the game, so things could have been better.

My roommate and I, a scruffy, quick-tempered free safety named Mike Newton, were kicking it in our room at a crappy hotel called the Sea Turtle Inn. We were killing time, resting up before we took to the exotic streets of Jacksonville. Newt, who had control of the remote, tried to convince me that "It's a Wonderful Life" was "the best movie ever."

I told him I had never seen it.

"What?" he asked.

"I told you, I've never seen it."

"Well, this is what we're watching," he said. laughing.

Now, as I recall, that evening would officially end when Newt, having consumed enough beer for the entire secondary, viciously puked out the window of a cab, one hand resting on the shoulder of a very understanding cab driver.

But before that there was a more tender moment:

Just about the time old Clarence got his wings, the room was silent. Newt and I just stared at the set, allowing the silence to state the obviously akward state of affairs:

"I'm not crying. Are you crying?"

"No, I'm not crying ..."

A Big Blue Christmas | From Peter Keating
My Dad tries to hide it in mixed company, but he's a die-hard. I lived with my parents during the Rangers' run to the Stanley Cup in 1994, and every now and then I would find him downstairs late at night, watching third periods against L.A. or Vancouver on a small television. He didn't want to wake anyone up (by yelling at the set as much as having it on in the first place), but he wasn't about to miss a single game, either. Something special was happening; he could feel it.

Emmitt Smith
Not even Emmitt Smith running wild against the Giants could spoil Christmas 1994.
I don't think it ever occurred to my Dad to drive to New Jersey to see the Giants after he moved from Queens to Long Island and they moved from Yankee Stadium to the Meadowlands. He still more than rooted for them, he passionately identified with them -- he just expected to have to do it long-distance. So when we went to Giants Stadium to watch Big Blue take on the Cowboys on Christmas Eve of '94, it was his first time in the building.

Those were tough times for the G-Men: They had Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin and were world champions, while we had Dave Brown and Chris Calloway and were trying to become the first NFL team to make the playoffs after losing seven consecutive games.

But the Giants kicked the Cowboys' butts that day. You could point out that Aikman and Irvin were gone by halftime, the Cowboys having already clinched their playoff spot. Or that Emmitt Smith didn't even play. Or that the final score was only 15-10. Or that even with the win, the Giants, at 9-7, missed the postseason on tiebreakers.

Those things were all true, and they mattered just about as much as the fact that it was freezing. Or that we left my Mom home by herself to decorate. Or that during halftime I called my girlfriend, who was housesitting for friends, and she said she thought she had lost their dog.

For a little while, all that mattered was that our favorite players kept making plays designed for us to see them in person -- when Jesse Armstead sacked Rodney Peete, Keith Hamilton knocked the ball out of the end zone across from us for the go-ahead safety. And that the losers had big fat lone stars on their helmets.

Let's face it, sports let us love without being accountable and hate without being hateful. When you can take an afternoon with the person who taught you actual responsibility and spend it screaming your heads off for perfectly silly reasons, that's a fine holiday.

The 'modern sound' of Christmas | From Shaun Assael
In the background hum of our home on Christmas morning, the caroling voices of John Madden, Marv Albert and (points for those who know) Alan Bestwick compete with Frank and Dino and Sammy. All of which leads me to my breakout CD idea for next X-mas:

Rick Rubin presents, The Game Cube Pack.

Are you listening EA Sports? We're talking Grammy here.

Joy(stick) to the World | From Patrick Hruby
Around the Hruby homestead, it will forever be remembered as "Black Christmas."

And yes, this is a tender memory.

I was probably 8 at the time. Or maybe 18. All I wanted from Santa -- well, besides the near-mythical, 7-foot-long G.I. Joe aircraft carrier, a toy I'm half-convinced never really existed -- was a Sega Genesis. Oh, and a copy of "Lakers vs. Celtics," perhaps the first hoops video game not to feature malformed blobs or guys punching each other to steal the ball.

Suffice it to say, Santa was generous that year. Not aircraft-carrier generous -- I think my parents wanted their living room to remain, um, livable -- but plenty kind. Both the Sega and the game were under my tree, just waiting for a little love. I knew this because I took my parents to the Software Etc. to show them the object of my desire, and later spied them emerging from the store with a rather large bag.

Some things you can't put past an 8- (or maybe 18-) year-old.

Now, understand this: For as long as I can remember, Christmas morning has never been a big deal for my family (the big deal celebration comes the night before, in honor of my dad's birthday. But that's a story of its own). We sleep in late. We bum around the house. Sometime in the late afternoon, or perhaps in the evening, there's a half-hearted suggestion that we gather together and open presents. As an adult, I buy into this program completely; as a kid, it darn near drove me crazy.

Lakers vs. Celtics
The game is called Lakers vs. Celtics, but the hidden secret is the Suns' Tom Chambers.
So here I was, 9 o'clock on Christmas morning, parents still asleep, older brothers still snoozing, anxious to the play the Game of Games, a piece of my soul dying with each and every minute passing on the alarm clock. I waited. And waited. And waited. At about 9:04, I could wait no more. Slipping out of bed, I quietly made my way to the tree, opened my gifts and hooked them up to the television (I had already plugged in my parents' BetaMax, so I had practice).

The game was magnificent. Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan -- all the stars were in it, and almost recognizable, considering they were low-res pixels. They even had "signature moves," like Bird's turnaround J and Jordan's up-and-under.

The only problem? I stunk at the game. In fact, I was getting worked by the CPU. Badly. Huffing begat puffing begat yelling at the television. Which -- big surprise! -- woke everyone else up.

Needless to say, my parents were none too happy. For one, I had opened my gifts early; for two, I was pitching a fit over the expensive and much-coveted present they had driven across town to get. Consequently, they expressed their displeasure. Screaming might have been involved.

In kind, I broke down in tears. I was already emotional from the feverish anticipation, the nagging sense that I was doing something wrong, the remorseless butt-kicking I had received from digital Bird. My dad's bleary harangue merely pushed me past the tipping point. Ashamed and upset, I bolted to my room, jumped in my closet and refused to come out. For like an hour (though it could have been five minutes. What do I know? I was only eight or 18).

Like emissaries from a distant land -- or maybe hostage negotiators -- the members of my family came to talk me out, one by one. I wouldn't have it. "I ruined Christmas," I whined, over and over again, a self-pitying refrain made all the more pathetic by the fact that I was, in fact, bunkered in a closet like Saddam Hussein in his hidey-hole. And so it went, until hunger and the smell of breakfast lured me from my Fortress of Solitude.

Eventually, I calmed down and forgot the whole thing. I'd like to say that it was the love and understanding of my family that helped me see the error of my ways. But that wouldn't be accurate. In fact, it was the twin discoveries that I could: a) steal the ball from the computer on nearly every play; b) use Tom Chambers to dunk from the 3-point line with impunity, thanks to a glitch in the game. Soon, I was winning games by 50 points or more, hogging the television, tuning out my family and hoping my buddy down the street would bring over his brand-new copy of the original John Madden Football. Black Christmas was no longer blue.

'And I was hungry 30 minutes later' | From Dan Shanoff
"Tenderest?" Layup: Christmas Eve ... 1997 ... Pell Street, NYC ... Joe's Shanghai ...beef with broccoli ... (insert Homer Simpson mouth-watering sound)

Pass the jam, son | From Robert Lipsyte
The boy was 10 and psyched to try out his Christmas NBA basketball. I was 40 and just wanted to stay in my Christmas fleece slippers.

Handball had been my city game, and tennis was my game now, but this was a warm Dec. 25 in the suburbs, and the boy insisted a quick game was part of the gift. Besides, a neighbor had just put up an adjustable backboard. I had helped him and knew the hoop was only 7 feet off the ground. The boy was the first to sink a free throw, took it out and groaned when I picked off his jumper. After that, it was dunk, jam, slam, stuff, until the neighbor kids came out and I was able to go back to my slippers.

The boy and I still talk about that game, and sometimes he wonders why I never played again, and why I hadn't played before. I shrug and steer the conversation to the moral purity of sports played fairly. Time enough when he has his own boy. I will tell my grandson about my Christmas above the rim when I whipped his Daddy's butt.

Barking up the right tree | From Melanie Jackson
My parents have had their ups and downs, but I always felt they'd make it in the long run. And I don't just say that now that they've been married for 37 years. My confidence in them was reinforced every December: If they could eventually agree on which Christmas tree to take home, I knew they could make it through anything.

Finding the perfect tree was part-sport, part-survival of the fittest for them. Mom's tactics included marching us as far away from the car as possible, while Dad's prevent defense consisted of trying to find a tree as close to the car as he could get away with. Inevitably, though, when Mom finally found a tree she was happy with, it would take at least five minutes for us the rest of us to catch up and huddle around her choice.

Not that Dad would ever give up without a fight ...

Dad: "How about this tree?"

Mom: "It's not big enough."

Dad. "It's not?"

Mom: "It's not fat enough for all our ornaments. And look how bare that one side is."

Dad: "Well, one side has to go against the wall, you know."

Mom: "Hmm. How about the one over there?"

Dad: "It's too tall."

Mom: "It is?"

Dad: "We don't have a 10-foot ceiling, dear."

Mom: "Let's keep looking."

Oh, Christmas tree ...

And yet, no matter how long we'd searched (I swear we would have suffered frostbite if we hadn't lived in California), none of it mattered when we finally found The Perfect Tree. And the day just wasn't complete until Dad got down on his hands and knees to saw it down himself, and then later he'd expertly hang the lights on her as we began decorating.

I'm 30 now, and Mom and Dad are visiting for the holidays in Connecticut. Earlier this month, with sub-freezing temps and light flurries in the air, we upheld our tree-hunting traditions. This time, though, Mom stayed home to watch my little one, while just Dad and I traipsed out to get the tree. We found her in five minutes. And it was so damn cold I only got a little sad when the owner of the tree farm cut her down with a chainsaw instead of giving my dad and his saw the honor.

To honor Mom, we picked the tree that was farthest from the parking lot; Dad and I even considered driving around the block a few times. But we just couldn't wait to get home and show her the tree. The holiday season had begun.

Smells like team spirit | From Eric Neel
In my high school days, Christmas meant holiday hoops tournaments. We played teams outside the conference and a long way from home, teams that were often better than we were.

One year, after a particularly demoralizing loss, we were sitting glum and quiet on the bus, waiting for the coach and the driver to board and take us home. No talking after a loss -- that was the rule. We were cold. The night was full of fog and sorrow. Then, from the back row of the bus, Billy C. started to do a clap. One ... Two-three-four. One ... Two-three-four. One ... Twothreefour.

We all turned our heads and stared. Dude, what are you doing? Coach'll hear you. We'll all have to run lines. Seriously, knock it off.

Billy C. just smiled, and he started to sway a little, like Stevie Wonder doing "Sunshine of My Life." And then he started a little chant: "Yes ... It's Christmas. Yes ... It's Christmas. Yes ... It'sChristmas." He was on fire. He was a feel-good force of nature. He couldn't be denied.

Next thing you knew, we were all doing it, clapping and chanting, swaying and smiling.

It was a "Tie a Yellow Ribbon"-moment; the whole damn bus was singing. We were like Stillwater doing "Tiny Dancer" in "Almost Famous," swept up in the sound and rhythm, pushing back the blues. Forget winning and losing, forget the long, quiet ride home.

We were a team, and we had the spirit.


Favre credits dad for football influence

Sherman: Favre to play

Writers' Bloc: No-name Football League

Writers' Bloc: Texas hold 'em

Writers' Bloc: Trash talk and garbage

Writers' Bloc: Take this job and . . .

Writers' Bloc: I can't dance!

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