Among the countless associations I'll make with Sofia's first 10 years is that they coincided directly with the greatest sports decade the city of Memphis has ever seen. Wearing a ballcap and diaper, Sofia pranced barefoot around the bluff at AutoZone Park, about 100 feet from Albert Pujols as he patrolled left field for Memphis in the 2000 Pacific Coast League playoffs. She's since seen El Hombre homer at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, and I think she's beginning to understand that a once-in-a-lifetime baseball player can come along just as that lifetime is starting.
Sofia was just shy of her first birthday when John Calipari was introduced as the new University of Memphis basketball coach -- to much debate at the time. She was old enough to appreciate the Tigers' three consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight (as many as the program had seen in 80 years before Calipari's arrival). And she was old enough to recognize the fan's cocktail of pride and heartbreak when the Tigers collapsed at the end of the 2008 championship game.
On the subject of the Memphis Tigers and once-in-a-lifetime players, Sofia was but 3 when DeAngelo Williams first carried a football at the Liberty Bowl. In her eyes -- still -- football is a game where large men pile upon one another, gradually moving from one end of a field to another. But she also heard enough stories about many of the 6,000 yards Williams accumulated over his four years in college to understand that a different kind of football player was here, if only for a short visit.
Just shy of her 8th birthday, Sofia suited up as mini-Grizz and accompanied our NBA team's mascot for a night of cheerleading and flag-waving at FedExForum. On the day she was born, such a confluence would have seemed as unlikely as an 8-year-old manning a space shuttle. But as she turns 10, the Grizzlies are the central player in the Memphis sports universe. With attendance woes you'd expect in a sagging economy and a team desperately needing that marquee name that separates NBA contenders from also-rans, the Grizzlies -- still shy of their 10th Memphis birthday -- will be aiming to grow in much the same way Sofia will in the decade ahead.
In the arena herself, Sofia has already gained traction. (It started with an unassisted double-play on the tee-ball field.) She earned her first blue ribbon in a horse show before her 7th birthday. She was a better swimmer at age 4 than I am at 40. She can make the throw from third to first on a softball field. And she thankfully received her mom's genes on the soccer pitch. (Mrs. Murtaugh was all-state in high school and played for a pair of Vermont state champions.) Best of all, she appears to have received my genes when it comes to the sheer joy of being part of a team and part of a competition, the latter forcing her to find the best in herself, win or lose.
Sofia Murtaugh has known -- and will know -- cheering on her birthday. Her 1st and 7th coincided with the first Saturday in May, when the Kentucky Derby is run. My hope is that the day will come when she can don her favorite hat and be at Churchill Downs to wash down some birthday cake with a mint julep. The scene would be appropriate, you see, in that all the cheering would echo the first 10 years of her life. I thought I knew what it meant to be a fan before May 6, 1999, but I’ve since discovered the greatest victory a man can achieve. She's been a winner, every day since.