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The country will never leave me

July 12, 2010
Grant By Paul Grant
ESPN.com
(Archive)

JOHANNESBURG -- The end of something big.

After 40 days in South Africa, it's time to wrap up this big, vital, engrossing thing called the World Cup.

As I watched members of our ESPN.com team go their divergent ways -- California, Ottawa, New York, Buenos Aires, New Jersey, Mexico City, London -- from the same airport, I couldn't help but feel a tinge of melancholy. We didn't go through war, although the food at the International Broadcast Centre had an unmistakable rations flavor to it. We did, however, share hours and hours of getting to and from in this big country, hours and hours of bumping elbows while losing degrees of hearing watching games in stadiums. We built a bond that will not soon disappear.

I've had a blast in South Africa. This was a once-in-a-lifetime assignment. As my colleague Chris Jones said, we knew while we were living it that it was an experience we would never forget. Living in a vivid memory.

Many of the folks at ESPN committed to this project more than a year ago. We have been building something for a long, long time. Many of us put aside important shades of our personal lives to make sure the job was done correctly. We are professionals, after all. But with that firm commitment comes the breaking of others. Collectively, we missed a lot of Little League games. We missed a lot of dance recitals, school plays, concerts, play time, movies, candlelight dinners. The grass grew longer. Some of us lost weight; others gained. Some even sacrificed marriages. Most of all, we missed a good chunk of the scorching U.S. summer. We spent a lot of time building this big something.

Now, we'll scramble up hourglass grains to get that time back.

Don't get the wrong idea; I'm not calling for violins here. Not all of it was a grind. Hanging out with the writers and our drivers, Jan and Dolf, will remain a career highlight. We laughed more than people should at work. We ate mopane worms, drank Castle, played a few games of cards, ate home cooking in Soweto, learned new words, squinted at an elephant, haggled for Bafana Bafana jerseys.

But I'm bringing back more than souvenirs. The people of South Africa will stay with me for a long, long time. No matter how poor or desperate, they always had a smile. Never have I met people with quicker smiles. I'm also bringing back the influence of these people and their steady demeanor. This is a place without clocks, without deadlines, without schedules, without haste. "This is Africa." It can be frustrating to a Westerner, but once you've been here long enough, it starts to soothe you. Why are we in such a hurry?

When I leave, I'll bring these things back with me to Connecticut, undeclared after I land. I'll pass through Customs, glad to be back home, glad to have certain things back in my life, sure. I have changed.

And, at the airport, I'll walk past the point of no return and try not to weep uncontrollably as my daughters and wife embrace me after so many hours, days, weeks, months, years away. I owe them so much.

The beginning of something big.

Paul Grant is a deputy editor at ESPN.com.