Gridiron Blues: Authors Reflect on Football Fandom
Living in southern California, I never understood why my father and I rooted for the Miami Dolphins. He was born in Kentucky and moved with his family to Bakersfield, California as a young child. I lived in Bakersfield until a week after high school graduation. I've never asked how he became a Dolphins fan, and in the dark days after Dan Marino retired, when I denounced the team and the sport entirely, I found I couldn't give the Dolphins up so easily. Religion is an easier thing to leave behind than a favorite team.
In recent years, while the Dolphins have torn through quarterbacks and coaching regimes like piranhas through scantily clad swimmers, every time I swore off the team, I found myself rooting for them again the following Sunday. It's a Sisyphean endeavor. Even in the early nineties, when the Dolphins were still considered championship contenders, I remember my father shouting at the television every time Dan Marino threw an interception or missed his intended receiver. "Dammit, Dan!" my dad would say, as if nothing and no one had ever let him down more. And that is how I learned at an early age that even the greats make mistakes. The greats lose. They go down like everyone else. The difference is they get up and fight back against the impossible, like Adrian Peterson, returning last season after a devastating injury (torn ACL and MCL) to lead the league in rushing and come within ten yards of breaking Eric Dickerson's almost-twenty-year-old single season rushing record.
No matter where you're from or who you root for, every season great teams and great players will stumble. Others will rise up to take their place. For millions of football fans across the nation, all the old disappointments and triumphs will return tonight when defending Super Bowl champs the Baltimore Ravens take on the Denver Broncos, so I've asked five authors to share their thoughts, reflections, projections, or memories related to the National Football League. At this point in the season we all have Super Bowl dreams. Seventeen weeks from now they may be shattered, because some teams just don't stand a chance, like Patrick Wensink's Browns.
The Tears of a Brown – Patrick Wensink, author of Broken Piano for President
I’ve never had a piercing or a tattoo or even been in a fist fight. I have no need for additional pain. I’m a Browns fan. Supporting the Cleveland Browns means being comfortable with being a loser. It means when you spot a brown and orange jersey in public you recognize a fellow tortured soul. It means you feel somehow closer to that misguided sucker. Browns fans are a family, albeit a family that has bonded over the disgrace of one family member who can’t keep himself out of jail for public indecency. That family tree of shared suffering and embarrassment somehow makes the losing easier.
Of course I want my team to win. But even if they miraculously ended with a winning year I wouldn’t trust it. I didn’t trust a minute of the 2007 season when the Browns finished 10-6 and within a Derek Anderson goatee hair of making the playoffs. I was happy, but I knew success was a fluke. Like Uncle Ted claiming he was on the straight and narrow, the entire family understood it was only a matter of time until he whipped it out in front of some grandmother in the detergent aisle. You knew that whiff of success would only make next year's suffering worse.
As the 2013 season begins, I am filled with the strange counter balance only a Cleveland rooter understands. Yes, I want my favorite team to succeed. But I also expect my favorite team to remain a loser. Pay attention next time you are near a Browns fan. There is no disgust in our voices when we inevitably fall short. There’s a dash of defeat in every touchdown celebration. As our favorite professional football club has proven over years and years of ineptitude, somebody has to lose so we may as well relax.There’s an unspeakable comfort in being the NFL’s doormat. It teaches our children about being satisfied with one’s station in life. It’s about understanding that climbing to the highest point only means more broken bones when you land. And you will always land hard. I have no need for additional pain. I am a Browns fan.
Undefeated – Sam W. Anderson, author of American Gomorrah
There’s thousands, literally (in the classic sense, not the new Google sense of the word) thousands of moments in football, specifically Denver Broncos’ football, I could point to as illustrations of what the game means to me. But put on the spot, and put on the spot I was, I’ll go with October 16, 1977. The Broncos were 4-0 for the first time in their history – which had been pretty much a joke to that point. They played the Oakland Raiders, defending Super Bowl Champ-peens, also 4-0, and all around bad guys. In my young life, I don’t know that I’d remembered the Broncos ever beating the Raiders up to that point. That year was different, though. Something new permeated the atmosphere in Denver, in Colorado, that will never be duplicated anywhere. The seeds of Broncomania had been planted, and shit was about to get crazy.
Everybody sensed how big of a game this was, and it being in Oakland, my parents decided to throw a party. This party was only the second time since April that my entire extended family – aunt and uncle, cousins and grandparents – were all together in the same dwelling. The first was my tenth birthday in July. A birthday “celebration” held underneath a pall because of the occasion before that we’d all been together – my brother’s funeral in April. 1977 was a fog for the most part. My brother was the youngest in the family, forever six-years old. He ran out in front of a car on the 20th and passed the next day. And the house that’d once been raucous and fun-loving and a place where a young boy felt comfortable to say whatever the fuck came to his mind, devolved into a madhouse where one walked on eggshells for fear of uttering anything that would send somebody off crying. It fucking sucked.
But then came the Broncos and their miracle season. On October 16, Kenny Stabler threw seven interceptions, and despite gaining only two-hundred yards in total offense, the Broncos drubbed the despised Raiders 30-7. The most memorable play was a fake field goal where Norris Weese (RIP) threw a touchdown pass to “Old Hightops,” Jim Turner, the placekicker. If ever evidence is needed that placekickers aren’t athletes, please refer to that old guy running down the field, timed by the proverbial sundial. In Longmont, Colorado, the Anderson house erupted. Honest-to-goodness joy planted smiles across each of my family member’s faces. People jumped and yelled and screamed and hugged and laughed. They laughed. And they laughed. For a ten-year-old boy, it was the first time I knew things were going to get better.
Tony Takes Dallas – Kurt Baumeister, author of Pax Americana
The easiest way to prognosticate an NFL season is to take the way the prior season ended, do some quick, biased, woefully uneducated extrapolation, and pick who you want to win regardless of the results of your extrapolation. Adhering to that method, the following teams will make the playoffs: NFC: Cowboys, Packers, Saints, 49ers, Seahawks, Falcons. AFC: Patriots, Ravens, Broncos, Steelers, Texans, Bengals
When all is said and done, the Cowboys will meet the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. The Cowboys will win and Tony Romo will finally be vindicated as being fully capable of leading a team to the Super Bowl. But then again, I’m a Cowboys fan.
On Going Without – Brian Allen Carr, author of Edie & the Low-Hung Hands
This year, I'm going to try and make it through the season without cable. I'm not even certain what this will mean. I won't be able to record and rewind games. I'll be at the mercy of what the networks choose to show me. I'm thinking it'll be like when I was a child and football seemed holy to me. I'm thinking it'll be like before the internet – like back when I masturbated to my imagination. As long as the Cowboys lose, I'll be happy. Bring back the Oilers, bitches.
Gold Mine – Shane McKenzie, author of Muerte Con Carne
I’m a hardcore Niners fan. Have been since the day I was born. I came screaming into this world in San Jose, CA, and I’m pretty sure my dad put a 49ers onesie on me before they could cut the cord. I was spoiled at first. We already had Joe Montana for three years by the time I was born, then drafted Jerry Rice when I was only three. Life was good. The Niners won four Super Bowls while Montana was at the helm. Then there’s Steve Young, who played as Montana’s backup from ’87-’90, and got his chance when Montana was out for the season in ’91. In ’94, with the help of one Deion Sanders, we got us another Super Bowl. 1999 was Young’s last year, and though he never got us back to the Super Bowl, he put up record numbers and gave us all something to cheer about between ’94 and ’99.
Then…shit got rough. We were pretty much the worst team in the league for a long time, a laughing stock. Couldn’t find a QB, couldn’t find a coach. Enter Jim Harbaugh. In 2011, we lure him away from Stanford to become our head coach. We still had Alex Smith as our QB, a first overall pick whom everyone, including myself, had decided was a bust. But in Harbaugh’s first year as coach, we won thirteen games and got all the way to the NFC Championship game. It felt damn good to cheer for my team again. Then, much like what happened with Montana and Young, Smith got injured in ‘12, giving the young backup, Colin Kaepernick, a shot at showing what he could do. And he only led the Niners to the ’12 Super Bowl! We lost to Baltimore in a heartbreaking game, but San Francisco is once again considered one of the, if not the best team in the league, and let me tell you…if feels fucking glorious. Let’s go get it!
Through victory and defeat, some fans are married to their teams until death. One Cleveland Browns fan went so far as to request that members of the Browns serve as pallbearers at his funeral so that "the Browns can let him down one last time." I've been a Dolphins fan my whole life, and yet they haven't won a Super Bowl since 1973, fifteen years before I was even born. I don't even like the city of Miami. I'd much rather be a Seattle Seahawks fan, or even a 49ers fan, but it's not in me to love another team like I love the Dolphins. Trust me, I've tried. And so every Sunday from now until the season's end, you will find me in the very back of Cheerful Bullpen in Portland's Goose Hollow neighborhood, near the depressing Video Lottery machines, where the Dolphins games are shown, praying that Ryan Tannehill is the next great quarterback in Dolphins history. And all around the country fans just like me will be watching their teams, waiting for the next great hope.
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