Revisited: My life as a football fan

I’ve been a football fan for as long as I can remember, but I’m not sure why. In recent years, I’ve been able to put my attention to the game on a more sane footing than when I was young. I understand now that the outcome of a contest played by rented behemoths who’s five seconds of action is constantly interrupted by hopped-up robot graphics, slowed-down replays and giant pickup trucks running over things has very little to do with my happiness. Or at least that’s the way it should be.

That’s not always how I viewed it. My earliest memories are not of watching others play the game but rather participating in the activity myself, a concept now seen as hopelessly quaint. Larry and Lloyd and Ricky and I would take over the only open area in our Miami suburb – a public street – and play two-on-two games with gutters for sidelines and mailboxes for goals. It was a touch game consisting almost entirely of passing, since tackling on the asphalt was frowned upon by our moms and pediatricians. (Tackling was done only when we couldn’t scare up the four-person minimum and resorted instead to a backyard version of the game called “kill the man with the ball”.) We’d play for hours at a time, up and down the street with scores often soaring into the hundreds, interrupted only by the occasional cry of “car!” to avoid being struck by an oncoming vehicle.

The first football teams I followed from afar were the University of Miami Hurricanes, a pathetic bunch in the ‘60s more concerned with tanning than athletics, and the Green Bay Packers, more concerned with winning than packing. We didn’t have a pro team south of Washington back then, so proximity wasn’t an issue in my choice of gridiron heroes. The closest we ever got to the pros was when the now-abandoned consolation “championship” game was played in the Orange Bowl, and my father and I would use tickets promoters could barely give away to watch teams casually vie for the title of Third Best Team in the All of Football.

In 1967, the NFL finally realized that the South might possibly be interested enough in physical brutality and incredible amounts of sweating to support a pro team, and Miami was awarded the Dolphin franchise. They were lovable losers in those early years, featuring a head coach who chose his inept son to be quarterback and defensive stalwart Wahoo McDaniel, part of that rare breed of wrestlers-turned-linebackers who were named after game fish. The best part of those early years were the rare occasions when the Dolphins scored a touchdown and a porpoise I thought of as Flipper (though for copyright reasons, I think his name was actually “Blipper”) would leap in celebration from his above-ground pool in the end zone, then retrieve the extra-point kick on the occasions those were made.

I rooted so hard for the Dolphins in my high-school years that they actually started winning games. This was the beginning of my only recently abandoned fantasy that I could positively influence the outcome of a game by jumping up and down in front of a TV screen, crying out “yes!” or “no!” as appropriate to the circumstance. I imagined that either I had keen enough acumen to recognize quality players and coaching better than other observers, or else that I possessed a supernatural skill that somehow would propel footballs over goal lines and through goal posts. When the team posted a perfect 17-0 record and won two Super Bowls in the early ‘70s, I was proud to take the credit personally.

Shortly after I went off to college, I began to develop other interests. I worked at the school newspaper, finally found enough self-confidence to begin a form of dating, and even went to class now and then. As a result, or so I believed, the dynasty began to wane. I’d still watch when I could, on the TV in the dorm lobby, but thunderous expressions of glee or outrage had to be muffled lest onlookers be frightened. I still remember going back to my room after a narrow loss to the Raiders, and getting mad at my roommate when he teased me about my disappointment. “You don’t understand,” I tried to explain. “You making fun of the Dolphins is like me making fun of your family.” In an epiphany, I realized I was an idiot.

Fortunately, the timing of my about-face couldn’t have been more convenient, as my college team, the Florida State Seminoles, were in the midst of their worst run in school history. They had made the ludicrous move of hiring a coach with a doctoral degree who was using good-vibe pop psychology to coax the players into winning, if they felt like it. The result was an 0-11 season, followed by an only slightly improved record the next year after the coach vowed no more Dr. Nice Guy. I had picked up the contrarian nature of the counterculture by this time and, since football was only slightly less politically incorrect than the secret war in Laos, my friends and I delighted in the ‘Nolean ineptitude. Again, though, I was believing that my mental state was directly affecting results on the field.

It took a move from football-blessed Florida to the football-cursed Carolinas to finally break the spell. During my first 15 years in the region, there was again no pro team to follow and the game as played at the college level here contained more than enough mediocrity to keep me at bay. (Anyone who can get excited about a match-up between perennial rivals like Duke and Wake Forest is in serious need of a hobby). The last time a team from that Atlantic Coast Conference generated widespread enthusiasm was around the time the ocean of the same name was formed out of ancient Pangaea.

When the Carolina Panthers came into being in the mid-1990s, I followed them somewhat when they were up and not so much when they were down. Some might accuse me of being a fair-weather fan by ignoring their exploits when success was limited. But I’m not buying tickets to their games when they’re not providing entertainment, just like they don’t come to my house and run the west coast offense when I’m not providing them money. I am watching their games this season, since they currently sport an 8-3 record, but I do it by first recording the contest on my DVR and then playing it back at triple speed. That’s my idea of a hurry-up offense.

Now, when coworkers talk on Monday morning about their respective teams of preference and how “we” really handed it to the Cowboys yesterday or “our” defense made the difference, I can see the truth behind their perceived participation. As my wife succinctly put it when I got a little out of control watching a game early in our marriage, “do you even know any of those guys?”

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One Response to “Revisited: My life as a football fan”

  1. sittingpugs Says:

    the outcome of a contest played by rented behemoths

    That’s an incredible way of putting it. “Rented behemoths” evokes a striking image. Like a pigpen and a tattered flag.

    My earliest memories are not of watching others play the game but rather participating in the activity myself…interrupted only by the occasional cry of “car!” to avoid being struck by an oncoming vehicle.

    That whole paragraph reads like it could including in the opening credits sequence of a film.

    They had made the ludicrous move of hiring a coach with a doctoral degree who was using good-vibe pop psychology to coax the players into winning, if they felt like it.

    Goodness graceland…truth is more ludicrous than fiction?

    Awesome entry.

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