I wrote a variation on this tale years ago at MSN Sports Filter. But since that site was taken away from us all BY THE MAN, please enjoy this loving rehash.
I didn’t grow up in a football house. My dad didn’t really care about sports, and my mom was a baseball fan with minimal interest in other games. I spent a criminally long period of my young life not knowing anything about football. Before the age of 7 or so, I’d seen it played exactly once in my life, when a neighbor gave us tickets to go see an Army game at West Point. I enjoyed the spectacle and the energy of the crowd, but I hadn’t the slightest idea what I was watching. It seemed like something from another universe.
I remember going to a friend’s birthday party as a kid. I was probably 8 years old. He suggested a game of backyard football, and I panicked, because I had literally never played the game before. I did what my brain interpreted as Football Moves, which meant running insane routes in all directions, without any regard for the line of scrimmage or what endzone I was supposed to run toward.
Another kid screamed at me WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?! DON’T YOU KNOW THE RULES?! No, I didn’t, not in the slightest. So I leaned on humor and spent the rest of the afternoon doing stupid stuff, pretending I was just goofing around, when in fact faking was not necessary.
Another embarrassing fact of my feckless youth: I was poor. Let’s amend that: I was suburban poor, which is very different from urban poor or rural poor. Growing up, we had a house and enough to eat. We just didn’t have a lot of Stuff, and new clothes ranked among the many subsets of Stuff. A good 75 percent of my wardrobe was inherited from my two older cousins, who were seven and five years older than me.
Not that this mattered to Little Kid Me. I had clothes that fit and didn’t have holes in them, and that was good enough for me. It only strikes me as a little sad now when I look back on old photos and wonder, “Why am I dressed like Greg Brady?”
So I knew nothing about football and I had no new clothes. That’s the setup. Got it? Good.
The first Super Bowl I have any conscious memory of was Super Bowl XX. That was because it involved the Chicago Bears, who had become a full-blown multimedia juggernaut. “The Super Bowl Shuffle” was unironically enjoyed by millions of Americans who did not yet know that Zubaz and headbands were hilarious. Jim McMahon became a household name and a symbol of rebellion and upheaval because, in the staid world of the NFL, his slightly spiky hair might as well have been assless chaps.
The Super Bowl was going to be such an event that my teacher, a lady of a certain age who usually had no use for sports, decided to let all her kids draw pennants for the impending Big Game on behalf of the team they wanted to win. Naturally, the entire class chose the Bears because everybody loved the Bears. To say you didn’t like the Bears would’ve branded you a weirdo, as surely as if you’d said you weren’t too keen on Ronald Reagan or Rambo.
Again, I knew absolutely nothing about football. I couldn’t have picked Refrigerator Perry out of a lineup filled with vegans. (I might have been able to if he’d been turned into a G.I. Joe figure, but that had yet to happen.) The older cousins who supplied my wardrobe lived in Connecticut, and they bequeathed me a red Patriots sweatshirt that I liked to wear. It had a very large old-school Pat the Patriot logo on it, and it was one of the few items of clothing I had that I truly loved.
I knew the Patriots were a football team and this was their mascot. My love of the sweatshirt had nothing to do with that. I loved this sweatshirt because I loved reading about history, and the patriot figure invoked the American revolution. Seriously.
So in tribute to the cousins responsible for my hand-me-downs, and my favorite sweatshirt, and my love of history, I opted to dedicate a pennant to the underdog Patriots, the Bears’ sacrificial lamb opponent in The Big Game. I copied Pat the Patriot from my t-shirt, embellished it with a few football-y things like goalposts (because I had no idea who played for New England), and handed it in.
My pennant was not well received. My teacher supported my right to free speech, but the other kids were less forgiving. I was soon treated to a plethora of arguments, some more nuanced than others, about why I was insane to root for the Patriots.
Some kids quoted chapter and verse about how good the Bears were, citing stats and players who were awesome. Others simply said THEY’RE GONNA GET DESTROYYYYYYED. (Only kids can truly emphasize the letter Y.) I could counter with nothing, because again, I didn’t know anything about football to begin with.
But as the Super Bowl neared, I felt more and more defiant. Even as a kid, I was a contrarian. In kindergarten, I picked orange as my favorite color because no one else had picked it. That wasn’t why I went with the Patriots, but that became why I stayed with them.
That was how I demanded that our family watch the Super Bowl, which otherwise would have gone untuned-to in our household. I was gonna root for New England with all my might. I was gonna will them to win and shock all the loudmouths in my class. Boy, were they gonna eat crow when I gave it to them on Monday! And hey, look at that, they scored a kick-goal like a minute into the game! This is gonna be sweet!
Of course, it was all downhill for New England after that. Before halftime rolled around, I realized two things: 1) the Patriots were not going to win, and 2) I still didn’t like football. Guys hit each other, then stop. Hit, stop, hit, stop. Everyone talked about how boring baseball was but this dumb game never got started! And they hardly use their feet at all, so why call it football? Stupid game.
The next day, other kids got in my face, even though I had never trash talked at all (mostly because I was unable to). Their words shouldn’t have bothered me, because I didn’t really give a shit about the Patriots, or football. But I was a kid, so they did. Rooting for a lost cause didn’t feel noble. It just felt like losing.
The Patriots sweatshirt was quietly retired. I never wore it again. The next year, the Giants went to the Super Bowl and I found it a lot easier to get swept up in the local fervor. This time, I drew pictures of Giants helmets and Phil Simms jerseys. I’d learned my lesson.