A Fair Weather Fan
The Coliseum, Los Angeles, November, 1968 – There once was a professional football team called the Los Angles Rams. Their owner was Carol Rosenbloom, and their head coach was George Allen. Their defensive front line was known as the “Fearsome Foursome”, anchored by future hall of famers, Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen. The D line of Jones, Greier, Lundy and Olsen literally ate quarterback alive. My favorite player was “The Deacon” who owned the nickname, “Minister of Defense” well before it was attributed to other NFL stars. The Deacon had perfected a technique known as the head slap, a tactic that would stun offensive lineman while he used his speed to race into the backfield. I regularly utilized this move on my younger brother and friends in pick up football. The head slap was outlawed both in the NFL, our home and on the local sand lot around 1972.
Very few people were true Ram fanatics. Most were fair weather fans – – fickle and aloof, choosing only to get off the beaches or tennis courts when an LA team was at least several games above .500 or had made the playoffs. During the season, the LA Coliseum was filled with a harder core working class who faithfully followed their team. They were the nucleus of the team’s support – – true Ram fanatics. Once an LA team made the playoffs, the stands would transform from blue collar to thin wristed, tan metro-sexuals with sweaters tied around their shoulders driving BMWs and lugging picnic baskets full of wine spritzers and quiche.
It happened later to the Lakers. For years it was only Jack Nicholson. Suddenly, we make the playoffs and Dyan Cannon is showing up. This seasonal gentrification was not lost on me. I resented these imposters. I knew the players. I collected the cards. I calculated the stats. I begged my father to stay until the end of any game we attended even though it meant being stuck in dreaded LA traffic. But, in Los Angeles no one ever stayed until the end of a game. Most Angelinos thought football games were 45 minutes, baseball eight innings and basketball three periods. We were sunshine patriots and summer soldiers. We were not really die-hards, we were just people who had tickets to a game.
Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin – January ,2008 – We exited the bus and crunched on to frozen ground along South Ridge Avenue. We were looking for a podiatrist’s parking lot where a close friend and one hundred “cheese heads” would be tailgating prior to the NFC Championship game. We were looking for Sean, a fellow NY fan who had grabbed a last minute ticket and called us to meet up at the game. The driver shouted he would meet us in eight hours next to that “tall building over there”. Being from NY, we saw no tall buildings. We did see a two story wooden structure that looked like a 1950’s professional services building. “That one?“, I yelled. “Yeah, that’s the one, right there, yup, she’s the place, yup”. I’d fallen into “Fargo”.
It was 30 below zero with the wind chill. The wind slashed at any exposed skin. The guy exiting the bus ahead of me looked like a tortoise retracting his neck into his shell. He started to curl into a walking pill bug. We were adrift in an arctic sea of green and yellow. We were deep in enemy territory – – and wearing the wrong gang colors. There was a tribal electricity in the air as knots of hooded figures huddled by blazing fires, barbeques and television sets. It could have passed for a Finnish refugee camp. Attendance was projected at over 72,000 and about 1,000 of these fanatics, many dressed in cheese heads and Cabelos hunting gear, were suddenly eying us like a trophy elk.
Green Bay, Wisconsin has a population of 100,000 souls, hardly the critical mass the NFL believes is necessary to support an NFL franchise. The Packers are the only community run team in American professional sports. They are non profit with about 100,000 shareholders, many of whom are long time residents of the town. The team was founded in 1919 and has contributed of 21 Hall of Fame busts to Canton, Ohio. It is sacred ground with frigid sidelines and ancient Kentucky blue grass turf.
Having not been a fanatic for many years, I now realized I was with the faithful. However, I was still not ready to emotionally commit to the Giants. They might embarrass or disappoint me. Their quarterback, Eli Manning, looked all season like Beaver Cleaver. “Boy, Wally, you think I am gonna catch it from Coach Coughlin for that interception?” Yet, somehow this team had won nine straight games on the way to today’s showdown with the 13-3 Packers and their Hall of fame QB, Bret Favre,
We crunched along ice and snow, finally finding what we thought was our tail gate party. We crossed into an entire parking lot of people who all turned to stare at us. “We are going to die,” I hissed. Three men who appeared to have spent their entire lives hurling refrigerators walked up to us. “You boys lost?” We waited. I could outrun them although they might hit me at twenty yards with a television. Then another said, “Well, @#%#, Jim, we might as well feed these jokers if we’re going kick their bee-hinds today”. I was suddenly confronted with a meat packer’s cornucopia – – bratwurst soaking in beer, onions and water, burgers, chili, pulled pork and prime rib. Two color TVs blared the Pats games as a wind gusts ripped at our jackets. Cheeseheads surrounded us and thumped our backs proud that we made the sojourn. The heartland had opened up its doors. These were fanatics, not fans.
We eventually found our friends and remained until we could no longer feel our feet or hands. We could not find Sean although he was now communicating to us via blackberry. Apparently he had been caught up in a similar wave of hospitality and was on his way to his seats – – outside, in 24 below weather. Throughout the game, we kept getting emails from Sean effusively complaining, “I’m freezing to death…but this is so amazing!” Sitting in my skybox, I suddenly again felt like the Giant fan but like the guy with the ticket to the game. “The bleachers have ¼”ice on them.” “The guy next to me is going to rip my head off”. “Did you see Plaxico’s catch?” “Bradshaw ? Oh my god, did you see his run?“ He would not dream of coming up to the sky box – a place of soft hands, warm food and artificial loyalty.
The game was an epic, nail biter in unbelievably frigid conditions. For those of us that risked the trip into enemy territory, we were rewarded with a Giants overtime win, 23-20. For the first time, I felt the twinge of what it was like to be a real fanatic. It wasn’t just the victorious Giants, it was the losing team – – an entire town devastated by the loss. “You guys were the better team today they said” as people passed us in the stadium. It would be a long, hard winter for the Packer faithful.
As the Giants were interviewed in the South end zone by Fox Sports, the Giant fans gathered five deep and fifty wide to watch, cheer and high five the celebrating Giant players. Sean was clearly out there somewhere stretching his arm to try to high five Michael Strahan or Plaxico Burress. We weathered a freezing walk to the bus only to find that Sean was no where to be found. We waited, getting no phone or text responses, and reluctantly returned to the hotel. At midnight we got this email message: “In the Giants locker room! Most amazing experience of my life. Won’t be on the plane tomorrow. Will call when I get back…” When we arrived back in NY, we still hadn’t heard from Sean. Whatever happened, it was clearly a fitting reward for a guy who would not sit in a skybox to see his team play.
Now that, my friends, is a fanatic.