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Agony and One Regret After Watching My Team Lose a Huge Game

I grew up in a family where the men didn't easily show their emotions, a character trait that extended itself to sports.

It certainly didn't help that one grandfather, a proud military man that stormed the beach in Normandy, had seen and experienced things that were a whole lot bigger than sports, though he enjoyed watching Major League Baseball's "Game of the Week" as well as college football.  It also didn't help that another grandfather, though a loyal corporate employee and Boston Red Sox fan, lived through a period of such baseball and pro football angst that there was little to truly celebrate except the Sox's latest collapse or broken dreams.  (And the Pats were the definition of mediocre.)

My father, too, has always been a sports fan but also didn't do things like swear under his breath at the TV, stand up watching the game because "sitting down ruins the luck", or speak in tongues because his favorite team snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.  

As I watched New Orleans lose tonight on an utterly devastating play - whether it was THE most devastating play in NFL postseason history will have to be debated by historians - I sat down in my chair for the first time in over an hour.  My son, not always one to watch football games but was caught up in this one, was next to me, and I gave my son a warning.

"Never root for a team," I told him, almost immediately regretting in afterwards.

My son is a terrific kid, and much smarter than me.  He's a lot more like my father, and his forefathers, when it comes to sports.

He appreciates it when Lehigh, his Eagles, or his Phillies, or his Red Sox, do well.  He's a busy kid, with different activities that he's passionate about, with local sports fitting in around the edges.  

His investment in it is small and familial.  Sports are something he likes, but they are not something that borders on obsession - which, I think, is healthy.

The Eagles are in the playoffs; he's happy they're there, and he catches parts of the game, and tunes in when something exciting happens.  Basically, he consumes football games like many kids of his generation - tuning in the highlights, and tuning out for almost everything else.  

When Lehigh or the Saints win football games, he's happy - for me, mostly, I think.  But I wonder a lot about what he thinks about my unhealthy obsession with sports - why a reasonably rational man in other aspects of his life would willingly spend three hours standing, live-tweeting football games, and displaying a level of emotion that my grandfathers would undoubtedly find incredibly strange.

And this weekend, oh boy, did he ever get to see me at my worst.

In the last 3:01 of the Saints/Vikings playoff game, there were four lead changes, and I was pacing.  I was so emotionally invested - so very much unlike the other men in my family - muttering stuff under my breath, twittering stuff on my phone to the ether, unable to adequately explain to everyone physically in the room my angst.

And my son saw IT.  THE play.  He saw WR Stefon Diggs become free, stunningly and surprisingly free, to run to the end zone and win one of the most unbelievable games in NFL history.  My son saw me swear, something starting with "Sweet Mother".  He saw me slump into the chair, dumbfounded.

And thus he saw the whole experience, and what it did to me - how stunned I was, and how unbelievable the whole thing was.  He saw something I never, ever saw in my own father or my own grandparents.  They would never let themselves go emotionally like this.

In the past, I've often tried to figure out why I do it.  

Clearly, sports don't love you back, as my friend Howard told me after the game yesterday.

Sports allow one to experience emotional overinvestment and irrational agony.  In the NFL, there are 32 teams, and after the Super Bowl is over there are fan bases of 31 different teams that are pissed and dissatisfied.  As a Saints fan, I could choose to think about this in those terms - either I would have been disappointed now, or against the Patriots.

But then again, I knew what I was getting into when I became a Saints fan.

I remember growing up in large part overseas, having sampled a bunch of different teams through junior high and early high schools.

My parents got me a New York Jets jacket as a kid, back the tail end of Joe Namath's career to try to give me the opportunity they never had as kids - to root for a New York team.  In a similar vein, they got me some New York Giants, New York Mets and New York Yankees gear when my father was playing banjo at some of their games.

I could have adopted any of these teams, or any of the teams from my father's hometown, most notably the Patriots.  But none of them seemed to fit me, until I looked into the history of the Saints, who, until  time I was searching, had never had a winning record despite some teams with Archie Manning, Ken Stabler and Earl Campbell on the roster.

The Saints were so much more than the "Aints", the stereotype of the fan back when I started following them.  I knew no Saints fans overseas - they were run-of-the-mill types of fans, perhaps flocking to the Bears when they were fleetingly good, or the Redskins when they started to do well.  They were bandwagoners.  I was not.  If I was picking a team, it was for life.

As it turned out, I picked the exact right time to jump on board of the Saints, as the successful USFL coach, Jim Mora, had just taken over the team, and pulled together a bunch of misfits from the football league personally destroyed by Donald Trump.  And they were about to take on the NFL.

Pairing veteran Rickey Jackson with USFL star Vaughn Johnson, Georgia Tech rookie bull rusher Pat Swilling, and a 5'9 middle linebacker Sam Mills, who never even got a sniff from NFL scouts, Mora created the Dome Patrol and put together an exciting defense that was amazing to watch and read about in Sports Illustrated, usually several weeks after I knew the scores of the games.  Their defensive intensity and blitzes from everywhere, especially at home in a loud Superdome, were thrilling to behold.

I also loved Bobby Hebert, who didn't look or sound like a quarterback with his Southern drawl and his physique.  He didn't have John Elway's arm, but his arm was damned accurate.  Before QB ratings were a thing, Hebert's completion percentage and low interception ratio made him a very good game manager.

I liked music, I loved football, and my father was a jazz musician.  It wasn't a trendy team to adopt like the 49ers or Giants - in fact, only New Orleanians or diehards really knew what they were about.  They weren't filled with a bunch of pretty boys.  You had to do some work and appreciate some sportswriting to understand - and their stories were amazing.  In other words, they fit me perfectly.

It was from there that I experienced the Saints first winning season, listening on the radio as the Vikings crushed my dreams of experiencing the first Saints postseason win.  Anthony Carter, another USFL star, helped destroy New Orleans 44-10 in a game that was as shocking as it was complete.

And over the years, going to college, getting married, and having a son, the Saints were still a part of my thing.  From the agonizing Mike Ditka error to Steve Gleason and the Saints' first playoff win, on the way to what has to be called the Drew Brees era, and the Super Bowl win.  All along the way I would try to see the Saints when they came to the Northeast.  I had to.  I was in this for life.

I endured the jeers of my New York Giants fan friends.  I was booed in the 700 level and had a beer thrown at me during the moment of silence during the Jerome Brown tribute.

I saw them twice in Foxboro, once getting my picture on the front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune in the process with the only Pat Swilling jersey in the place.

I even arranged for a trip to New Orleans to visit and watch a game at the Superdome.  I had to.  I was in this for life.

Looking back - does this even make any sense?  I mean, I love music.  I love food.  I really enjoyed my visit to New Orleans.  I really like Emeril Lagasse.  But even I get the feeling that there are plenty of less hearty souls who gave up on the Saints during the Ricky Williams era and became, say, Carolina Panther fans.

And after the type of agony like this missed tackle that led to one of the most improbable come-from-behind victories in NFL postseason history, who can blame people for jumping ship?  I mean, no fan wants to experience that.  For a fleeting moment, I didn't want my son to experience it.

Occasionally, but rarely, your team does something extraordinary, like intercept Peyton Manning for a game-clinching Pick Six in the Super Bowl, rally from a 3-0 deficit to a team starring Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez to win one of the most unlikely baseball series in history, or win a shootout over a deeply-favored team on the road in the FCS Playoffs on a safety.

They are markers in your life.  I can remember myself standing, watching Tracy Porter pick off that Manning pass, and going nuts.  I always will.  It makes no sense, but I will.  And it's that experience as a fan that is only fully experienced by one who has been following the team for more than thirty years.

The trouble is the markers are not always good.

When I was overseas, the infamous Bill Buckner play was happening at about 4 AM local time, so I didn't hear it live, but you had better believe I knew by the morning what had happened.  (In the ALCS, however, I experienced through Armed Forces radio the thrill of Dave Henderson homering off of Donnie Moore.)

There are plenty of markers of agony in my sports portfolio.  The Aaron Boone home run.  The Saints lateral play on the next to last play of the game that resulted in a touchdown and an opportunity to make the playoffs - had the extra point not been shanked.  The Jonathan Hurt play, a play on which I was on the sidelines to try to snap a game-winning photo.

And the one that happened last night, a rookie mistake by Marcus Williams that came at the worst possible time.  Williams, who made a tremendous interception to completely swing momentum back in the other direction after the Saints were down 17-7 and hope was slim that New Orleans would be able to rally back.

Nowadays, you can read the New Orleans Times-Picayune's coverage of the game hours after the game happened, and you can wrap yourself in the angst ever quicker, both from the side of your home team and from the side of the many folks on Twitter.  In fact, even though as a Saints fan you try to avoid it in your timeline, it's almost impossible.  Every accidental glance at Twitter opens up the wound afresh.

People on Twitter had plenty of jokes about Williams, but he will be fine.  You could tell after his post-game comments that he's the type of guy that will own up to it and get back into the weight room tomorrow to erase what happened.

Besides, I know something about defensive backs - they have to be built for this, the fact that they are much more often cast as the goat rather than the GOAT.  If a defensive back doesn't shake off the bad press and jokes and go back to the island to work and get better, they won't be long in football.  Williams is one of the good ones, I think.  He'll get back to the island and get better.

As a fan, though, it's also a part of life.  It's part of the emotional brick wall you hit every once in a while.  When the extraordinary happens, after experiencing stuff like this, it makes it a hundred times better.  You have the memory of the old, agonizing moment, and then it's replaced by the greatness.  It's quite an experience.

I get the impression that athletes that compete in sports understand this better than the general population, because they are the people who are genuinely putting in the hard work to get their body to be able to do these things.  The Lehigh football players that beat Lafayette this year to clinch the Patriot League title had extra feelings of satisfaction for those who lost to Lafayette in 2013, who had to wade by athletes crying because they had played their last football game after having a chance to play in the FCS playoffs.  They know what it takes to get their body in peak condition to be able to play football for four, sometimes five, years.  They know up close and personal the sacrifices that are made.

And that's why I regret so much, in the pit of that play, telling my son that it's not worth it to root for a team.  It really is worth putting in the very long battle for a distant, uncertain reward, even if it may not feel like it at the time.

In the end, they are all linked - the moments of ecstasy, and the pits of agony.  To truly experience it all, you have to experience it all - the ecstasy, and the agony, too.  Otherwise, you're just another Yankees fan that jumps to the Astros when they stink, avoiding the pain but thus also dulling the joy.


Douglas said…
Thanks for your history of how you became a Saints fan.. Sports fandom like you have depends on many things.. I am like you but have a different set of teams... one still alive for the next week.. Go JAGs.. I saw many young Jags fans last night greeting the team in Everbank Field when they returned from Pittsburgh.. Similar but a smaller crowd that showed up in 1997 after the huge underdog Jags knocked off the mighty Broncos in Denver.. About 5K fans made the trip this past weekend to the Steel City where tickets were plentiful and low priced.. so much for the hard core Steeler fans.. Many unsold tickets on the secondary market.. Tickets in Jax were about 2-3 times.. My older son doesn't care much about sports.. My younger one enjoys it and is a Jags fan but he's moving away this summer..
Anonymous said…
I appreciate your comments. I'm not sure there is a worse way to lose a game, especially sad because the goat of the day had a solid game otherwise.

The stars aligned for the Vikings.

Another reason to like the Saints: center John Hill, Lehigh 1972; Saints 1975-1984.

Hang in there.

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