I came into being in Marin County, California. I came into football fandom watching the Oakland Raiders with my dad. It was a major way I could connect with him. When the Raiders won the Super Bowl as the first Wild Card team to make it the whole way, I was in. I felt like the good guys had won. I felt like I had won.
I bought a poster with all the NFL team’s helmets lined up in rows. Some kids count sheep. I would memorize the football divisions in the AFC and NFC. I read and re-read Strange but True Football stories, learned about the guy with half a foot who kicked a 63-yard field goal. I bought those mini football helmets from the gumball machines for a quarter a piece — a week’s allowance.
Against all odds, the next season proved even more satisfying. It began in the Candlestick Park bleachers for a 49ers preseason game led by a young Joe Montana. If I thought Jim Plunkett was cool (and inspiring with his blind parents), Montana was cooler. Something about the way his hair curled up under his helmet. Joe Montana’s hair said “free spirit.”
The standout moment for me happens to be known now as The Catch. We were gathered around the Sears Roebuck 22-inch with my mom and dad and three-year-old brother. The Cowboys were “America’s Team.” Always good, it seemed inevitable they would win, and I had already begun hating them for it. The Cowboys were up 27–21 with time dwindling. Then, Dwight Clark came down with the improbable catch.
We stood. We screamed. We went on to win Super Bowl XVI.
Football is a complicated sport, full of stops and starts. Eleven men end up in a pile of dust. It can get dull. I guess that’s why it’s a “quarterback driven league” now. It’s also brutal, and the changes they’re trying to put in place right now to make it less so are great in spirit but not in practice.
Football is also often loud and obnoxious, subject to constant review, and over-commercialized. They can spend 5–10 minutes barraging you with more truck and phone commercials while musing on whether a toe touched the last white wisp of out-of-bounds fescue. If it weren’t for being able to fast forward and mute I don’t think I could stand it anymore.
You can also create compelling arguments that fandom is mindless jingoism: my city is better than yours. We can call it a type of tribalistic warfare. There are the fans who will cheer when their own struggling player goes down with an injury. There are fans who will attack and maim other fans. Yes, there is plenty to hate about America’s religious sports fanaticism.
In the end, what are we really cheering for?
With that said, there are plenty of intangible rewards. Call it the magical thinking of fandom. It’s something more common and necessary than whether or not one’s team wins a dramatic championship. Something like when we connect with the personalities when we feel like somehow we “know” the players. When identification happens, empathy happens. We somehow humanize these “role models” through our identification.
That’s the very idea and challenge of trying to be a good guy dad to your son, one he respects even if he doesn’t always like exactly. Sometimes that’s literally what I’ve said to my oldest, “Look, we’re on the same team here.”
Only after seeing The Book of Manning documentary a few nights ago did I realize the vicarious power of cheering for the same team with your family. Peyton Manning is one of those guys I naturally cheered for and hoped would do well. Mostly because the Mannings were really good at what they did and seemed quite humble about it.
Why do we cheer for the people we do? People who are otherwise complete strangers? Sometimes we simply like the uniform. Sometimes it’s the transcendent play of a single player. None of it remains relevant to us if we don’t somehow discover ourselves through the players, identify with them as we struggle to victory.
Archie Manning made his life about his children, not about himself, when he clearly had every excuse to be otherwise. His father committed suicide during Archie’s own rise to stardom — and Archie was the one to discover his father’s body. Already an All-American, he volunteered to quit college, and stay home and help his mother and sister. Instead of the obvious anger he could have easily let consume him, he prevailed. He then went on to legendary success on the field. His humility off the field is what really gets me.
I still have a place in my heart for the 49ers and I cheer now for the Tennessee Titans. Sports are a part of my culture, my personal and collective history. Sports are fun. I’m not just making excuses for why you might find me wasting away another afternoon on the couch in the fall on any given Sunday.
Sports are a way for us old people to connect with our young. And that never gets old and keeps us young. When my sons and I stand up and scream for Derrick Henry making another powerful move down the field to the end zone, we are somehow cheering for each other, cheering for ourselves.
When Archie’s dad was driving him to college his freshman year, Archie asked him what he thought he should major in, and what did he think he was good at.
“I just want you to be a good guy,” his dad said.
If I were a great quarterback, I would want to be a smart one. I would want to stay hungry even with my success. I wouldn’t want the size of my bank account to change the size of my ego. I’d want to stay humble and constantly think about how I could improve. Come to think of it, this is more or less what I could say about trying to live life in general — or being a father in particular.
I should say a lot of us could do worse than to major in being a good guy. And when it comes to my own two sons and how they think of me both alive and dead, that’s about the most important thing of all. Not whether I was a great writer or teacher or leader or funny or smart or whatever. I want them to remember me as someone who loved them, who put them ahead of himself, who was one that you’d always want to cheer for, one of the good guys.