“It’s just a game. It doesn’t really matter.”
The Super Bowl just ended, and my team was prodigiously routed. The Denver Broncos were subdued, embarrassed, drubbed. The game started with a botched snap that resulted in a safety – the football equivalent of the shuttle blowing up on the launchpad. A room full of friends assured me that things would turn around, but the bottom had dropped out of my stomach. I felt nauseated. From there, things only got worse. You saw it.
I went through 12 emotional stages, or seven, or four. I don’t know. I was definitely angry. Then sad. Then numb. Numb for a long while. I had a moment of separation in the second quarter where I was able to float above my emotions and revel in the statistical improbability of such a one-sided game when the stakes were so high. It’s remarkable that one elite team could have so many things go right while the other elite team had as many go so wrong. (At least I learned that Jack Bauer is coming back.)
Even now, hours after the game was decided, I feel hollow. But why? Of course, the outcome really doesn’t matter. Aside from the players and their families, and the people who work for the respective franchises, fate won’t notably turn on the outcome of this game. Sport is sport, right? It’s just another avenue of entertainment for the overstuffed gladiator wanna-be’s. Rationally, it’s easy to process that.
But what I don’t think many people understand is that sport spills over into our lives in a real way. There is something magical about growing up and going to games to root for our hometown teams. (Particularly in the 80’s and 90’s, which were probably the last decades in which heroes could thrive in the public spotlight, untouched and untarnished by the modern 24-hour news cycle.) I still remember the throttled rush of walking into Mile High Stadium or McNichols Arena in Denver, as an excited kid brimming with optimism and curiosity about the absurd boundaries of human athletic performance. I watched men run around and do incredible things that made me wonder what I might achieve or become. Those early experiences with sport filled me with a sense of possibility that imbued the plodding routine of school days and sports practices with enchantment. “Did you see the shot I just hit? That was just like Jordan!” You worked hard, because one day, you might be able to wear that jersey. You might step on that court.
In the gauzy stupefaction of this early fandom, my team affiliations were stitched into the fabric of my identity. My friends and I dreamt on the shoulders of our giants. I remember feeling unbridled elation when the eighth-seeded Nuggets beat the first-seeded Sonics in the 1994 NBA playoffs. As the game ended, I high-fived and hugged my mom, dad, and brother. I turned back to the TV in time to see Dikembe Mutombo laying on the court and crying, holding the game ball above his outstretched 7’2” frame. I spent the next week with a Nuggets jersey on, periodically falling to the ground (at home; at school; at grandma’s house) with my mini Nuggets ball held up at arm’s length, releasing guttural cries and pretending to ignore the flashing cameras and inquisitive microphones that weren’t in my face.
The Nuggets – MY basketball team – lost dutifully in the next round of the playoffs that year. But it didn’t matter. I had tasted proximate glory. I was a 5’3” white kid, but I was Dikembe. My gradeschool friend Ben Curtiss-Lusher was Mahmoud Abdul Rauf. Mike Saslow was Bryant Stith. Dave Miller was Rodney Rogers. We shared those experiences. Those fantasies. We grew up with that. The stakes got higher when my brother and I would play vicious games of one-on-one basketball in our driveway. The first advantage was to quickly claim the identity of a key Nuggets player as we sprinted onto the court, all jutting limbs, gangly youth, and incipient bravado. “I’m LaPhonso Ellis!” “NO! You’re Mark Randall!” (That was a grave insult. Mark Randall averaged 2.6 points per game over his career. You didn’t want to be Mark Randall.)
I eventually graduated to one-on-one games against my dad, who was a fine athlete and a fierce competitor. Sometimes I beat him, but most of the time I didn’t. His fadeaway jumpshot was undefendable. But the recurring meme of those games was my adoption of the persona of whatever Nuggets player had hit the buzzer-beater the night before. I was a boy among men, but I felt like a colossus.
Sports are a center of gravity that pulls disparate identities together. In Denver, we felt that gravity in 1996 when the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup. Then in 1998 and 1999 during back-to-back Broncos Super Bowl victories. In those years, John Elway, a perennial big-game loser, utterly redeemed his legacy and injected orange and blue into the veins of every Coloradoan. We reveled in it. The wins were a total absolution of past heartbreak and disappointment. I still remember the distinct feeling of pride that washed over me when my brother showed up on the front page of the Denver Post newspaper – carrying his girlfriend on his shoulders – as the lead photo in a story about post-game Super Bowl celebrations in downtown Denver. Shortly after the photo was taken, he was tear-gassed, and I was very proud of that too. It was part and parcel of being a winner. I remember excitedly showing the paper to my parents and grandparents. Their feelings were more…mixed. But we all shared something in that experience. A sense of besting the odds. Appreciation of perseverance and grit. A knowledge that our mid-sized city was “on the map” nationally, if for a short while. And more than anything, an assurance that, during certain fortuitous windows in life, the scales of fortune could unequivocally tip our way. The gods could smile on our guys, on our town, on our friends. On us. Even though we hadn’t been on the field, it was our win. And nobody could take that feeling away from us.
In the years that followed, the connection between fan and team stuck. In bad years, we stayed quiet. But we knew that things would pick up at some point. Most importantly, the affiliation bound us up with others who shared it. We could be halfway across the world and meet a fellow Broncos fan, and immediately we were friends. In that total stranger we saw our schoolyard pal, our brother, our uncle. That person, whoever they were, had ridden the same rollercoaster. We had lived some life together. The bond was profound. And more than anything, the anticipation of the next breakthrough year was what mattered. The future was ripe with possibility and hope. It didn’t matter if the economy was collapsing; if government was broken; if our jobs weren’t secure. We felt the warmth of a fatalistic optimism. Next year would be IT.
So, in this way, the game might not matter, but sports do. They embody the vicissitudes of life and the people we participate in our existences with. They are a rare currency that gives us connective footing with folks we know nothing else about. They can be the common denominator between a dewy-eyed nine-year-old and his World War II-veteran grandfather. Who we root for becomes a part of us, and of those who root alongside us. Sports allow lives to run parallel to one another, if only for a short while.
I watched much of this Broncos season with friends from childhood. We hadn’t kept in touch very well since we graduated eighth grade together, but it felt like no years had been lost as we traded high fives after every Peyton Manning touchdown. Our bond over the Broncos superseded the erosive march of time. Each win reached back deep into our childhoods and our most cherished memories. Watching these heroes succeed, despite their imperfections, wrenched us into reminiscence of those pickup games, those recesses, those little league seasons. Even as we turned 30 and navigated a tricky transitional year in our lives, we could escape for a while. “Hey, this is Peyton’s year! This is OUR year!” In those hours in front of the TV, not much else mattered.
So why does it suck to lose? In a way, it reminds you of the impermanence of it all. Even if your team plays a remarkable season, even if your hero sets mind-boggling records after coming back from surgery…a big loss guts you. The magic loses its luster as another Monday routine looms. Another year has passed, a whiff of glory come and gone. All of our heady anticipation, all of the giddy “what-if’s”…gone.
But isn’t that just part of life?
I’ll be back to root again next year. And so will my friends, my family, my hometown. In reality, our fandom reflects the noblest stubbornness in our human nature. Our proclivity to hang on to the best of the past. To irrationally promote professional athletes we don’t know and who don’t care about us, because that team is who we ARE. And we do it because our teams allow us to coalesce across boundaries in a world that is often too serious, complicated, and divisive. Few shared passions afford us that.
Today, my guys lost. The Seahawks played dominant football (poetic justice in retaliation for the 1994 defeat of the Sonics?) and deserved to win. Many of my friends who grew up with the Seahawks are enjoying this victory. I’m happy for you. As much as the game didn’t matter, it will still be something you tell your kids about. And they’ll wonder, in awe, at how a group of guys completely shut down one of the best athletes in history. Hopefully, they’ll feel inspired as they throw the ball in the backyard with mom; as they watch that year’s season opener with dad; and as they sprint down the field at recess, imaginary Jumbotron boasting their happy little face and manic steps, ready to take on the coming year. I hope you foster that anticipation and hopefulness. Because down the block, my kids will have it too.
(My nephew Max, earlier in the season.)