If everyone has a dark side, then mine must be football. Otherwise, how explain why a normally non-violent, sane, cultured woman has become devoted to a sport where young men practically kill each other fighting over a strangely-shaped ball?
I didn't become a football fanatic until I was well into middle age. When I was a teenager, my dad took me to the occasional Jets game. I thought Joe Namath was cute, but that was about the extent of my interest. At Smith College, an all women's school, my idea of a big football event was the Amherst-Williams game, played on a field with bleachers so minimal they would put any Texas high school to shame. Later, when Eric and I lived in Northern California, where Eric grew up, he took me to a Stanford game, but mostly to see the band, which was famous for not marching in formation.
Once we settled in Boston, I had only a passing interest in the Patriots, my hometown team. I attended one game during the early eighties, when Eric's new boss invited us to his luxury box, but I was more interested in making a good impression on the boss' wife than in who won the game. For the next two decades, though I agonized over the Red Sox like any loyal Boston-area resident, I paid virtually no attention to the Patriots.
My interest in football ratcheted up when my son, Aaron, started college at the University of Miami in 2000. The Miami Hurricanes were a top-ranked team that year and all the games were televised. I still didn't understand the rules, but now I had a college team to root for. Plus, football represented a way for me to bond with Aaron, who seemed pleased by my interest. He even bought me a "football for dumb women" book.
Then came the 2001-2002 season, the perfect storm of football, played in the harrowing aftermath of 9/11. If you recall that time, you may remember that sporting events became opportunities for passionate expressions of loyalty, to country and team. And my two teams became victorious—the Patriots, led by their great new quarterback, went all the way to a Super Bowl win; and the Hurricanes won the National Championship at the Rose Bowl. It was during that emotional and amazing season that I experienced my true initiation to football.
The weekend after 9/11, college and pro football games were postponed. The Hurricanes had been scheduled to play the University of Washington, the only team that had defeated them during the prior season. The game was rescheduled as the final home game of the regular season, during the Thanksgiving break. Since our family would be gathering at my parents' home just north of Miami for the holiday, Aaron suggested that Eric, Alex, and I might like to see the game. He managed to get us tickets for what would turn out to be the biggest crowd ever to watch a regular-season game at the Orange Bowl, almost 80,000 people.
The Canes were undefeated. Only Washington and Virginia Tech stood in the way of a BCS National Championship game. We arrived at the Orange Bowl about an hour before game time. The Orange Bowl was located in a largely Cuban neighborhood with almost no parking, other than people's driveways. I negotiated in Spanish for a spot. The air was charged with excitement and filled with the smells of of hamburgers, hot dogs, and beer. As we entered the stadium, we were met by a wall of sound. And the game hadn't even begun.
Then there was the bizarre Hurricanes cheer. Led by Sebastian, the ibis mascot, the fans waved their hands in unison while screaming with increasing intensity until Sebastian, like a master maestro, led them in yelling C-A-N-E-S CANES! Silly? Yes. Simplistic? Absolutely. But also thrilling and addictive. I was soon caught up in the hysteria and cheering at the top of my lungs.
The game didn't disappoint. After scoring a touchdown on a punt return after the opening kickoff, the Canes went on to defeat Washington 65-7. The following week they beat Virginia Tech and subsequently trounced Nebraska and won the National Championship.
At the same time, the Patriots were having their own incredible season. Who wouldn't love a team that fashioned snow angels after scoring touchdowns and made field goals in a blizzard look easy?
Unfortunately, not every season has been quite so glorious, especially for the Canes, who fell on hard times for a while. But now that I'm hooked, weekends during football season find me parked in front of my tv or occasionally at the stadium. I attended a Patriots game in twenty-degree winter weather. Given my dislike of the cold, that was a true testament to my devotion. And recently I saw the Canes play at their new home, Land Shark Stadium. They lost that one, but hey, I'm in it for the long haul.
I still cringe when players are injured, especially when they're hit on the head. But I also marvel at their super-human strength, their agility, their sheer determination. I love to watch Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss pull a pass out of thin air with his gigantic hands or Miami running back Graig Cooper gut his way down the field. I'm a fan, a fanatic, a die-hard. Should I be worried about this? Nah, not when there's still a chance my team can win today's game.