I grew up in a family where the men didn’t easily show their emotions, a character trait that extended itself to sports.
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.
But then again, I knew what I was getting into when I became a Saints fan.
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.
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 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.
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.