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Kevin Sampsell | Longreads | February 2018 | 18 minutes (4,605 words)

The last time I cried about a football game was in 2009.

When I was a kid, though — oh man! The waterworks from the coiled frustration and utter heartbreak of losing a game, or ending a season with a sad thud, was often too much for me. I’m not sure what is considered normal blood pressure for junior high and high school dudes, but mine was probably pretty high.

If you’re a sports fan, you don’t need me to tell you that watching a game can elicit conflicting emotions. Some times it’s dull, others, exhilarating. It can run the gamut from mildly stressful to utterly exasperating. We tell ourselves it’s fun to watch games — whether it’s the lightning-fast college basketball Final Four, a tense knuckle-biting World Series, or even the high drama of an Olympics figure skating face-off. But is it really fun? Is watching a game, especially football with its rash of injuries and hyper-macho façade, truly enjoyable in the moment? Or do we just endure it so we can process the positive highlights later?

As a sports kid who eventually blossomed into a book nerd, I surprise a lot of people with my unflagging loyalty to a game that is often seen as barbaric, anti-intellectual, and sponsored by horrible right-wing corporations. For a long time, whenever I’d meet someone new, I wouldn’t reveal the fact that I’m a football fan right away. It was like a weird secret. I’d talk about more “intellectual” subjects: poetry, indie films, twee British music, or collage art. Often I would be looking for clues in these conversations, maybe a word or a name mentioned that would reveal that they knew what a linebacker was, or an onside kick. If I found out someone was a football fan, they would often become my new best friend, at least for a while.

I find it utterly refreshing to meet another man or woman “of arts and letters” who admires the sport like I do, and I glow inside with that feeling of camaraderie. Often though, if I slip up and admit that many of my Sundays are spent worshipping guys in full pads and helmets groping and tackling each other while rich old men tally their bank accounts in their executive suites, I am met with pained expressions and confusion. I counter that surprise by trying to illuminate my humanistic connection to the game — my love for discovering the players’ personal stories of overcoming adversity; the bonding community of fandom; the sheer unpredictable nature of all sports; and yes, indeed, the amazing beauty and skill of what these players are able to do on the field. I can still remember plays that happened decades ago and recall them as precisely as my favorite songs.

I did the math recently and figured out that I’ve been a football fan since 1975, when I chose the St. Louis Cardinals as my favorite team. Like most other 8-year-old boys, I picked my team mainly because I thought their helmet looked cool and partly because they were an exciting team to watch. Their star quarterback, Jim Hart, liked to throw long, and the team was nicknamed the “Cardiac Cards” because they won so many games in the final minute. But the Cardinals were also an underdog in a decade that saw the Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Miami Dolphins hogging the Super Bowl limelight.

Two years later, the team started to crumble and missed the playoffs for the second straight season. Following your team was drastically different in those days. Unless your team was playing on television, you’d have to wait for score updates to come up on screen about every fifteen minutes, or wait for the halftime highlights. The TV networks hadn’t introduced the scrolling game updates across the bottom of the screen yet. Of course, there was no internet either. I had to watch whatever game was on network television and make sure I didn’t take my eyes off the screen if I wanted to know how the Cardinals were doing. This was an excruciating experience, especially for a young fanatic.

I remember one time when a Cardinals game was on and they lost on the last play. I was crushed, and my stomach felt like a hard pit of sadness. It took a few minutes to sink in before I could believe they’d lost. I fantasized that after the end-of-game TV commercials, they’d go back to the game and the referees would be announcing that there was a penalty, or that there had been something wrong with the game clock, and the last seconds would have to be replayed — and the Cardinals would actually win!

Yeah, I know — the ’70s were a long time ago. It’s been over 40 years of fandom, but let me cut to the chase and hold up one finger to show you how many times my Cardinals have been to the Super Bowl. Now, let me put that finger away to show you how many times they’ve won it. Zero. Zip. Nada.

If you’re a sports fan, you don’t need me to tell you that watching a game can elicit conflicting emotions. Sometimes it’s dull, others, exhilarating. It can run the gamut from mildly stressful to utterly exasperating.

Why am I still holding out hope for this team, you might reasonably ask. The answer to that question is an infinite mystery. Sure, I’ve enjoyed other teams, other players. But when Sunday comes around, I can’t pull my focus away from those dang red birds — even during their worst years.

Early in the 1978 season, when the Cardinals lost their first eight games, I tried being a Green Bay Packers fan. The Packers were the surprise team that year and that felt thrilling, but by the end of the season, my heart just couldn’t be torn away from my lowly Cards, who won six of their last eight games to give me just the tiniest thread of hope to hold onto until the next season (another losing campaign). Maybe all those humbling losses were the original seeds that grew into my lifelong fondness for the underdog in everything.

Most people, though, are bandwagon jumpers. They see a winning team and hop on for the ride until they start losing games. Then they’ll switch to a more successful one, and on and on that cycle goes. It’s called being a fair-weather fan and there’s no loyalty in it! Real character comes from enduring many losing seasons and then savoring the joyful moments when they do happen. In these current days of free agents switching teams every other year, and fantasy football, loyal fans seem more of a rare breed. And yes — I do see the sad irony in the fact that my Cardinals’ fandom has outlasted two marriages and many friendships in my life. Maybe some folks (me?!) love sports teams more than people. But it’s a one-sided love. I don’t think the Cardinals love me back or even know I exist.

Sometimes it’s a hometown pride kind of thing that makes someone a fan of a team. Maybe their mom or dad rooted for a specific team and that fandom transferred to them. It could also be a particular player. A girl in my high school loved the gigantic defensive lineman William “Refrigerator” Perry and on that alone became a Chicago Bears fan. For me, loving the Cardinals is some incalculable combination of a never-ending hope for the hopeless and the thought that these years of suffering will be redeemed on some unforgettable day in my life.

My early love for football was fueled by my older brother, Matt, and some of the other kids in our neighborhood. We’d play games in a big yard down the street. We called this yard “O’Hare Stadium” because the lady who lived in the house adjacent to it was named Miss O’Hare. All the neighborhood kids had their own favorite teams: the Chargers, Eagles, Vikings, and 49ers. They’d emulate their favorite players, mouthing off play-by-play commentary with their names (Joe Montana, Tony Dorsett, et al) like it was trash talk against our favorite players. To avoid injury, we’d have to take into account the water faucet in the middle of the yard (to us, it signified the 50-yard-line).

My favorite memories of that neighborhood are playing football with those kids — even the ones I didn’t like. Heck, my favorite memories of elementary school are playing football during recess.

A couple of years later, I’d go and play tackle football with my brother, Matt, and his high school friends at the park. I was definitely the smallest one there, with puberty still a few armpit hairs away, but I was fast and could usually run out of bounds before any of the bigger kids could tackle me. One of the other players on those Saturdays was Jane, the sister of one of my brother’s friends. She was fearless and tough, and played kicker and backup running back for her high school’s junior varsity team.

Sometimes I’d play quarterback, and one time Jane intercepted one of my passes and ran it back for a touchdown, stiff-arming me on the way. She was a Raiders fan.

In my spare time, I collected football cards and read The Sporting News. I even subscribed to a Cardinals newsletter, which came in the mail every week during the season and included stats, injury updates, quotes, and a scouting report about the upcoming opponent. It was usually about five pages, stapled in the upper left corner. No fussing about the design. Each week I inhaled the information and then pinned the latest report to my bedroom wall.

I kept my own notebook of stats and predictions every year. I drew cartoonish pictures of some of the players — their jerseys and their helmets. I was not talented at this and often created lopsided-looking sketches of guys whose hands were much too large or whose legs were oddly proportioned. My helmet-drawing skills were pretty good though. The Cardinals logo has only changed slightly in all these years. One year, after they moved to Phoenix and became the Arizona Cardinals, they made the bird head look faster and sleeker (less round) and turned the expression on the beak into a meaner-looking frown. I colored these drawings in with crayons and markers.

I even ordered — through the mail — an album of the instrumental music that was played during football highlights on “Monday Night Football.” I’m listening to it now, as I write this, and nothing has ever matched the drama and thrust of Johnny Pearson’s two-minute masterpiece, “Heavy Action.”

Matt and I were the only ones in our family who seemed to appreciate the nuances and intensity of football. We’d often watch games with the volume down and pretend we were the announcers. He was a Howard Cosell fan. I was a Brent Musburger fan (I always loved the way he started his Sunday pre-game shows with “You’re looking live at…”). We both loved “Dandy Don” Meredith. (“Turn out the lights. The party’s oveeeer.”)

Even in the off-season, Matt and I would play those funny games you could find at toy stores, like the one where the little football players buzzed randomly around a magnetized field that vibrated, or the Super Toe game, where you smacked the plastic kicker guy on the head, which made him kick a little football through some plastic goalposts. There was also the handheld electronic game from Mattel, which was thrilling at the time, even though it was about the same level of quality as the first Pong games. And of course, there was the school cafeteria game where you folded up a piece of notebook paper into a triangle and flicked it around a table, scoring points by getting a corner of “the ball” over the table’s edge or flicking it through the air for a field goal.

All of these things — the playing, the analyzing, and dreaming of the sport — are probably the reasons I still obsess over football and get lured into its drama year after year.

As a sports kid who eventually blossomed into a book nerd, I surprise a lot of people with my unflagging loyalty to a game that is often seen as barbaric, anti-intellectual, and sponsored by horrible right-wing corporations.

People see a different side of me when I watch football. Normally, I’m unassuming, mellow, and quiet. But during a game, I might stomp around and clap like a coach on the sideline. I may shout at the television, throw my hands up in frustration, swear under my breath, tense up during a big play, bounce my leg nervously, high-five a stranger, or let out a loud “Whoop!”

One time, I watched a playoff game with a journalist who was doing a story about me and one of my books. He followed me around for a couple of days, asking me about my path to becoming a writer, my literary influences, and the roles I play in the literary community in Portland, Oregon, where I live. When the story appeared a couple of weeks later, it covered all those things for sure. But it also noted how, in the time he spent with me in the sports bar to watch the game, I showed “an animation in rooting for his team I’d never seen in him before.” I laughed when I read that part of his story, knowing that the reporter probably witnessed my most passionate self in that TV screen-filled sports bar.

On February 1st, 2009, I had a Super Bowl party at my house with about a dozen friends. The game capped off an amazing playoff run by the Cardinals, who some had regarded as the worst team in the playoffs that year. With surprising precision, and with Kurt Warner at quarterback, the team’s high-powered offense plowed through three contenders on their way to the big game. Their legendary wide receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, who has played his entire career for the team, was especially on fire with five touchdowns in the previous three games. They were playing the Steelers, a franchise that is no stranger to championships. This was the first and only time in my life that the Cardinals have been in the Super Bowl. Matt was living in Houston then and hosting a sports radio show. He had me call in as a guest and we talked about this long-awaited chance for the Cardinals to finally win it all. To be honest, it was like a dream come true to be on a radio show talking sports, especially with my team being unexpectedly in the national spotlight. Matt’s favorite team his whole life, by the way, has been the New England Patriots. They’ve won five Super Bowls since 2001. This gaudy accomplishment makes me jealous and sick to my stomach. But at least he doesn’t like the Steelers.

After a shaky first half and the halftime show featuring Bruce Springsteen, my Cardinals started to chip away at the Steelers’ lead and their defense toughened up. Though they were trailing 20-7 going into the fourth quarter, a Larry Fitzgerald touchdown and a safety soon made the score 20-16 with just under three minutes left in the game. The Cardinals had the ball and some momentum, but time was running out.

That’s when it happened.

Kurt Warner threw a short pass across the middle of the field to Fitzgerald in full stride, with a defender trailing at his heels. A small seam opened up as Fitzgerald’s powerful stride turned upfield, avoiding three defenders. Everyone at my Super Bowl party suddenly stood up and started shouting. I was leaning toward the giant TV, yelling, “Go, Larry! Go, Larry!” Fitzgerald, who had been dominating every game of the playoffs that year, put on the jets and sprinted into the end zone. Play-by-play announcer Al Michaels counted down as Fitzgerald ran: “Thirty, twenty, ten. Arizona has the lead!” It was a beautiful play, and after a game full of struggles, the Cardinals were ahead for the first time. I was jumping all over the place, hugging friends and clapping like a maniac.

You know how they show the team owners and managers up in their executive box seats during the games, and when there’s a huge game-changing play, everyone is hugging and smiling and celebrating as victory becomes imminent? That’s what I probably looked like. And to be honest, that’s how I felt too. Thirty-four years of loyalty, time, energy, and fantasizing were about to pay off. My team was at the top of the mountain. I watched Fitzgerald, in his iconic #11 red jersey and long dreads, celebrating with his teammates on the sidelines. In just his fifth year in the league, he was already elite, on and off the field. Larry Fitzgerald is a beautiful man, seemingly superhero-esque, and has now played every year of his record-setting 14-year career with the Cardinals, a rare feat for anyone in the league. He is my favorite Cardinal of all time and seeing him slice through the Steelers’ defense untouched on that touchdown is still one of the most adrenaline-fueled moments of my life. When you watch the replay you can even see the camera subtly shaking as the crowd’s decibel level increases.

One of my friends — a Seahawks fan — rushed out of my party after this play and ran down the street to a sports bar that catered to Steelers fans, so he could see what their reaction was. It was less than a block away and packed for the game. When he came back, he said the place was filled with a stunned silence and he shouted out “Cardinaaaaaaaals!” before sprinting back.

Why am I still holding out hope for this team, you might reasonably ask. The answer to that question is an infinite mystery. Sure, I’ve enjoyed other teams, other players. But when Sunday comes around, I can’t pull my focus away from those dang red birds — even when they’ve had their worst years.

An exhilarated buzz filled the air at this party — my friends smiling, my Cardinals celebrating, my long-awaited championship drought minutes away from finally ending. It was as memorable as the time when I was 12 and the 1980 US olympic hockey team shockingly upset the Soviet Union in the semis. Amazingly, it was Al Michaels who also announced that game and gave us the legendary line “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” as the game ended and the Americans celebrated their scrappy victory. It was as memorable as when the US women’s soccer team won the 1999 World Cup on Brandi Chastain’s famous penalty kick and whipped her jersey off in celebration.

But there was still two minutes and thirty-seven seconds left in the game. And I knew that was a problem.

The Steelers’ offense, led by that dislikable lug named Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, clawed their way downfield, turning plays that should have been defensive highlights for the Cardinals into unlikely gains for the elusive Steelers’ wide receivers. Just two minutes later, the Steelers scored a touchdown on a questionable sideline catch by Santonio Holmes — a catch that works as a prime example of the saying that “football is a game of inches.” With only a few seconds left in the game, the Cardinals didn’t have time to answer and the Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl.

I can remember the end of this game vividly. The crash of disappointment, the lingering doubt of Santonio Holmes’ catch, the feelings of what-if this play didn’t happen/what-if that play didn’t happen. My friends hugged me or shook my hand on their way out, as if we had just played the game ourselves. They were sad for me and any sort of “wait until next year” cliché felt more useless than ever. I knew this might have been my one chance to feel like a champion. And maybe more importantly, I felt sad for the Cardinals’ players, who had given us fans so much in their careers, only to fall short of that ultimate goal of the sport: the Vince Lombardi trophy and a Super Bowl ring. As the ever-quotable Bruce Arians (the Cardinals’ coach a few year later) would say: “As far as goals, we have one: puttin’ a fuckin’ ring on our finger.”

That night was the last time I cried over football. For weeks afterward, I rewound parts of the game in my head, imaging players finishing plays differently and revising a speculative (happier) outcome, as if I were re-editing a movie or a short story. Who am I kidding? I’ve been doing these things in my head now for years. It’s like when you re-imagine a turning point in your life: what if I would have driven down that other street instead? What if I would have said yes to that job? What would have happened if I never went on that date? Would my life be better if I had moved to that one city?

Football (any sport really) is filled with unanswered questions. That’s part of the reason I love it. It’s an unfolding story that doesn’t always end happily. It’s more real than reality television. It can be more dramatic than a soap opera. Sadder than a breakup album. Funnier than stand up comedy. More heart-pounding than a carnival ride. Sometimes, when it’s not football season, I get antsy for its return. This past July, I was visiting the small town in Washington where I grew up and I noticed that there was a semi-pro summer league football game being played at my old high school. Inspired by my craving for live football, plus the novelty of seeing a game at the stadium where I’d nervously held hands with my first girlfriend, I paid the $10 to see the Tri-City Rage battle the South Sound Nighthawks. Unfortunately, the game was kind of bad. The players dropped passes, fell down on defense, and just looked, well, amateur. It reminded me of taking my son to the park when he was in middle school, teaching him about the game, and making him run some plays with me. After he caught the ball, I’d pretend I was a linebacker and chase him down. But I couldn’t quite tackle him because I was trying to make him feel like the next Walter Payton.

The last time I’d been to an NFL game was several years before, when I had to brave a stadium full of Seahawks fans just to watch my Cardinals get clobbered. Matt was with me at that game and announced to the surrounding spectators that I was a Cardinals fan. I had to endure their good-natured heckling and funny looks the whole game.

Most people are bandwagon jumpers. They see a winning team and hop on for the ride until they start losing games. Then they’ll switch to a more successful one, and on and on that cycle goes.

Sometimes people will ask me if I’m from St. Louis or Arizona. They’ll look puzzled, as if they’ve never met a Cardinals fan before. I’ll say something about how I’ve simply liked them since I was a kid…and yeah, I thought their helmet was cool. They’ll look confused still, and I’ll have to reassure them, “They were good when I started liking them!”

Before this past season started, I decided to splurge and buy a ticket for a Cardinals home game in Glendale, Arizona. I picked the December 3rd matchup against the Los Angeles Rams because I thought it would be an important game late in the season, and because it would be a nice warm break from dreary, gray Portland in December. I took the flight down by myself and rented a car at the airport. Having a weekend of solitude in a place where I barely know anyone was refreshing. I drove through the desert and enjoyed a different landscape and got excited for the game at the University of Phoenix Stadium, a structure that looks like a toaster disguised as a spaceship. It was a good trip to think about all the stuff you ponder when you’re far from home and alone — life, love, nostalgia, joys, regrets, hotel swimming pools, southwestern bar food, and football. This essay, for instance, has been on my mental “things I want to write about” list ever since that heartbreaking Super Bowl loss. I could sense myself getting closer to actually writing it. Closer to revealing this sorta-secret life-long jock-ish love of mine.

At the game, I was finally among the people I could yell and cheer alongside, and talk Cardinals philosophy with. And even though the Cards had been suffering through a disappointing injury-filled season, it was still a joy to see them play and especially to see my hero Larry Fitzgerald and to breathe the same stadium air as him. He even scored a touchdown.

I looked through the game program during a time-out and saw that at halftime there was going to be a special “Ring of Honor” ceremony. Most teams have a similar thing in their stadiums as well — a place where their all-time best players and coaches from the past are immortalized with their name permanently on display. Joining the sixteen other names in this special display of gratitude was to be none other than Jim Hart, the longtime Cardinals quarterback who’d played a big part in making me fall in love with the team in the first place. I pointed this out to the stranger sitting next to me and told him that Hart had been the star of the team when I first started liking them in the ’70s. The man kind of shrugged and said he didn’t remember him. Jim Hart was before his time.

At halftime, while many left their seats to go wander around the stadium, get food, or go to the bathroom, a small area on the field with a podium and microphone was set up. A highlight reel of Hart’s career was played on the stadium big screens and testimonials from former teammates were blended into the grainy footage. Afterward, Hart, who played for the Cardinals for 18 seasons and still holds many of the team’s passing records, was introduced by the team president to a polite ovation from those still paying attention. The 73-year-old ex-quarterback thanked fans, friends, and family and then his name was unveiled in the rafters. It seemed a lucky coincidence that I was there to see this happen. More highlights played as people started to take their seats again. Even though it had been decades since I’d seen many of these highlights, I could still remember some of them. The stadium started to come alive again after a lull. It was like some of the spectators were thinking, Whoa, this guy was good back in his day!

Football (any sport really) is filled with unanswered questions. That’s part of the reason I love it. It’s an unfolding story that doesn’t always end happily.

When the second half started, I got out of my seat and walked around the stadium. I saw all the fans having fun, especially the kids in their jerseys and their homemade signs. I thought about how they’d get older and get to see so many different Cardinals players and how those players would bring them happiness and sadness in their lives. A full spectrum of emotions. I hoped those fans wouldn’t have to wait as long as I have for the thrill of a championship.

It felt magical and surreal to be there in that crazy stadium. I went back to my seat and texted with Matt and told him what section I was in and that I got to see Jim Hart. He texted back and said he was watching the game on TV in Seattle. I actually started to feel kind of lonely there at the game, by myself. I took a bunch of photos of stuff around the stadium and tried to get some action shots of the game, but they didn’t look very good so I deleted them. But that’s okay. Sometimes memories serve us better than photos. Sometimes memories connect us to the thing in a deeper, more meaningful way.

And oh, as far as how the game went? It was fantastic. But the Cardinals lost.

Kevin Sampsell is a writer, editor, artist, small press book publisher and bookseller living in Portland, Oregon. His books include the novel, This Is Between Us, and the memoir, A Common Pornography (which also mentions his love of the Cardinals).

Editor: Sari Botton