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.