Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Uncomplicated Mind Of The Dispassionate Fan

Appeared on in January 2014

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

This is a story about a game, two teams and an equal number of fan bases. It is a commentary on victory, defeat, a great game and human passions. Its conclusion, very simply, is this: sometimes three hours can change everything for the NFL’s most accomplished winners and losers…if only for a day.

The occasion was a week 16 contest between the Philadelphia Eagles and ‘Skins of Washington played at FedEx Field, just outside the nation’s capital. Locale aside, it felt like non-descript bowl game played at a neutral location. An eye test of tailgaters indicated that somewhere between thirty and forty percent of the attendees were clad in some hue of green. The clash of colors was hideous, particularly for those adorned in burgundy and gold.

Despite being slightly outnumbered, the Philly contingent was a spirited group, as one would expect from a fan base supporting a consistent winner and a team playing meaningful football in December. The Italian Stallion himself would have been proud of Gang Green’s fighting spirit. They were lathered and ready for Apollo Creed, Clubber Lane, Ivan Drago and anyone else Washington or Hollywood threw at them. The narrow ‘Skins majority, a once-proud lot beaten down by decades of losing, was easily drowned out. The pre-game approach to FedEx Field was filled with heckling outbursts regarding Washington’s nonexistent home-field advantage, drunken renditions of the Eagles’ fight song and repetitive, chanted spellings of the team’s name (no doubt to the joy of elementary school teachers across eastern Pennsylvania). 

The passionate minority was, needless to say, confident in a triumphant result. And the dispassionate majority in burgundy and gold? Nearing the end of another impossibly disappointing and dysfunctional season, they hardly managed a single counter-punch. The outcome was known by both groups of fans. This movie had been leaked. The book had been read. Just ring the bell/kick the ball off and wait for the anti-climatic ending – a presupposed loss for Washington and a casual win for Philly. 

Here’s a funny thing about the NFL: it hates the obvious. It toys with it. Makes a mockery of it. When everything seems to favor one team, the apparently hopeless opposition become Spartans for a day.  At 4:30pm EST (kickoff), the Eagles were certain victors; three hours later the ‘Skins had stolen Philly’s Christmas and essentially ended their season with an improbable 27-24 victory.

You Don’t Have To Go Home But You Can’t Stay Here

With Goliath out cold, the mood exiting the stadium was decidedly different. Jovial ‘Skins fans managed a few isolated renditions of their fight song, but the feeling of disbelief far exceeded cocky joy. Eagles fan were enraged. This was the team’s third consecutive loss and this final act of failure came against a clearly inferior foe. They were as shocked as Jack Buck when he summed up Kirk Gibson’s home run off Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series with this iconic declaration: “I don’t believe what I just saw.”

The only difference was Philly’s finest contorted Buck’s phrase with several Grinch-like expletives. One particular Eagles fan summed the world-turned-upside-down-in-three-hours-flat when she responded to a group of ‘Skins fan happily singing the fight song to no one in particular by screaming…and I mean blood-red faced, eyes bulging out screaming…”F--- YOU, YOU STILL SUCK!!!” At least she didn’t spell it via group chant?

Losing Scars The Heart

I don’t begrudge the young lady. At some level I respect her deep, personal connection with her team and complete inability to avoid a public nuclear meltdown. Many years ago, I was just like her. For example (and something of an act of contrition), I attended an NFL game with a buddy in the late nineties and by the fourth quarter our creative use of the English language while rooting for our team had emptied the seats in a 10-foot diameter all around us. We were like “Stinky Tom” and “Greasy Ron” at the lunch table: the two disgusting kids everyone in the school avoided. But those days of un-tempered emotion are gone. The losing has gotten the best of me. 

My proof? I was one of those dazed and confused ‘Skins fans that offered no resistance to the Philly’s pre-game party, a primer of sorts for the Mummers Parade. I just didn’t care enough to fight - a shocking fall into despondency.

For the better part of my life, Washington’s NFL team – my team – accounted for a huge wedge of my “mood influencers” pie graph. Losses bothered me for days. Wins increased my productivity at work the following week more than any leader’s or motivational speaker’s words. Sorry Anthony Robbins. I rank the three Super Bowl championships among my very best childhood memories. I ripped up a piece of turf after the last game at RFK Stadium and toured FedEx Field when it was still a symbol of civic and fan pride. I have traveled many miles to various training camp locations over the years and dutifully watched every game for over 30 years. 

Now I just don’t care like that anymore. After a loss I calmly walk downstairs, provide my wife a humorous account of this week’s debacle and go out in the yard to play soccer with my son as if absolutely nothing happened. When the ‘Skins manage a win, I smile at the good fortune but know it means nothing within larger context of what will undoubtedly be an unfulfilling season. I’m like a person that has agreed to remain with an unfaithful spouse. The relationship still exists and the superficial appearance is unchanged, but it will never be the same.

Why? Excessive, relentless and never-ending losing.

The ‘Skins have completely disintegrated. Depths known but to the Raiders have been reached. They are the unquestioned champions of dysfunction east of the Rockies. The ‘Skins haven’t won more than 10 games since 1991. They have had just three playoff appearances and have won but two playoff games since 1992-93 season. Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 – for the first time. There was no Internet in 1992. Grunge music was dominating the airwaves. Cell phones were like a piece of luggage. Flannel shirts were hung in our closets with care. It takes a diabolic commitment to lose to that extent and for that length of time.

A Moment For Every Fan

This particular ‘Skins-Eagles game was but a moment in time. It took place at one NFL stadium and featured two distinct teams and fan bases – but it wasn’t special. Truth is it could – and probably does – happen throughout the league. At a very basic level this was just a game between a long-time loser and a perennial contender. I could have been a faithful supporter of the Browns, Jaguars, Raiders or Jets. Fans of those teams manufacture half-hearted hope in August and are lamenting a comedy of missteps and a sub-.500 record by Thanksgiving. Buffalo might make the cut too. They haven’t won much in fifteen years. What about Detroit? They are competitive but you can almost feel the distrust and guarded enthusiasm when watching Lions home games.

As for that Eagles fan who was pushing the limits of her cardiovascular integrity, she could have easily been decked out in Steelers, Patriots, Ravens, Seahawks, 49ers, Broncos or Packers gear – all consistent winners. Such teams give a fan reason to lose his or her religion in defeat. An emotional meltdown after a loss to the ‘Skins or a team of similar incompetence justifies a two-year-old fit (at least in my mind). From the team that gives much to its fans, much is expected, I suppose.

And for the fans of teams who give nothing but consistent heartache, if not abject embarrassment? Life is too short. The remote is too close. The NFL RedZone channel and access to quality, meaningful NFL football is too convenient. I am 42 years old and I don’t have to let my miserable football team ruin my Sunday afternoon. I don’t have to have to let every loss trim a year off my precious life. It just isn’t worth it. My focus now is less about the ‘Skins and more on building a fantasy contender, enjoying the accomplishments of elite players in other NFL locales and generically enjoying the great game of football – all changes made for the sake of my mental health. Sanity is vastly underrated.

The bottom line is that defeat-crazed Eagles fan was right. The ‘Skins do still bleeping suck. As do the Browns. And the Jags. And the…you know who you are. The ‘Skins stink and there’s little evidence of change. I accept it…calmly and without a trace of emotion. Am I a broken fan or an evolved fan? Yes - it’s just that uncomplicated.

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