By Ryan McGowan
I almost died on February 5, 2012.
Well, maybe not physically, though a heart attack or stomach explosion seemed quite imminent, especially after Tom Brady got called for a safety in the first quarter of Super Bowl XLVI.
And maybe not emotionally either, since my emotions were certainly quite alive—most clearly when I slung off my new “Revenge: 02/03/08 Never Forgive, Never Forget” shirt and tore it into six pieces before tossing it into a trash bin on the sidewalk outside an Irish bar in Malden, Massachusetts. Or perhaps it was when I slammed my fist into the table after the critical offsides penalty in the first half, like Don Zaluchi in The Godfatherbefore insisting that he doesn’t want drugs near schools or sold to children.
No, it was more of a spiritual death. In his seminal essay “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us, “There comes a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance, that imitation is suicide.” Apparently I haven’t gotten to that point of my education yet because I found myself amazingly envious of a group of people I never thought I’d have any reason to be jealous of: Cleveland Browns fans.
Not Cleveland Browns fans exactly, but those types of fan bases who are irrelevant. Kansas City Royals fans. Pittsburgh Pirates fans. Atlanta Hawks fans. Columbus Blue Jackets fans. Utter irrelevance. Sure, the Browns are an iconic NFL franchise going back to the days of the All-America Football Conference. And sure, it is easy these days to shake the finger and laugh at the misfortunes of the Cleveland sports faithful, easily the most tortured collectivity in North America. But as I stormed out of Hugh O’Neill’s (considering just for a moment the plausibility of driving my car into a reservoir instead of going home), I hated myself for being a Patriots fan.
It sounds ridiculous, to hate myself for having the gall to be born in Rhode Island and to grow up five minutes from the old Foxboro Stadium in southeastern Massachusetts. And it’s not like the Giants loss was the most excruciating loss I’ve endured as a sports fan—just in the past four years we’ve witnessed:
- The demise of the undefeated season at the hands of these same Giants in SB XLII
- A Game 7 ALCS loss to the formerly irrelevant Tampa Bay Rays in 2008
- Two horrendous Patriots playoff losses, both at home, to the Ravens and Jets in 2010 and 2011, respectively
- The Bruins blowing a 3-0 lead to the Flyers and losing in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2010
- The Celtics blowing a 13-point fourth quarter lead to lose Game 7 and title #18 to the Lakers in 2010
- The Red Sox completely collapsing and missing the playoffs in the unforgettable last day of the regular season in September 2011
Not a single one of those gut-wrenching defeats knocked out my spirit. I don’t know why this Super Bowl was any different. But as I sought out some collective misery from fellow die-hards, I found myself spitting on the line from Tennyson that should comfort people in times of despair: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
No way. Losing sucks.
As I drove home from the bar (narrowly avoiding plunging over a guardrail into rushing water below), for the first time I wanted to be a non-sports fan. I wanted to be that guy who just goes about his business, lives his life, and is only casually aware of the existence of athletic contests somewhere in the universe. I contemplated how much easier it would be on Sundays in the fall to go apple picking, mow the lawn, rake leaves, read the paper, go for a country drive, and ask someone at work on Monday, “So who won the football game yesterday?” as water cooler conversation fodder.
I have a brother-in-law like that. He is aware of the existence of sports but he isn’t at all into it. He is a good sport about it, and is very self-deprecating about his ignorance amidst an otherwise sports-oriented family. His son (my nephew), however, became a die-hard Patriots fan this year at the age of five. He started watching the games with his mom and loved it. We got him a little Wes Welker jersey and a set of Patriots trading cards for his birthday in October, and he memorized all the players. Sure, at first he mixed up Danny Woodhead and Jerod Mayo (ahhh the innocence of youth), but eventually he got them all down pat.
I thought about Owen as I was trying to digest the magnitude of the loss in my head. His mom was going to watch the game with him on DVR the next day because it was going to go too late into Sunday night to watch live. I texted my sister-in-law and pleaded with her not to let him watch the game. It depressed me too much; I agonized over what it would do to his fragile five-year-old psyche. To her credit, she ignored me and watched the game with him anyway. Owen apparently bawled his eyes out at the end of the game.
Welcome to the world of sports, kid.
Maybe I care too much; maybe people in general place too much emphasis on silly games and sports contests when there are obviously so many other more important things in the world. But there is an importance to sports that is undeniable in human nature. Plato believed in the importance of “spirit”, the need for competition and victory, to the human soul. There’s a reason why the gladiators used to impale Christians, cheered on by 50,000 blood-thirsty maniacs. Nowadays we call those “Raiders games.”
The night I became jealous of Browns fans, who could have watched the Super Bowl this year without feeling like their pancreas was about to implode, I was talked down off the ledge by my friend Rafter, who is usually my voice of reason in these debates. I told him I’d rather have the Hugh Millen era of the early 90’s back than deal with another kick in the teeth loss in the biggest game in sports. I’d rather be the Milwaukee Bucks or the Washington Wizards. Rafter’s response?
“F— that. Be proud. We’re the big dog—people hate us. Why can’t we embrace what we always wanted? We’re there and we matter.”
He added, “You know when Yankees fans lose and say screw you, we’ll see you next year AND MEAN IT? So do the Pats.”
He made a lot of sense. Often in life someone appears who tells you exactly what you need to hear at that moment. And as you can see, it’s taken me a month but I finally felt like I was able to write about that night, as more of a catharsis than anything else. But Rafter is right.
Who cares if the Patriots lost? Who cares if it was to the Giants and the douchetastic Eli Manning again? It is certainly better to be in the arena than on the sidelines.
I got over all the losses I’ve seen: Super Bowl XX, the 1986 World Series, SB XXXI against the Packers, the Aaron Boone game. Owen will get over this one, and the rest of us will too. Hey, we have a baseball season to get ready for in three weeks. St. Patrick’s Day. The college basketball tournament. The NFL draft right after it. Then the Stanley Cup playoffs, looking for a repeat.
And Cleveland still sucks. All is right with the world.