“The truth is,” Nick Hornby wrote in “Fever Pitch,” his book about his obsession with Arsenal and British football, “for alarmingly large chunks of an average day, I am a moron.”
That’s a wonderful sentence by one of my favorite writers, but if Hornby is only a moron for only large chunks of the average day, he is doing a lot better than I am. I can honestly report that for the last few months I have been an absolute idiot for all but very small portions of the day.
Some football (American football) fans mistakenly assume that the season goes in a straight line, starting in August with pre-season games (wherein five of your team’s 10 best players will suffer season-ending injuries) and ending in February with the Super Bowl. But the true fan, the addicted and obsessive, the kind friends and spouses ought to be worried sick about, knows that the season doesn’t end. There is no start, there is no finish. It just is, and, like life, it ends when you do. This is why, when the New York Giants beat the Green Bay Packers in the divisional playoff a few weeks ago in the Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field (it was colder in my Manhattan apartment that day than it was in Green Bay, Wis.) and qualified for the NFC Championship game (which they won … no, let me put that a better way: WHICH THEY WON!!!) my wife looked at me and said, “Hey, you can relax now. They won the game.”
But I could not relax. I never can. There is never any respite.
The second the game ended and the Giants won, I had to begin worrying about the NEXT game. (I bet even the team’s offensive and defensive coordinators gave themselves a few hours before they started contemplating schemes for the following Sunday.) And, as soon as the Giants finished off the 49ers in San Francisco the following week, I began worrying about the next game, Super Bowl MLCCDIXXIV or whatever number it is, next Sunday against the New England Patriots.
I don’t know what it is like for most football fans, but for me a season isn’t about exultation or grief — it’s about anxiety. The anxiety soars right before kickoff, lasts throughout the game, subsides a bit after the game, but then begins to climb the following morning. It’s like an airplane taking off, experiencing hours of gut-churning turbulence, and never quite landing.
The Giants-49ers game went into overtime. The game had a 6:30 p.m. time (well, that’s a Network TV 6:30 p.m. — you have to tack on an additional 15 minutes for the National Anthem and plane flyover and Bud Lite commercials). I almost always take half an Ambien on Sundays, especially winter/football Sundays, but with my favorite team fighting for their lives, I knew I would need a whole one. Not knowing the game was going into overtime, I mistimed the whole drug-dropping and wound up doing dishes at 1 in the morning. And already I was worrying. There was no time to celebrate. I worried about Bill Belichick, football’s own Dr. Strangelove, and Tom Brady and how to stop both Bob Gronkowski and Wes Welker; I worried about Gisele Bundchen and the fact that, since the Giants had experienced a spectacular season that was completely unforeseen, they were going to end up with an abysmally low first-round draft pick. Yes, they had won but there was more work to be done.
And that’s what I mean about the season never ending. A team plays its first games in September and, if they’re good and if they’re lucky, is still playing in January and February. But it doesn’t stop there. Just when you think you can exhale and knock off for a few months, you have to worry about the draft, about players being re-signed or getting traded or quitting or shooting themselves in the leg at 5 in the morning at some disco that’s less than a mile away from your house that you never even knew existed. You worry about your quarterback going skiing and tearing his Achilles’ tendon or about Victor Cruz, the Giants exciting new wide receiver, destroying his ACL salsa-ing on “Dancing With the Stars.” Being a fan means nonstop, all-year, around-the-clock worrying — it means worrying when you’re watching baseball in July. ESPN, even in the off-season (ha! Like there is an off-season), airs a show about the NFL every weekday and somehow, when nothing is happening, when there is no news to report, somehow manages to fill an hour. In February comes the NFL Scouting Combine, where fresh-out-of-college football players gather to get weighed, measured, taped, have their intelligence tested, get grilled about their dreams, hopes, fears and drug use and sexual preferences. In April comes the NFL Draft — I will watch a lot it — where teams pick their stars, pleasant surprises and disappointments of the future. Then come the mini-camps and pre-season, and then the teams make their cuts, whittle themselves of their veterans who can no longer do it and of their kids who never would. And then the real season begins. And on and on and on.
It brings to mind Joni Mitchell singing that we’re captive on the carousel of time. But Joni Mitchell is Canadian and probably likes hockey. Football is a roller-coaster ride that never ends, the kind that you think will fly off the rails and land you into the face of a mountain.
The day after the Giants beat the 49ers, I woke up and my very first thoughts were about the Giants, about the game they’d played in rain-soaked San Francisco, and about how they’d beaten the Packers in Green Bay the week before and the Falcons in Atlanta the week before that. As the day wore on, the Giants weren’t off my mind for a minute. As a matter of fact I think I can say that lately the average minute of mine can be broken down this way:
15 seconds: being happy the Giants won and are in the Super Bowl
40 seconds: worrying about the Super Bowl, about the 2012/2013 season and beyond
5 seconds: other shit
The last time the Giants were in the Super Bowl was in 2008. My wife was very pregnant at the time but she and I had a deal, a deal we’d worked out in advance of even conceiving: She could not go into labor during the Super Bowl. If she did so, she would have to go to the hospital with one of her sisters … or maybe the taxi driver could help her along. Well, she and the fetus agreed to this and the Giants won. Even then, right after the game, she asked me what was wrong. I believe I said something like, “I don’t think they’re going to be able to repeat next year and I’m still not a Tom Coughlin fan.” (Our baby came along a few weeks later — my wife was late and had to be induced — and I somehow resisted the impulse to name our daughter Eli or Plaxico.)
So there is little joy in the Mudville of the true football fan. For every minute of exultation, if you are lucky enough to be able to exult, there comes about two hours of dread.
If you, the reader, do not believe me then I ask you to do this: Go to a sports bar in Pittsburgh when the Steelers are playing, or to one in Boston when the Patriots are playing, or in Philly when the Iggles are playing. If the home team loses, look at the players on the field congratulating the winning team, patting their helmets and shaking hands. Quite often, players on the losing team will be … smiling. That’s right. Smiling. They just lost a game and they’re already over it. Now look at the fans in the bar and tell me how many smiles you see.
I’m convinced that fans take the game more seriously than the players do, and it might be because of this: The players are paid with money but the wages of fandom is fear. Money you save or squander, but anxiety is forever.
At my Super Bowl party this year, the choice of wings will be: mild, spicy, five-alarm and Ativan. Guess which ones I’m going for.