The reports are in: An estimated 1 million people were in downtown Denver for the Broncos Super Bowl victory parade. And I was one of them. Since I can remember, I’ve been a big fan of my hometown team, and its latest Super Bowl win put me on cloud nine. I went downtown to hoot, holler, and crush Coors Lights the night of the Super Bowl and I returned for the parade. Decked out in a newly purchased championship T-shirt, I squeezed into the throng for a glimpse of the players, the coaches, the trophy. But I couldn’t help wondering why I was there. Why, after all these years, did I still care so much about sports?
The Broncos hadn’t won it all since 1998. The team lost its previous Super Bowl bid — which I attended and had weeks of recovery from — quite decisively. The droves of people in orange and blue at the celebration were there for a collective, tribal catharsis. It felt so good for so many, but — clearly — they hadn’t been playing in the game. A guy I talked to at a bar afterward wasn’t even from Denver. As I stood among the crowd, I couldn’t help thinking that this was cultish behavior. We were all praying to the sacred Lombardi idol, genuflecting before Reverend Manning. And I was loving every minute of it.
I think I’m a reasonably smart person. I try to be objective, whenever possible. So I think about my devotion — just in terms of the Broncos and the NFL — frequently. I’m constantly reminded of The Onion’s mocking attitude toward area teams. Tyler Polumbus, as far as I can tell, is the only Bronco who was born in Colorado. Just like every other professional sports team, it’s a random assortment of people from all over the world who happen to play some of their games near where I live. The things we have in common are an area code and a tendency to wear orange.
Then the moral quandaries hit. How can I support an organization that won’t accept responsibility for traumatizing head injuries? That’s chock full of criminals who beat women, drive drunk, and murder — literally murder — people? I have spent thousands of dollars on tickets and merchandise contributing to a league with rapacious owners who will move teams from a city at the drop of a hat. There are millions of Americans who spend their Sundays reading newspapers and strolling in empty parks. Many of them are well-educated and have eschewed sports fandom for the reasons I’ve spelled out. Why do they get amped for the NFL now?
I never was a star athlete. I played lacrosse and rugby in high school competently, but never threatened to make a go of it in college. I’m not particularly into violence; seeing a bloodthirsty hit doesn’t get me off. But, there’s no doubt I find sports exciting to watch. Yes, that’s the minimum added value that my fandom provides. The other reasons I love sports, as far as I can consciously muster, are my city, my family, and good old distraction.
I’m from Denver and I’m proud of it. Coloradans have particular ways of showing such pride. We hang our state flags in college dorms across the country and — annoyingly, I know, I get it — talk of our beautiful weather, clean air, and quality of life. (Yet somehow we’re surprised and angered when people listen and actually move here.) Our teams are a symbol of our state and we want them to prove our superiority.
Colorado matters to us and, in some senses, I think we believe it’s better than California or New York. (And maybe that’s just because we know they think they’re better than us.) When our teams can’t beat the big cities and plaster the name of our state and our town in news outlets based in L.A. and Manhattan, it stings. In October of 2007, I was sitting with my mother along the first base line at Coors Field in Denver. The Colorado Rockies were about to be swept in the World Series by the Boston Red Sox. When it happened, I cried and, then, gave a few cheerful Red Sox fans a piece of my mind. It was an embarrassing moment, for sure, but I hated losing to Boston. I went to college there and I still believe Boston fans, by and large, behave awfully. Behaving awfully back to them was no way to prove my point, but I believe I took the loss that day so hard because I didn’t want to let Denver — the city of dusty cowboys — lose to Boston — the city of Harvard Brahmins — in any form.
My mother isn’t from Denver, so I have a soft spot for her hapless Cleveland teams, too. Partially because she’s the bigger sports fan of my parents and, also, because of my grandfather, who was a massive supporter of the local squads. He had season tickets to the Browns, but Bill Dempsey was largely a baseball nut. A traveling salesman, he would attend games across the country and hang around after to meet the players and get autographs. (I have a collection to prove it, with the likes of Mantle, Musial, and Williams inked on balls.) He became buddies with Bob Feller, who we would shake hands with at “Behind the Fence” Cleveland Indians parties.
My other grandfather was similarly enthused. His dental group had season tickets to the Broncos and we went to the first-ever Rockies game together — and many after that. The proverbial torch was passed, and my uncles, Marc and Bobby, are two of my go-to Broncos correspondents, even though they live in England and New Mexico. Their brother, though, is not a big sports fan. I wrote him — he goes by “dad” to me — to find out why he thought that was so. He wrote me back this:
I suppose that, when it comes to my whole life with sports, I am a contradiction of sorts. I was never any good (coordinated enough for, skilled at, or disposed to) team sports — I never made any try-outs during high school for basketball, say, or soccer — but I excelled at swimming (which is only marginally a team sport). In fact, in one of our family’s great historical ironies, of all the jocks among my rather large set of siblings, I am the only one with his high school letter (for Virginia state champion in breaststroke, year 1968).
My high school class picture is of the 13 of us seniors graduating — we were a very small school in rural Virginia, a seminary — six soccer players in uniform to one side of me, six basketball players in uniform to the other; and me, standing in the middle, holding a clipboard as manager of both teams.
I pretend (I guess that’s the right word, in hindsight) to eschew professional team sports, and only reluctantly attend games with any of my family; but, once there, I shout and bray like a rabid fan. When Colin was growing up, he played all sorts of sports. On game days, I’d say, in a sparing voice, “Well, OK, I’ll be there,” and, sure enough, when there, I’d make a foot trail along the sidelines, stomping back and forth following the action, yelling all sorts of things: taunts to the refs, encouragement to Colin and his team, hosannas of “Let’s go!” and “Get/Catch/Kick/Steal the ball!”
The other parents got to nicknaming me “Blood and Guts.”
So, you might say, it’s in my blood (and guts). Even my father, who isn’t rah-rah by any stretch, will lose his cool when the gridiron is nigh. But, I also believe that caring about these teams makes me feel closer to my relatives — especially the ones I can’t be with anymore. Some of my fondest memories are going to sporting events with my grandfathers. I often miss them terribly. When the Broncos win, it’s almost like William St. John is there with me, cheering them on.
None of this is particularly earth-shattering, I’d add: This is a self-reflective exercise. And it’d be outright bullshit if it were all serious, because my sports fandom isn’t so. It can’t be. It’s not a serious matter, when all is said and done. It’s largely a distraction from the day-to-day, the mundane. What the hell else do I have to pay attention to? The presidential race? No, thanks. I want to get together with my buddies on Sundays and pretend the next day will never materialize. I want to drink beer and laugh and jump up and down.
If being an athlete gets you in touch with your feral instincts then, dammit, so does cheering from the stands. Is there anything more brutish and numb-skulled than high-fiving and grunting your way through an NFL game from the stands? It’s a way of transporting back to audiences of the gladiator days and, before that, some sort of gathering to watch — I don’t know — mammoths ram each other. It’s a way of connecting with the people of your city and your family. But, also, it’s just a way to forget about life for awhile.