I know, football is just a game but when I was seven I remember crying after the Seahawks lost a playoff game. Across the country fans aged 7-70 closely tie their emotional status to the outcome of their beloved teams.
As I grew older I became more focused on my development as an individual player. In this way, I naturally became less attached to any specific pro team or the outcome of their games. Less of a fan.
Obviously, as a player I hated losing. On the field, if I lost a game, I think I was able to at least find some satisfaction in my effort and level of’exhaustion. “Hey, we lost but I played my heart out and gave it everything I had.” That psychology may be misguided but it was often useful.
This year, more than any year of my life, I have been able to consider the psychology of ‘the fan’.
Players rarely maintain any ties to the teams they play for because, more often than not, players leave for free agency, get cut, or traded. In the business of football, relationships tend to sour leaving all sides with a bad taste in thier mouth, especially the fans.
I was able to play for the same organization for eight years. I retired on my own terms and the same coaches and staff are still in place. Pretty fortunate.
Over the past 12 months while I have been tested, diagnosed and treated for ALS, key players and coaches with the Saints have been incredibly supportive.
I have spoken to the team, attended weekly meetings, practices and sat on the sideline during games.
I would like to believe that there was value for both sides.
As I took my situation public and the team kept winning it is as if we were inspiring each other. Surely, I am giving myself too much credit.
The point is… as the season progressed and I became more invested emotionally, I turned into a full-fledged fan. The connection between a team and fans can be very dynamic.
Bad teams in cities with failing economies or culture can make players and fans feel like they are stuck in a viscous cycle. In 2008 at the height of the auto industry collapse, Detroit in the land of cars was 0-16.
Our season in 2006 was an example of a very positive dynamic. A city rebuilding while a team rebuilds. A city begins to thrive as a team begins winning.
So… somewhere along the way during this 2011 season I unconsciously began to correlate my physical health with the Saints record. If my awful, no good, dastardly, terrible disease could be stalled or defeated with a Saints win, wouldn’t that be cool? Considering how the Saints were tearing teams apart and exploding NFL records, it was an effective coping mechanism. Right?
Despite how my body progressed, it felt good high-fiving coaches and players in the locker room after games. Why not allow myself to be distracted on Sunday? I have to wake up every Monday morning scouring the earth for a solution to a problem that, supposedly, has no solution. So it felt good to devote myself to the team.
Midway through the season the coaches asked if I wanted to join the team for a road trip. It has become more and more difficult to travel so I took a rain check.
With the playoff game in San Francisco approaching, it seemed like an ideal situation for me to travel since my brother, Kyle, lived near the city and I could have a chance to catch up with my buddies Scott Fujita and Eric Johnson. Better now than never, right?
In the hours before the game I found myself nervous.
As we fell behind in the first quarter the nerves increased. As fans we we miss out on a luxury that players have. Player’s nerves dissolve as the first whistle blows and physical contact is the made; sweat begins to pour and adrenaline rages. Fan’s nervousness only crescendoes as a tight game wears on.
As the team pulled themselves within striking distance, I sat hopefully with Kyle and my film partner Sean Pamphilon on the sideline. I felt that they were making the same unconscious correlation between this game and my health. We were beggars, bowl in hand. AKA fans. Giving the only gift we could to the teams: our hope to see them triumph.
Could we overcome five turnovers? Could we defy the angry fans? Momentum was building.
In the final two minutes as Jimmy Graham fell into the endzone our sideline (including me) erupted. A simultaneous release of frustration and joy.
And just as quickly we were crushed.
Not until that final moment did I consciously recognize the association I made as the season progressed. I told Kyle and Sean, “I actually thought that if the Saints won the Superbowl in meant I would get better.” “I didn’t realize that until just now.”
Flights home after away games can be very therapeutic, especially after a loss. I spent those few hours consciously re-calibrating my mentality.
Was I wrong to slip and associate my health, to some degree, with the wins or losses of a sports team? Is this what fans do? Would it have been easier if the Saints were terrible and I could just not care?
Joseph Campbell writes that, as humans, we are all looking for experiences that make us feel alive. I think that as we seek these experiences, the more fully committed we become the more enriching is the experience. The more alive we feel. So we must put our emotions at risk. But then the losses can be downright crushing… I think that’s ok.
Clearly, whether the Saints win the Super Bowl or not has little or no effect on my physical health. But it sure didn’t feel that way Saturday night.
It’s just a game.
I still have to wake up Monday morning scouring the earth for a solution to a problem that, supposedly, has no solution.
But, it’s a game that gave me brothers like Scott Fujita, Drew Brees, Sean Payton and many others, men who are taking this extraordinary journey with me. We plan to find a solution regardless of who wins the Super Bowl.
No White Flags