I went to my first NFL game last fall, and it was craptastic.
I mean this. It was so sloppy, so sad, and at times downright cuckoo, that it became the exact antithesis of what the NFL wants its game to be: dynamic, thrilling, intense, and above all, a comprehensive commercial experience.
And I’m here to tell you that it was damn fine watching.
Nobody watching the Buffalo Bills visit the New York Jets in 2014 should have had high expectations for the football; it’s practically an undercard-vs-undercard matchup. But in the first quarter, Jets QB Geno Smith offered a taste of how sublime mediocrity can be. Smith threw interceptions on three consecutive drives, all in one quarter. He got the hook, of course, to a hail of boos from the crowd, and slightly embarrassed applause for his substitute: Michael Vick.
Yes, Vick of the lightning legs, Vick of the fragile joints, Vick of the dogfighting rap sheet. There is a strange and inexpressible feeling when you see a mostly-white crowd cheering for Slick Vick — a black man who did time for killing dogs — to rescue their team: one hears notes of forgiveness as well as denial. But at any rate, Vick’s honeymoon was brief. Under heavy, repeated assaults in the pocket, he gave away two fumbles and threw a pick. The Jets faithful will have to await their Messiah, or at least someone who can keep the ball on a few consecutive possessions.
The Bills have by this point recognized that they can win the game with minimally competent football. As they pulled ahead, the Jets got desperate.
For fans of craptastica, that is basically a gift with a bow.
But the cloud of crappitude that sat on Jets Stadium this day was so heavy, so thick with fugly, that even the Bills coughed on it while walking to a win. On a deep catch, Sammy Watkins, the Bills’ promising receiver, had himself a nice phlegmy hack.
Late in the 3rd quarter, as the Bills pulled away to a 30-17 lead, the Bills fans in the crowd began to amp up their celebration song. It’s the “heyeyEYey” part from the song “Shout”. Each patch of Bills fans is using it to communicate with the others. They bleated it out to each other at the hot dog stand, or across 12 silent Jets fans at the urinals in the bathroom.
I was struck by how much mockery these Jets fans were taking on their turf. They seethed with that mix of self-loathing, despair, and humor that any fan of perennial crap knows. But it wouldn’t be an East Coast football game unless someone got thrown out, and thankfully someone did. The 20-something Bills fan has a goofy grin on his face and isn’t saying much — words can’t possibly say more than the scoreboard — as security escorts him out. He lifted his beer in a toast to an amused Jets crowd.
When it’s all over, we file out of the stadium toward the trains, in a thick, somnambulant crowd. The mood isn’t as haunted as after witnessing a public execution, but nor is it lightened by the fact that the worst is over. It’s anesthetized. We’ve just watched the home team embarrass itself, get bludgeoned, by an in-state rival, in a game of trifling value. There was no clear emotion to feel. There was only the hope that by getting away, by putting some miles and hours between ourselves and this dreadful display of crappitude, we wouldn’t have to give it any further thought.
Make no mistake. I love football. I love to learn about the finer points of the game, the strategy. The way the philosophy of the game changes over the decades, almost like the intellectual chapters that define art or philosophy over time. And for my money, there’s no more purely entertaining sport around. As the above (hopefully) shows, even on its most mediocre day, an NFL game is packed with events. It remains, at least for now, the temple of American sport.
So here at Dat Winning, you could say, my goal is to be a sort of sports theologian. I want to go beyond the “text” of the games themselves, as portrayed on highlight shows and daily recaps (and, I suppose, the entire fantasy complex). Isn’t there so much more to our games than the games themselves? They embody our culture, our mood, our identities, our American-ness. This all sounds very wishy-washy until you realize that a guy like Michael Vick can be public enemy #1 in the press, but with time and necessity, he can be the guy you hang your hopes on to win a game. Sports are fascinating for what they say about us. Let’s look for something fascinating to say about them.
Like many fans, Saqib Rahim is the product of his sports traumas. The 49ers losing, year after year, to Green Bay in the late 1990s. USA Hockey losing to Canada in the gold medal game of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver – in overtime, no less. The San Jose Sharks perennially discovering new depths of failure, such as becoming only the 4th team in history to choke away a 3-0 series lead. But it’s all good. He’s over it. They helped make him the man he is today, and they made him curious about why sports are so engrossing and important to us. They helped him realize that sports are about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.