Recapturing Faith in Greatness

Victor Cruuuuuz and Hakeem Nicks kicked off the parade.

“NOOO!”  I stretched the collar of my Super Bowl XLII t-shirt over my mouth and nearly cried.  Ahmad Bradshaw had just scored a go ahead touchdown, and I could not feel sicker.  How could a Super Bowl touchdown by the New York Football Giants be so viscerally painful?  Bradshaw was supposed to go down.  The Giants were supposed to seal this championship with an eighteen yard field goal.  Instead, Tom Brady and the Patriots would now have fifty-seven seconds to march down the field for their own championship-winning score.

But the Giants defense forced Brady into a 4th and 20, and I could feel the cool surface of the Lombardi Trophy at our finger tips.  That is, until the Pats moved the chains and ultimately set up a final Hail Mary bomb.  As that final pass came back to earth and white and navy jerseys leaped into the air with outstretched arms, my heart stopped.  The ball was batted down and seemed to hit the ground.  Or did it bounce off somebody’s back?  A hobbled Gronkowski dove for the ball.  My mind raced (Did he come up with it?! Did it matter?! Was the play dead?!), and then it was blank.  The ball hit the ground again below the Pats’ tight end.  I was frozen.  Then the ref waived the play dead and the game over.  MADNESS!  I hopped up and down.  I piled on top of my brother and friend Steve.  I acted like a complete fool, and I loved it.

I have finally digested it.  The New York Giants are the Super Bowl champions.  It began to sink in when I saw the [almost ex-]coach Coughlin hoisting the trophy up next to Eli Manning and Justin Tuck as they headed up the Canyon of Heroes to the sound of our adulating screams.

After Super Bowl XLII, when the Giants’ storybook playoff run had culminated in the Manning to Tyree Velcro catch, I told myself I would be fine with the Giants never winning again during my lifetime.  The fashion in which they won was so incredible that I felt like asking for another championship would simply have been greedy. But looking back four years later, I realize the utter foolishness of that sentiment.

Sure, my reaction to the win in 2008 was ostensibly rational, but the essence of being a sports fan is throwing logic to the wind.  Fully embracing a team means celebrating wins as if you yourself were on the field securing the victory and internalizing losses to the brink of depression.  As a fan, it was more irrational to be content with that historic championship season than it was to demand a repeat performance.

Eli Manning, Justin Tuck, Coach Coughlin, and the Lombardi trophy. Mayor Bloomberg is somewhere on the float too but is overshadowed by such Giants.

We are fans because we are awestruck and inspired by physical prowess.  Fans don’t require greatness from teams and players to maintain loyalty, but we rightfully expect it.  An 88 yard Eli Manning fourth quarter drive is the epitome of greatness, but it can also come in different forms.  It may be found in a gesture of sportsmanship or in playing through pain.  It can be found off the field and in loss.

Somehow I had forgotten that it wasn’t greedy of me to want that Super Bowl XLII feeling again—it was natural.  I was within my right to be disappointed in a Giants wide receiver who shot himself in a nightclub in 2008.  I was completely justified in being apoplectic when the Giants special teams let the Eagles make a game winning punt return in 2010.

Perhaps, I had forgotten how to be a fan because of years of disappointment.  Being a Michael Jordan fan growing up was such a blessing, but for years after his second retirement it also seemed like a curse.  I had been spoiled.  No sports team, athlete, or moment could ever seem to compare to MJ’s Bulls and their playoff heroics.  I had never put such faith in an athlete or team.  I had never more vicariously experienced victory.  I had never been more superstitious with my viewing habits.

After 1998, however, my expectations diminished with every bumbling performance and lackluster season by my favorite teams.  My expectations fell at an accelerated pace leading up to 2008 in part because I was losing my soul to an unfulfilling job, and partially because of the anticlimactic end to the 2006 NLCS when just minutes after destiny seemed to be on our side following an Endy Chavez home run robbery, another Met struck out looking in the bottom of the ninth.  It got to the point that after the Giants’ Super Bowl victory in 2008 I felt that I never needed to witness greatness in football (and maybe even in sport) ever again.

I had morphed from a fan into an unrecognizable being.  I still cheered my lungs out and sat with knots in my stomach during each playoff game during the 2007-08 NFL season, but I had transformed.  Instead of being a true fanatic, I was merely a passionate supporter.  I think I even talked about the Giants in the third person.

I showed signs of sports life during the 2010 World Cup when a Landon Donovan goal against Algeria effected a moment of inexplicable euphoria.  But it wasn’t until I came to this 2011-12 Giants team that I truly returned to form.

I gave up chunks of my Sundays to watch the G-Men play without multitasking to get work done as I had in previous years.  I carried an untouchable high into the next morning after JPP’s blocked field goal late in the season against the Cowboys.  The next week, I was eviscerated after the shocking loss to the Redskins.  I superstitiously traveled home to New Jersey to watch every Giants playoff game after I saw them beat the Falcons from there during the first round.  For the first time in a long time I put unreserved faith in an athlete—Eli Manning—and had my faith repaid with pure greatness.  (Yes, I fell in love with the man.)  I left my daily life behind to attend my first ever ticker tape parade.  I felt a pride in my team that I had not felt since the nineties.  Proud enough to proclaim, “WE are Super Bowl champions!  WE are the World champions!”

There is no reason this Super Bowl win should be any more special than the last one, but it is.  This Giants team rekindled my fanaticism, making me a fan again in the truest sense of the word.  They made me a believer.  For that, I am forever grateful.

To the World Champion New York Football Giants, thank you.

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The Un-American Game

In the United States soccer has long been the kindergartener whose mom dressed him up in a suit for field day.  As if our country’s disdain for the sport weren’t enough, we decided to call it names.  Known as “football” or “the beautiful game” throughout the rest of the world, we labeled it, “soccer.”

The same game is viewed with incredible fervor globally—as if the stakes were as high as an ancient Mesoamerican ballgame.  It even catalyzed a war in 1969 and paused a civil war in 2006.  Why is it then that we can’t find the same passion for soccer in the United States?

Dave Eggers entertainingly pondered this very question prior to the last World Cup in 2006.  While I don’t completely agree with his rationale, it is not worth getting into all the specific reasons why Americans aren’t passionate about soccer.  There are a multitude.  It might just be that soccer is not a sport we regularly monitor.  Most other countries follow  European or local professional leagues in non-World Cup years, just as we follow our big four (three) team sports.  Yet, while we don’t follow swimming, we still cheered boisterously when Michael Phelps won each of his eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics.  We watched many sports during those and other Olympics in which we have no interest during the other three years.

Perhaps, that’s the crux of the issue.  The United States is an irrefutable underdog when it comes to soccer.  It is hard to think of many other major sporting events where the United States does not have a legitimate chance of claiming victory.  But as a New York Mets fan, I implore Americans to embrace our national soccer team’s lowly reputation.

The Mets have a history of disappointing their fans, which is especially disheartening when juxtaposed with the success of New York’s other baseball team, the Yankees.  The truth is, though, that I wouldn’t trade positions with a Yankee fan.  Just last year the Yankees won their 27th World Series title.  It should have been a moment of elation for players and fans alike, but it seemed that outside Alex Rodriguez most were only relieved.  The Yankees are expected to win every year, and the burden of that pressure precluded genuine celebration.  On the other hand, while we Mets fans continue to have our hopes dashed each fall, we return each season with renewed optimism to enjoy the process of surviving the season.  Winning it all would be great, but because it is not expected, we take joy in each small success along the way.  If that fateful day does come again, however, we will be found ecstatically blasting off to somewhere just outside the Milky Way Galaxy.

The World Cup provides the same opportunity for Americans to watch a sport for its beauty with little pressure on their team to win. There is little downside, and the upside (serious global bragging rights)if the US squad can improve on their quarterfinal performance in 2002is tremendous. Many of you will probably use the World Cup as an excuse for revelry anyway, so you might as well wholeheartedly immerse yourselves in the games.  In the meantime if this widely shared Nike soccer ad doesn’t get you pumped, you might as well go back to watching golf.