Monday, January 15, 2018

Shades of Games Long Ago Played

For the second time in two weeks, I found myself yelling with delight at my television set as a football team scored an improbable, last-second touchdown to claim a victory from near-certain defeat. Since this had happened exactly zero times in my conscious memory previously, yeah, it's a big deal in this house. Yesterday's was even more shocking and remarkable, in that perhaps the most tortured franchise in professional sports, one that has had this sort of thing happen with numbing regularity over the decades, was the beneficiary, not the victim. As Stefan Diggs crossed the goal line last night, a whole bunch of thoughts went through my mind:
1) I was a Vikings fan for over 40 years, until finally I just had enough heartbreak that I had to walk away (it was chronicled in this blog, sometime in 2010). But like an ex-wife, I have never stopped paying attention to the team, and I cannot say that I am completely divested in any interest or feeling toward the team. My primary allegiance is to the Bills now, which it probably should have been all along, since it is the closest thing to a local team I have and it is the only team that I have actually watched play live, in a stadium, more than once. But of course I am still invested in the Vikings.
1a) Even while the team was going crazy in the end zone last night, I was thinking of past soul-crushing, stomach-punch defeats, the last just two years ago when their kicker missed a chip shot field goal to lose a playoff game in Seattle. But one in particular, as long ago as the Crusades to most of America but very much real to those of my generation and older, came to mind. The best Viking team of all time never even got to the Super Bowl; the 1975 team lost a home playoff game to the Cowboys on the original Hail Mary, giving up a touchdown on a play that was clearly offensive pass interference with a few seconds left in the game. The official that missed the call is one of the few whose name, even at a distance of forty-plus years, is burned into a particular fan base's memory. His name was Armen Terizian, and even though a sort of rough justice was extracted in the immediate moment-- the game was played in the old Metropolitan Stadium, an outdoor venue, and some fan threw a whiskey bottle with military precision that hit Terizian right in the noggin and knocked him out cold on the field shortly after the touchdown-- his name has been one of the scars that Viking fans cannot forget or forgive. As Diggs whipped his helmet away and stood with his arms extended in the end zone as the mob was arriving, I am as positive as I can be that thousands of people across America were thinking what I was thinking-- that finally, forty-two years after the cosmic crime, a rough measure of justice was finally extended. If this was a more primitive society, Terizian would be dug from his grave and rude injuries done to the body, but as it is, one will have to be satisfied with merely noting that his perfidy has finally been expiated.
2) Sports teams mean much more than they should to a significant portion of the population of this country, but at the same time, allegiance to them is a recognized factor in any accurate psychological profile of their fans. As part of my own personal journey, I did a lot of work and spent a lot of time analyzing on how and why the sports teams I had followed passionately since I was in grade school had affected the development of my personality and how they had truly and actually directly affected all areas of my life. For most of my life, I have been a devoted, even diehard, fan of four teams, three professional and one college-- the Vikings, the Red Sox, the New York Rangers, and the Syracuse Orange college basketball team. My other passion for many years was horse racing, and this tendency showed up time and again in that realm, too-- of course I preferred Sham to Secretariat, Alydar to Affirmed, Bet Twice to Alysheba, Easy Goer to Ferdinand, and wilted with several horses whose Triple Crown hopes died in the Belmont, Charismatic and Silver Charm and Smarty Jones. Time has passed and circumstances have changed, but to anyone aged, say, 45 and older will instantly know, even if they know next to nothing about sports, that these teams are associated with a lot of misery and heartbreak in the past, but especially in the 1970's and 80's, the period of time when I was emotionally and psychologically coming of age. It wasn't like the teams were perennially lousy; they were more often than not true, actual contenders for championships, yet for a long time never managed to close the deal, often in excruciating fashion. And while some may scoff at the notion, I know that this constant, almost-but-not-quite-good-enough-to-win-it-all experience had a real and corrosive effect on my soul, on my self-image, and that it had real, concrete carryover effects into my everyday "normal" life. I have struggled with self-esteem and trust issues that are very much related to the experiences of those teams--never quite good enough to get what I really wanted, never happy even with a record of substantial accomplishment, a pessimistic and cynical view of the world, an absolute and very real inability to enjoy life to the fullest even when all was going well on the surface, an ever-present and very real expectation that somehow it would all be snatched away just before feeling joy. Tangential effects included a very real tendency to not feel like my true worth as a person, in whatever area, was not only not good enough, but that I never got the credit I was due for the accomplishments I did consistently put up. It may sound somewhat ridiculous, but it didn't make it any less real, and to some degree that internal battle has raged on well into my mature years.
Of course, for three of those teams and their fan bases, their seemingly endless misery did end. The Rangers finally won a Stanley Cup in 1994. The Orange finally won an NCAA championship in 2003. The Red Sox broke through in 2004, and have added two more since. But the Vikings--no, not the Vikings. When I finally gave up on the Vikings in 2011, I actually regarded it as a psychological step forward, that I had grown enough as a person to not be satisfied with always-a-bridesmaid, to not accept ultimate failure as my fate, that I was able to confront reality, dispense with false hope and accept my denial for what it was, and move on with my life.
But life is not that simple, obviously. The 40 years of emotional investment, as noted earlier, cannot simply be wiped away with a mere decision. And it was some dismay that I realized, as I got on my real life, that the effects identified as part of being a fan of one of these kind of teams did not instantly vanish. I went through a 3 1/2 year relationship, to take the most obvious example, where the happily-ever-after always seemed within reach--but ultimately was never grasped, with the concomitant heartbreak when it finally irrevocably slipped away. I had a job that was ideal for me that ended, after many years, when funding evaporated, and it has been a two year-plus struggle to find a job that was both rewarding and semi-lucrative. My daughters have grown up, and I have realized that, as good a job as I actually did raising them, I did not do quite the job I thought I had done, that they are not immune from struggles and poor decisions and heartbreaks of their own. It has been sobering and honestly hurtful at times to realize that a resolution to change and/or move forward does not free oneself from the baggage accumulated over a lifetime, and that a person's imprints are not easily wiped away, that the intrinsic programming is not so easily dispensed with. It is a process of growth, and growth is inevitably accompanied by not only pain, but constant reminders that lessons that are seemingly learned are rarely, if ever, completely ingested and processed in a short time. It bothered me, for a couple of years, that I still cared about the Vikings, and it still bothers me a bit that I am not quite capable of summoning the passion for the Bills that I had for many years for the Vikings. And on the flip side, I am a little uneasy even this morning about how good I felt yesterday afternoon when Diggs scored his touchdown. This emotional involvement thing is messy and layered and, I am beginning to suspect, never capable of complete resolution. "He who increases knowledge increases sorrow," says Ecclesiastes, and while it may seem pretentious to quote Scripture in an essay about a football game, it is apt and applicable, at the same time, to larger life and bigger matters.
3) Having said all this--in the back of my mind as the reality that the Vikings had actually pulled this off yesterday began to sink in, was "which moment in the past was this most like?" I thought instantly of several moments in the playoff journeys of the teams that did break through. I thought of the Messier hat trick game and the Matteau double-overtime goal, of the Ortiz home runs, of a couple of games in the 2003 NCAA tournament. But the one that stuck in my head was not any of the ultimate redemption moments, but Game Six of the Red Sox series against the Yankees, the famous "bloody sock" game. And in particular, one moment that I vividly remember--actually, two moments-- in the same game that, even though the ultimate accomplishment belonged to the future, drove home the idea with a sledgehammer that, unlike in the past, something was different about that year, about this quest. They were moments when--and this has been confirmed as passing through the minds of dozens of Red Sox fans, famous and not, at the same time when it happened--the shocking and earth-shaking thought came that "this sort of stuff always happens to us, not for us." They were moments that were stomach punches for the other team, that they did not benefit from some crazy break for once, that something that had always gone wrong did not go wrong. And in Game Six, alongside the drama of Schilling pitching with a stapled tendon in his ankle, there were two incidents within a half-hour of each other that were so different from past experiences that even the jaded, pessimistic Red Sox fan base began to believe, to have faith, that maybe this year is going to be different.
The first was the Mark Bellhorn home run. It was initially ruled a ground-rule double, and when all the replays started, it was clear that the ball was first hit by a fan and then by the Yankee outfielder, meaning it was in the stands and therefore a home run. There was an interminable umpires' conference--and then the home run signal was given. I vividly remember sitting on my couch in absolute shock; this type of situation never before worked in the Red Sox' favor, not in my entire life. People like to pretend that justice always eventually wins out, but to a Sox fan in 2004, that was a demonstrably false premise--until that moment. It was a home run, but the call had been made wrong, and history showed that the injustice was always allowed to stand.
And then, in one unbelievable moment, it wasn't.
And as if that wasn't enough of a sign that the universe was shifting, an inning later came the A-Rod incident, when he slapped the ball out of the glove of Bronson Arroyo on a tag play, a run scored and two guys were on base. The original call was safe, but after another conference of the umpires, A-Rod was called out, the run was cancelled, and order was restored. And I recall sitting there again, still drinking the same glass of orange juice as the previous inning, thinking, "This effing never happens in our favor." And it just had--twice.
What was weird about the entire experience was that the Red Sox, after that game was over, still had to win Game Seven and then the World Series--but for the first time in my life to that point, I believed. I believed. I actually was quite sure that they were going to kill the Yankees in Game Seven, and they did, and I never seriously considered the idea that the Cardinals were going to win the World Series from them (and a third moment like this happened in the Series, the Jeff Suppan base running fiasco that, in the past, had always happened to the Red Sox, not benefited them). It was a novel experience, one I had literally never felt before, and have really never truly felt since.
But I suspect that I do believe, at least 95% so, right now. I cannot conceive that the Eagles, as good as they are, are going to beat the Vikings without a passing game. Drew Brees took his best shot and came up short; Nick Foles sure as shit isn't going to do it, is he? And then there is a Super Bowl to be played after that, and likely the Yankees of football will be waiting. But...as much of a dynasty, byword-for-winning that the Yankees have been for a century, they didn't win every Series they were in. Yankee teams lost World Series that they should have won when Babe Ruth was on the team, when Mickey Mantle was on the team, when Yogi Berra was on the team, when Reggie Jackson was on the team, when Derek Jeter was on the team. I can think of two flagrant examples, from 2001 and 2003, in my own memory. I remember the perfect Patriots blowing a Super Bowl. I remember the start of the Patriot era, when the Rams were a much better team and yet the Patriots won the game and started a run that hasn't stopped.
I used to write free-lance about football and get paid for it, in the 1990's. And almost alone among major sports, there are examples in pro football of teams that were disappointments, whether in the "always-lousy" or "perennial bridesmaid" categories, for years, even decades, that, after breaking through, became perennial champions. The Steelers did not play a playoff game for the first 40 years of their existence--but have now won six Super Bowls. The 49ers had a rather sordid history, including some historic chokes, until 1981--then won five Super Bowls in 15 years. The Patriots were alternately terrible and hugely disappointing for 40 years, until 2001. It may seem hard to believe, but for about six years in the late 1960's, the biggest "choke" team in the world was the Dallas Cowboys, until they finally broke through in 1971. No one thinks of the Raiders, despite a recent dry spell, as a "cursed" franchise--but a Raider fan circa 1975 certainly thought so, after six championship game losses and a Super Bowl loss in an eight-year span. The Broncos, too, had a decades-long history of agonizing disappointments, until the year when they actually won, and have added a couple more Super Bowls afterward.
And for many of those teams, there was a game or a moment like yesterday's, when yet another crushing loss seemed imminent, and somehow the mojo changed, something miraculous happened that reversed many years of bad karma. The Steelers actually trailed the Raiders in the AFC championship game in 1974 going into the fourth quarter, but got two interceptions to pull ahead and stay ahead. The 49ers famously had "The Catch" to beat the Cowboys to get to the Super Bowl for the first time. The Patriots, before the Super Bowl against the Rams, had the "tuck rule" game against the Raiders. The Cowboys got gifted with five turnovers in a playoff game with the Vikings in 1971 to manage to win, even though the Vikings had the ball for nearly 40 minutes of the game; I distinctly remember one of my uncles saying during that game that it was always the Cowboys who kept throwing picks in playoff games, and what a novel experience it was to watch it turn around. The 1976 Raiders benefited from a phantom roughing-the-passer call to keep their winning drive against the Patriots alive in their first playoff game, then caught the Steelers without either starting running back in the championship game. The Broncos beat the Chiefs in the divisional championship game in 1997 because KC had a made field goal called back because a penalty and then missed the retry, and then later in the game didn't make a first down on a fake field goal, in a game the Chiefs lost by fouur points.
And if the Titans had made one more yard on the last play of the Super Bowl against the Rams, the Music City Miracle would be even more of a legendary play then it is now.
So there is precedent for believing that generations of karma actually did change as Stefon Diggs crossed the goal line last night. At the age I am now, I am not quite as emotionally invested as I would have been at most other points in my life. But I am--and this is a completely different feeling than I have ever had at any time in my life regarding the Vikings since about 1969--actually feeling optimistic, not just hoping against hope, not expecting some unbelievable cock-up to dash their chances. They have faced down the moment where generations of purple-clad predecessors have failed, and somehow made it through. They are playing with house money, and they have every reason to believe that the Long December is over, that this year really will be different than the last, that there will be a new answer, in three weeks, to a trivia question that has tortured this team's fans since the Patriots, ironically, won their first Super Bowl--"What is the oldest team in the four major professional sports that has NEVER won their league's championship?"
Atlanta Falcons fans, you should start getting nervous.

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