Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Pro Football Bigamist

For several years now, I've been trying to figure out where my NFL loyalties lay. ESPN's "Sports Guy", Bill Simmons, has this concept he calls being a "sports bigamist", which basically means a fan who likes more than one team in any particular sport is a hypocritical loser jerk. The idea is that you can't harbor genuine loyalty to more than one franchise. Hence, Simmons has Clipper tickets because he lives in LA, but he'll always be a Celtic fan at heart.


When it comes to basketball, my unquestioned loyalty lies with the Jazz. In spite of a brief flirtation with the Chicago Bulls in the early 1990's, I've been a diehard Jazz fan since Stockton and Malone took LA to seven games back in the spring of '88.

But football is a different matter. For one thing, there is no designated home team. Lots of my friends are big college fans, but I've never found much of a passion for it. It may be because I don't like the sound of marching bands. It is more likely that I just really enjoy cheering for overpaid egomaniac super-jocks.

I think I can safely narrow down my NFL options to three primary candidates, each with valid justifications for my loyalty. If anyone reading this has anything to suggest, feel free; just know that there isn't a snowball's chance in Hades of me ever embracing the Denver Broncos. They are Satan's red-headed stepchild.

1. The Cleveland Browns

Background: Growing up in Bountiful, the closest thing my family had to a home team were the Browns. My mom grew up in Cleveland, and between her influence and the constant stream of media paraphenalia that came from my Ohio relatives, I had a consistent knowledge of the team's state of affairs. Not only that, but the Browns were pretty good in the late 80's, and I have a lot of fond memories tied to that lanky southpaw sidearm QB Bernie Kozar.

Psychological Disposition: The Browns are a lot like the Jazz, in the same way Cleveland is a lot like Salt Lake. Both are second-tier teams and cities, usually disrespected, though always putting up a totally respectable show. Both teams have passionate fan bases, who periodically get bad press for getting a little too enthusiastic at games (see Sam Wyche's criticism of Browns' fans in the early 90's, and Golden State's criticism of Jazz fans in the 2007 playoffs).

Favorite Memory: After losing their second straight AFC Championship to the Broncos, the Browns opened the 1988 season by losing three quarterbacks in their first three games. First Kozar went down, then Gary Danielson and Mike Pagel followed suit. In comes this 40+ year old geezer named Don Strock, who had been spending the better part of his career backing up Dan Marino in Miami. Suddenly the Browns are contenders again, and Strock gets the Browns within a game of the playoffs. All they have to do is beat arch-rival Houston in a Cleveland blizzard. The game goes back and forth for four quarters, then finally Strock hits Webster Slaughter in the end zone through a flurry of snowfall for a winning touchdown, and Slaughter jumps up into the Dawg Pound to celebrate. Best Browns memory, easy.

Assessment: I've never lived in Cleveland, but the Browns are the closest thing the NFL has to the Jazz, and it's the only team that I can connect to my youth as well as my adult years.

2. The Chicago Bears

Background: My only childhood memory of the Bears was being angry at them because their Super Bowl victory parade pre-empted WGN's usual broadcast of my favorite cartoon at the time, "M.A.S.K." It would be another two years before I would embrace football and all of its greatness, and I just didn't get into the Bears. Then I got my mission call to Chicago, and two years later, I had the closest thing to a legit home team I could name. Since I actually LIVED in Chicago for a time.

Psychological Disposition: The Monsters of the Midway would be a nice fit for me, as the Midwest style has always had a natural appeal. Guys like Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, and Walter Payton definitely give a strong rough-and-tumble edge to the team's history, and that story about Jim McMahon popping his shoulder back in its socket while he was at the bottom of a dogpile is pretty cool.

Favorite Memory: About two weeks before getting my mission call, I distinctly remember sitting on my couch watching a Bears game and thinking to myself, "I could be a Bears fan. I wonder why I haven't been one before now?" This is almost as surreal as getting the Chicago call after growing up watching "The Blues Brothers", the movie about the two guys in black suits who wander around The Windy City telling people they are on a Mission from God. In that sense, maybe God wants me to be a Bears fan.

Assessment: I don't know...the whole divine guidance thing, plus the fact that I actually lived on Chicago's South Side makes for a pretty strong argument. But in my heart, I feel more of a connection to the city than the team.

3. The Oakland Raiders

Background: Chances are, God doesn't want me to be a Raiders fan. I kind of picked them on my own. Back when I was ten, due to either hormones, peer pressure, or the discovery that I had a pretty decent pair of hands, I embraced football overnight. Being a visual person, I dug the Raiders for their cool uniforms, cool reputation, and Lyle Alzado. For about seven or eight years I followed them obsessively, watching old highlight videos on the team that mostly talked about their success in the 70's, since they pretty much sucked at the time I was a fan. It took about fifteen years to finally see them play in person, when I drove out to Denver with some friends to see them get destroyed by the Broncos in a Monday Night Football game. I was impressed with the Bronco cheerleaders, at least.

Psychological Disposition: Thanks to owner/general manager/evil incarnate Al Davis, the Raiders have a permanent place in the Professional Sports Axis of Evil, along with NBA's Los Angeles Lakers and MLB's New York Yankees. But the Raiders are cool. I loved the whole "group of misfits and outcasts" image; it resonated pretty close with me, especially growing up. It also fit a lot better once they moved back to Oakland. LA never really worked for Al's kids.

Favorite Memory: There weren't a lot of moments to cheer if you were a Raiders fan in the late 80's and early 90's, but there was one Monday Night Football matchup with the Broncos I'll always remember. Early in the '89 season, the Raiders got down to Denver 24-0 at halftime. There's really no way I could ever be a Denver fan. Between beating the Browns in AFC championship games three of four years and being the Raiders' in-division blood rival, it just ain't going to happen. And that was what made it all the more sweet to see the Raiders come back from 24 down for an overtime win.

Assessment: Sadly, I probably couldn't ever be an exclusive Raider fan, at least until Al Davis is gone. Ironically, the same guy who made the team appeal to me in the first place is the one thing that keeps me from completely embracing them. When I was a kid watching the team struggle in the late 80's, I was unaware that Al was working hard to undermine my favorite player, Marcus Allen. At least that's what Marcus said in his book. But there is plenty of evidence to support the idea that Big Al is the Big Reason the team has struggled for the last twenty years. I wonder if Oakland would be better off having Davis leave town again, pull an Art Modell, and reinvent his team somewhere else. Then Oakland could get the Raiders back as an expansion team and try a clean start. Or maybe that's just crazy. Yeah, that's just crazy.

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The Bears are my NFC team, the Browns are my AFC team, and the Raiders will always represent my evil side, and like Captain Kirk learned in "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier", you need your evil side. You need your pain.

Bigamy rules. Bill Simmons can eat my shorts.