Super Bowl Purity

I’ve spent, like much of professional football-watching America, the past two weeks getting my mind around the concept of a Super Bowl featuring the Phoenix Cardinals. (Yes, I know they’re really the “Arizona” Cardinals, but I still refer to the Tennessee Titans as the “Houston Oilers,” and I try to refrain from using the Washington franchise’s “mascot” altogether, so my nomenclaturic oversight is no slight to Cardinals or to Cardinals fans, just a vestige of the sports purism my father had imparted to me as I grew up in the eighties.)

Sports “purity” was nothing theoretical or merely idealistic to my dad, who was born in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, in 1946. Like most of his neighbors, he went nuts when Lou Perini moved the National League’s Braves from Boston to Milwaukee. My dad got Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain; Lew Burdette, Eddie Mathews, and Hammerin’ Hank Aaron, for thirteen seasons; but in 1966, new owner William Bartholomay took the Braves to Atlanta, where they’ve of course been ever since. My dad, now an Oregonian, hasn’t cheered heartily for a Major League Baseball team in forty-three years; and unless Bud Selig and Triple-A Portland Beavers minor league team find the common ground and cash necessary to elevate the Beavs to the Bigs, I don’t anticipate he will again.

Sports “purity” was difficult to maintain as a kid in Corvallis, Oregon. Like the ubiquitous Oregon State University bumper stickers around town claimed, I “bled black and orange,” but the Orange-and-Black’s football program’s ignominious streak of twenty-eight consecutive losing seasons (1971-98) dovetailed neatly with my formative years, and a loser was tough to root for, year after year after year (after year…). Indulging in the NFL was only slightly less frustrating. The Seahawks, who played in Seattle — a five-and-a-half-hour drive from my house — were the closest professional team, and besides, trying to watch a football game played in the old Kingdome was like watching kids play electric football in a cramped closet lit by a single 60-watt bulb. The 49ers were the second-closest team (The Raiders were still in L.A. back then), but rooting for the Championship Factory of Montana and Rice, Craig and Lott, from a remote location some 600 miles away from Candlestick felt too much like front-running to me. So, beginning with Super Bowl XX in 1986, then, between the Bears and the Patriots, I became a general fan of football, and the of the NFL in particular. Pete Rozelle was my All-Pro, Gene Upshaw my top fantasy pick.

And over the past twenty-three years, I’ve been satisfied with my decision. The League has only let me down on three occasions — all three affronts to my ideals of “purity” — and I haven’t missed a Super Bowl or Wild Card Weekend in two decades. But still, those let-downs tend to bother me as evidence that I’m turning into my father, that I’m way too invested in professional football, and that I’m a closet reactionary.

In late 1993, the NFL chose the upstart Fox Sports over CBS for its National Football Conference (NFC) broadcasting rights package. CBS had been broadcasting pro football since 1956, and the selection of Fox shocked both the football-watching world and me. The NFL Today, CBS’s pre-game show, was no more, and while much of the CBS crew migrated to parallel jobs at Fox, it just didn’t feel the same. Fox NFL Sunday, that network’s pre-game show, came to viewers from Los Angeles, not New York, and the Fox graphics and sponsorships seemed tawdry and smothering, even though they really weren’t any more “commercial” than the latter-day CBS’s had been. After watching a Week 1 game during the 1994 season and complaining to my dad about the new-look NFL on Fox, my dad–for the first time–told me that now I knew how he felt; that is, now I knew what it was like to grow old. I’m satisfied with Fox’s current coverage of the NFC–it doesn’t hurt that CBS reclaimed NFL broadcasting rights (and resuscitated The NFL Today after 1,687 days of dormancy)–but I sometimes long for the old days, of waking up at 8:30 and waiting for Charles Kuralt to hurry up with his Sunday Morning show and pass the airtime on to Brent Musburger and Irv Cross.

Nearly a decade later, in time for the 2002 season, the NFL realigned its conferences, divisions, and teams, and the Seahawks found themselves out of the AFC West and in the NFC West. The Seahawks, having only been around since 1976 (and having never represented the AFC in the Super Bowl), didn’t exactly have an “AFC” legacy in the same way that, say, the Kansas City Chiefs did, but it was troubling to me that conference affiliation was revealed to be rather permeable. Again, it was my dad who put things in perspective, retelling me the story of a far more controversial “realignment,” the Baltimore Colts’ midnight move to Indianapolis in 1984, that soured modern Colts fans and purists alike, a far more bitter pill than my complaint about the Seahawks’ rather “theoretical” relocation from American to National Football Conference.

And finally, after six months of nonstop “Greatest Team Ever” hype, the 18-0 Patriots went down to the Giants in last year’s Super Bowl. One series each, on offense and defense, was enough to pop the history-making bubble that had been growing inside of me since Labor Day: the Giants looked (clearly, to me) to be the better team on both sides of the ball, and I felt betrayed by the sports pundits, the Patriots, and by myself, for having worshipped the false idol of Belichick and the ’07-’08 Pats for nearly half a year. My dad wasn’t around to comfort me on this one, and my perceived feeling of deception still smarts today. I had expected history, and instead, I got upset–not an awful consolation prize, to be sure, but after seeing my generation’s version of the ’72 Dolphins dissolve into Helmet Catch hyperbole, I felt let down. I relied on the collected joy of millions of Giants fans in my adopted hometown for comfort, but those “18-1” T-shirts reminded–and continue to remind me–of my own misplaced excitement. Nothing gold, after all, can stay.

So bring on XLIII. The game will be outdoors, played on grass, and broadcast on NBC by John Madden and Al Michaels, Legends 1 and 1A in football-broadcasting imaginations. It’s indeed a change for me to see the Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals playing in January and February–but, well, change is, I suppose, what being a fan is all about.

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