How To Become A Football Fan

It's not simple, but it's not difficult, either. It may or may not be worth it. But you are probably doing it right now.
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The first thing you need to do is you catch a glimpse of a game somewhere. In your grandpa’s living room with the sound turned way up, in the background of a restaurant while you scrawl crayon all over the kids’ menu, in your own house with your dad trying to explain to you why he’s yelling at the TV so much. Watch, even if you don’t understand what’s going on. Every few seconds there’s some kind of invisible signal and the anonymous man-like shapes swarm in every direction at once. There’s a ball in there somewhere, but what it’s moving toward and who can touch it isn’t always clear. Sometimes, yellow flags come out and everyone seems to get upset. Think of the game as a ritual you’re too young for, like bars, like coffee, like those long conversations your parents have with their friends about someone named Bush that they apparently don’t like.

Learn the rules, and learn them in such a way that later you won’t be able to remember anyone sitting you down and going, “Here’s what pass interference is, here’s what people mean when they talk about a running back breaking a tackle, this is how a tackle is different from a guard.” Acquire this knowledge the same way you get taught about sex or jokes or politics, i.e., you don’t know anything about it and then one day you have always known everything there is to know. Watch a replay and be like, “Oh, yeah, his foot was definitely on the line, no catch.” See? The most natural thing in the world.

Become a fan of your team. It doesn’t matter if your dad ever formally informed you of your hometown allegiances, or if you just overheard enough sports talk radio that it seeped into your blood, or if there was some playground moment when the more knowledgeable kids schooled you on who the stars were. The important thing is you begin to care, so much, about dropped passes and sacks and wins. Make sure certain moments sear themselves on you, burn in your memory for weeks and months and years.

If you’re lucky, these will be great victories, but more likely the memorable seasons will end with a wrenching loss. Cry real tears at a fumble or a last-minute field goal. Witness an abrupt collapsing of possibilities as the clock ticks down to zero, feel a great crushing weight settle on you. It won’t ever really go away, as dramatic and stupid as that sounds. Accept the fact that your team is a bunch of losers. Come to terms with this. Let the numbing sensation of failure worm its way into your head and live there for a long, long time. This isn’t as unhealthy as it sounds: One of the most important lessons of being a fan is learning how it feels when things don’t go your way.

Move past just watching your team’s games and immerse yourself in the sport. Play the video game, and in the process you’ll learn what a Cover 2 is and what it means to run an option route. Bury yourself in stats for the sake of a fantasy league. Read impenetrable blog posts about the large and small innovations of the West Coast Offense, figure out what play diagrams mean, follow writers who can spend 2,000 words breaking down a single pass play. Get annoyed at how simplistic the analysis offered by the announcers is; mutter angry things when you hear someone describe what was obviously a zone read as a designed quarterback draw. Become a connoisseur, which is a fancy way of saying you’re kind of a dick.

Trust me, it won’t seem weird to devote so much of yourself to a single sport, because the entire country is right there with you.  ESPN and its competitors cover the draft with the pomp reserved for championship games, men in suits on TV yell about quarterbacks even when they’re months away from attempting a pass. The game is so complex that it’s a bottomless well of information—the more you learn, the more you realize there is to know. How zone blocking schemes work. What a 3-technique tackle is. How a quarterback goes through read pre- and post-snap.

This geeky, almost scholarly drive toward figuring out what is happening during a game will help you insulate yourself from uncomfortable realities. Read articles on former players who shot themselves in the heart rather than the head so that doctors could study their ruined, concussion-rattled brains. Hear about college players wrecking their bodies for no compensation. Get up to date on all the lawsuits generated by the product you love to consume. Recognize, on some level, that the thing you love is mainly men doing violence to one another for the amusement of others, and that a lot of these men come from impoverished backgrounds. Think about how close that is to some the brutal dystopia in some young adult novel that’s being optioned into a movie as we speak. Watch as the league essentially throws players out on their ears for smoking weed and lets guys who have abused women off with a slap on the wrist.

Then, to reassure yourself, look at how the game is becoming safer—it will never be safe, but it can change, as it has it the past—and read quotes from athletes about how they chose to play the game and assume these risks. Underscore for yourself the complexity of the strategy, the ways in which the game is not pure bloodsport. Goggle at the perfectly orchestrated beauty of a well-executed trick play, the impossible deftness and force with which the sports best skill players move, the impossibility of every completed deep throw.

If you don’t do this, you’ll have a lot of trouble continuing to watch the games.

But, bottom line, you will want to keep watching, so you do. Buy the special TV package that lets you flip around between all the games. Glue yourself to the channel that shows only teams about to score for the simplest, most adrenaline-soaked expression of the sport. You’re a fan of the entire league, the entire sport, not just your individual sad-sack franchise. Walk to a neighborhood bar, mostly dark except for the dozen hi-def flatscreens stuck on the walls, to shout and jostle and drink macrobrews with fans from everywhere, all jersey’d up and just as eager as you to nestle in the warm, gibbering bosom of the game you all love.

Let that game become a kind of bubble that you can live in for a time without worrying about the outside world. It’s maybe what it feels like to belong, really belong, to a church, or to one of those communities that gets together at conventions to dress up like fictional characters. Except everyone is inside this bubble—the game is the most popular single thing in America. If it seems weird to follow the crowd and embrace a game that’s both enthusiastic in its support of the US military and itself a metaphor for war, you can tell yourself that you appreciate the sport on a deeper or more aesthetic level than the flag-waving jingoists chanting Wes Welker’s name. Embrace progressive causes that upset some conservatives and the mouth-breathing masses. Demand on social media that a team change its racist name; root for the first openly gay player to make an opening day roster; call out the prejudice inherent in describing certain players (the black ones) as “athletic” and others (the white ones) as having “hustle” or “deceptive speed.” It’s not as if you’re going to wipe out that idiot nastiness all by your lonesome, but it may make you feel better about loving such a brutal game so much.

You do love it, which is a weird thing to say out loud. You’re tethered to it in a way that’s uncomfortable and makes you feel sort of silly. Go to a sports bar on Thursday night, stand in the sweaty crowd and listen as the television counts down to the start of the season. Listen as everyone around you shouts along with the countdown to kickoff like it were New Year’s, as if it’s some kind of victory just to be in this place passively absorbing this entertainment product.

You can think it’s stupid and understand what they’re feeling at the same time. Applaud and cheer with the rest of them as the ball leaves the kicker’s foot and travels high into the air above that overlit, shockingly green field. Let your voice join the inarticulate roar. Like some rough beast slouching toward us at last, football is here. You’re watching it, whether you want to or not.    

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