What follows is an accounting of nearly 50 years of football fandom, if it can be called that. I’m afraid my use of the word detracts from those who have tattooed themselves, spent tens of thousands on memorabilia, face paint, and tickets, and have worn rainbow wigs on national television, but “fandom” is the closest word I can conjure.
My first favorite team was the New England Patriots. They wore red, white, and blue and their helmets featured a minuteman. Liking the Patriots was as simple for a preschooler as liking the Fourth of July. Their uniforms were like fireworks. Here is how I understood football at that age: A Patriot catches the ball, and then everybody wearing a uniform makes a pile on top of him. Repeat.
I remember also believing that football was somehow connected to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Maybe that was due to the time of year that each occurred, or perhaps the Patriots appeared on a flowery float, waving and smiling while B.J. Thomas pretended to sing.
It was probably the uniforms. For a four or five year-old, football costumes and parade costumes aren’t much different. Everything exciting for a kid that young involves costumes: Halloween, school pageants, Santa, the giant Easter Bunny at the shopping mall. Football had lots of costumes, and it wasn’t just the players. The cheerleaders wore costumes, and so did the mascots. The referees dressed like zebras. The crowd wore the aforementioned face paint and rainbow wigs. Even Howard, Frank, and Dandy Don wore matching yellow jackets, like they were on their way to a Century 21 realtors’ convention.
My uncle played high school center to Dandy Don’s high school quarterback, a fact that was mentioned during every episode of Monday Night Football my family watched, which weren’t many. We only watched when the Broncos played.
We lived in Denver, Colorado when the Broncos franchise wasn’t yet a teenager. The team’s first AFL season was in 1960; their first NFL season in 1970. When I was a preschooler, the NFL Broncos were the latest, greatest, most exciting thing to happen in the Mile High city. Denver was Broncos crazy.
My father wasn’t, but he was football literate enough to make a little small talk. Wherever two men met, a short conversation about the team ensued. I stood near my father’s knee, listening. When he jingled his keys in his pocket, I knew that he’d grown bored with football talk and we’d be leaving soon.
During one of those impromptu chats, a man handed me a Don Horn football card. He probably found it on a bus seat or some such. Many of my childhood treasures were jetsam cast overboard from adulthood. Each Wednesday morning I stood on the white picket fence separating our backyard from the alley, waiting for the garbage men to arrive. Sometimes they would give me a toy they found in the trash. I had a great view of the Rocky Mountains from my perch on the picket fence.
The football card bore a photo of Don Horn wearing a Broncos uniform. I was now invested in a team. I was a Broncos fan. My fandom consisted of responding “Broncos” when asked who my favorite team was. That’s it. I was much more interested in riding bikes with Mikey Peterson, building model airplanes, listening to records, and playing with my Evel Knievels and my Vertibird. If the Broncos were playing I’d watch with my father, Don Horn football card clutched in my tiny hand. The costumes ran around and around and piled onto each other.
We left Denver when I was seven years old: left Mikey Peterson and my extended family; left the mountains in my backyard and the network of grown-ups who might give me their castoff junk. We left the 7-11 within biking distance, where I wasted my allowance on Wacky Packages, and the King Soopers just a little farther away that for some reason always had a model airplane kit or two. We left the planet.
Over the next three years, I attended four different schools in three different states, the perpetual new kid. All of the other kids were from there, wherever there was at that moment. I was from somewhere else, somewhere far away where I belonged, where I wasn’t an outsider. During that period, my point of origin substituted for an identity, and an NFL logo became a proxy flag for the world I left behind. I am from Denver. I am a Broncos fan.
There was an exception to this. For a brief period I switched allegiance to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, Franco Harris, Mean Joe Greene’s Coke commercial–the pop culture lure of that mid-’70s team was too much for a grade schooler to resist. Come to think of it, I knew more football players from pop culture than their actual profession: Joe Namath on The Brady Bunch, Dick Butkus and Larry Csonka on The Six Million Dollar Man, O.J. hurdling through airport terminals.
I’ll throw the NFL films into that bucket, too, those magical, grainy reels that compressed two hours of men jumping on each other into a few minutes of intense drama, the music tense and the brooding narrator insisting that Sunday wasn’t just another Sunday at Chicago’s Soldier Field or whatever. Tight, slow motion spiral passes soared over grimacing linemen, sailed toward receivers running Steve-Austin-slowly down the sidelines–nanananana–steam rising from their aching bodies and mud clinging to their uniforms. I’d never skip a morning of cartoons to watch a football game, but an NFL film? Heck yes.
That was the extent of my football fandom until age 10, when the Broncos went to the Super Bowl. That Christmas the man in the red furry costume brought me a Broncos hat, windbreaker, and jersey. He brought me an orange and blue letterman jacket, too, with authentic vinyl sleeves and a big Broncos patch on its breast. For my dresser top, the only flat surface in my bedroom, Santa sprung for a collection of tiny plastic NFL helmets that I could arrange on a pair of stands sporting end zone uprights.
I probably watched that Super Bowl. The Broncos lost, but that was no matter. The place I was from was newsworthy.
For the next two or three years I was the ideal age both for backyard football and for NFL fandom. My buddies and I would line up across from each other and execute shabby plays while invoking the names of our favorite players: “Alzado for the sack! Upchurch grabs the long bomb and goes all the way!” I even played a couple of seasons of pee-wee football.
I attended my first football game during that period. It was at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. The highlight for me was purchasing a whoopee cushion from a stadium vending machine.
Girls came along, as did puberty–art, music, and an almost violent disdain for conformity in general and guys my age in particular supplanted the Broncos as my identity pennant of choice. It wasn’t their fault, either the Broncos or the guys my age. I was trapped in a small town I didn’t choose, and any affectation that might imply that I belonged there stirred my irrational anger. Football and church were the hubs around which my small town turned. I hated football and church.
I attended my second, and last, football game during those years, joining a friend for a Clemson game. All I remember about that game is watching the Tigers’ mascot do push-ups.
The next football game I watched was Super Bowl XX, the Chicago Bears’ miracle year. I watched alone from my apartment, hundreds of miles from that small town that was more home to me than Denver ever was. I watched because I thought I was supposed to, that it was what a man living alone should do. I was 18 years old. I drank beer and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while I watched.
Denver’s Elway years mostly escaped me. I didn’t know the Broncos made the Super Bowl in ’87 or ’88 until after the fact. Still, when asked who my favorite team was I always answered the Broncos.
When the Broncos were on the brink of winning their first Super Bowl back in ’98, my wife started an argument about something. I don’t remember what. “Why are you doing this to me right now?” I pleaded. “I have waited my whole life for this moment.”
“I didn’t even know you liked football,” she said. We’d known each other for seven years.
Over the next 20 years I probably watched 40 football games. An average of two per season sounds about right. Almost all of those involved the Broncos uniforms, though I can barely name any players outside of my childhood infatuation or their late ’90s peak. Peyton Manning. Tim Tebow. Mike Anderson? I think that’s a name.
Football has been a sort of cultural thread that tethers old me to young me rather than something that I am actually passionate about. For fifty years, no matter how far I wandered, Denver remained my home town and the Broncos my home team. This is an absurd conceit, given that I only lived about 10 percent of my life in the Mile High city, and that small percentage decreases annually.
I think about this when I hear people scream things like, “If you love Mexico enough to wave that goddamned flag, then why don’t you go back to where you came from?” I imagine those flag wavers are just looking for a tether. “Mexico” isn’t so much a country as a football team that helps them feel connected to something, but in the grand scheme of things doesn’t matter much to their daily lives. Maybe not, though. I’m projecting, which is great for empathy but bad for evidence.
Speaking of evidence, there is plenty of that now, proving that football as played in the NFL is deadly. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is an avoidable affliction: Simply don’t repeatedly run into a brick wall at top speed and your brains won’t get scrambled. Watching the NFL downplay the risk offends me in the same manner that, say, hearing tobacco lawyers claim that cigarettes are safe once did, but in either example I don’t object to grown men killing themselves slowly. Others choose to do so with drugs, fatty foods, and sedentary lifestyles. None of it is any of my business.
Many enjoyable human activities not only involve but market danger. I recently spent five days in Reno, Nevada watching vintage airplanes go around and around in circles, wingtip to wingtip, milliseconds separating disaster from safety. I worried more about the planes than the pilots.
Lots of spectators in the grandstands for those air races would have been at home in a football stadium. They wore jerseys–or in this case t-shirts–identifying their favorite planes. They knew the pilots’ names and their race records. Some wore little gold pins on their hats, pins purchased at previous air races, to establish their superfan bona fides. I didn’t want to be one of them. I just wanted to see the airplanes.
Anyway, I don’t know whether I can watch my two or so games per year anymore. The CTE evidence has colored my casual fandom. The players know the stakes now, unlike the players of my youth, but that doesn’t change the fact that a multi-billion dollar industry revolves around men killing themselves. CTE turns the whole thing into an ancient Roman coliseum rather than a football stadium. Watching the lions eat Christians might be entertaining, but doing so chips away at my soul.
The NFL won’t miss me, nor will the Broncos. Over the course of my life, I represent maybe a hundred bucks in the league’s coffers, and that was all spent forty years ago. Their big fish are the grown-ups who consider themselves The Raider Nation, The Dog Pound, or whatever pseudo-identity keeps the jerseys and the hats flying off the shelves. Nor is there any protest in play here, no “I said good day” foot stomping as I exit the arena. I was never more than a casual viewer in the first place, hardly the NFL’s target audience.
I have established here that my enthusiasm for professional football is no greater than my excitement at spotting a Colorado license plate in a California parking lot. Aside from a brief, age-appropriate period of fandom during my adolescence, football has been nothing more than a misplaced regional marker for me, a conversational identity for moments when my true identity doesn’t matter. Nobody wants a lecture in response to “who’s your favorite team,” though I suppose if anyone does I can now direct them to this. No, people just want small talk, the sports season equivalent to “nice weather” or “I’m doing fine.”
Viewer or not, when asked what my favorite team is I will continue to answer “The Broncos.” I might add “They’re looking pretty good this season,” though I will have no idea whether they are, and then I will jingle the keys in my pocket. That means I’m bored, and that it’s time to go.