For those of you waiting for my next blog entry, I apologize. This is the busiest week of the year for me: the week before the National Football League kicks off.
Right now, I got a lot going on. Between preparing for and participating in fantasy football drafts, setting up football pools, and deciding on my season-long NFL prop bets, I have hardly any time for playing poker, and certainly no time for writing about poker. I love me some football. More than I love poker, most likely.
To commemorate the arrival of of my favorite time of the year, and to fill the void for everyone while I’m busy doing my football stuff, here is an article I wrote for my fantasy football webpage about two years ago today.
I know you’re used to reading something silly in this space, but today i feel sentimental. Sorry!
This coming Sunday is my favorite day of the year. I know that I have professed my love of the “fall back” daylight savings day in October. That’s a really good day, but it’s not as good as this Sunday. This Sunday, NFL football returns.
Often when I describe to others how momentous this Sunday is to me, they try to minimize my feelings by pointing out that I’ve yet to experience life’s true watershed moments: things like marriage and the birth of a child. They tell me that the family bond transcends a football game. That’s true, but what separates me from most football fans is the fact that one of my most important family bonds revolves around football. Football, and the New York Jets in particular, is an indelible part of my family. It’s very much part of the fabric of my relationship with my father, who happens to be one of my best friends. And this Sunday really encapsulates that for me.
Legend has it that it all began in 1978. I was five years old, and completely obsessed with Star Wars figurines and accessories. I had the spaceships, I had the masks. I had the D-cell batteries that made the futuristic gun noises happen. I even had the Boba Fett that you had to send away for. My father–whose favorite hobbies were, in no particular order, drinking, football, and gambling-had no interest whatsoever in Star Wars. He would watch me stage fake battles with my little toys with disdain. He kept telling my mother that he “wasn’t raising no faegala,” but my mom managed to convince him to let me be.
One day, while my father was trying to watch the Jets game, I danced around in front of him with my inflatable light saber. Whoosh. “Todd back to pass, and . . .” Whoosh. Whoosh. After several unsuccessful attempts to convince me to battle Darth Vader elsewhere, he finally snapped and took things into his own hands. More specifically, the stupid light saber went into his hands, and was promptly deflated. It was time to watch football.
I think I initially protested, but within a few weeks, I took to football like a fish to water. An obsession was born. By the time Empire Strikes Back was released, I could give two shits about Luke Skywalker. Thank you, Dad.
The first game I have a distinct recollection of was in January of 1980. Super Bowl XIV, Rams vs. Steelers. I watched alone with my dad. In retrospect, based on the absence of his considerable collection of derelict friends, I realize that he must have arranged to be alone with me so that he could share the experience with his son. I must have asked 450 questions during the course of the game, all of which were patiently answered by my football-knowledgeable father. The intensity with which he watched the game was arresting in my young mind. It left quite an impression. I’m not sure if he was laying or getting points.
Fast forward to 1981. My father had the good fortune of having an office suite next door to a guy who sold wholesale merchandise to Shea Stadium. He somehow finagled Jets season tickets. At the age of eight, my growing fascination with football could now transform into a full blown psychosis. And did it ever. By October of 1981, I knew every player on the Jets roster, and could probably call a better game than most high school offensive coordinators. I was completely and totally hooked at 8 years old.
1981 was my first real football season. And my first sacred season-opening Sunday. And Shea, then the Meadowlands, has been my temple. I was there in December of 1981, for the Bills-Jets wild card game. Trailing 24-10 at the half, Richard Todd led a furious comeback which brought the Jets to within 31-27 with 5 seconds left. The clock was stopped by a pass interference penalty on the Bills. The ball was on the Bills’ 11 yard line. Shea Stadium was literally shaking. Todd got picked in the end zone on a pass intended for Derrick Gaffney. It was my first brush with the unique disappointment associated with a season-ending sports loss. I felt the kind of sorrow that people normally reserve for the death of a beloved pet and when they’re notified that they have a terminal disease. My father whisked me out of Shea as tears streamed down my face. He had created a monster.
In 1982 the monster was fed more Jets football. When the Jets’ wild card playoff game at Oakland fell on the same day as Danny Basta’s birthday party at the local roller rink, I refused outright to go. My mother chastised me. Dad just nodded and smiled. Lance Mehl picked off Jim Plunkett with under 2:00 to play that day. 17-14 Jets was the final. I was very happy. No. I was ecstatic. But not as ecstatic as I was later that week when my father and I won the season ticket holder’s lottery and won the right to purchase two tickets to the Super Bowl. After 14-0 Fish in the Mud Bowl, with two useless tickets to Pasadena in our possession, I once again felt the sting of season-ending defeat. I didn’t handle it any better than I did the previous year. I probably cried for three hours.
In grades 5 through 8, you learn a lot. How to multiply and divide numbers (I mastered the 7 times table before anyone else. Guess why). How to spell three-syllable words. What the capitals of other states are. But I learned the most about football, adding to an already substantial base of knowledge.
I played nerf football with my friends at 7:30 every morning, before school began (hygiene is of little importance when you’re 11 years old). We kicked extra points. We ran reverses. I’m pretty sure that we were the only 11 year olds that ran the hook-and-ladder, which I had learned from Tony Nathan, Don Shula and my father in that epic playoff game the Dolphins played against the Chargers. After the nerf game, my friend Doug Ebert would interview me. He was Len Berman. I was Joe Walton. We moved the games to lunchtime in junior high, and didn’t stop playing until the 10th grade, when we collectively discovered the female species (and that they were not impressed with dirt-caked boys wearing sweatpants to school).
It was around this time that I refused to leave Shea Stadium during a Falcons-Jets game in a brutal freezing downpour. The Jets were ahead comfortably in the 3rd quarter when my father (whom I had now, improbably, surpassed in level of fanaticism) finally convinced me to leave. During the long walk to the car, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson returned not one, but two punts for TD’s to foil the Jets, who were in the nascent stages of a long stretch of inadequacy. We discovered this by turning on the radio in the car. I was convinced that we caused the White Shoes magic by leaving prematurely.
My father and I were at Shea when “J-E-T-S, Jets Jets Jets!” thing was invented. Not by a schmuck with a firehat on, but by a drunk shirtless guy in a green afro wig. For the record, it started out as two ends of the stadium dueling, not one guy leading the whole place on the video screen. And the guys leading the cheers were not on the payroll.
I discovered the point spread. It was hard to ignore in my father’s presence. Not only did I discover it, I studied it harder than I studied for school. In my first season picking games–I took about two hours to pick them all on Thursday nights–I became some kind of football gambling savant and nailed about 75% of my picks. My mother won her school’s weekly pick ’em pool something like seven times that year. It took my father until about mid-October to climb aboard. The money he won when I was in the 5th grade has had a lasting impact. To this day, only my most horrific slump can dissuade him from using my 5-star selections. That was the same year that I was abruptly pulled out of class one day and sent to the principal’s office. When I got there, utterly confused and slightly scared, the principal’s secretary said there was a phone call for me. I picked up the receiver and it was my mom. I became more scared. She told me that I’d forgotten my picks that week. So we went down the card, game by game, and I whispered my picks into the receiver, right there in the princiapal’s office. “Dolphins. Rams. Seahawks…”
My dad and I were at the last Jets game at Shea, which the Jets lost. We bemusedly watched the fans storm the field after the final gun sounded (this was back before they stopped you from doing this), possibly the only storm-the-field after a loss in sports history. They tore up all the sod and flung it around. I was too young to understand that they were all really drunk. When a plastic Shea Stadium seat, ripped out of its concrete base, flew past our heads, my father and I hightailed it out of there. So long Shea.
I successfully begged my father not to relinquish the seats when Hess moved us to Jersey.
My father and I were there when O’Brien hit Walker once with time expiring and again in overtime against the Fish. 51-45 Jets. Maybe the craziest I’ve ever seen my father get. And he’s not a guy that’s afraid to let loose.
In November 1994, in a game against the Dolphins, when Boomer Esiason hit Johnny Mitchell on a shallow cross, and Mitchell turned it into a touchdown, putting the Jets into the lead, and in the AFC East driver’s seat, my father excitedly grabbed my shoulder and said “they’re going to the Super Bowl this year!” Forty minutes later, Marino fake-spiked us. I drove the 4.5 hours back to Cornell in silence, and didn’t speak to anyone for another 48 hours after I returned.
This will be my 23rd season going to Jets games and following NFL football closely. For me, opening day is Christmas morning, New Years Eve, and Father’s day all rolled into one.
I’m crazed with anticipation. As a kid, if the Jets opened on the road, I would wake up at 9:00 am, tuck a nerf football under my arm, and run around the house pretending to be Freeman McNeil, juking tables, chairs, sofas, and our german shepherd. As an adult, I wake up at 9:00, turn on every form of media I own, and prepare to wager. If the Jets are at home, it’s off to the game. In the old days, we joined the aforementioned derelicts. Now, it’s “Showtunes” on the grill, as my father likes to say.
It’s as close to religion as I come. I feel like I’m surrounded by friends on this day. And there’s a major sense of tradition for my father and I. Yearly events allow you to take stock of where your life is. The first time I sit down in my seat in the front row of section 220 each fall is when I do this.
There are some obvious changes. My father is bigger (and not from lifting weights), with less hair, and he’s not quite as excitable (we’ll see about that if the Jets go on a tear, though). As for me, I’m really a veteran now. Everyone in the section knows me. I’m so familiar with the rhythm of the game, having witnessed over 160 games from the same exact angle, that I know when plays will work before they are run, know when touchdowns and interceptions have occurred a split second before anyone else around me. I’m also so much more jaded than I was in 1981. Who isn’t?
I spend a lot of my life trying to recapture the simple form of happiness that I felt at the age of 8. Not that I’m an unhappy guy, but truly losing yourself in something that’s not work or some kind of other serious project is difficult to do in your middle age. Watching football is just about the only surefire way I can accomplish this. When I’m watching these games, nothing else in the world ever occurs to me. It’s a beautiful thing.
Bring on the season.