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Thursday, Sept. 19, 2002
Okay okay, shall we dispense with the usual humor/angst and get down to something really important?

Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you the religion that is football weekends.

It usually occurs to me on a Thursday morning (and yes, it is in fact Thursday morning) that I have a mission to fulfill by noon on any given Sunday. I have to pick a football team, an NFL team. Just one, mind you. One that I’m staunchly confident will be victorious that day.

Stu and Mo and some of the other lads from the Watering Hole decided to start a friendly football pool this season. Each week, the contestants pick a team, find the corresponding team name from their personal peel off label sheet (supplied as part of the package) and affix it to a large gridded plywood board hanging in a remote corner of the Watering Hole. There are 30 contestants, listed in a column on the left of the board, with the 16 weeks running in a row on the top. Thirty bucks was the entry fee, and Mo had a waiting list. Winner at the end of the season carts off $600, second place $200, etc.

The reason it hangs in a remote corner is that, of course, it is about as illegal as it gets. Gambling, ABC laws, all that sort of nonsense. We thought about all that. For about 15 seconds.

Did I mention it was a friendly pool? It was, until the first week ended and the requisite hooting over the losers began. It is a great occupier of time at the Hole, to have intelligent discourse over the upcoming and past weeks games. To start every other conversation with “Can you believe he picked Carolina to win? What in the world was he thinking?” Statistics and injury lists and the weather are discussed in hushed tones, alliances have been formed. “I’m gonna save my Oakland sticker until the last week, we gotta make it tough on old Tom over there you know. The bum thinks he’s gonna walk away with this whole thing. Ha. Not going to happen. Didja see him sneak in here Sunday morning and peek at everybody’s pick? What a dirty thing to do. He’s trying to counterbet everybody. If I see him doing that again I’ll break his shins.”

You’ll be happy to know that so far I have no losses.

Yes, I’m aware that the season is only two weeks old.

Everybody has a favorite team. The Watering Hole happens to be a Steeler’s bar, awash with the black and gold bunting, helmets, even a neon Steeler’s sign. On a Sunday when the Steeler’s aren’t on national television and are only available on satellite, the place is packed. 200 fanatics will pack the place, the entire local Steeler’s fan club. They are loud, they are drinkers of vast quantities of draft beer, they wear black jerseys and sing peculiar Pittsburgh songs. To attempt to fire up the jukebox during the fourth quarter is an invitation to suicide. They worship at the shrine of the big screen TV, anointing themselves with water imported from the Ohio River (I am so not making this up) and waving towels about in frantic unison whenever a Steeler manages to gain yardage.

Sick amateurs. I don’t even go in the place when they take over. What despicable behavior. The waitresses hate them, they don’t even tip all that well. Pittsburgh, ugh.

Stu, my Corporate Partner and good buddy, for some unfathomable reason has a love for the other Pennsylvania team, the Philthydelphia Beagles. Apparently he spent some childhood summers north of Philthy, has kin there, and has a terminal fanaticism over the fate of the green and white clad Beagles. His den is festooned with green banners, historical artifacts from years ago documenting the storied rise and fall of his beloved. Each fall he risks death from his wife by once again signing up for the satellite TV football package which will enable his viewing of this team, and the sordid Sunday afternoon crowd doth pile into his den to watch snatches of other games while the master of the house holds the remote control as though it were the last can of Coors Lite in the world.

Our metropolis happens to have no NFL team, for political reasons too awful to go into on this forum. The local media decided years ago that to not have a favorite team to root for was just not acceptable, so they decided to make it a geographic thing and force-feed the locals. They picked the nearest city with a team.

The Washington Deadskins. No more woeful a day has befallen me than the day they decided to back this bunch.

I mean, they could have just as easily picked the Colts, who were at the time residing in Baltimore. I might have been able to stand that. But the ‘Skins? Oh brother.

Stu’s son Junior happens to be a Deadskins fan, a fan of the worst sort, a fan tilting dangerously in the direction of fanaticism. He has been seen sporting a green hog nose and wearing a burgundy and gold wig while waving a three foort long foam finger in the air. And this was before the game even started.

A few days ago, when Philthy played the ‘Skins on Monday night football, Stu and Junior watched the game together. Nice father and son thing. Sit down in the warmth of a home, the glow of their bonhibe matching the soft chuckling fire on the hearth, perhaps a bowl of popcorn to share, and some hot chocolate.

Well. . . . . no. Not exactly. There was screaming and war whoops from the feathered Deadskin contingent, roars of victory from the depths of armchairs, wrestling and spilled suds and the rapid lifting of underwear by one or both of them. Stu emerged triumphant, squashing a half-eaten sub sandwich underfoot as he danced around the room shouting “YES!! By God YES! Pack up your Foreskins in your old kit bag, Junior!!”

Again, despicable behavior. Juvenile in its’ extreme. I had told the both of them that I might stop by to watch the game, or even just watch the two of them, at least for the entertainment value, but really. Does it need to go to these lengths?

I have fond memories of listening to MY team in my formative years, on the radio, in Western New York. I have this perfectly clear memory of going on a Sunday afternoon car ride with my parents, and bringing the transistor radio along, sticking the antenna out of the window and picking up the faint play-by-play of the seasons first game. It happened to be against Dallas, who at the time were the leagues elite, they might have even won the Bowl that year, I can’t recall. And MY team was the league doormat, the pitiful remnants of a once mighty franchise. But. That day they were actually playing even with the Cowboys! The game went right to the final minutes and a pass failed and the Cowboys escaped with a narrow win. What hope I had! That MY team was going to do well this year, wow, they just played the best team of the bunch right down to the end and almost won!

That was when I was 10 years old. I didn’t know how to curse yet.

But I learned. When you root for MY team, you learn early and well.

At some point a couple of years ago, I discovered a local beer joint that actually encouraged fans of MY team to stop by on a Sunday and root for MY team. Even though we are removed from MY teams area by some 600 miles, it turns out there are several dozen of the faithful who happened to move here. Gee, I thought I was the only one.

So I went by. MY team was playing the Dolphins, a heated and long-standing rivalry. I figured that if this bar could root for MY team under the auspices of a grudge match this intense, it would have to be okay. I took Stu along for fun, since Philthy had a bye week and he was bored.

When we walked in, the first sight to see was a 70-year-old woman, dressed in MY team’s colors and waving a pair of pom-poms in energetic fashion. It might not have been so noticeable but for the fact that she was standing precariously on a small table and high kicking at the time. And that MY teams name was spelled out in little lights across her boobs, and she hit a switch every so often to make the lights come on and flash out the name for emphasis. Three hundred similarly clad enthusiasts cheered her every move, the place a cacophony of cheering, screaming fans who were just about to watch kickoff. Standing room only, not a Philthy fan in the house.

Stu took one look at the scene and muttered “Oh my God.”

I felt like I had just driven 600 miles and wound up in one of those football bars near my old house. Since I had thoughtfully worn a sweatshirt emblazoned with MY team’s logo, I was instantly greeted as a brother (of the cloth, if not the bar) and grown women hugged me, a complete stranger. Men shook my hand enthusiastically and inquired as to my heritage, and after successfully answering some questions that only a native of the area where MY team was based, was waved graciously to a seat and plied with many intoxicants.

The noise rose to a deafening roar as MY team scored and slam-dunked the ball in the end zone of the hated Dolphins. Moments later, we intercepted and I thought there would be a need for oxygen masks all around. Shrieking women and fist pumping men stood as one and bellowed their lust for blood, for Dolphin blood.

Stu sat rather mournfully and nursed a beer.

I was dancing on the table with Granny by this time.

Halftime revealed a barbecue pit out back of the bar, serving up wings and ribs and cole slaw on the side. My new brethren and I munched away, babbling about victories past and the promise of this year’s team. MY team. THEIR team, no longer a doormat, but a powerhouse in their own right. “Oh God,” one of them said. “Remember how WE used to suck? Couldn’t beat anybody? Now we’ve got (insert various hero’s of the day and their position) and that new running back and we kick ass! God, life is good! Life is good, I tell ya!”

And the game wore on and the Dolphins were looking pretty sad and MY team was just having their way with them. Granny wore herself out after leading cheers for so many touchdowns and had to sit down and throw back a half dozen martini’s to calm down. The crowd never faltered, though, and as the end neared we linked arms and sang the songs from the old days, the old neighborhood songs. The hymns to our team, the victory tunes, three hundred souls in tandem reminding themselves of where they came from and for whom we did root. The common bond. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and when we finished, a mighty cheer went up and three hundred beers were raised in unison. The brotherhood was glad, and we were all back “home” for a minute.

‘Cept for Stu. He looked awful much like he was ready to leave. Killjoy.

I bubbled with enthusiasm on the way out of the packed parking lot. “Did you see? Now that’s what MY old area was like, and MY team surely wore out the sucky Dolphins, and Granny was kind of a fox, don’t you think so? Hey, they want me back next week. Got a brochure here about the fan club and everything.”

Stu considered. “Naw, I think one week is enough for me. Besides, the Eagles are on at 1 this coming Sunday.”

“Oh, sorry, they really didn’t say anything about you coming back. . . . ."

And if you haven’t figured out which one is MY team, don’t worry about it. You probably wouldn’t understand. It's a football thing.

Besides, you’re probably one of those (*ugh, choke*) Jets fans.

Happy autumn, y’all!

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