Despite a few setbacks in recent years (kneeling active players protesting racial injustice, dying former players afflicted by brain damage), the National Football League rolls on. It’s the unstoppable behemoth of professional sports, one that was hardly a blip on the screen in the 1950s. But then came the nationally televised Baltimore Colts/New York Giants 1958 championship game, since touted as “the greatest game ever played.”
Suddenly the bewildering morass of college football seemed less interesting. Fans realized that their favorite players would be around for many seasons, not just a couple of years. The players were good, the coaching was superior and the product was great. In 1960, the American Football League was formed to compete with the NFL, and the two leagues merged in 1966 and today’s NFL was born.
Team owners well understood what they had, and what they needed to grow and nurture.
Players come and go, but fans are forever, and will wait decades for a championship. It’s irrational, it’s deluded, it’s often hopeless (Cleveland Browns fans, are you listening?) but it’s irresistible.
Until I moved back to Colorado in 1981, I cared nothing for professional football. But somehow I got hooked and within a year I was a dedicated Broncos fan. Football owned my Sundays, so much so that my 10-year-old son accurately diagnosed my Broncos-focused Sunday behavior.
“There’s supposed to be three levels of consciousness,” he observed. “The cerebrum, the cerebellum and the brain stem. But beneath all of them is the Bronco Brain — pure rage and emotion!”
I told him to shut up and go away. The game was on.
The Broncos pounded the Patriots, beat down the Browns (The Drive! The Fumble!), routed the Raiders, cuffed the Chiefs and chastised the Chargers. Then there were the three Super Bowl losses — to the 49ers, the Redskins and the Giants. And at last, the back-to-back Super Bowl triumphs of 1998 and 1999.
So here we are in 2018, 36 years into Broncos addiction. Since then, the Broncos have been to seven Super Bowls and have won three. It’s a great record, but it still comes down to a championship every 12 years.
I hope for another Super Bowl win, but let’s be realistic — if it takes the Broncos another decade or so to hoist that garishly unimaginative trophy, I’ll be close to 90. Maybe I should give up fandom.
But it’s not that easy. Twelve of the 32 teams in the NFL have never won the Super Bowl, so why do they still have fans? The Kansas City Chiefs won in 1970 and haven’t been back since, so why is Arrowhead Stadium always packed with noisy, red-clad fans?
Fandom is an addiction, a “non-substance related behavioral disorder,” as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders might term it. It hasn’t ruined my life, but it has created, as Graham Nash wrote, “Time we have wasted on the way.”
In that spirit, I traveled up to Cripple Creek on Sunday and ignored the game. I know, I know — substituting one addiction for another. But it’s not easy to kick a 36-year habit, one that has cost me plenty already.
For example, in 2005 I scored two tickets to the AFC Championship game in Denver for $300. We were walking to the stadium, and the path from the parking lot was lined with Pittsburgh Steelers fans. One caught my eye and held up two fingers, then seven — $1,400 for our two tix! I passed and we suffered through a humiliating loss. Instead of frozen misery in the stands, we could have been guzzling champagne at the Capital Grille.
But I am, and remain, a fan. With tens of millions of others, I subsidize the millionaire players, the billionaire owners and the engagingly meaningless pageantry of the NFL. It’s a kind of voluntary servitude, one that seems rooted in the human psyche. And what would we do without the NFL — root for soccer teams, like every other nation?
Speaking for myself, I’ll head for the Creek again this Sunday. It’s the Broncos’ bye week, and I’ll be rested and ready for the Los Angeles Chargers on the 18th!