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Football, Fanatics, and Family

I’m going to tell you a story.  Actually, I’m going to tell a couple of stories.  My narrative tone may have been influenced somewhat by my recent addiction to the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” (HIMYM), which is basically about a guy telling his kids a bunch of stories about him and his friends living in New York while he searched for true love.

So in that vein, let me tell you a bunch of stories about me and my friends, family, and...football.

Before I was born, my dad was into football.  Not just into it—he played in high school and college.  He even won awards—he was really good!  But his love of football never really transferred to the rest of our little unit.  I was never coordinated enough to care much about sports; I got hit in the head one too many times in gym class and I guess it knocked out a good chunk of my competitiveness as well.  Growing up, fall and winter weekends were full of yelling in my house—my dad, hollering at the TV with such volume and enthusiasm that the rest of us were forced to take refuge away from the living room.  I didn’t get it.  Not only did I fail to comprehend the game itself, I didn’t see the appeal of cheering for a bunch of guys in tights that I didn’t even know.

Flash forward to college.  I went to a small Presbyterian liberal arts school in Missouri.  We didn’t have a football team; we had a basketball team.  I didn’t really get into that, either.  I was into doing drama for BSU and leading worship at InterVaristy and having long philosophical discussions with my friends.  And in my sophomore year, my family moved from Washington state to Western Pennsylvania.  To Pittsburgh, in fact.  And so I would go “home” to a city I was totally unfamiliar with.

One summer instead of working on campus, I went “home.”  I ended up doing an internship of sorts at the same water authority office in which my mom worked.  And that was when I discovered something strange and unique about Pittsburgh: their love of sports.  All my life, I’d considered football a “guy’s game,” something that gave men an excuse to yell and drink and be physical.  Sure, there was the occasional woman who got into it, but she was the exception.  NOT SO in Pittsburgh, my friend.  As I worked in that office, I overheard grown women sitting around in their jerseys talking about the game.  I was astonished; surely they didn’t mean the football game?  But they did.  I came to learn that these women weren’t an anomaly, either.  Pittsburgh has an overwhelming fixation on their teams—mostly the Steelers, though the Penguins get a lot of love, too, and the Pirates…well, they suck, but it’s still fun to catch a game at PNC park. 

Even the mildest of people can occasionally get caught up in the excitement when their town's team is in a big game, like against a rival, at the playoffs or the Super Bowl.  And everyone kinds roots for their hometown team in such cases.  You know, bit of hometown pride. Pittsburgh, however, tunes in devotedly anytime the Steelers are playing.  Win or lose, they're cheering them on, waving their terrible towels.  Game days find everyone from businessmen to kindergarten teachers wearing black and gold and/or jerseys.  Often at work.  I am not making this up.

And so a strange thing happened: I found myself, for the first time ever, watching the Super Bowl, and actually caring about the outcome.  Actually rooting for a team—unheard of!  I may have said that I rooted for the Redskins because it was the team from the state I was born in, but I never bothered to watch them play a whole game.  Slowly, over the next few years, I became swept up in Steelermania.  Not quite enough to buy my own jersey (though I did consider #43, Polamalu!), and I still had a hard time watching the entire game, but it was by far more invested than I’d ever been.  Pittsburgh’s love of their team—their pride in the Steelers, win or lose—was infectious.  

So, it’s weird for me to tell you this story of how I started watching football, and why I am a Steelers fan.  Weird because I watched the playoffs tonight—all four quarters, AND I yelled at the TV!  Weird because I no longer live in Pittsburgh.  But when you’ve moved around as much as I have, sometimes you hold onto weird things.  Sometimes they’re tangible mementos, sometimes it’s a favorite brand of something, or a certain pronunciation of a word.  Sometimes it’s a football team.  It gives me a strange sense of continuity in a life that is otherwise often fractured.  But it’s also weird because sometimes I get a glimpse of my own transformation from the other side.

For example, once I met an author at a conference.  I’d read some of her stuff, and I was a little in awe of her, so I started rambling.  This was right after the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2006, and the town was still riding the high.  You need to understand that seriously, Pittsburgh is not like other towns.  I’ve lived a lot of places, but I've never lived anywhere that gets as wholly, almost unanimously invested in a team.  Seriously.  And I had been sucked in.  So I asked her what she thought, haha, of all the hullabaloo still going on.  She looked at me blankly, like she hadn’t noticed.  I tried to explain that it was a big deal to the people of Pittsburgh, where the conference was hosted, and she still had a kind of glazed over look like she’d never considered actually caring about the outcome of a football game…and I realized I’d suddenly become one of them.  I used to be really embarrassed by that story, but now it doesn't seem like that big of a deal.

The 2006 Super Bowl brought about an unfortunate, unforeseen side effect: family drama.  They played against the Seattle Seahawks, and in case you forgot, we used to live in Washington, and still had family in the Seattle area.  (And in fact, we are back again!)  What started as good-natured ribbing ended up becoming harsh on both sides, causing some temporary rifts that have thankfully healed since.  But I still have very good friends and family members who hate my favorite team.  In such cases, it’s easy to get swept up in the moment and forget the bigger picture.  Family & friendships are much more important than who wins a game of football! 

Fanaticism about anything can bring you closer to some people and divide you from others if you’re not careful.  Does that mean it’s bad to be a fanatic?  I don’t think so.  I’m a fan of a lot of things, and a twenty minute conversation with me will probably start to reveal them.  You could even say I geek out about stuff.  But the point of geeking out and becoming a devoted fanatic shouldn’t be merely to prove our own dedication and thereby exclude ourselves from the uninformed, unenlightened masses.  It should be to invite them to share our passions.  That’s what got me into football in the first place—I felt the city of Pittsburgh inviting me to share their joy and fervor over a good game.  If I hadn’t lived there so long (longer than anywhere else in my life) and experienced it for myself, I’d probably hate the Steelers, too.  I usually root for the underdog, and with six Super Bowl wins, the underdog they ain’t.  But instead, I’m a fan.  A black-and-gold-wearing maniac.

The funny thing is, there are tons of other things I’m more fanatic and geeky about than the Steelers.  Ireland, superheroes, Star Wars, philosophy, good stories, God, writing, Switchfoot, and Narnia, just to name a few, in no particular order.  In a way, it’s kind of fun to branch out and defy a few stereotypes.  Football, science fiction, and chick flicks.  Yep, I’m that kind of girl.  

I guess the moral of the story is: if I annoy you with my tweets or facebook status updates about the Steelers…especially when the Super Bowl is on…I’m sorry.  I’m apologizing in advance.  Just know at the end of the day, no matter how fanatic I sound, I am sane, and I care more about you than I do about the Steelers.  Now let's go forth and invite people to share in our fanaticisms, instead of driving them away.

Oh, and…go Steelers!!!  (I couldn’t resist!)


Josh said...

great article.... ;) GO STEELERS!!!!

Carol said...

You go girl! And GO STILLERS an nat!!!

Tom (TR) Richards said...

Good read! Long live Steeler Nation!

sbrewton9 said...

I'm your mom's cousin from Virgina and also spent my early childhood listening to my dad yelling at the TV on Sunday afternoons. I actually learned to love football at an early age and was a huge Redskin fan till the Tampa Bay Buccaneers came into existence in 1976. This was on your mom's FB page so I thought I'd give it a read. Nice job :) Not a steelers fan btw but to each their own.

J. M. Richards said...

Haha, thanks for reading, guys. :)

Layla said...

Very thought provoking article. I am with the Steelers all the way! Make my day!!!! :)