When Nate Dunlevy offered me the opportunity to write a bi-monthly column for the site I’d obsessively read and cyber-stalked for so long, I was elated. We’re talking high-pitched squeals and even an impromptu cheer (which, given my sad lack of coordination, resulted in a prematurely deceased lamp). That elation, however, soon yielded to nagging questions about what this column should and could contain. I realized almost immediately what it wouldn’t contain: in-depth statistical analysis or up-to-the-millisecond-scoop breathlessly brought to you by an ‘insider.’ (Have you guys noticed how many self-proclaimed insiders are floating around cyber-space these days? Have we admitted ‘outsiders’ somehow become the minority?!) Don’t get me wrong; I voraciously devour all NFL news, ranging from credible information to the most laughably flimsy rumors, and I enjoy all the data analysis that I can wrap my tiny stat-challenged brain around. However, just as the best NFL teams strive to play to their strengths and minimize their weaknesses, I think people who aspire to write about those NFL teams would be wise to follow the same strategy. I barely passed my graduate-level statistics course, and I’m not privy to breaking news or TMZ-worthy rumors. What I can do is write from the unabashedly passionate perspective of a fan. I know ‘wry detachment’ is the journalistic style du jour, but that just wouldn’t feel authentic to me, which means it wouldn’t come across as authentic to you. While the specific content will vary, the scope and tone of this column will remain relatively constant: unabashedly biased musings and observations about the Colts, the sport they play and the fans who love them.
One of our most frequently and gleefully quoted sports cliches asserts that there’s ‘no crying in baseball.’ (By the way, if there’s any team I could love a fraction as much as I do the Colts, it’s A League of Their Own’s Rockford Peaches.) As anyone who had the misfortune to encounter me whimpering in the wake of this year’s Super Bowl can attest, however, there is crying in football…at least among its most ardent fans. There’s crying and nail-biting and a seemingly limitless amount of agonizing—(where do I get the stamina?)—about team-related issues. These range from the fairly major to the ludicrously minor, but always have at least one feature in common: they’re problems towards which we devote a tremendous amount of cognitive and emotional energy despite the fact that we can never exert any actual control over the outcomes. That’s a guaranteed recipe for intense, bang-your-head-against-the-wall-without-a-helmet frustration. Intellectually, we know that, but still we wring our hands and grey our hair while worrying about things that no one except fate, the diety of your choice and/or Bill Polian can determine. We do it not because we lack the intelligence and sanity to know that our energy might be better channeled elsewhere, but because we love this team. And love almost inevitably means engaging in some high impact worrying about the object of our affections. In my case, love can also mean finding oneself in regrettable situations involving fans of opposing teams who are roughly three times my size and a precariously perched bucket of blue paint…but I digress.
Of course, most of us wouldn’t be masochistic enough to pour so much of our time, money, hopes and hearts into a relationship that offered nothing but indifference or heartbreak in return. The Colts, with imperial grace, often reward our devotion with on-field success and community-conscious class. They provide us with just enough excitement, pride and satisfaction to compensate for all those times they have us groping frantically for our Kleenex and industrial strength antacids. Just when you’re thinking of disembarking the thrilling but nauseating roller coaster of fandom, the Colts will convince you to buckle up for more. They’re like that boyfriend who surprises you with roses and declarations of affection just when you were on the verge of breaking up with him for good.
Some relationship experts and more than some of the overwrought ballads clogging up my ipod declare that no relationship is truly balanced; that one side always loves the other just a little bit more than that love can ever be reciprocated. I think that’s the derivation of some of the angst-drenched anxiety which inevitably accompanies fandom; the nagging knowledge that our team and even the most genuinely appreciative, fan-friendly players on it will never love and value us as deeply as we do them.
There’s an inherent imbalance in the team-fan relationship: we know all about them as individual athletes and occasionally even as people; to them, however, we blend together into one amorphous, sign-carrying, noise-making, supportive but anonymous entity. We spend hours analyzing how well they perform and expressing just how much it matters to us that they succeed; for the most part, they neither know nor care about what we do or how well we do it. And even when they’ve reduced us to booing or writing vitriolic letters to whichever poor interns are charged with intercepting them, I’m not convinced that the team cares nearly as much about our displeasure as we care about whatever they did to cause it. They can’t, really; in order to compete and to retain a measure of their sanity, they have to keep focusing on themselves, not on our opinions and reactions.
This is neither an indictment on us as fans for caring too much, nor on athletes and team executives for sometimes failing to recognize the depth of our passion. It’s just an acknowledgement that fandom is an awful lot like being in an intense and deceptively complex relationship. Sometimes, it’s fulfilling and utterly exhilarating; other times, it feels like our love and loyalty has forever bound us to a fickle, faithless mate who blithely stomps all over our fragile football-worshipping hearts when they sabotage our chance at a perfect season in Week 15 or lose the biggest game of the—*pauses to take deep, cleansing breath*.
Initially, I found this Meatloaf-esque “they want us, they need us, but there ain’t no way they’re ever gonna love us” idea depressing, but I’ve come to see it as illuminating and even sort of liberating. The more we understand about ourselves as fans and our bizarre, imbalanced but nonetheless meaningful relationship with this team, the clearer and more moderate our expectations of the players, organization and our fan experience will be; and the less likely we are to feel disillusioned and disappointed.
Stay tuned for Part 2, coming within the next 24 hours! It’s lighter, fluffier and will be the first piece I’ve written for Nate Dunlevy that’s devoid of references to Meatloaf.