Recently moved to New York with his family, avid Australian sports fan David Saunders takes a look at his first “in-situ” Super Bowl.
It’s Super Bowl week and I’m pleased to say that for the first time in my life, I’m actually going to be in the country in which it happens. Whilst there’s no substitute for a ticket at Glendale (if anyone has a spare call me!) on Sunday, it will be a pleasant change to at least be in the right time zone.
Four weeks ago, my wife and I, along with our two young sons, moved from Melbourne, Australia, to New York, after my wife got a transfer and promotion with her company. This is obviously an exciting development in its own right (if I can’t get excited about being in this city, then there is clearly no hope for me) and I’ve enjoyed seeing the sights, traveling on the subway and gorging myself on hamburgers and hot dogs. But as an avid sports fan in my native Melbourne, I’m drawn, above all else, to the NFL’s showpiece.
We arrived in the US as the playoffs started. Amid trips to the Empire State Building and Broadway theater shows and looking at apartments in Brooklyn, I’ve been immersing myself in the game and local football culture. In the process I have dragged my family to some unexpected places.
We found a cosy table at Bill’s Burgers in the Meatpacking district as Joe Flacco’s Baltimore Ravens threatened to upend the Patriots. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowded bar in Brooklyn as raucous Green Bay Packers fans noisily cheered on their team to a controversial victory against Dallas. We took shelter a week later from incessant rain in a bar in the Hudson valley town of Beacon as Seattle struggled to get it together against Green Bay, getting a lift afterwards back to the railroad station from a kind couple we sat next to.
I don’t normally drag my family into bars on the weekends to watch sport. Nor do I usually get away with hogging the TV for four hours on a Sunday afternoon to watch sports. But it just seemed important to embrace local customs and that argument seems to have been accepted.
Those who know me back home will read this and roll their eyes and mutter to themselves “typical” or “no surprises there”. Over the years I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of my 47 years devoted to football of one code or another. Back home it’s the Australian Football League that has sucked up time and energy. As a young reporter on The Age newspaper in Melbourne in the 1990s, my team the St Kilda Saints made an uncharacteristic assault on post-season glory. I was going to three games in a weekend! As dependencies go, it’s probably less unhealthy than smoking anyway.
My sports-watching proclivities have never been limited to local offerings, however. In my 20s when traveling alone in Europe, I organized my entire holiday around seeing Italian soccer games. I can say “which team do you root for?” in at least four different languages. When visiting Europe, most normal people visit art galleries and famous cathedrals. I seek out sports stadia, including Rome’s Stadio Olympico, the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid and even St James Park in Newcastle upon Tyne.
So to me, it feels entirely appropriate that I should arrive in a new country and immediately immerse myself first and foremost in its sports. I’m not a philistine. I do plan to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MOMA — at some point. I just figure they’ll still be there once events in Phoenix this coming weekend are concluded.
A Sense of “Otherness”
So, what is it about the NFL that appeals to a foreigner — admittedly one who naturally gravitates toward sports?
As a teenager growing up in Melbourne, I was fascinated by American football — or “gridiron” as it’s often referred to Down Under. I can’t quite put my finger on the exact reason for my initial interest: was it the grainy images of big guys with helmets and shoulder pads? They don’t wear shoulder pads or indeed much padding at all in Australian football. Or was it the strange shirts with numbers on the front as well as the back?
More likely it was that sense of “otherness” American football offered, the fact that it wasn’t local, giving me that perverse pleasure of following something that seemed exotic from afar. Although a committed “Aussie Rules” player throughout high school, I had also enjoyed following English soccer in the 1980s — long before the Premier League became the global juggernaut it is now — and when it was decidedly unfashionable to do so in Australia.
As I watched the hour-long NFL highlights package (usually a week after the games had been played (there was no cable TV in Australia back in the ‘80s) my fascination grew. The razzmatazz, the marching bands, the commentators who seemed to know exactly what was happening on the field in intimate detail, and even — dare I say it — the cheerleaders, certainly worked on an impressionable 15-year-old.
But above all, I admired the blend of brute strength and skill, the precision, the short spurts of tactical genius pulled off over and over again. Even though, to an outsider, games seemed to go on forever with large periods of time where nothing happens other than beer commercials, as feats of athleticism go there are few things to rival some of the things that happen in an NFL game. Call it chess, call it trench warfare. Call it whatever you like: it’s impressive on a number of levels.
And so it was, two weekends ago as I sat alone in a bar in the Meatpacking district (my family having left me to it for the afternoon) watching a bit of New England magic in the form of Tom Brady’s backward throw to Julian Edelman, whose 51-yard sling to Danny Amendola for a touchdown sparked New England’s revival against Baltimore in the AFC divisional playoff game, I smiled in silent admiration.
Similarly, when Seattle slowly pulled themselves back from the brink of oblivion following an awful start to the NFC championship game, I marveled as Russell Wilson — who until then was having a shocker, throwing four interceptions — found Jermaine Kearse in the end zone with a 35-yard throw, giving the Seahawks an improbable come-from-behind win in overtime against Green Bay. I had witnessed one of the great comebacks in recent times. Impressive stuff.
Reveling in the Lead Up
Away from the field I’ve also immersed myself in the lead-up to Sunday’s game. It’s had everything: epic finishes to games, a scandal involving the air pressure of footballs (surely one of the most bizarre sporting controversies of all time), and the resulting war of words that, until Monday’s calamitous weather in the country’s northeast “diverted” people’s attention, was leading news bulletins and involved the sort of blanket coverage ordinarily reserved for air strikes on the Middle East, or indeed calamitous weather events.
I’ve also been intrigued by the contrast between Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch and Richard Sherman: one won’t say a word but knows how to stir up a fuss on the field and the other won’t shut up off it. Sherman is a particularly interesting character. He is unquestionably an old fashioned loudmouth. But by all accounts, he is no idiot and he certainly knows how to throw an articulate and poignant verbal hand grenade.
Nonetheless, his utterances in recent days about how the relationship between Patriots owner Robert Kraft and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell guarantees there will be no sanctions against New England resulting from “Deflate-gate” (will there ever be a time when a minor controversy is not suffixed with “gate”? We can only hope) were inflammatory. In Australia, he’d have faced not only a hefty fine from the league, but also quite probably a defamation suit (libel laws in this country: an interesting study of how freedom of speech prevails over all else).
So, I’m looking forward to Sunday’s showdown between Seattle and New England, which I’ll be watching with my wife and sons at a friend’s home in Brooklyn. There are a few things I think I can guarantee: hot dogs and beer aplenty; raucous bonhomie; Katy Perry lip-synching; amusing and extremely expensive advertisements and lots of dumb questions from me about what’s going on throughout the game.
I hesitate to make a prediction about the result. But I’ve developed a bit of a soft spot for the Seahawks since visiting Seattle years ago and, well, the Patriots right now are to everyone outside Boston, the league pariahs following “Deflate-gate”. So, I’ll be rooting for the Seahawks and hoping Russell Wilson imposes himself early, that Marshawn Lynch, with or without his outlawed boots, does something special that he can avoid talking to the press about afterwards, and that Richard Sherman does something special that he can provocatively discuss articulately and at length after the Seahawks win Super Bowl XLIX.
Bring it on.
Photo Credit: Flickr/WEBN-TV