In sports you root out of hope. For one reason or another you find yourself tied to a team, somehow inextricably linked through allegiances of your parents, a play or a game from your childhood, or a T-shirt your aunt bought you and you liked the colors. And you root for your team because you hope they’ll win enough games. You hope they’ll win a championship. Hope is all you can do. You have no effect on the outcome.
And as each season begins, regardless of how the previous one ended, you find yourself filled with that hope—to a varying degree.
Last night, as I watched Rashard Mendenhall ever so gently hump his quarterback, every potentially crucial play of the game and of the season ran through my mind. Another season over before February, taking all hope with it.
I tried to think of a way to best describe what it’s like to be a sports fan. Being an NFL fan is like this: Before the season starts, you pick one of 32 wagons, and you handcuff yourself to the axel. At the start, they’re all lined up evenly. After the first kickoff, each one hurtles towards a cliff, and you can do nothing to change its path. A loss puts your team even closer to the edge, and at the end, there’s only one left—often with more people cuffed to the side than when this race started—that stops before the edge. The 31 others crash, tumbling down, over the side.
That green-and-white wagon of the New York Jets has breached the edge every year this race has been run—since 1969. Yet, the same fans—or some reincarnation—come back each year, talking themselves into this year as they force themselves to click the lock shut, inspired by hopeful dreams of “This Year Is the Year.”
And in many of those years, the wagon was the first one into the free-fall, but this year, it was one of the last four. A stop-and-go journey to that point, after last weekend, the fans could conceivably and, more importantly, reasonably see the Jets winning the Super Bowl—hope at its highest all year.
But as Sunday’s game went on, and the Steelers cruised to a 24-point lead, the season accelerated toward the edge faster than ever. Then, seemingly, the offense and defense remembered how to play football, pulling back as the second half played out. But in the waning moments, with the Jets’ offense hoping to touch the ball one last time, Pittsburgh’s offense picked up two final, crushing first downs, and the clock ticked toward zero as the wagon, once again, free-fell down into the floor of 29 other failed seasons.
And for all the hope that an undrawn, unformed, and unfulfilled season can inspire, there is nothing more finite than its end. The remains of 31 others scattered across the ground below, just memories on the road of the one group left standing. Ninety-nine percent of that collective hope gone, only a small, lucky portion filled.
But then as each season crashes towards the bottom, hope dissipating in its velocity, something happens. And this is why sports are so fucked up, and being a fan, really, has no parallel. The fans and teams just dust themselves off and start thinking about next year. A season’s end destroys all hope and immediately creates it anew.
There’s always next year. And, yeah, there really is.
—Photo via AP