Thursday, November 13, 2014

Have I Accidentally Become an Arizona Cardinals Fan?


I have been a fan of the Dallas Cowboys since birth. Indeed, I think my first words were “Tom” and “Landry” in that order. Growing up in New York in the 1970s, being a Dallas Cowboys fan was not that uncommon. They were known as “America’s Team” and went to five Super Bowls during that decade, winning two of them. In fact, in those ten years they amassed more regular season wins than any other team – 105. By contrast the two New York teams—the Giants and the Jets—combined for 103 wins during the same span. So it’s easy to see how a young, impressionable lad, just learning about football, would cast off the hometown teams in favor of a more winning prospect. The “America’s Team” tag even let you rationalize that you really were rooting for the home team—just one that was national in scope.

The 1980s were not as kind to Cowboys fans. They saw their team have a few good seasons early in the decade, but never make it to a Super Bowl. Then, in 1989, the unthinkable happened—a 1-15 season. America’s Team had hit rock bottom. While I was still loyal to my team, I was also disgusted. I was in my junior year of college, so I stopped paying so much attention to football and turned my attention to what was really important to me at the time—rock music and beer.

Somehow, when I wasn’t paying attention, the Cowboys got good again. They were dominant in the mid-90s and it was in the midst of their dominance that I moved from New York to Arizona. (My move had nothing to do with the Dallas Cowboys’ dominance, so hopefully you didn’t accidentally infer that from the preceding sentence. If so, I apologize for any confusion or mental distress this may have caused.)

I moved to Arizona in July of 1995, and on Christmas night of that year I had a “bucket list” type of experience. I got to go to a Monday Night Football game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Arizona Cardinals. It was the last game of the regular season and not only did I get to see the Cowboys win 37 – 13, but I also got to see Emmitt Smith break the record for rushing touchdowns in a single season, when he scored his 25th of the year in the fourth quarter. (FYI- his record has since been broken.)

That night was a Cowboys fan’s dream. And I was certainly not the only Cowboys fan who got to experience that live at Sun Devil Stadium. I would estimate that Cowboys fans outnumbered Cardinals fans on a scale of 8 to 1 at that game. My section was particularly blue. In fact there was only one (not exaggerating) person in the entire section wearing Cardinals red. He was sitting about ten rows in front of me and after the Cowboys scored their first touchdown and the crowd erupted, he turned around and looked at the sea of blue behind him and sadly shook his head like a little boy who lost his puppy. It wasn’t a Cowboys home game, but it sure felt that way.

About a month later the Cowboys were back at Sun Devil Stadium where they won their third Super Bowl in a span of four years. That 27 – 17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers was the last great moment for the Cowboys, with lots of mediocrity and occasional okay-ness ever since.


***

When I first moved to Arizona, I hated the Cardinals. I didn’t hate them as much as I hated the Giants, Redskins, Eagles, Steelers, or 49ers, but I hated them nonetheless. This irrational animosity was borne of the fact that at that time, in 1995, the Cardinals and the Cowboys were in the same division, and diehard football fans are conditioned to hate their team’s division rivals. (Side note: Whenever I say I hate a particular sports team, my eight-year-old son says, “Dad, you shouldn’t hate them. They’re just doing their job.” Rational little bugger.)

Then, in 2002, the NFL realigned the league and the Cardinals and the Cowboys were no longer in the same division. I didn’t have a specific reason to hate the Cardinals anymore, but I still did so out of habit. Mostly I just ignored them, though, since they were just as irrelevant as the Cowboys during that timeframe.

Four years later a sequence of events began that would cause my fan loyalties to evolve in unexpected and unsettling ways. Late in 2006 my wife and I became parents. While the arrival of a child is a major life change, it brings with it a thousand different smaller life changes. One seemingly innocuous, but ultimately crucial, thing that changed was how I occupied my time during my daily commute.

For several years prior to the birth of our son, my wife and I carpooled to work every day. While driving we would either talk or listen to music on the radio. But a few months after our son was born, my wife and I figured out a way to work it out so she could be a stay-at-home mom and I was now driving to work alone. This meant: 1) I could no longer use the carpool lane, which practically drove me to tears as I watched the carpoolers whizzing past in the diamond lane while I sat in gridlock traffic; and 2) I could listen to whatever ever I wanted to on the radio.

After years of listening to the same two or three music stations, I started to turn the dial. I still listened to music, but sometimes I would listen to NPR instead. Soon enough, I started to prefer listening to talk radio instead of music in the mornings. Then one day NPR had a pledge drive. As those of you who listen to NPR know, their pledge drives, while well-intentioned, are about as exciting as listening to paint dry. And listening to paint dry is infinitely less exciting than watching paint dry. So I started to turn the dial again and I soon stumbled upon a sports show called the Doug & Wolf show.

Up until that moment I had never listened to sports radio. Even though I am an avid sports fan, I always wrote off sports radio as nothing more than mindless jocks shilling for the hometown teams. But somehow the gravelly voice of Ron Wolfley (a former Pro Bowl fullback for the Cardinals) quickly wormed its way into my consciousness and I couldn’t seem to turn the dial. The banter seemed more intelligent than I would have expected and they were talking about a topic I enjoyed, so I kept on listening. The only problem was 90% of their chatter was about Arizona sports teams, which I didn’t have a specific interest in at the time.

Once I stumbled across Doug & Wolf I began to listen to them occasionally, when I had my fill of NPR in the morning. During football season I would chuckle to myself while they talked about the woes of the Cardinals and hope they would mention the Cowboys, which they would from time to time. Then, in 2008, the Cardinals got good enough to win their division and shockingly, win all their playoff games to make it to the Super Bowl. I started to listen to Doug & Wolf much more frequently during that season and soon knew way more about the Cardinals than I did about the Cowboys. When the Cardinals made it to the Super Bowl I didn’t know how to feel or who to root for. I intrinsically hated them, but they were playing the Pittsburgh Steelers who I intrinsically hated even more. So I ended up rooting for the Cardinals, and was genuinely upset when the Steelers took the lead and won in the final minute of the game.

With that Super Bowl I let my hatred for the Cardinals fade away. I found it easier than I imagined to root for them, especially with the exceedingly likeable Larry Fitzgerald and Kurt Warner leading the way. I was still a Cowboys fan first and foremost, but I didn’t mind if the Cardinals did well. And I started listening to Doug & Wolf more regularly and learned more and more about the hometown football team.

In the meantime, the Cowboys have been mediocrity personified. Prior to this year they went 8 – 8 for three straight seasons and bungled their chances to make the playoffs in the final game of the season each of those years. I’ve still rooted for them, but they certainly haven’t made it easy or particularly fun. That is until this year.

This year has seriously tested my loyalties. Both the Cowboys and Cardinals have been very good and in Week 9, they faced off. My son asked me who I was rooting for and I said the Cowboys, but as I watched the game I wasn’t even sure myself. Instead of cheering for either team, I found myself staring at the screen blankly, feeling lost and confused. Who did I really want to win? It was tough to say. But at the end of the game I found myself both upset that the Cowboys lost and pleased that the Cardinals won. That sort of made my head hurt.

A few days later my friend Mike contacted me and said he had an extra ticket to the Cardinals – Rams game if I wanted to go with him. I gladly took him up on it. So last Sunday I found myself at the first regular season football game I’ve been to since Christmas Night 1995. And things had changed a bit over the course of 19 years. No longer were Cardinals fans in the minority. Indeed, the place was a sea of red. Every time the Cardinals scored, the place exploded, and I was right in the thick of it, screaming myself hoarse by the end of the game.

As we left the stadium, with the Cardinals victorious and in possession of the best record in football, I felt something that I hadn’t felt for a football team in a very long time—proud. And then I suddenly got scared, because I realized I may have become an Arizona Cardinals fan when I wasn’t looking. Sorry, Tom Landry.