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An Ex-Fan’s Notes

by Bob Lalasz on January 16, 2012

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Please. You had to see this coming, fellow Packer fans. And not because the defense couldn’t stop anyone — although that alone would have sufficed in the pitless mano y mano of the National Football League, where strengths become weakness and weaknesses become aerosolized, killing faster than a mutating bird flu. Rather, because of the offense, which was predicated on magic.

Countless times this season, Aaron Rodgers would throw the ball somewhere in the ecoregion of Jordy Nelson, running the simplest go route up the sidelines, slathered in defensive back. Nelson, not actually seeing the pass but rather merely detecting its hum, or perhaps the faint pressure change of its rapidly spiraling slipstream, would perform some impossible, porn-star contortion to simultaneously reach over, under and through (through not an armpit or helmet earhole, but through the actual physical flesh of the defender). The ball would strike one of his hands (almost never two) and, after the minutest songbird quiver, bond to the hand, as if cemented there suddenly, while Nelson continued the spiral with his own body, landing with clay-court softness inbounds, swaddled in a cloud of turf and defender curses. It was always hilarious, always astonishing, and always a little occult. My reaction, when I peeled down to it: Suspicion. We had just witnessed something not quite of our world (certainly the world of the Packer fan.) It was too good, and therefore evil. It reminded me of this short horror story I read once about an old tennis pro who played an new hotshot who was beating everyone on the circuit. The hotshot walloped the old pro, who asked him what his racket was strung with. “Gut,” replied the hotshot, smirking. They went to the locker room, where the old pro mysteriously lost consciousness and then woke up bound to a table and screaming, being disemboweled by the hotshot.

Well, sooner or later, you run out of guts.

So the Packers lose, and now we are supposed to feel empty for a couple of weeks, jealous and bereft, reality tearing away from the Discount Double Check narrative (and boy, doesn’t that look like tempting fate now?), the door to the stage abruptly slammed shut, as if we live in Atlanta or Long Island or something. (Or, as my mother said last night, “I guess I won’t have anything to pay attention to until minicamp.”)

I guess. I’m in a new place that I haven’t been for for about 40 years: with sports to the side, lagging like a not particularly well-liked mutt that I can’t yet bring myself to put down. It’s not over yet. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t follow sports, in the Seinfeldian-even-if-my-hair-were-on-fire way. But I now read the sports section and click on SI.com and ESPN and ProFootballTalk now as if I’m dumpster diving, simultaneously listless and desperate, sifting through the trash of the UFC blogs and the weird hockey lines and the forever-strange DC-area high school conference roundups for a few unspoiled calories.

So what happened? I do love soccer, love watching it when it’s played well. (And regardless of whether it’s well-played, it’s over so fast — no four-hour-I-could-have-read-Thinking-Fast-and-Slow-in-this-amount-of-time regrets.) But soccer is a hard sport to love in the aggregate, in leagues or seasons, for someone who didn’t grow up playing it or even dimly aware of its overseas heroes. The cities in the tables slide off the page into a jumble — where’s Sunderland, again? The disputes are weightless to me and the anthems comically cheesy. (And Barca, my love, isn’t going to catch Real Madrid — or, if they do, it won’t be because they played better, but because Real imploded, which is not what any Barca fan wants.) The thought of watching PTI sort of turns my stomach. What happened?

I don’t know any men who either started watching sports in adulthood, or stopped. (I know plenty of women who have done this, on the other hand.) I mean — I used to listen to Chicago Blackhawks games on the radio when I was a kid, on the nights Marquette or the Cavs or the Bucks weren’t playing. Hockey — on the radio? That’s like tennis on the radio. I knew nothing about hockey. And, like any good Milwaukeean, I hated Chicago. But it was sports, and I needed the fix, however watered-down. I had sports bad. I lived by that hometown radio and TV schedule.

But something happened a couple of years ago, or leached out, or moved in, and I lost the thread. Gradually, I understood less and less the transaction of fandom — what I was supposed to be getting, as opposed to giving. We give attention, loads and loads of it. And we all know what we get: communal shorthand, a rallying point. But of course, as you get older, there are other things to talk and think and care about, especially the things you’d like to leave behind or that are leaving you. That list grows ever longer, and then you’re past the point you could ever comfortably call “halfway” in your life, and suddenly seeing that Jimmie Fallon Capital One commercial for the 118th time (even if only to mute it for the 115th) doesn’t seem so smart. By the time the concussion reportage about football started to reach critical mass, I was already rooting against football. As in: This should go the way of boxing. This should go away. I used to turn on any football game, college or pro, just to watch the familiar pattern of it. I breathed in the form. And then I didn’t. It’s like suddenly hating the blues, finding them repetitive instead of endlessly generative. Peter Dexter has talked about being stung by a jellyfish while swimming, and suddenly losing the taste for alcohol. I know how he feels.

I still root for the teams. I hope I never lose that, unless they fill them with rapists and suicide bombers, and even then…Your hometown teams are the last bit of identity they peel away from you, just before they get to the skin. But I don’t know. It seems dangerous it is to root for a team and not follow it. The Bucks, for instance — that was easy. And then, later, you realize how little you care. And then, later, that it’s not a tragedy, but a relief.

(Image: Lambeau Field, south end zone seating. Image credit: bradleypjohnson/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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