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Being as big a nerd as I am a sports fan, I used to love shopping for school supplies before the new school year began. Before beginning the eighth grade, I needed to buy five different notebooks, one for each subject. I picked nondescript Trapper Keepers for the first four, then decided to live a little for the fifth. For Spanish, I selected a large, blue, three-ring binder with the New England Patriots logo emblazoned across the front. I thought it would make me look cooler, and it sorta did.
Several people, including fellow students and my Spanish teacher, came up to me during the first week of class to complement me on it. Thankfully, they didn’t ask me who my favorite player was, or whether I thought they’d have a good season. Because, truth be told, I didn’t actually like the Patriots.
You see, my parents grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We watched Wisconsin Badgers bowl games, and for local fare we went to watch the Harvard Crimson. I don’t think I learned the Boston College mascot until I was in high school. I wasn’t raised on Red Sox heartache. I never understood my first grade teacher’s obsession with the Celtics of the 1980s. I’d never heard of Bobby Orr.
No, my sports education had an entirely different cast of characters. I grew up with Henry Aaron, Warren Spahn, Bart Starr and of course Vince Lombardi. We had no highlight reels of Carl Yastrzemski’s walk-off home run, but we had the Ice Bowl on VHS. And by the time seventh grade arrived, every Sunday we were watching Brett Favre.
In 1997, I had no idea what kind of team I was showing false allegiance to by carrying its logo on my binder. I was too busy watching the Green Bay Packers to notice that the Patriots were actually good. A few of my friends were vaguely aware that I was a Packers fan (plus, my dad talked about them in a speech at my Bar Mitzvah), but none of us were such big sports fans that it mattered. So as Drew Bledsoe and the Patriots were making headlines in the AFC, my interests lay 1,200 miles to the west. I was overjoyed when the Packers punched their ticket to Super Bowl XXXI. Who would they be playing? What hapless AFC team would take the field, mere cannon fodder for the unstoppable Favre and the equally unstoppable Reggie White? What? The Patriots? Oh s**t! What should I do?
I considered rooting for the Patriots, or at least avoiding any outward semblance of Packers fandom. But to my own credit, I did not give in to every teenager’s need for acceptance by his or her peers. My allegiances lay with one team, not the other, and I would not give an inch. I knew my friends would be mad at me. I knew my classmates would question my choice of notebook. But I also knew the Packers were going to win, and I didn’t want to deny myself the joy of the first championship by a team I cared about. I was proud to be a Packers fan, damnit, and no one was gonna make me feel ashamed of that.
So I went to a Super Bowl party at some family friends’ house. I wore a hunter-green Packers sweatshirt with a giant yellow “G” on the front and donned a bona-fide cheese-head. My friends at the party were incredulous, to say the least, but they seemed impressed with my degree of devotion. One even offered to buy the hat off me, which I refused. I still own that cheese-head. It sits on the headboard of my bed. It’s probably time to throw it out, but I just can’t bare to.
Anyway, we all know how the game turned out. Drew Bledsoe was intercepted four times, the Patriots had no answer to Desmond Howard’s special teams magic, and Favre captained a high-power offense that had great field position all night long. Packers 35, Patriots 21. I was happy, and my friends were not. When I got to school the next day, the first thing I heard in homeroom was a girl complaining, “there’s no way Favre broke that pylon before going out!” When she saw me wearing the same sweatshirt I had worn the night before, she gave me a dirty look. I later found another classmate, a boy who had repeatedly taunted that Bledsoe would destroy the Packers, and asked him, “so who won the game?” All he could do was respond, “who tied the spread?”
I don’t know much about sports gambling, but somehow tying the spread seems like less of an accomplishment than winning the Super Bowl. Even at religious school that night, the Super Bowl was the main talking point. I walked in to find two friends in denial, discussing Super Bowl plays that would have been great for the Patriots if they had actually happened. My personal favorite was when one said, “my favorite part was when they shot Brett Favre,” and my other friend responded, “yeah, that was great.” They refused all night to acknowledge that the Patriots had lost, to give me the satisfaction of admitting their team was inferior to mine. It was slightly irritating, only because sports fan love to revel in their opponents’ defeat as much as in their own team’s victory.
As much as Super Bowl XXXI was a happy moment in my childhood, maturity has taught me that I loved the Packers because my parents loved the Packers. Had they raised me as a Red Sox fan, that would have been the team I cared about. But genetics can only take you so far. True sports fandom is built in a person over time, influenced by the experiences that person has, not the experiences of that person’s parents. And as I grew up in Boston, not Milwaukee, I came to love Massachusetts sports teams, not Wisconsin teams (except for the Badgers, they’re still my college football team of choice).
As much as I learned some Midwestern values from my parents, for the most part I grew into a Bostonian. And the Boston athletes who become beloved in this town do so because something about them speaks to the experiences and values of those who grew up here. These values include grittiness, emotion and humility. Those who don’t play hard, play unemotionally, or seem to get to caught up in the glamor of their profession, all tend to get run out of Boston on a rail. Only the truly transcendent (Tom Brady) achieve folk-hero status without necessarily embodying the traits of the Bostonian. The rest, the so-called “dirt dogs,” survive in this town because they resonate with us.
So the boy who loved the Packers has given way to the man who loves the Patriots. I still am interested in the Packers, sure. I follow the team on ESPN, check to see their current power ranking, read articles about injuries. And they are still my preferred NFC team. If one team has to win it all, and it can’t be New England, it might as well be Green Bay. If the Packers are playing, I might watch. But when the Patriots are playing, I always watch. When the two teams are playing each other, the Packers shirt and cheese-head stay in my bedroom. They’ve been replaced by the free Patriots shirt from U-Haul and the gray, hooded BU sweatshirt. I’m no longer a kid, affecting an interest in a team that doesn’t seem like mine, no matter how close they are. I’m an adult, and I’m interested in a team that is mine. The Patriots are no closer to me now geographically than they were half a lifetime ago. But emotionally those players are closer to me than any Packer ever was. Lo, how things have changed.