I confess: I don’t know beans about football. I’m sure it’s a lovely sport, and that behind the grunting, overpaid men, the shoulder pads, and the butt-slapping there really is a complex and interesting challenge. But I really couldn’t care less about who is best at smuggling an oblong ball across a striped field.
As far as I can reckon, the game works like this: The overly beefy, under armor-clad players tote their strange little ball back and forth across the turf like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill. Around them soar angry fans, goblin-like coaches, and buoyant commentators, the cheers ringing and the beer pouring as sweaty, muscular men wrestle other sweaty, muscular men to the ground in rough, grappling attempts to get balls.
So when it comes time for the Super Bowl, when commercials provide a wealth of comedy and the friend with the biggest television becomes everyone’s friend, I am left somewhat at a loss. The NFL and I are not so much enemies as we are foreigners with little common ground: I don’t understand the NFL’s ritual of worshipping meathead bruisers, and the NFL doesn’t understand mine of, well, not. But for better or worse, Super Bowl Sunday is Super Bowl Sunday for everyone.
I find that I’m always slightly ill at ease at Super Bowl parties. Generally speaking, I have no idea as to what’s going on at any given moment and am continually startled by the reactions of my fellow spectators. Round and round the field dart the little, ant-like players, until suddenly—and as far as I can tell, without warning—everyone watching begins a horrible crescendo of a sound that starts off sounding like “oh” and ends with every person in the room screaming as though pierced by some rusted medieval blade. At various times this ends with a shriek of delight, at others with a bellow at the indignity of what is, I presume, some failure or other. I, meanwhile, try to join in, but invariably end up cheering for “the wrong team,” and few appreciate my occasional attempts at using my limited football-related knowledge to participate. “Ooh, nice throw, Brady,” I offer. “I bet the son you abandoned in his mother’s womb for a Victoria’s Secret model liked that one!” I am alone in my cheers.
When the halftime show finally arrives, I am filled with glee: At last, something I can understand! This year, to the dismay of the under-30 crowd, weary, wooden, and vaguely Dumbledore-esque Tom Petty took to the stage to sleepily blare classics at the audience for 12 minutes. “Hoho,” the organizers must have thought. “There will be no pop for these whippersnappers.” After Nipple-gate, the culture-shy organizers of the halftime show have arranged for artists to croon to an older, saggier audience than before. While the ads still cater to the ironic, Budweiser-loving youth, halftime hopes only to keep them within earshot of the sponsors till the players retake the field. At the stadium, the audience seized its chance to recite Petty’s song back at him, creating an eerie off-key echo for the entirety of “Free Fallin’.” Congratulations, America. You almost managed to drown out a rock ’n’ roll legend with your own mediocrity.
But then the game resumed, and as my fellow spectators returned to their screeches and cheers, I slunk back into a state of utter bewilderment. “Nice kick!” I venture. Somebody tells me that it went out of bounds. I fall silent.
Where did Joe Montana go? Jerry Rice? Barry Bonds? Where are the players that I know? Did they get busted for steroids? Or were they sacked from their teams? Who told that commentator to wear a purple tie? And why are there so many car commercials? My questions went largely unanswered, and for four hours the room I occupied was a whirlpool of highs and lows, dependent entirely on the running, throwing, and catching of a couple dozen oversized men—a whirlpool that, I might add, left me completely out of its enthusiastic spinning.
This year I think I finally came to understand something about this weird, cultish sport: There is a strange sort of community ingrained in the game; a deep, guttural “us” created by buffalo wings and grass stains and ugly tattoos and torn ligaments and piercing shrieks and men with no discernable life skills save for their ability to carry a pigskin 50 yards in either direction. I still don’t really understand it, but it’s possible that a few Bowls down the road I might care about who’s fumbling what, too. That is, if anyone can explain to me what the heck happened during the last minute of the game.