I had no favorite team in the Super Bowl, and I'm not a very seasoned armchair quarterback, yet having grown up in America I appreciate the game of football, much as I appreciate the Constitution. I was ambivalent enough, come game time, but like many others with a flexible Sunday schedule, I could feel a kind of centripetal cultural force pressing me into the couch.
The Super Bowl is, after all, the rare remaining mass media event that the masses actually experience en masse, in the same, real time, just as they did in the distant pre-DVR, pre-streaming days. Of course the DVR, or even its progenitor, the VCR, would be of little use if you wanted to experience any element of surprise. There is no spoiler alert system smart enough to keep post-game Super Bowl secrets.
So, after some deliberation, I decided I wanted in on the communal viewing experience, and what surprised me most was how invested in the game I quickly became, even as I was just learning many players' names. Surprising, too, is that a couple of days later here I am, still reeling from the wallop of emotion that came with the game's dramatic end -- a wallop no doubt enhanced by knowing that I had shared it with millions, simultaneously, not in some YouTube replay. Reality TV itself doesn't get as real.
A number of Super Bowls have been overhyped duds, but in XLIX a compelling narrative soon emerged, with such plot twists as the Seahawks' shaky start and their gutsy pass with seconds remaining that tied the game at halftime. The start of the second half would be like a whole new story, only the third time in Super Bowl history the game has unfolded that way.
But by that point I was less interested in Bowl history than in how a tacit alliance with Seattle was forming in my own mind. It probably had something to do with the Seahawks seeming to be the underdog, or at least the less dynastic of the two teams. West Coast pride was in the mix, as was my amusement at the Seinfeldian tenor of the recent press conference antics of Marshawn "Beast Mode" Lynch, with whom I happen to share a college alma mater. Voila! I had my team.
But I still had no great stake in the action -- not even a lousy $10 bet. There would be no emotional rollercoaster for me, or so I thought. Perhaps the greatest surprise of the game was how my emotions soared and dived, especially toward the end. I got whisked away by the sporting narrative as the Seahawks staged -- or should I say lived? -- an uncanny comeback during those final two minutes, including Jermaine Kearse's storybook catch, a harmonic convergence of grit and gravity with the aura of a latter-day Immaculate Reception.
Then came a gain of a few yards by Lynch, my fine-averse soul mate of the moment, and my new favorite team was within an easy shot of the end zone - easy even by brutal NFL standards. Second down and one yard to go. One yard! This Super story seemed to be reaching its natural conclusion, propelled by the underdog heroics of characters like Chris Matthews, who made an unusual career leap from Foot Locker to the NFL, and even quarterback Russell Wilson, whose own circuitous route to the pros, including a foray into baseball, added to the prospect of a satisfying David defeats Goliath finish.
Instead I felt this agonizing surge of disappointment, accompanied by the sinking feelings of helplessness and remorse that come from a bad decision -- human error. A genuine mistake. We all make them, and in the moment Wilson threw that ill-considered pass at the goal line -- a pass?! -- and it was deftly intercepted, I could feel the vicarious sting of his super-sized mistake, the harrowing kind you regret almost immediately and wish you could take back and do over, but you can't. I could just imagine the looming half-life of that sting for Wilson, his internal GoPro endlessly replaying the sight of the ball going into the wrong hands. Millions of viewers saw it, too, and will see it again, in agony-of-defeat-style replays, ad infinitum.
If a supposedly casual observer like me could feel that sting of despair it must have been a whole lot worse for genuine Seahawks fans, not to mention for a coach like Pete Carroll. Still, this was only a game. There might be despair, sure, but nothing as disastrous as, say, death -- as TV viewers were grimly reminded in that Nationwide commercial about preventable childhood accidents, a truly tragic variety of mistake.
Besides, for every loser's despair there is jubilation among the winners, including, in this case, a 24-year-old rookie named Malcolm Butler, an underdog in his own right, and at that decisive moment at the goal line he was a prince in a white jersey, at least for the Patriots and their fans. Butler will long savor the sight of Wilson's pass coming at him - a wondrous sight, I'm sure, like staring into the eyes of a first love.
We can all savor it, if we choose to. That's more easily done for Patriots fans, of course, or for viewers like me who, just a few hours earlier, had been noncommittal and teamless. Still, once the clock runs out on all the real-time Cinderella stories, we can conjure up glass slippers -- or cleats -- to fit any feet we want.