Growing up in an all-girl family put me at a huge disadvantage in terms of major league football. My father liked football. Liked. That's an important word. He watched occasionally, sharing the names of favorite players with me. I thought football was a pleasant and leisurely activity to be enjoyed while grappling with the crossword and napping through commercials.
I started dating my future husband in winter. I had no idea he was from a fanatical football family. He seemed so steady, so reasonable. Turns out, he was just dormant.
I wanted our wedding to be in October when the trees were alive with color. We married in June. I'm sure that was just a coincidence. During my first pregnancy, we bought a miniature Nerf football. I thought that was cute. The boys were born, weaned and sized for Regulation Team Jerseys. My husband bought season tickets when the kids were four and six.
At first, watching football as a family was fun. At home, we sat on the couch with bowls of snacks in our laps. My husband bought indoor footballs in ever increasing sizes and during the commercials, they re-enacted the plays, rolling around on the floor like puppies. It was adorable. At the stadium, the boys jumped up with the crowd to cheer plays or challenge calls, and then they'd ask: "What just happened?" They absorbed the incoming information like water on turf.
And then, something changed. Instead of blending in, I began to stand out. One day I asked, "Do you want to eat lunch during intermission?" My older boy corrected me with an eye roll. "The proper term is half-time." During an innocent effort to identify teams in a televised game, I asked: "Who's wearing the green costumes?" For that, I was ejected from the room.
I learned. I learned the rules of the game. I took note of the schedules, the venues, the points. I watched ESPN and the NFL network. I listened to the radio pre-game show en route to the games and I studied the Program (no, it's not called a Playbill) at every game before kickoff. Gradually, I gleaned a few of the nuances; I understood basic field positions and could recognize a blitz before the ball was snapped. I learned the plays, the passes and the formations. I learned the hand gestures used by the referees. For Mother's Day, the boys bought me a Regulation Team Jersey with the name 'Taskmaster' across the back. Slowly, I was becoming an acceptable football fan.
There were some snafus, I'll admit. During the playoffs this year I became overly excited when one of our linemen flattened one of their receivers, and I shouted: "That hit belongs on Knocked Up!" Of course, I meant, Jacked Up, the segment on ESPN's Monday Night Football that replayed the week's hardest 'hits,' followed by a resounding declaration by the hosts: "That guy got Jacked Up!" It was, without debate, a glorification of the violence and danger of the game of football, and so it was discontinued. Anyway, it's Jacked Up, not Knocked Up. My husband leaned over and kissed me. "You're so cute," he said.
Our team made it to the Super Bowl. And, despite my continued errors, my family took me to New Orleans for the big game. Suddenly, being a fan was like lining up in the red zone: my heart raced with anticipation. I was on the team, eligible, for the biggest football showcase of all. I prepared diligently. My pregame workout included dying my hair with stripes of purple. My uniform each day was purple and black. Even my socks complied with regulation colors. My grandmother used to call me a "game girl." She wasn't exaggerating.
This was our first Super Bowl as a family. I passed links to my adult children with historical facts about New Orleans. One son handed off a photo of a cocktail called the "Hand Grenade" and, in response, I increased my body fat to better metabolize alcohol. We flew out on my husband's birthday and squeezed into one hotel room. "No sweat," one son said. "I'll sleep in the tub." Fans are like that. They sacrifice.
We carried Walkie-Talkies and huddled up for meals and activities. We made physical contact with strangers in restaurants and chanted the Fight Song while covering yardage in the French Quarter. "This is like a scrimmage," I yelled to my husband over the cacophony of the streets. I'd been practicing my Ray Lewis dance with some other purpled partiers. "By tomorrow, we'll all be cheering in unison!"
He took my arm and tugged, pulling me away. "By tomorrow," he said, "You'll have lost your voice." I made those "woof woof" sounds as we walked away.
During the big game I thought, this is the best family vacation we'd ever had. But I knew enough not to say anything. The outcome of the greatest competition in football was yet to be determined. Instead, I waved my flag and cheered for our team while pounding my fist in the air. I am, after all, a real football fan.