I have next to my desk a framed color photograph from an old issue of Pro Football Weekly. At the time the photograph was taken, Pro Football Weekly did not have what one would call high production values. None of its images were suitable for framing. The photo in question is raggedly mounted and not the sort that would make the cover of Sports Illustrated. It shows Frank Pitts, Kansas City Chief wide receiver, and Paul Krause, Minnesota Viking free safety, after a tackle. They’re both on their rear ends, starting to get up. They’re leaning into each other a little, for leverage. They look like two boys who aren’t really friends left together in a sandbox. The image is from 1970. That was forty-two years ago.
The photograph is as eloquent about me then as it is about me now. Consider: I framed it soon after I first saw it, to commemorate, apparently, one of the bitterest and most sorrowful moments of my life up to that point. And I still have it by my desk, forty-two years later. Over the past forty-two years, there have been -- however rare, God knows -- positive events, even highlights, in the Minnesota Vikings’ history. Even this year, when expectations are -- and certainly should be -- low, the Vikings managed to storm back from having seemingly blown their opener, having given up a long go-ahead touchdown pass with only 20 seconds to go, by using those remaining 20 seconds to A) get into field goal range and B) have their rookie kicker drill a 55-yarder, to allow them to then pull out the game in overtime. And following a loss the next week, they’ve gone on a nice little run since, dominating the best team in the league and disposing of two other creditable opponents as well. They currently lead their division. Yet that image of Paul Krause is the one that I’ve framed. And that’s the image to which, during my working day, my eyes return.
I wandered the house. I was beside myself. I was thirteen years old.
On January 11, 1970, late in the first half of Super Bowl IV, the underdog Kansas City Chiefs, who’d been chipping away at my mental health for about an hour and a half with a steady stream of first downs culminating in field goals, finally broke the game open, as the commonplace goes, with a sucker play -- a trap, designed to take advantage of the Vikings’ growing desperation and defensive aggressiveness – springing old veteran Mike Garrett for a touchdown, and thereby escalating the score from a deeply worrisome 9 - 0 to an absolutely catastrophic 16 - 0. The Vikings that year dominated, when they dominated, defensively; they featured a primitive, brutish offense poorly suited to stirring comebacks. While at defensive end they trotted out the terrorizing Carl Eller (at 6’6”, back then gigantic for his position) and at defensive tackle the supernaturally quick Alan Page (who in one game caught a running back from behind before the back had hit the hole), their quarterback, Joe Kapp, looked and played like a guy who’d been recruited from a biker bar, and their running backs were white guys with crew cuts – Dave Osborn and Bill Brown – who, while they were tough as nails, had the foot speed of Roseanne Barr. And besides, Kansas City was physically beating them up. What happens when you have a brutish offense that’s getting physically beaten up?
The first half ended. The halftime show began. I left the television in a mental state that only Thomas Hardy or Malcolm Lowry could have described. I wandered the house. I was beside myself. I was thirteen years old.
I threw myself down the stairs.
I’d been following the Minnesota Vikings for a year. I’d watched them lose to the Baltimore Colts in the playoffs the year before in a game that Eller and Page had dominated for stretches but the offense had booted away (I still remember Colts linebacker Mike Curtis returning a fumble 60 yards for the touchdown that put the game away) upset but only dimly aware of what I was letting myself in for for the next forty-two years. The following season, leading up to the Super Bowl, had been a joyride: crushing victories. Lopsided scores. Stirring playoff wins. The Rams, everyone’s idea that year of one of the best teams in football, had taken a big lead in the divisional playoff before the Vikings had stormed back, clinching the game on a safety by Eller and an interception by Page.
I’d had all sorts of uneasy premonitions before the Super Bowl, however. All of them seemed confirmed during the player introductions by the visual shock of seeing the Vikings stream onto the field in their white away uniforms. Up until that point, because of the infrequency with which they were televised, I’d never seen them play in those uniforms. Their home purple, that year for me the very visual image of their dominance, was gone. I’m sure, in retrospect, that that purple had been part of the reason I’d imprinted myself onto the Vikings like a baby duck. Lots of teams were red; lots of teams were blue; lots of teams were green. There was only one that was purple. And during late games, once the lights went on, that purple shone, especially on the helmets.
Hey, what can I tell you. Bridgeport was a dull place to grow up.
The second half began. I could hear the announcers gearing up for the kickoff. Time was slipping away, and I was going to have to watch it do so. I had to do something. I threw myself down the stairs.
My father and brother left the game and rushed into the hallway to see what had happened. Such was the state of my commitment to the Minnesota Vikings that they didn’t have to ask. My feet were in the air. My shoulder was on the bottom riser and my head was between it and the leg of a rolltop desk. I extricated myself and stood up with my knee bleeding, both elbows skinned and a disc-like pain in my back. Exasperated and frightened, my father after some ineffectual scolding followed me back to the television. He suggested turning the game off. That idea didn’t fly. While I sat there, dazed and arching my spine against the pain, those crew-cutted white guys started running the ball with some success. They punched out a first down. They punched out a string of first downs. The Vikings marched the length of the field, for the first time, and scored. It was now 16 - 7.
There was, I understood, a direct linkage: if I threw myself down the stairs, they would score.
I got up, playing with pain for the sake of the team, and left the room. I still couldn’t bend over completely. My father and brother assumed that I was getting something from the kitchen, since there didn’t seem particular cause to worry after a Vikings score. I threw myself down the stairs again.
The final score was 23 - 7, two numbers that still cause me pain when juxtaposed.
This, as far as my family was concerned, was going too far. I was allowed back into the television room but prevented from returning to the stairs. My father stood in the hallway with his arms folded, like a bouncer in a bar. My second tumble, meanwhile, had had apparently no effect on the Vikings’ intensity. Earsell Mackbee, one of their cornerbacks pinched a nerve covering a simple out pattern, and the rest of the second half was like a slow-motion execution. The game ended with me lying on the floor in front of the television. The final score was 23 - 7, two numbers that still cause me pain when juxtaposed. Halfway through whatever program followed the post-game show, my father carried me up to my bedroom and tucked me into bed.
The one thing that has been invincibly consistent over the last forty-two years is that their seasons have ended with a loss.
In the photograph the colors are dark. It’s from late in the game. The gloom captures the mood that I remember viscerally, forty-two years later, from a certain point in that greased slide of a loss. It was the late third quarter. The Vikings, who that year either won through a kind of fearsome intimidation of their opponents’ traumatized offense or did not win at all, were confused and tentative. Their expressions were bewildered but game, the expressions of professionals who’d expected another outcome but could see where this was headed.
Paul Krause has that expression in the photograph. He’s just tackled Pitts after yet another end-around had produced yet another demoralizing first down, and what’s going on behind his eyes is a formulation that Sartre would have recognized, as in: Okay. So. That’s the way it’s going to be, then.
He’s carrying himself well, in a difficult situation, in other words. The Vikings often did. I almost never did, watching them. But they certainly gave me enough chances to improve, in that regard. They lost one playoff game on Christmas Day. They lost another on a Hail Mary miracle pass on the game’s final play. In the latter case, their quarterback Fran Tarkenton’s father, watching at home, had a heart attack and died. They played wonderful first halves and were annihilated in the second. They played miserable first halves and mounted heroic and insufficient comebacks. The one thing that has been invincibly consistent over the last forty-two years is that their seasons have ended with a loss. They’ve put together great teams. They’ve lost countless playoff games, six NFC championship games and four Super Bowls. When it’s come to the postseason, they’ve been upset coming right out of the blocks; they’ve been steamrolled by favorites; they’ve beaten great teams and then immediately lost to lesser ones. The Vikings over the last forty-two years have in fact been an encyclopedic workshop on losing -- the cosmos taking me by the hand and showing me the infinite ways in which such a thing can be done, and survived – which of course has its upside. Learning about losing might not be, after all, a bad first step in terms of learning about loss. And as many before me have pointed out, loss is a seminar in which, sooner or later, we’re all going to be enrolled.
So there’s that. But of course, the lunacy of being such a fan – one of those real fans -- is not simply a matter of gaining instruction on the subjects of losing and dealing with losing. There’s often also something more wincingly dysfunctional going on. Being a rabid fan, as we’re joltingly reminded whenever glimpse those face-painted and bare-chested yahoos brawling in the bleachers, is not all about leading one’s self towards maturity. Being miserable about the Vikings over the years was, of course, a way of not spending emotional time on -- and maybe even coming to terms with -- more serious issues. It was also a way, almost certainly, of focusing, or venting, more inchoate, and possibly dangerous if articulated, dissatisfactions. It was also, then, probably, a way of punishing myself, at least for the sins of omission outlined above. I was, after all, raised Catholic. Even the most rabid fan knows on some level that what he’s doing is silly. And even the most self-conscious and rational fan knows that what he’s doing, in a deeply pleasurable and shameful way, is mixing together, and keeping mixed, impulses toward maturity and childishness. As well as impulses toward connection and self-isolation. All fans, on some level, are self-mocking. And all fans want to believe that what they’re doing isn’t hurting anyone.
Even the most rabid fan knows on some level that what he’s doing is silly.
It’s not hard to figure out why sports and the phenomenon of fandom have increasingly become subjects for study. Being a fan is a globally widespread and culturally endorsed form of behavior; and as anyone who’s been on the outside of such behavior looking in – as in, long-suffering spouses and relatives -- can tell you, it’s also bizarrely resistant to anything like an emotional cost-benefit analysis. At the heart of the irrationality of being a rabid fan is the fact that while both the pain and the pleasure are intense, there is almost always more pain, and it’s almost always more intense. I don’t enjoy the pain; I never have, and yet I put myself through it. Which suggests that in some way I think I deserve it. Even at the top of the stairs that first Super Bowl Sunday, I knew that I was playing with pain for the sake of the team. I also knew, on some level, that the inverse was also true: that my family was playing with pain for the sake of me. My fanaticism hurt them and frightened them, and that gave me power. Was this only about football? they had to be asking themselves. Given how he’s behaving, how could this really be only about football?
My loved ones have continued to consider my condition an affliction, and treat it like a drinking problem
I’m not still thirteen years old, at least not in most ways, but I am, by profession, a fiction writer. I negotiate made-up worlds. I nose around trying to imagine and retrieve moments of pain and loss and revelation. As a form of self-mortification, what I’m up to can seem both high-minded and foolish. Right next to my desk, then, is a little touchstone of childhood agony -- silly agony, but agony nonetheless -- to provide me, should I need it, with a shove in the right direction.
Or at least in the direction my favorite team has always gone. I’ve often been asked: in the event of a Super Bowl win -- a season that actually finished with a victory -- would I feel a euphoria to match the devastation I feel after a loss? It’s always seemed to me a question that doesn’t require an answer, since, as a Vikings fan, I’ll probably never find out. My loved ones have continued to consider my condition an affliction, and treat it like a drinking problem that recurs once a week for five months a year. They hold out the hope that I’ll outgrow it -- unlikely at this point -- or that perhaps the team will transform itself so dramatically -- the Los Angeles Vikings? -- that even I will register the arbitrariness of my loyalty, and drift away. And mostly I have been able to disengage enough that it might seem I’m cured. That comeback in the last 20 seconds in the Vikings’ 2012 opening game, for example: I checked the scores afterwards, to find out what had happened, but not too obsessively. I’ve been following the team’s subsequent success since, but reminding myself: sure, they’re doing well now, but where do you think this is going to end up?
Even so, when it comes to my having put all of that behind me, there have been ominous signs to the contrary. The Vikings are getting a new stadium, finally, so they’re not leaving Minnesota. Fourteen years ago, in 1998, their acquisition of rookie Randy Moss turned them into an offensive juggernaut and they went 15 - 1 over the course of the season, raising the hopes of even the most determinedly pessimistic of their fans. Still, if history teaches us anything, it’s that one cannot be as creatively pessimistic as the situation warrants, when it comes to the Vikings. They were, it almost goes without saying, the first team to go 15 - 1 and not win the Super Bowl. That, of course, seemed well within the bounds of normal negative-thinking to predict. Certainly I had been girding myself for something like that. But with the Vikings, there’s always that breathtakingly unexpected and eerily sadistic twist. In the case of that year, their juggernaut season ended when their kicker, who had two weeks earlier become the first kicker in NFL history to go through the entire season – an entire season -- without missing a field goal or extra point, missed his chip shot field goal. I was visiting a friend in California and went for a walk that lasted so long that my wife, when I finally wandered back into my friend’s house, was frantic.
there’s always that breathtakingly unexpected and eerily sadistic twist.
Then three years ago, in 2009, the Vikings put together a nearly equally good team, crushed a good Dallas team in the divisional playoff and in the NFC championship ran up almost 500 yards in total offense against the eventual Super Bowl champions before, with seconds to go in the game and needing again only another chip shot field goal to win, Brett Favre threw an interception so jaw-dropping that my inbox flooded with condolence emails before the game had even fully ended. Oh, yeah, and there was also a bad call in overtime that moved the Saints into position for the winning field goal. But don’t get me started.
This year? I’m not going to follow that closely. But then again, I say that now. How is my wariness going to fare if they beat the Bears? Or the Packers? And keep their string going?
When my oldest son was seven, and he was asked what he wanted for Christmas, he led off his list with a request for a Viking helmet. He got one, of course; a children’s version. Every so often over the years I looked at it and thought, what more diabolic gift could I have given him?
At such times I flashed on an anecdote related by the sportswriter Peter Gammons in his coverage of the Red Sox. Gammons recounted watching the Sox’ staggering collapse in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series and thinking back to what a New Haven bar owner once told him. "They killed our fathers, and now the sons of bitches are coming to get us." And I remember thinking even then, Well, yes: for some of us, they are. But the news is even worse than that, because we keep inviting them in.