You probably don’t remember your first glimpse of an NFL game. You probably saw part of a random game on, or a highlight on TV — nothing that ever registered in the deep recesses of your brain, worthy of taking up precious memory space.
But you almost certainly remember the first time you really connected with the game, whenever you were struck with an “oh yes, this is football. I am enjoying this” eureka moment.
On that note, please join us on a little nostalgia trip as we here at SB Nation reminisce about the first NFL game we can vividly recall, whether it happened in the 80s, 90s, or — egads! — the ‘00s. (Anyone who remembers dialup internet, or life before the internet, be forewarned: We’ve got some babies on staff.)
I’m a Falcons fan now, but the first football team I ever fell in love with was the rugged, rough 2000 Ravens that went on to win Super Bowl XXXV. Their game against the Broncos in the Wild Card Round that year is the first football game I vividly remember watching, with a signature play that sold me on the team.
With just over four minutes left in the first half, Trent Dilfer threw a pass intended for running back Jamal Lewis. Lewis dropped the pass and the ball was eventually deflected into the hands of Shannon Sharpe. Sharpe caught the pass, ran backward for a yard or two, then turned the corner on the Broncos’ defense and scored a 58-yard touchdown.
Had it not been for Michael Vick entering the league the next year, I would probably still be a Ravens fan to this day.
The last two decades of football fandom for me would’ve been a lot less heartbreaking, that’s for damn sure. — Charles McDonald
I grew up with a father who coached high school football.* Not well, mind you, but he was there. And in Rhode Island, the cradle of youth gridiron sports, this meant something. Mostly that my weekends were mostly spent watching subpar football — whether that was Pilgrim High School, URI, or an awful Patriots team was usually the only variable.
But I distinctly remember being drawn to one game when I was a little kid; a Seahawks-Raiders regular season contest I asked my parents to tape for me since it was a primetime game and I had to be in bed an hour before kickoff. Part of the appeal of watching these West Coast teams was the pairing of the two most badass logos (I thought) in the NFL, the gray-on-gray clash between football pirate (non-Buccaneer division) and angry bird.
The other, much more interesting part was the defense-destroying tailback lighting the turf on fire for LA. Bo Jackson was appointment viewing for me, and while I appreciated the yards-after-catch mastery of Steve Largent, watching Bo put his shoulder down and trash linebackers made something click in my 5-year-old mind.
Plus, having it on tape and watching it after school meant I could skip through commercials. And watching it before my dad got back from work also meant I could get through an entire game without hearing once how “waggle” could have worked against that blitz.
*He also coached golf, so if this question were about the first final round I’d ever watched while begging him to change the channel over to a “Hey Dude” marathon, I’d have an answer for that as well. — Christian D’Andrea
Feb. 5, 2006: Steelers vs. Seahawks, Super Bowl XL
As someone who didn’t have cable TV until 2010, I didn’t watch a lot of football games live. I would often listen on the radio and then watch the highlights either a couple of hours or the day after. NBC always showed Sunday Night Football on its website so my early football watching routine was literally “waiting all day for Sunday night.”
But the Super Bowl was different. We always went to watch the Super Bowl at someone else’s house and it was always one of my favorite nights of the year.
The first game which kicked off my interest in the sport was Super Bowl 40, It was the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Seattle Seahawks. I was 7 at the time and really didn’t know much yet. I really didn’t know who to root for either at the beginning. But slowly I found myself rooting for Pittsburgh.
The Steelers made plays all night, including Willie Parker’s 75-yard touchdown to start off the second half. I distinctly remember Antwaan Randle El’s pass to Hines Ward for a 43-yard touchdown. It was a fascinating sequence to watch. Al Michaels called it a “gadget play” and it stuck with me for the rest of the night. It was one of the best trick plays in Super Bowl history.
I decided to really get into the NFL a few years later and joined my dad in being a Bears fan. In some ways I have to thank Ken Whisenhunt for calling up that play in Detroit all those years ago, as it helped spark my football fandom. — Vijay Vemu
Jan. 31, 1988: Washington vs. Denver, Super Bowl XXII
I attended a Patriots-Rams game in LA in 1986, but this is the first game I remember a sizable chunk from. I remember because for a brief period I was a John Elway fan, and for 8-year-old me, this was the first tough loss I took as a football fan.
Growing up in Las Vegas, my Boston-born dad was more of a baseball fan than football fan, so I was not born with a team I called my own. The Broncos were good during this stretch so I hopped on the Elway bandwagon. I remember the Broncos jumping out to a 10-0 lead, and I was starting to talk some smack at a friends and family Super Bowl party. One quarter later, Washington led 35-10 and I was sitting in stunned silence. It was not an enjoyable viewing experience.
A year later, I hopped on the 49ers bandwagon and have been a fan ever since. Suck it, Elway. — David Fucillo
Jan. 21, 2007: Saints vs. Bears, NFC Championship
I was born and raised in New Orleans, and as someone who was born in 1998, a pre-Drew Brees era of Saints football is almost nonexistent to me. That being said, you would think the first game I remembered would be the Saints’ return to the Superdome against the Falcons earlier that season, but I honestly have no idea where I was that day.
But the day of the NFC Championship Game, there was a BIG party at my uncle’s house. My dad and I are huge Saints fans, but my uncle is on a different level. He has a man cave with Saints memorabilia lined along the walls, his truck is painted black and gold with a Saints fleur de lis on the side, and his Christmas tree stays up year-round with Saints ornaments. This game was the first time I was allowed to watch with the adults on the flat screen television out in the living room and the first game I remember a substantial amount of.
I remember Sean Payton wasting a challenge on a Saints’ fumble that was confirmed. I definitely remember a rookie Reggie Bush — bless his heart — literally flipping into the end zone on a touchdown pass from Brees. I remember Brees throwing for like 5,000 yards (it was 354 yards, but I was 8). I remember Rex Grossman tearing through the Saints’ defense as Brees attempted to keep the game close — which he did for about two and a half quarters.
But for some reason, the thing I remember most was that it was snowing at Soldier Field. My memory told me it was literally a blizzard, but after watching some highlights it was just small flurries throughout. Regardless, that 13-degree wind chill affected the Saints en route to a 39-14 loss and my first memorable sports-themed heartbreak.
And the Saints have broken my heart plenty since then. — Kennedi Landry
We were driving past McDonald’s in Marquette, Michigan, when I read an advertisement in the window asking “Which team do you think will win?” The options were the Giants and the Bills, and customers voted by ordering one sandwich or another from the fast-food giant.
I was 10 years old. I had watched a couple of parts of games on television when my dad had one on now and again. He was a Green Bay Packers fan, so I was aware of how much he despised Don “The Majik Man” Majkowski, but he didn’t spend a lot of time watching TV and I had never truly immersed myself in the sport.
But that sign — that question being asked of everyone in Marquette (I mean, there’s Marquette and the U.P., and the rest of the world really didn’t exist to young Yooper Sam) — sparked this desire to know the answer. Who was going to win? Why did anyone care?
“Who do you think is going to win?” I remember asking as our car continued down the road, headed back home after our monthly grocery shopping trip.
“Win what?” My mom asked.
“That football game McDonald’s has the sign for.”
“I have no idea,” she responded. “I don’t watch the Super Bowl.”
Well, if mom didn’t watch it, how important could it be? Then again, no girls I knew liked football.
“Would it be OK if I watched it?” I asked from the back seat.
“Sure, Sammy,” she said.
Maybe my mom didn’t expect I would remember, but I did, and so I was allowed to watch the Super Bowl, and to stay up past my bedtime even though there was school the next morning.
And, for you who are aware of this game, it was mind-blowing. I watched every snap. I listened to every play call. Who WERE these guys? These two teams from New York, battling it out in Florida of all places. Why the hell were the New Kids on the Block singing?
And how could it be I never realized how amazing football was?
That kick, that Scott Norwood kick that sailed wide right … oh, by the gods above, I had never been so enthralled with sports in my young life.
“A lot of pressure,” the announcer said. “You want to talk about a pressure situation. That is a long way to kick a football.”
“Snap. Spot. In the air. It’s got the distance. It is…
And the crowd erupted. Giants players were celebrating. Bills players were crushed in the agony of such a close game and no Lombardi Trophy to show for it.
That 20-19 final score was nearly as captivating to me as the game itself.
It was during that Super Bowl, those four quarters of football, changed my life forever.
I went on to play high school football, and semi-professional ball. I’ve since gone on to become a high school coach, and am now a varsity head coach.
If it hadn’t been for that game, for that Norwood wide right kick, none of that may have happened. I may have never watched a game that so perfectly instilled me with a love for the game.
It’s the first full football game I remember, and it absolutely defined a part of me every single day since. — Sam Eggleston
Jan. 4, 1997: Jaguars vs. Broncos, AFC Divisional Round
I have plenty of memories of mid-1990s football. I distinctly remember Rodney Peete being my favorite player (for some reason) at some point during his time with the Eagles. But the first actual game I remember was the Jaguars’ win over the Broncos.
The 1996 Broncos are the first juggernaut team I can remember. They were great on both sides of the ball, had a superstar quarterback in John Elway, and added Terrell Davis to the offense. I had a Davis rookie card which my dad informed me was going to eventually be a big deal (I didn’t keep it long enough for that to become true), so I was very invested in watching Broncos games.
Then they lost to a very new team that wasn’t supposed to have a shot. Mark Brunell, Jimmy Smith, and Keenan McCardell were an entertaining trio in the pass game and it was hilarious to me every single time someone said “Natrone. Means. Business.” I fell in love with the underdog that pulled the upset.
Over 20 years later I still root for the Jaguars because of that game. Why did you do this to me, Broncos?— Adam Stites
Jan. 20, 1985: Dolphins vs. 49ers, Super Bowl XIX
I wish I could say I remember much about the actual game, but at two months shy of my 9th birthday, I didn’t fully appreciate how great a Joe Montana vs. Dan Marino matchup was. This game still resonates with me though because it introduced me to the wonderful world of sports gambling. It would also resonate with me in fictional form a decade later thanks to Ray Finkle, but that’s another story.
I was with my older brother, at a Super Bowl party at his fiancée’s parents house, and what caught my eye was the giant poster board in the living room, on it a grid with 100 squares. I’m sure there were several other bets that day, but I wasn’t sophisticated enough yet to know or care about such things — my gambling awakening would come 18 months later during the 1986 MLB All-Star Game, when I won money from one of my brother’s friends because I understood the Game-Winning RBI rule.
Watching 49ers vs. Dolphins, I was instead focused on my $5 square and the two numbers attached, representing the final number of each team’s score. I don’t remember what my actual numbers were, but I do know that I was intently following every play, hoping I would cash in on the next snap. There were 10 different scores in the game, and with the end of four quarters that makes 14 chances to win money with a Super Bowl square. But I came up empty.
Had I been more aware of the the players, I surely would have bet that Marino, then just 23, would make it back to several Super Bowls. Maybe it was a good thing after all I didn’t know too much about gambling just yet. — Eric Stephen
Jan. 26, 1997: Patriots vs. Packers, Super Bowl XXXI
At the time, I wasn’t much of an NFL fan, but I had certainly watched games before this one. The previous year, two of the most storied franchises in the NFL met in Super Bowl XXX, when the Cowboys beat the Steelers to win their third championship in four years.
I’m assuming I saw at least part of it? I definitely tuned in for the supersized episode of Friends that followed. Friends on a Sunday night! At 10 p.m. instead of 8 p.m.! Julia Roberts, Brooke Shields, and Jean-Claude Van Damme were guest-starring! It was all very exciting. (As it were, that wasn’t as freakout-worthy as what happened day days later, when “The One with the Prom Video” aired during Friends’ regular “Must See TV” time slot.)
I don’t remember anything about that game, though, probably because my brain was full of useless Friends trivia. I do remember the one the following year, the first NFL game to really stick with me. It was also the first to ever air on Fox — and it ended up being Brett Favre’s only Super Bowl win.
It didn’t take long for the Packers and Patriots to make things interesting. They went on a first-quarter scoring flurry — especially for 1997 — with a combined 24 points in the first 15 minutes. The Packers took the lead at halftime, but the Patriots wouldn’t go away until Desmond Howard’s 99-yard kickoff return in the third quarter sealed Green Bay’s first Lombardi Trophy since, well, Vince Lombardi.
Confession time: I wanted the Patriots, who were one of the worst teams in the NFL earlier that decade, to win. They were the underdogs who had never won a Super Bowl.
So yeah, I irrationally blame myself a little bit for the dynasty they turned into a few years later. I cannot apologize enough. — Sarah Hardy
What’s your first NFL memory? Let us know in the comments.