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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Chapter 17. Two Tickets to Paradise

by Bob Andelman
"I don't go to sporting events unless I get good seats. It's a waste of money if you don't. If you're an avid fan, it's worth the money."
Larry Selvin
Financial accountant
West Roxbury, Massachusetts

Jerry DeForest Jr. is a superfan.

The 1992-93 season marked his fourth consecutive year of traveling from city to city with his cherished New York Giants. Wherever they go, he goes.

"It's my hobby," he says. "I love seeing other cities."

Understand that DeForest, who played football at New York's Niagara University, also journeys to the Kentucky Derby, NCAA Final Four and World Series. (He doesn't miss Niagara games, home or away, either.)

His mega-devotion began innocently in 1981 when a Giants-Jets clash wasn't broadcast in Buffalo so DeForest and a college classmate hitchhiked to Schenectady. One year he road-tripped to Dallas and his picture appeared in the Dallas Morning News. Seems he painted his head to resemble a Giants helmet. In 1986, he and a pal flew to Pasadena and dropped $325 apiece on game day for Super Bowl tickets.

His special football fixation centers on the pre-game festivities. "I love to tailgate," DeForest says. For a 1 p.m. game, he'll be in the stadium parking lot at 8:30 a.m. He can always be counted on to organize and cater the tailgate parties, endearing him to 80 friends and family members each week. His legendary tailgate parties attract the families of Giants players as well as the beat reporters who cover the Giants for New York metro area newspapers.

DeForest loves to tailgate so much, he name his Staten Island bar "The Tailgate." The bar's red, white and blue decor doubles as a shrine to the Giants.

And he doesn't just tailgate the easy way, during Giants home games at the New Jersey Meadowlands. Noooooo. DeForest organizes moveable feasts. On Saturday nights before away games, he organizes out-of-town cocktail parties which always draw a handful of Giants players.

"I just love football. Everything about football," he says. "Even when the Giants were conservative, that didn't bother me. Running is the same as throwing to me. I'm more of a Giants fan than a football fan. When I'm at a Giants game, I don't care that I'm missing nine hours of football on TV. All I care about is the Giants. The rest of the NFL -- I could care less."

Don't get the idea that Jerry DeForest Jr.'s devotion to the Giants comes at the expense of other things in his life that might fall on the same Sunday the Giants are playing.

Why, one Thanksgiving, when the Giants were scheduled to play the Cowboys in Dallas, DeForest stayed home in Staten Island, closed The Tailgate to the public and feted his family to a holiday dinner -- while watching the game on a 60-inch TV.

And he actually missed one away game in recent years because it conflicted with his cousin's wedding.

Well, to be honest, he didn't really miss that game.

The wedding ceremony was scheduled for 3:30 p.m.; the game started at 4. Obviously, DeForest couldn't be in Los Angeles for the kickoff, but he couldn't face missing the game, either. He compromised by skipping the ceremony and catching up with the bride and groom at their reception -- just after 7 p.m.

"Unless I'm in the wedding party, I'm not missing the game," he says. "My family knows how I am. By not going to L.A., they took it as a sacrifice."

* * *

It costs a lot of money to see a pro football game in person. Tickets start at $25 in most cities. If you're a really big fan, it's not worth buying single game tickets because the best seats go to season ticketholders. Now the cost is up to a couple hundred bucks to reserve a seat for all eight home games.

But you don't go alone, do you?

Taking a son, a wife, a daughter or a buddy doubles the admission cost. Maybe the company will pay for the seats, though, and occasionally you'll take a client to legitimize it as a business expense.

Parking costs $5 to $10 per game. And food. Gotta eat. Consume mass quantities. Can't bring your own. League rules. Once inside, it wouldn't be football without beer, chili dogs and nachos, would it?

If you've gone this far, might as well go the rest of the way: team sweatshirts and hats for chilly days, neon ponchos for rainy days, and a team license plate or plate holder for the car so everyone knows your team.

Then there's the time factor. You could stay home, watch the game on TV and keep your commitment to a mere three hours. But as Atlanta Falcons fan Mark von Dwingelo says, "It's a pain in the neck to watch TV because there's so many commercials."

von Dwingelo obviously never invested the time, money and self-esteem to see the Tampa Bay Bucs play a 1 p.m. game at sweltering Tampa Stadium. Only a real (desperate) man can bear that.

Allowing 45 minutes to traverse either crosstown or bridge traffic, plus stadium gridlock, won't you need at least 90 minutes to two hours before kickoff to properly tailgate? And because beer is only borrowed and there are no trees to duck behind for relief in the parking lot, you'll have to be in the stadium to queue up at the rest rooms at least 20 minutes before 1 p.m.

What about the weather? By November, it sucks in most every NFL city save those in Florida and Southern California.

The game itself will be over by 4 p.m. If you've invested this much time and money already, you must also expect your team could win, something that keeps you in your seat until the last tick of the game clock. If they win, everybody else will stick around, so it'll be impossible to leave the parking lot in a hurry and who would want to? There's a few light beers and a stale bag of open chips in the car, let's celebrate victory for a few hours alongside a couple thousand of our closest pals!

Some people would find all this enough reason to stay home and watch football in front of a TV, just a few paces off the kitchen and toilet. But to many men being there is everything.

"Here in the San Francisco Bay area, with the 49ers," William J. Winslow says, "anybody who goes to the game, everybody else is going to know about it the next day. Tickets are hard to get. It's not so much who they're going to rub elbows with but that they were there. Where the action is. That elevates them."

In cities like San Francisco and Denver or New Jersey's Meadowlands the situation is static. Season ticketholders rule the stadiums, making a fan's presence an issue of status, not cross-strata camaraderie.

"It is a status symbol," Dr. Stanley H. Teitelbaum says. "Any time there is a waiting list to get tickets for anything, once you get to be on the top of that list, you are getting something that a lot of people are not getting. The status is not often spelled out but there is that feeling of, 'Hey, I went to the game!' and that may count for something in office conversation.

"I have season tickets to both the Giants and the Jets games," he says. "They are sold out so a lot of people watch the games on TV by default. They would love to go to the stadium but they don't have tickets and they can't get them. There is a long waiting list. I don't know what it is like in other cities where there may not be sell-outs. Here, people generally love to go the games. I think for most guys it is more exhilarating to be out there and feel closer to the field and closer to the action and you tend to get into it more."

• "We tailgate with a group of 17 people, or we go out to breakfast before the game and back to someone's house afterward," Dave Schwarzmueller says. "But their season tickets are all under my name. They say, 'Don't die, Dave!' but I took care of that. I gave my older daughter the names of the people who have the right to a ticket. She's the executor of my estate. She and my lawyer will make sure everybody continues to get their tickets. The teams are really strict about these things. The tickets will still come to me, in my name. All we have to do is a change of address."

• "I don't care where I sit; I sit in the end zone," Bill Price says. "I like to get there at least 90 minutes ahead of the game, watch them practice, soak up the whole thing. It's electric. There's nothing like being there. You can't get that on television."

* * *

New York Giants fan Jim Luttrell journeyed to Pasadena in 1987 for Super Bowl XXI. It was a quick trip; he flew out Saturday morning, watched his Giants stomp the Denver Broncos 39-20 and left on Monday morning.
New York Giants helmetImage via Wikipedia

"That was a big moment," Luttrell recalls. "And having them win made it more special. But just being there was one of my biggest highlights as a sports fan. We had champagne in the parking lot afterward. That was when we found out that the trunk of a Cutlass Cierra holds water. We didn't have a cooler; Some store owner gave us a cardboard box of ice."

Here's another almost priceless Super Bowl story:

Christmas, 1992. Bill Price visits his daughter in the West Indies, where she's a Peace Corps volunteer. Wading into the ocean, a wave abruptly flips Price over and lands him on his head, breaking several vertebrae. The accident puts him in an upper-body cast for months.

As fate would have it, Price's beloved Buffalo Bills earn an invitation to Super Bowl XXVII a month after his accident and Price acquires two tickets. He tells his doctor that he has to take a plane trip and needs some extra medication; he just doesn't tell him where. Despite the body cast, he and his son go to Pasadena and sit in the Rose Bowl.

"I said to my son, 'Even though we lost, I'm glad to be here,' " Price recalls. "I think this tells you I am a loyal Bills fan: I would do it again."

Buying a $30 football game ticket apparently gives some of us license to have out-of-body experiences.

All week long, men are expected to report to work, be on time, keep our mouths shut and produce, produce, produce. At the stadium, we get to turn that around. Buy a ticket and rearrange the order of the universe. Now the workers bark the demands. And sometimes we can be pretty demanding. Especially standing elbow-to-elbow, brews flowing, hands cupped to mouths and screaming together for what we want: blood.

"It's an ego need," Dr. William J. Beausay says. "The need to be powerful, to be successful, to achieve, to be the king, even if for one week or one day or one hour. These people work every day. They have to answer to a boss. They have to answer to a wife. They have to get the job done. They have bills to pay and everybody is on their ass, so to speak, so for one moment for one day they can buy a ticket and suddenly, they are in charge. They are the coach, the owner and that's why you have the right to get mad and swear and threaten and get mad at the referees too. When you buy that ticket you buy the right to be angry at your team and demand changes and this and that."

It goes back to group crowd psychology. Our ego becomes submerged into the group ego and it's a different set of rules that we go by. Much more aggressiveness is tolerated than would be individually. Many more demands. "I want what I want and if I don't get it, by God, I'm going to let you know!"

There are few restraints upon crowds. With less restraint, fans can do more damage. They can tear down goalposts, throw bottles, get into fights. In crowds, more interpersonal stimulation develops. When people go to a football game they almost have to talk to the person next to them. They rally and encourage each other and the people all around them, railing against a common foe.

"What will happen," Beausay says, "is if the direction of the emotional tone is positive, the fans go sky high. But if the direction of the emotional tone is negative, it can get ugly and very destructive in very short order. Crowd psychology is a peculiar, interesting phenomenon."

Alone, in the stands, most men would be quiet and restrained. But in the company of our friends and family, we become much more vocal.

It's a social experience where we pick up cues from the people we're with. Human beings in a crowd pick up cues as to what is appropriate. To stand up and cheer -- you wouldn't do that at a church service or a poetry reading but at a football game, the norms say it is okay to do certain things, to scream and swear or whatever you wouldn't ordinarily do. When we're alone we wouldn't get up and swear but if we're with somebody we might because it's expected. The other person does it and it seems normal.

The people who go to the games might even be a little bit different than the people who are at home. They have taken the extra effort to go. They dress in special ways that identify them with their team colors. A "psyching" action takes place. They may have been drinking for a while, which also changes the scope of things.

"A friend of mine from Chicago said it is really an experience to go to a hockey game there," Dr. D. Stanley Eitzen says. "For one thing, the social class is different. These tend to be more working class people than what you would find at a Chicago Bears football game. The women that go to the Blackhawks games are differently dressed. In fact, many of them are called 'hockey whores.' They are not whores but they dress in cheap, garish ways. It is part of the culture that has arisen out of hockey. If people go to the game expecting that people are going to be this way, expecting people to behave in these ways, expecting violent things to occur on the field, they are ready at a psychological level that they wouldn't be at home. At home they turn the clicker on and they haven't gone through all of the kind of levels of preparedness that you would going to a game."

What the fan sees before him on the field or around him in the stands -- fights, verbal aggression, spilled beer and thrown food -- make him tense, angry, ready. That doesn't happen in his living room.

Some people would argue that it's a release of pent-up emotions. But Eitzen refutes that.

"The research actually shows that when you leave these games, no matter whether your team won or lost, your level of aggression is higher than when you entered the stadium," the sociologist says. "It is not like you were released of these pent-up emotions. It actually builds these emotions. I think what is happening, and one of the attractions, is we live, for the most part, in kind of a boring world, routine, hum-drum, day-to-day, and we look forward to these things because they bring excitement to an otherwise unexciting life."

* * *

Football games promote social interaction. NFL Sundays mean celebration, food and good times.

The atmosphere and the energy generated in the middle of a stadium, bar or living room crowded with fans is stimulating. It spills over. There is hardly any way men can sit still or be impartial, whether our team is winning or losing, because of the incessant overload and overcharge of energy that is coming from around us. It's almost physical. We can feel it. If you put electrodes on the entire audience the feedback it would be incredible. They're the ones winning and losing, experiencing the thrill.

Dr. William J. Beausay, in his sport psychology research, found that for adults, the amount of stimulation and projection onto football teams is greater in an enclosed arena than in an open stadium. Fewer brawls break out in an open arena. That suggests one reason hockey fans are notorious: They scrunch together in small arenas, literally on top of each other and the players. Their interaction skyrockets, especially in games where there is a lot of personal body contact.

"There is a factor in hockey called 'continuous process,' " Beausay says. "Football is a 'fragmented process' because you run a play and everybody quits and rests and relaxes, then you run another play. Of course there will be brawls and breakouts between plays, but they are the exception to the rule. However, in games like hockey or auto racing the action is continuous. In soccer it keeps going and the soccer fans are known for their violence. When you go and sit for an hour, enduring the constant pressure of the ball going back and forth without a rest, it builds up a tremendous amount of energy. In the end, if their team loses, the fans destroy the stadium or kill people on the other side. That happens all the time."

Former Chicago Bears offensive tackle Dan Jiggetts recalls leaving Soldier Field after games and seeing fans more frenzied than his teammates. "Some people, that's their outlet for the week. They're satisfied. Other people are jacked up, looking for trouble. But the guys leaving the locker rooms are worn out," he says.

Knowing this, more restrained fans may wonder why stadiums don't increase security to reign in the rowdies.

"There has been the question of what happens when there is obviously the presence of a show of force," Beausay says. "For example, at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, they actually brought horsemen in from the Philadelphia Police Department. The question is, does that antagonize or arouse? We did some research on that and found that the presence of force makes people feel a little more secure but if the officers have helmets on or have horses or officers stand around with a police dog, it will actually antagonize fans."

Somehow the presence of peace officers ties in to the natural anger and hostility we have for our opponent. We see security as part of the opponent and it creates trouble. Security tries to blend in as best a person with a gun can, not wanting to trigger or incite the mindset that has been created all week long in rabid fans who come to conquer, not to be vanquished. Any little thing could trigger or tip us off.

* * *

Stadiums establish another sociological curiosity: for three shining hours, they put all men on the same level. People at a lower social strata in the business world get to rub shoulders with people they wouldn't otherwise meet. (Really rich -- or lucky -- folks in secluded, luxury skyboxes are exempt from this phenomenon.)

"You are relating indirectly to 70,000 other people who are cheering and booing and ooohing and aaahing along with you," Dr. Stanley H. Teitelbaum says. "Even though you don't even know them you are in some very strange, vague way connecting with them through this common interest."

The stands offer a cross-representation of American culture in most cities, although as ticket prices rise ahead of the rate of inflation, lower-income fans are being squeezed out. The average family of four cannot afford season tickets. One game a season is a special treat as today's outrageous ticket prices and attendant costs keep the wealthy in the stands and the rest of America on the couch.

"When I first became active in the early 1960s, it was very much a blue-collar fan group that was at the games," Dr. Bruce C. Ogilvie says. "Within a decade it became sort of an elitist fan group, stylish, and I'm sure industry reinforced that by making sections of seats available and buying booths and so on. Football gained increasingly more status in terms of the attendees."

When we go to the game in person we likely will not know the guy/jerk we sit next to. It could be anyone. But because we probably root for the same gang on the field, we could connect with somebody that we'd otherwise never meet.

Sometimes we find ourselves seated beside the enemy, or deep in enemy territory. Going out of town to cheer your team on foreign turf is akin to wearing a "Kick Me" sign. No book of etiquette governs these forays. Nobody wants to act as your host. Stick to the rules of the jungle: Scorn or be scorn. Kill or be killed.

Sitting next to someone who is cheering for the other team tests men in ways that cliff divers and rock climbers understand. Each word, each gesture begs confrontation, verbally or physically. A man can't be expected to sit idly by while his boys are attacked. It's an opportunity to get out your teasing, bantering, hostile side.

For instance, a Buc fan visiting Joe Robbie Stadium might say this to a Dolphin supporter:

"Piss off, you low-life, blowfish-worshipping boatlift refugee!"

To which the Dolphin might answer:


At which point the Buc fan would shrug, buy another beer and pout about being so effectively dissed with a single word.

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