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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chapter 7. There's No Need to Fear, Underdog is Here

by Bob Andelman

"The team I'm rooting for becomes an extension of me. It is me. When there's an undeserved penalty, it's almost as if it's against me. It makes me mad, like almost missing a red light when you're in a hurry."
Jim Melvin
Newspaper editor
St. Petersburg, Florida

Meet Jim Melvin. He's a health and fitness writer and copy editor for the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. Jim's got a good job, two daughters he loves and a standard poodle named Bogie. Guys like to hang out with Jim because he's bright, witty and interested in manly things like sports and checking out beautiful women.

Maybe you know somebody like him.

When it comes to football, though, few men are as emotionally attached to their team as Jim is to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs don't know him from any other fan, but to him, they're family. If the team lost all its fans, coach Sam Wyche could still count on Jim to buy him a beer.

"I've always had this theory that you become more attached to a losing team than a winning team," Jim says. "I get much angrier when the Bucs lose than I get happy when they win. If the Bucs were to go 12-4 and win the Super Bowl, I'd go through the roof. Would a 49ers fan feel the same way? They're P.O.'d if the 49ers don't make the playoffs. Me, I'd be happy with 8-8.

"At the height of my attraction to the Bucs, when I sit down at 1 for a game to start, I'm an emotional wreck. My heart races, my hands sweat. I can't eat. I try to eat a brunch before the game. Because there is no way, at 1 p.m., I can sit down and eat. I'm way too happy, excited, positive.

"Then," he says, "you know what happens.

"Typically, 10 minutes into a Bucs game, more bad things have happened to us than in one entire game for any other team. I've been anticipating three hours of pure pleasure and now, after 10 minutes, I'm angry. Ten minutes into the game, anyone around me would no longer want to be around me. I develop a different personality. You wouldn't want to ask me a favor, you wouldn't want to discuss a pleasant thing. And if you don't like profanity, you wouldn't want to be around me."

Jim's first exposure to football came during the NFL's 1966 championship game. It was fourth and 1, frozen conditions. Bart Starr scored on a quarterback sneak.

"I was so excited, jumping around. That's when I got the bug." The Green Bay Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys, 34-21.

Before he became enamored with the Bucs -- and before Tampa Bay ever bowed its head and admitted possession of the Bucs -- Jim was a fan of the Atlanta Braves. Hank Aaron was the toast of the team in those days, not that he had much competition for attention. "He was great; they were terrible," Jim recalls. "That's when I first felt angry, that I was being personally wronged by a team." 

He also recalls crying at a high school basketball game when his team won on a last-second shot.

Geography rules Jim's allegiances. The closer the team is, the more he like them. Jim's choices tend to reflect the sports landscape of the Southeastern United States in the '60s, when he was a teenager: the Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Hawks and Florida State University. The Bucs came along in 1976.

Sure, he loves football. He's fascinated by the offensive and defensive strategies, the power and speed of the players. But it goes beyond that, into an emotional realm, see-sawing between heated anger and brief moments of pleasure.

"I don't like to lose," he says. "Any time that my team loses, I feel there was something more than the team's play. Officials, bad luck or the weather turned against them. But you have to look at this in the context of the team I root for. Probably the worst team in professional football, an unbelievable string of losing seasons. Every Sunday, I'm let down. But I feel like I've invested so much energy in them, it's too late to back down now.

"I think of it in terms of waiting in a real long line. You've waited in it two hours, maybe you're going to wait another hour, but by God you're not going to get out of it now. And you have a short memory. You remember the three or four good plays and forget the bad ones. By the following Sunday, you're ready to go again. And occasionally," he says, "there's a win in there."

Very occasionally.

When the Bucs are reduced to losers by halftime, Jim turns the television off and tries to find something else to occupy his mind. But he'll turn it on again later for a few seconds to make sure there wasn't a miraculous rally. When you consider that the Bucs are one of the losingest teams in NFL history, those early blow-outs actually save Jim hours of heartache.

Of course, the more typical game puts his beloved franchise ahead or within two or three points going into the last seconds of the fourth quarter. Then, having suckered Jim into believing this time it's really going to happen, they lose. Miserably. Painfully. Like being used for tackling practice by the Monsters of the Midway.

The original Bucs logo (1976-1996), nicknamed ...Image via Wikipedia

"If it goes down to the wire and they lose, I'll be depressed about it until mid-Tuesday," Jim says. Lots of opposing players have vanquished Bucs hopes over the years, but Jim recalls one especially painful Sunday when Detroit Lions quarterback Rodney Peete stepped up as designated spoiler.

"I dangled my feet in the shallow end of the pool, facing the deep end. I didn't move for half an hour."

That's Jim's post-game show. During the Buc games -- which he watches alone because no friends or family members can endure his misery and tantrums -- Jim transforms.

He's never physically attacked anyone. But objects have potential. The Soloflex is supposed to be indestructible. Jim says it's not. He got so angry during one game because of a Bucs touchdown being called back by a holding penalty that he broke the exercise unit's bench by pounding on it with his fists. Another time he wrecked a coffee table. He hit it so hard that the metal frame bent. "I get so angry that I almost take on super-human strength," he says.

"When things go well, I run around the house, dancing, jumping. Once I somersaulted into the pool, only to be cursing 10 minutes later because the other team ran a kickoff in for a touchdown.

"My (ex-wife) did not like it. She thought it was stupid, silly. It scared the kids, the animals. And she was right. I would waste three hours on a Sunday afternoon for something that would make me mad. But your love of a sports team goes beyond your ability to control that. It's very intense. She'd leave the house. She'd go by herself and I'd have the kids. I would get real angry and when I'd come out of my rage, they would be in a corner standing behind a chair. They weren't scared of me, they thought it was funny. And if something good happened, they'd scream and leap around with me. Beth Ann even made up a board game: 'Act like a dog . . . Act like a cat . . . Act like dad when he gets mad at football games.' "
* * *

Dr. William J. Beausay, a Columbus, Ohio, psychologist and founder of the Academy of Sport Psychology International, understands the Jim Melvins of the world.

"I'm a clinical psychologist," Beausay says, "and I have often said that people, rather than going to a psychologist and paying $90 to $100 an hour, would find it so much cheaper to buy a football ticket for $10 to $15, get fabulous psychotherapy in two and a half hours and solve all their problems if their team wins. It's better than going to see a psychologist."

On the other hand, if their team loses and they really strongly identify with it -- and fanatics do project themselves onto their teams -- then they get double trouble. But they only have to wait three or four days until the prospect of recovering or righting a wrong begins to present itself. "It's worth all the time that you have to wait and the money you have to spend," Beausay says.

Guys like Jim Melvin lack other sources of positive reinforcement in their lives, according to the experts. Football provides a temporary reinforcement -- a sense of security and a sense of meaningfulness.

Men, because they are competitive, have to test themselves to see if we are, "acceptable," "very good" or "Number One." That's what matters to men; that's the nature of men. Women don't have to do this. "If you put a bunch of little girls together in a sandbox," Beausay says, "they'll start to work and function together. You put little boys together and soon they are throwing sand at each other. It starts very early on."

Men have to test themselves to find out if they are good enough or just adequate. Psychologists call that the male ego. They are just testing their own identity. "Am I lovable?" "Am I acceptable?"

We project ourselves into their football team and that test is then performed by proxy. If a man's team wins that means he is No. 1. For one small moment he is a Master of the Universe and it was worth that $25 admission price or three hours invested in front of a television. He has met the need to test himself through his team. If his team wins, the guy will mouth off all week long about how tough "we" were, how great "we" were. "Did you see that play?" A man needs to be heard and known. He is going to let everybody know the Seahawks are his team.

"The general spectator is a middle class to lower middle class individual," says Dr. John M. Silva, a professor of sport psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Given the socialization of that class of individuals, where they feel that they often have to succeed against difficult odds, it is a pretty natural social phenomenon that they are going to identify with an underdog team and hope that underdog team can succeed in spite of the odds. The other team is stacked and they have all the ability. They have the high-paid players; their management bought the best team possible. I think it is a very natural thing to make analogies between the fan's everyday life and the situations and obstacles that they have to overcome being in the particular social strata that they are in and what is being symbolized on the TV screen for them."

You don't have to root for a loser to feel lost and adrift, though.

The Denver Broncos and Buffalo Bills enjoy winning records year in and year out. They regularly appear in post-season play, carrying ecstatic fans all the way to the Super Bowl three times apiece by 1993 -- for a combined record of six losses, no wins. The Bills pulled that stunt three years in a row.

Despite going to many NFL championships, many fans of both teams feel like losers.

"There was a big debate," Broncos fan Jeff Spear says. "Do you want them to go to the Super Bowl again, knowing that they are going to lose? Do you want to see this again? You know what is going to happen. You know the pain associated with getting so close and just getting killed. It's traumatic because you go from such a high to such a low. There is no middle ground.

"Before the Broncos played the 49ers (Super Bowl XXIV, 1990) I knew they were going to get crushed, but I was still excited that they were there. You can always think something great is going to happen and wow, maybe this time it's going to be different, but the odds are against you. It's part of the struggle that attracts you to that team and the game. Just maybe, one time, a miracle will happen and they'll do it. But there is a voice in the back of your head saying, 'Look out.' "

Spear, a comedy writer for Tonight Show with Jay Leno, lived in the Denver area for a dozen years until leaving in 1989. He is still a Broncos fan, although he thinks of himself as rooting for the underdog.

"There is a huge stigma attached to the team," Spear says. "I see myself following the Broncos as much as I can for as long as I can. I have always felt that when and if they ever do win the Super Bowl I might go on to something else. It's something that they obviously need to accomplish. It's the only thing left. Maybe I'll give them one more shot. Lose it once more. I'll stick with them until they win it all."
* * *

It's one thing to be so involved in sports but quite another to be so attached to a loser. Is there something seriously lacking in the lives of such men?

"It gets harder to explain how you would get attached to a loser," says Dr. Edward R. Hirt, an Indiana University social psychologist.

A lot of people in Hirt's part of the country bring up Cubs fans as a counter-example. The Cubs break hearts every year. It seems like they will win. In August, they may be in first place, but they will inevitably choke. Talk about summer traditions! Yet their fans are incredibly loyal and stick with them through all that. In some ways, they pride themselves as being real fans because they stick by the team. They are true fans.

Thick-and-thin fans develop a charming elitism by sticking to teams like bubblegum on the bottom of $100 running shoes. They scoff at the people who come out of the woodwork only when the team wins. Career fans waggle a cynical finger and snub their noses at late arrivals who rejoice in the team's Cinderella comebacks. Where were you when . . . ? The diehards feel that only they have the right to enjoy the long-awaited successes, whereas these other people just jumped on the bandwagon.

"It would be real interesting for me to understand how these people cope," Hirt says. "I can't imagine that they sit there and just let themselves be miserable. I'm sure they have to funnel their energies toward more constructive things. Maybe people do that by playing the armchair coach and quarterback, talking about what their team needs to do. They call the sports talk shows or talk to their buddies and friends about what the team needs to do and how to turn it around."

Naturally, there are men who just happen to gravitate to underdogs. Nobody questions their psychological underpinnings or wonders if their elevator goes all the way to the top. They pick long shots because it's more rewarding if they pull out a miracle and win it all. What a thrill to be one of the few people who saw it coming.

They set themselves up as being unique. We all like the underdog to come through. Think of the NCAA. People just love the Cinderella teams coming out of nowhere and knocking off one of the big guys in the Final Four. There is something indescribably delicious about seeing the underdog come through.
* * *

Back to Jim Melvin. He and John Cimasko could be brothers. As obsessed as Melvin is with the Bucs, Cimasko is only a notch away in his total devotion to the Indianapolis Colts.

"I get pretty wound up," Cimasko says. "I don't watch the away games with anybody. My wife doesn't let anybody come over. If the Colts are having a real bad day, my wife will tell the kids (Jack and Jill -- really) to go downstairs. I don't sit. My legs are flying, my arms are flying. Or, if it's third and inches, I'm on my knees in front of the TV. I don't throw anything at the TV that might break it. My wife laughs. It'll be the first few minutes, the other team's first possession, and I'll say, 'It's the most important play of the game!'"

Cimasko's father-in-law is a quiet and reserved man, so Cimasko usually tones down around him. Ten minutes into a game, he once said to John, "You live and die on every play, don't you?" Later in the same game, the Colts scored a touchdown and Cimasko leaped out of his chair and nearly hit his head on the ceiling. His father-in-law's eyes popped out.

"My feeling is, anybody can root for a good team," Cimasko says. "Back in '86 and '90, New York Giants fans came out of the woodwork. I think it's more impressive if you root for a team that stinks. When the Colts were 0 and 13 people used to call me up and say, 'Are you going to hang yourself?' If you're loyal, it has to be whether they're good or bad. When they win, maybe I had something to do with it when I stirred the crowd up on third down. Who knows? My loyalty is unconditional. I'll tell you what, one win makes up for 20 losses. As long as they try 100 percent, I'm behind them 100 percent."

He makes a point of seeing the Colts off at the airport when they leave for away games and welcomes them back on their return. "There have been times when they come home from a loss and I'll be the only one there. It'll be a Sunday night in December, snowing, I'm on the way to the airport and I feel like the last, lonely Colts fan."

Cimasko was 10 years old in 1965 when the bug bit him. That was the year the Colts lost a playoff game 13-10 in overtime. He wrote Johnny Unitas a letter wishing him luck. It was the first time he uttered those infamous words: "Wait till next year!"

"To me, football is more than a game and the Colts are more than a football team," Cimasko says. "I've lost interest in so many things growing up and changed my opinions on so many things. But down at the Hoosierdome, I'm 10 years old. There's nothing like seeing a horseshoe on the side of a helmet. I get so excited."

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Maroussia said...

It will be great to watch Indianapolis Colts, i have bought tickets from looking forward to it.

Rin Owayo said...

This is a fantastic piece. I've actually really been interested in the psychology of why we torture ourselves into watching football. It's such a stressful, traumatic venture with either huge losses or huge wins. I've never really thought of a lot of the things you mentioned. Thank you for a great read.