Dennis and I were newly married when we were invited to a brunch. He hesitated before he told me the date and time. Sunday afternoon, an hour before kickoff. I opened my mouth to howl. This was 1997, and the lowly New England Patriots had made the playoffs. When might we ever get another chance to see our team go this far? Besides, we never missed a game. Sundays in our house were sacred. No one visited except equally rabid Tony. We ignored ringing phones, doorbells, air raid sirens.
“I promise,” Dennis said, “the game will be on. No one wants to miss this.”
We were still newlyweds. What choice did I have but to believe him? When I told Tony, he shook his head sadly. “Another reason why I will never get married,” he said.
We arrived early, handed the hostess our potluck contribution and headed immediately towards the den. “Oh, and one more thing,” she called after us. “Absolutely no television. This is a social occasion, a time to mingle.”
Before I could retrieve my coat, Dennis shoved me forward into the dining room where new friends and strangers congregated in uncomfortable groups, making small talk and balancing plates of couscous and falafel. I ate nothing, impossible as it was to swallow when I was choking back sobs.
After several attempts at getting me to speak to him and a few more of getting me to look his way, Dennis sighed. “Okay,” he said. “You win.”
He marched into the den, flicked on the television and plopped on the couch. I tore after him. Only after he had found the station and adjusted the volume did I look up and notice we were not alone. Almost every other man at the party had joined us. The talk became animated, as, strangers no more, we reveled in our fandom.
A few plays into the first quarter, the hostess poked her head around the corner and glared not at Dennis who had commandeered the room and the remote, not at the men who leaned forward in their chairs and slapped one another’s backs as the defense held, but at me, the lone woman in the pack.
“I had a feeling YOU would be in here,” she said, and then she stomped off to refill the cranberry juice pitcher.
What could I say? I watched Monday Night Football with my father in the 1970’s and competed with him on the You Make the Call tutorials. As my players vibrated around the magnetic field in my cousin Rob’s basement, I figured out how the whole downs thing worked. In the hard-packed dirt ring at Newport County Fair I tackled boys twice my size and learned how to block without holding. September Sundays meant sitting alone for hours weeping with joy that the season was, at last, upon me. Boyfriends before Dennis had done one of two things: taught me the intricacies of West Coast offenses and cover two’s or branded themselves football widows. I like football. Love football. But for many years, I was that lonely woman, sandwiched on the couch between men who had had the opportunity to participate in the one glorious pastime off limits to female-ol’-me. And it didn’t bother me one bit.
The problem came, of course, when other women realized my fervor. At family gatherings with my new in-laws, at off-season cook-outs with Dennis’s friends, women drew near and peered into my face as if they would be able to detect that off-kilter something that would alert them to my idiosyncrasy. I still had no answer to any of these women when they asked me why I loved the game. If they had me asked, instead, to name back-up quarterbacks or to recite the updated version of the NFL’s coaching carousel, I would have had answers for them, but how to describe a passion as innate as my love of a great book, my affection for my dog, the peace derived from watching a glorious sunset on a salt water bay? All I could manage was a shrug and a glance towards wherever it was the men had gathered.
Even after our daughters were born, Tony and I would hunker down behind a wall of nacho chips and micro brews and await kick off. From a miraculously early age, the girls rolled their eyes, grabbed a handful of snacks and headed upstairs to amuse themselves.
“You guys are amazing parents,” Tony marveled.
Sometimes, to aid the cause, he brought coloring books and boxes of new crayons with their irresistibly sharp tips. These kept the children satisfied for the requisite three hours. Meanwhile, the adults had our rituals: We stood and held hands for potential game-breaking plays, we high-fived for scores and did not miss a hand; we did not interfere with anyone who needed to leave the room to pace. We shouted, we clapped, we shook our fists at the officials, but we did not do one thing absolutely anathema to real fans anywhere: we did NOT ask questions.
All it takes to turn an otherwise orgasmic Sunday afternoon into several hours of barely suppressed and socially unacceptable rudeness, it turns out, is a sports dynasty. Watching the Pats when no one would place a bet on them unless they were twenty point underdogs, was blissful. The problems arrived on the day they made it to another Super Bowl, this time after an unlikely winning streak behind an unknown quarterback named Tom Brady and an improbable field goal in the middle of a snow storm. Several of Dennis’s women friends called looking for a place to watch.
“We know you guys never miss a game,” they said. Even when they offered to bring Chinese food, I shook my head, but Dennis had answered the phone.
“Sure, come on over!” he said. I made him call them back and tell them very clearly: If they wanted a drink, they would get it themselves. Ditto with food and no one, repeat no one, should ask questions.
The next call was from his parents.
“What can I say?” he said when he’d hung up issuing yet another invite. “These are the people who gave me life.”
To give everyone credit, they sat as still as if they were at mass. Meanwhile, at one point, I was standing on the back of my mother-in-law’s chair clinging to the ceiling when Adam Vinatieri’s field goal went through the uprights. Tony collapsed in a chair and bowed his head, Dennis invented his own version of an end zone dance, I leapt off the chair, put my head on the carpet and sobbed. My mother-in-law said, “JesusMaryandJoseph, she’s the mother of our grandchildren!” (but she has watched every Pats game ever since!! A true convert of whom I am very proud). Our guests immediately assembled coats and hats and departed. Which was fine with us because we had hours of post-game analysis ahead.
Remember the Merv Griffin show? How when his guests were introduced, the band would strike up their theme song? Well mine would have to be some version of the pre-game music where the network logos spin. Game days, the girls still disappear as soundlessly as the cat. These days, of course, it isn’t easy to balance my passion for the game with my disappointment in, and my anger towards, in the NFL (it’s also fodder for another story). The organization itself is a suspect tribe that sacrifices young men and that continues, despite its timely ad campaign, to condone the actions of the abusive men in its ranks.
But football long ago formed bonds between me and some really fine men: my father, my favorite cousin, my first real boy (strictly platonic) friends, my husband and his bestie. What can I say? I love this game: its strategies and athleticism, the drama, and the way I am compelled, for 19 glorious weekends, to watch it all unfold one more time before me.