In “Fanatic: Ten Things All Sports Fans Should Do Before They Die,” Sports Illustrated writer Jim Gorant details his year-long journey to find the top sporting events that every fan should experience in their lifetime. Here's an excerpt:
IntroductionWHADDAYA SAY, PATRIOTS?" I don’t say anything.
He shouts again, "What do you say, Patriots?" His face is now so close, I can see the blondish stubble of his beard reemerging after that morning’s shave, and if I chose to I could give a fairly detailed accounting of his dental work. I don’t choose to.
At this proximity, our faces are like mirror images, but they’re quite different. Mine is clean and largely expressionless, save the raised eyebrow. His is painted with a primal combination of blue, red, and silver, and twisted into an expression, of what, exactly? Pain, anger, enthusiasm? I can’t say. Nor can I say why he’s chosen to ask me this question. Has he mistaken me for a fellow Patriots fan?
It is the Friday before Super Bowl XXXIX, which this year features the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots, and we are at The Landing in downtown Jacksonville, a sort of outdoor mall and plaza that has already become the alcohol-fueled core of the three-day pregame party both sets of fans will take part in.
Almost everyone here has some sort of identifying mark, whether it’s a hat, T-shirt, team jersey, or otherwise. Two guys with actual Eagles football helmets drink their beer through straws. Dozens of grown men in green face-paint high-five each other upon passing. Those who don’t are local residents who’ve come down to join the party or check out the scene. I, in contrast, have nothing on that would indicate I’m for either team. I’m as neutral as neutral can be. Maybe that’s why this guy has chosen to get in my face. He needs me to declare my allegiance one way or the other. Friend or foe? I don’t know, but I do know that as the question hangs there between us a palpable tension grows. He’s shirtless. He’s drunk. He’s right in my face.
The reason I’m nose to nose with the face-painter is because I’m an idiot. Not in the same way that he’s an idiot, exactly, but an idiot nonetheless. Ever since I was, maybe, five, I’ve been addicted to sports. I played them all. I watched them all. Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, tennis, golf, badminton, pro wrestling—for chrissakes, my brother and I followed Australian Rules football on ESPN before the network could afford real programming. I’ve watched not just the Grey Cup, the Canadian Football League version of the Super Bowl, but regular-season games as well; at one point I could name the starting lineup of the Montreal Alouettes.
I was never a total stat nerd, but by second grade I’d mastered the calculus of scoring a tennis match. By third grade, I could tell you all the divisions and conferences of all the major sports, how their playoffs worked, where the wildcard teams came from, and how to calculate who had the home-field advantage. By fourth I understood that "questionable" meant a player had a 50 percent chance of playing, while "doubtful" dropped the odds to 25 percent.
Most kids pined for Christmas; I loved early spring and midfall. In spring, baseball returned, basketball and hockey moved into the playoffs, and college basketball reached its seasonal climax. In October, the NFL was going strong, college football bustled with rivalries and showdowns, baseball played out its bittersweet endgame, and the NBA and NHL began to rev up. The virtual orgy of sports was—and still is—a sports fanatic’s dream come true.
Growing up in northern New Jersey I developed deeply felt regional allegiances. Giants, Yankees, Rangers, Knicks. (This was a typical trend along the Connecticut–Westchester–New Jersey axis. East of Manhattan lay Met, Jet, Islander territory, although the arrival of the Nets and the Devils and the Jets’ move to Jersey have muddled the picture in recent years.) College football: Penn State. College basketball: uncommitted. I loved them all.
In 1976 I was nine years old and the Giants signed Larry Csonka, fresh from his disastrous stint in the World Football League. Csonka was not the player he’d been as the centerpiece of the great Miami Dolphins teams of the early to mid-1970s, but the Giants had been so bad for so long that anything that had even the slightest crumb of success clinging to it was welcomed like an ice cube in a European restaurant. No surprise then that when I found out the Zonk, as my dad called him, would be signing autographs at a local car dealership, I forced my mom to haul me over there.
I still have the autograph—"Thanks for visiting DeMassi Cadillac" scribbled across a glossy black-and-white photo of the Zonk, who smiles out from under his comically twisted nose and cheesy Magnum, PI mustache—but I remember little about the meeting with the future Hall of Famer. He sat on a chrome barstool with a black leather seat and wore a sport jacket—which threw me. I think I was expecting him to be in uniform. It was the first time I’d ever met a professional athlete, and I’d never imagined them as real people with lives off the field; somehow they didn’t exist to me in any way but the way in which I always encountered them, suited up and ready to play. He asked my name. I can’t remember but I must have responded because the autograph reads "To Jim," although it’s possible that in my shell-shocked muteness my mother responded for me. My father, who’d once seen Csonka in a restaurant, had talked about the size of his thighs, but what caught my attention were his hands. Meaty, tangled, snarled, and powerful, they were hands that knew things. They had held on to footballs at the bottom of ruthless piles, had led the charge on countless devastating forearm shivers, and had been held aloft in the ultimate triumph.
The mildly homoerotic undertones of the exchange were lost on me then, but the larger picture was not. I came away thinking three things: Larry Csonka was my favorite football player; there could be nothing greater in the world than to be a professional athlete; sports were awesome. The meeting had such an impact on me, in fact, that as the legend goes, my family was awakened several times over the next few weeks by the sound of my voice ringing out in the deepest part of the night. They were used to me talking in my sleep (a childhood affliction I eventually outgrew), but this was different. There were variations, but the content usually went something like this: "Csonka off the left side. He breaks a tackle at the 20. He’s at the 10, the 5, touchdown!"
The number of Saturdays and Sundays that I spent between the ages of ten and twenty-five watching sports from before lunch until well after dinner are countless. Ohio State vs. Michigan? Sure. Who cares that I don’t know anyone who went to either school and have hardly set foot in either state? That hasn’t stopped me from not only watching the annual matchup dozens of times, but actually looking forward to it. In fact, by the time I got to college, coming across such a game was a bonus. In those carefree days my friends and I would happily settle in for a filler game like the Citadel vs. VMI. The more obscure, in some ways, the better. And while I thought my hours of fandom would have reached a peak in college, it was in my early twenties that my sports jones really took off. I lived in a quintessential bachelor pad outside New York City with two guys I’d known since childhood, and we watched sports just about every night and in nonstop doses on the weekend. Sometimes, to get out, we’d visit friends and watch with them. There’s many a well-built seat cushion out there that’s been permanently marked with the imprint of my ass thanks to my inability to carry on without knowing whether the Seahawks or the Cards prevailed in the second game of some meaningless Sunday doubleheader.
What’s truly extraordinary about it all is that we weren’t out of the ordinary. Every guy I knew was—and to a large degree still is— obsessed with sports. When we were done watching for the day, we regrouped and went out to a bar, where 90 percent of the guys in the room kept one eye on the young women who would very soon be rejecting their come-ons and the other eye on the ubiquitous ring of TVs that provided the flickering light by which we lived—sports.
The downside—isn’t there always one?—was that I suffered an increasing degree of guilt and self-loathing. It was one thing when I was a teen, but as I got older sports just didn’t seem like serious enough business for intelligent men to spend so much time watching, thinking about, and debating. Never mind the whole aspect of idolatry, the fawning reverence paid to the athletes, the emotional swings, the blind loyalty to an entity that neither knew nor cared the least about me. I loved the games, but I hated that I could become so involved that I would sulk for a night if my team lost.
I began distancing myself from the sheer tribal call of sport. I forced myself to stop referring to the teams I rooted for as "we." I got rid of any jersey and even T-shirt I owned with a team name or logo on it. I intellectualized about how I was drawn to the games by the people, the story lines, the suspense of a live, unfolding drama. I did everything but stop watching.
Marriage and fatherhood changed the equation but did not alter the sum total. I have a lot less free time these days—so the sheer volume of watching has gone down, but the interest has not waned. It wasn’t that long ago that we went on an overnight visit to my inlaws’ house. They are immigrants and intellectuals who know little about and care almost nothing for sports, and I’ve always felt particularly sensitive around them. So although my alma mater was playing a game that in the context of the moment was very important, I resisted the temptation to break away from the conversation so I could turn on the TV and check the score. But late that night, I could bear it no longer. I slipped out of the warm bed where my wife lay sleeping, tiptoed past the closed door of my in-laws’ bedroom, and made my way down the stairs. There in the darkness of the living room, with the volume turned all the way down, I cut open a vein and let the scores that run across the bottom of the ESPN screen flow directly into my bloodstream.
It may come as a surprise, then, that when I became a writer, I intentionally avoided becoming a sportswriter. I was afraid that, as often happens, taking something that was previously fun and turning it into a job would make it tedious. I don’t know for sure if that would have happened to me, but there’s no shortage of bitter, jaded, and cynical sportswriters out there.
As it happened, though, in 1998 I started playing golf in earnest and then writing about it. Eventually I was offered a job at Sports Illustrated, and that’s how I wound up at the 2004 Masters. One night at the tournament I went to dinner with some colleagues from the magazine and a few people from one of the golf-equipment manufacturers. Somehow the conversation came around to the Kentucky Derby. One of our group confessed, "I’ve never been to the Derby." Never been! People at the table were shocked. "If there’s only one sporting event you ever go to, it should be the Derby," a senior member of the group advised.
"Yeah," said someone else. "The Derby and the Masters."
"Actually," another wizened diner claimed, "there are five events every sports fan should attend: the Derby, the Masters, the Final Four, the Super Bowl, and Wimbledon." Huzzahs ensued. The conversation broke off into splinter groups of two and three. Names percolated up from the accumulated chatter: the Olympics, the World Cup, the World Series, a day game at Wrigley, a night game at Fenway, a December game at Lambeau. I remained silent through it all. Other than a singular World Series game and this, my first Masters, I’d never been to any of the events mentioned. I was happy when the conversation turned to another topic.
But something about the subject registered deep within me, and I dog-eared the page in my brain where it was stored. A few weeks later I was sitting at my desk when the list of five must-see sports events returned to me. I wrote them down. I did a little research. Some history, some scheduling. It occurred to me that a person could take one year and knock off the whole menu. I pondered that for a few seconds, then let the topic die.
The list sat on my desk among other scraps of paper. One day during a cleanup effort, I came across it and reread it. I thought about it some more. Were those the five? My dinner companions that night had noted others. I could think of more myself. And why limit the list to five? Why not ten? I began to bring it up in conversation with friends and colleagues: If you could go to any ten sports events, what would they be? I cross-referenced the lists. I doodled them while riding home on the train. It became a thing for me to think about when I had nothing else on my mind.
Eventually, I realized that my growing obsession about what was on the list was simply a way of masking the obvious: I wanted to go. I’d seen virtually all of them on TV, sure, but I’d never been to them. How could that be? I was a sports nut. I was the kind of guy these things were made for. I knew the Super Bowl was special, the game of games, I’d been watching it for years, but I couldn’t say how or why. What was different about being there live? Certainly there was a lot on the line for the two teams, but didn’t it go beyond that? I didn’t know. I’d never been. They had built it, but I hadn’t come.
When I tuned in now, I couldn’t help but notice the crowd. There was something going on just outside the spotlight that called to me. I had once been the sort of fan who would shout at televisions and get in heated arguments with supporters of other teams. The kind of guy who bought season tickets and rode a wave of adrenaline through the game. I had, it pained me to admit, once painted my face for a college basketball game. Now I was a sports professor. No less addicted to the action, but watching it all from an intellectual distance. I didn’t know where I had gone off the track or if I wanted to go back, but it suddenly became very clear to me that the answers were out there, on the road, in the stands, at the games.
Like my dedication to sports itself, the idea of going to all the events on my list became something of a compulsion—albeit a preposterous one. A person with a full-time job, a wife who works, and two young kids doesn’t just take off on ten trips over the course of a year to watch sports. As I pictured it, though, this would be more than a series of boondoggles. It would be a journey on which I’d hope to find some common thread between them all, a sort of Rosetta stone of sport that explained why I and so many people like me were addicted to the games. I didn’t want to accept the now- clichéd conclusions of those who had gone before me. I wanted to start with those conclusions as questions and move beyond them, finding new answers, asking new questions.
On a more personal level, I’d be attempting to come to grips with two mysteries: my own growing need to go to these events and how my relationship to sports had changed from passionate participant to distant viewer. I hoped to gain some understanding of why these games held me so enraptured. Maybe I could once and for all put the whole topic behind me or at least accept my weakness and get back to loving sports without feeling bad about it.
My children had now reached the age where they were starting to play sports and query me about them. When they saw me watching a game they no longer ran off to play but lingered before the screen and asked questions. My wife had always encouraged me to teach them about sports, because she never knew much about them and she felt that put her at a disadvantage. I’ve been reluctant, though, because of my own mixed feelings about my habit, as if teaching them about sports was like teaching them to smoke. But I couldn’t avoid the topic any longer. I needed to figure out how I was going to present sports to them and what role sports would play in our ongoing relationships.
Moreover, I’d recently lost my sixty-one-year-old mother to cancer, an event that left me feeling lost and vulnerable. I was thirtyseven years old and for the first time in a long time the future held a destabilizing uncertainty. My life was only getting more complex.
In the end, it was less a feeling of wanting to go than of having to go. It was now or never. What would I find? Who would I meet? What would I discover about sports, about others, about myself? What would I do when a shirtless maniac got in my face and screamed, "Whaddaya say, Patriots?"
Excerpted from “Fanatic: Ten Things All Sports Fans Should Do Before They Die,” by Jim Gorant. Copyright © 2007 by Jim Gorant. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.