When you're young, the little things seem to stick out—that first trip to a baseball game, going to the state championships, realizing that a love lost is hair color gained.
These events adorn the walls of memory in our mind, stretching out like a matted canvas for your mind's eye to look back on from time to time. For instance, I can remember quite clearly the one time I ever did something positive on the baseball diamond when I was 11. We were down by six in the last inning, and I capped a rally off with a game-winning double. I ran straight to the third-base coach after the game and wrapped him in a bear hug in jubilation. It's one of my fondest memories of my father, all these years later.
Sports seem to have that effect on men. More than anything else, it's those moments of glory (fleeting as they are) that hang with us. Ask most men who their first grade teacher was, and you'll probably draw a blank. Ask them about their first summer vacation to watch a baseball team play and be prepared to listen for a few minutes. Of course, there are two types of sports memories to be had: the good and the not-so-good. When you're young, it's all good. Once you get older, you know better.
People who live in big-market sports towns could never really understand the plight of small-market fans who grow up starved for a positive sports memory of their teams. Anyone who grows up a fan of the Lakers, Red Wings or Yankees have no basis to lament, and phooey on you if you try.
Fans in Oklahoma City lucked into not one, but two potential Hall of Fame players after their owner screwed Seattle and Portland...well, Portland is Portland. You get what you deserve.
For a sports fan in Charlotte, life is a cruel mistress. For one brief moment each year, the Carolinas matter for approximately four weeks—March Madness. Duke and North Carolina have made it a habit of going deep quite often over the last decade (either that, or they suck so very badly). Outside of that stretch, though, we have been put through the double whammy of having bad luck in sports and not being important enough on the national stage to get much sympathy for it.
Our basketball team led the league in attendance from 1990 to 1997, then packed up and moved to New Orleans because George Shinn is an idiot. Our minor league baseball team can't even get a stadium in the right state, let alone draw interest in our town. And with a few brief exceptions, the Panthers have been mired in a maze of mediocrity with a side dish of suck.
But then, there was Super Bowl XXXVIII.
You see, it's those memories that I was referring to earlier. If you're a fan of professional football, I can promise you one thing: you'll remember where you were when your team made it to the Super Bowl. You remember the details of each playoff game, down to the very plays that put you in a position to win.
For first-timers, you can't get the butterflies out of your stomach in the weeks leading up to the big day, nor can you say nice words about the talking heads that predict a loss for your team. When kickoff finally arrives on Super Bowl Sunday, you begin to make wagers with God to allow your team just one Super Bowl title.
The road to Super Bowl XXXVIII still sticks with me, almost nine years later. I remember the insanity of the blocked extra point that helped us get that win in Tampa Bay early on in the season. I remember beating the Indianapolis Colts at the Dome and thinking, "We could be for real!"
I remember giving up on the Panthers when they went to St. Louis in the divisional round, only to have my brother and best friend come sprinting upstairs to tell me that the Rams' kicker pulled a Norwood.
I remember Kris Jenkins attempting to eat Donovan McNabb on that third and a mile play in the second quarter of the NFC Title game, and I remember DeShaun Foster running through the 82nd Airborne to score a crucial touchdown, even though the ball was snapped from the two-yard line.
The Super Bowl is something you'll never forget as a fan. It transcends sports and moves into stratified territory. Once you reach the second quarter, you just know. Deep down, this is no longer a game; it's a quest. And come Hell or high water, we must win out in the end.
If all goes according to plan, then you're running up and down your driveway barefooted, screaming at the top of your lungs. If it doesn't, well...then you end up staring off into the darkness of your living room at one in the morning, sitting in stunned silence while your friend laments the loss of our victory cake in the fridge.
This Sunday, I'll be watching Tom Brady and the New England Patriots—the team that beat us—take on the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI. Time has a habit of healing old wounds; I partially forgave Brady and Co. when they beat Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX, then developed a seething hatred for the New York Football Giants when they ruined Super Bowl XLII for people that thought they were watching history in the making. When kickoff finally comes, I'll have a few different thoughts on my mind; some of them important, some of them not.
I'll question whether Eli Manning has the ability to choke like his brother does in the big moment in him at this stage in the career. I'll ponder the possibility that Bill Belichick could end up cracking a smile in sudden death. I may even give a passing thought to my team's new franchise quarterback, wondering whimsically if we'll ever make it back to the Promised Land with Newton at the helm. Camelot has such a nice ring to it, after all.
For most fans of the Giants and Patriots, this is nothing new. Both teams have been quite successful within the last five to 10 years. Even so, the memories being forged now are much the same for the new fans who are just now getting ready to experience their first taste of greatness.
Patriots fans will remember brutalizing Tim Tebow in the divisional round and give a sarcastic toast to Billy Cundiff for destroying Ray Lewis's last, best chance for a second ring. Giants fans will remember running over the defending World Champions in Lambeau in the divisional round.
And when the game is over this Sunday, one fanbase will revel in the glory of the moment. The other will sit in solitude, pining for the days when victory was still in reach. A win in the Super Bowl is a precious thing; something you'll cherish forever. A loss in the Super Bowl is a painful reminder of every bad thing that could possibly happen in the stretch of four hours.
In other words, it's a sampling of life. Enjoy the game Sunday, everyone. Pray that the fans of the winning team don't burn too many cars in the riots. And take time that night to remember the fans who are nursing the last remnants of shattered dreams of glory. You'll never quite move past it.
Long live the dream. May it rest in peace.