A Celebration of the Fanatic: A Fresh Perspective

Mike CarleyCorrespondent IApril 4, 2009

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 19:  A fan of the Oakland Raiders cheers during the game against the Tennessee Titans at Network Associates Coliseum on December 19, 2004 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Unequivocally, regardless of the context or background, the word "fanatic" has a subtle yet undeniably negative connotation.  It implies levels of irrationality bordering on psychosis.

It implies a departure from reason bordering on dangerous.  It implies a state of reality completely distorted by the unbridled emotion and passion found solely in something one believes in unconditionally.

In most walks of life, fanatics have been pushed towards the fringes of society by "normal" level-headed people.  Religious fanatics in this country generally give anyone in the room the creeps through their blustering and predictions of fire and brimstone.

Political zealots immediately make any conversation simultaneously awkward and inflammatory regardless of circumstance.

It is the above two facts which have made me a staunch believer in the phrase, "The two things you don't talk about in a bar are religion and politics."

However, there is a brand of fanatic that is welcomed and in fact appear to populate fine drinking establishments throughout the nation. 

A brand of people who paint their face like ancient warriors, hating rival clans and bellowing battle cries to rival those of the fiercest Aztec or Viking war parties.

Yes, my friends.  That ridiculous streak of historical hyperbole was indeed referring to the Sports Fanatic.  If you think the warrior analogy doesn't fit, just look at the guy in the picture for this article.  I mean seriously.

Not only is he wearing shoulder pads, he has adorned those shoulder pads with skulls...with spikes to further dissuade any swipes from possible attackers if the psychological warfare of the skulls fails. 

And to top that all off, his construction helmet covers any remaining vulnerable surface area that the skull-pads leave unguarded, making him literally invincible from aerial attackers.

If you combined the beach at Normandy, Thermopylae, and Iwo Jima, it still wouldn't be as well protected as this guy's dome.

The huge fat guy with blades for arms in "300" thinks this guy is ridiculous.

Yet it's undeniable. 

In some circles, clashes between rival sports team results in an intensity of emotion more fit for an ancient battle ground than a viewing party of an athletic contest between a number of ridiculously talented steroid/non-steroid induced participants.

However, for those more "sane" individuals, those individuals who are content to check the Saturday Sweet 16 scores on their phone, those "hyper-rational" individuals who don't let a crushing loss to a rival team bother them for more than five minutes, and even to the very athletes who participate in these contests, these fanatics are regarded with the same scorn and condescension as their religious and political counterparts.  After all, "it's only a game."

Well I have a message for those "casual" fans, as well as a message for the athletes who play this game as well.

To the casual fans?  My message to you is simple: You are missing out.

Allow me to quote a passage from the phenomenal speech Jimmy Valvano gave in the ESPY's in 1993:

"To me, there are three things we all should do every day...No. 1 is laugh.  You should laugh every day.  No. 2 is think.  You should spend some time in thought.  And No. 3 is you should have your emotions moved to tears.  Think about it.  If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that's a full day.  That's a heck of a day.  If you do that seven days a week, you're gonna have something special."

For those who don't know, Jimmy Valvano gave that speech as he was suffering from a terminal cancer that would eventually take his life. 

I really try to make sure to pay attention when somebody like that has something this insightful and enlightened to say about the value of life, because nobody is more aware of that value than those looking death straight in the eye.

It seems almost blasphemous to paraphrase such prose as wonderful and powerful as those beautiful words above.  However, I will attempt to for the purposes of this argument.

I believe Valvano was describing how best to feel alive, a feeling so much of us take for granted, and that only the truly condemned can appreciate.  If those three components are as essential to the human experience as both Jimmy V and myself believe they are, then is there really a more common or accessible conduit to induce laughing, thinking, and crying than following your favorite team?

Now don't misunderstand me.

There are plenty of things out there besides sports that allow you to reach those emotional peaks and valleys so necessary and vital to truly feeling alive.  But how many of those activities can you do every single day/other day/weekend?  How many of those activities can truly stir such emotional extremes with so little truly invested?

As a Cowboys fan, I can say that the Romo Bobbled Snap game against the Seahawks was one of the single most devastating experiences of my life.  I don't think I talked to anybody for two hours after that game.  I don't think I smiled for 24 hours after that game. 

To this day, I can't churn up the imagine of Tony Romo, sitting upright on his butt on Seattle's 1 and a half yard line and clutching his face mask with both hands, without a little piece of whatever happiness I had generated for that day disappearing (either that, or I want to run to the nearest living organism and kill it, but I figured the former reaction was more appropriate for the tone of the article).

Yet the casual fan, who was able to shrug off the loss five minutes later, would undoubtedly look at such emotional devastation with a mixture of amusement and incredulity.  How could a simple game upset a simple "fan" so much?

However, I believe crying is as essential to life as laughing and thinking because, as the old maxim goes, the sweet isn't as sweet without the sour.

Yes that Bobbled Snap loss was devastating.  Yes it probably ruined the next week or two of my life. 

But you know what?  When the Cowboys actually do put something nice together, when they are able to finally come through and win another Super Bowl (god forbid I'm sure most of you are saying but I'm over it), the die-hard fan will be able to reach a level of euphoria completely inaccessible to the casual fan. 

The aggregation of all the horrible times and let downs will be completely erased by a feeling of joy 10 times as strong.

Now granted I'm only 24, and I have a lot of life experience ahead of me, but right now I would liken a Cowboys Super Bowl Victory, and the level of euphoria that would accompany it, to be so great that only the day of my engagement, wedding, birth of any of my children, and the revelation that 2pac was really alive would surpass it.

The thing is, all of those other activities are once-in-a-lifetime experiences.  Conversely, I have the potential to reach that level of joy by following my favorite sports team every single year of my life. 

I would compare it to a horror movie.  The only way to truly be scared by a horror movie is to go into a room, turn off all the lights, make sure its going to be quiet and fully emotionally invest yourself in the film.  That's when the scares and deaths and everything else that make horror movies scary truly becomes effective.

However, even if you are watching the scariest movie ever made, if you are watching it in the middle of the day in a brightly lit room only half paying attention and talking to your friends the whole time, more than likely any scare the director does try to pull off will come off as cheesy and forced.

It is precisely this dichotomy that exists between the "fan" and the "fanatic": the fan who refuses to fully emotionally invest himself into the fate of a team will not be as bothered when that team doesn't live up to expectations.

However, they will be completely unable to truly tap into the immense joy that does develop when one's favorite team actually does come through, a level of joy that is only surpassed by once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

So to all those "casual" fans who roll their eyes at crazy guy who takes a game too seriously.  Just know that the fanatic has a chance at a life-changing experience 2-3 times a year depending on how many favorite teams they have, and that makes all the despair and disappointment more than worth it.

I also have a message to the very athletes of our undying adulation, who scoff incredulously at the thousands of people pounding beers, swearing and yelling and wearing their jerseys all around the city. 

To the snarky head coaches who barely deign to answer inquiries about fantasy football or fantasy baseball, refusing to admit the relative importance of that aspect to their very livelihoods. 

To the next superstar who messes up, refuses to try, or doesn't show up prepared or motivated to a contest and then responds to the choruses of boos and curses with "Those fanatics need to get a life."

I have a message to all of the athletes who seem to think their ability to get paid millions upon millions of dollars to roll out of bed every morning and play a game for a living would exist in a vacuum without the support and attention of the very same beer-drinking crazies that they regard with scorn whenever things go bad.

We all already have lives.  Us regular folk occasionally have to worry about things like the ability to pay bills, losing our jobs and/or homes, and an ever-dwindling supply of disposable income.  Yet sports is the vehicle which the sports fanatic utilizes to distract him/her from the worries and activities of day to day life.

Sports is the liberating emotional release from the monotonous psychological rut our regular, non-superstar-athlete professions threaten to entrap us in every week. 

We turn to sports with such vehemence not because we don't have lives, but rather because for the most part our daily lives don't provide us with the emotional peaks that Jimmy V told us were so essential to truly enjoying life.

So we turn to sports both as a distraction and as a vehicle of hope, hope that we can experience a level of joy that would be otherwise inaccessible in every day life. 

Whether that is watching your team beat a rival, or pulling out a close victory in fantasy football, sports provides a level of drama to life that would be otherwise non- existent.

That is why, despite the aforementioned ever-dwindling supply of discretionary income, families making $50K a year still decide to use some of that cash flow to patronize sporting events throughout the country, to purchase memorabilia of their favorite players, and to buy sporting packages on satellite TV. 

All of these activities directly fund the extravagant salaries of athletes who nowadays seem to think their salaries are harvested from a money-tree the owner has growing behind his mansion.

It blows me away how, at the end of every half and every NBA game, one superstar player after another ignores row after row of clamouring fan reaching down from the bleachers for something as simple as a high five. 

Now I know the NBA game is exhausting, but I have to believe that the enlightened NBA player could spare the energy to simply extend his arm above his head for 20 seconds to give high fives to the very fans that allow him to drive around in Bentley's and live in mansions just for rolling out of bed and getting paid to do an activity that most of us around the country do for either exercise or pure enjoyment.  It's honestly ridiculous.

Mike Shanahan was one of the most ridiculous characters when it came to fantasy football.  Never did I see a coach who so staunchly refused to appreciate the significance of fantasy to the NFL

I can unequivocally tell you that I (and I'm sure thousands, maybe millions of others) would have not tuned into a single Broncos game last year had I not had Brandon Marshall and Tony Scheffler on my fantasy team. 

And the less people tuning in to watch your Broncos, the less valuable that advertising space, so crucial to the success of the NFL, becomes. 

If I was an NFL GM, I would be doing everything possible that wouldn't compromise the competitive integrity of the game to spur as much interest in fantasy football as possible.

But NBA superstars still refuse to acknowledge the sources of their income screaming for high fives every night.  NFL coaches and players still seem to dodge or shrug off questions regarding fantasy football, even though it pulls in fans that would otherwise be completely disengaged from that team.

And all groups above can write off their behavior by simply stating to themselves, "Anybody who would get that bent out of shape by my behavior needs to get a life."

Well, that's the thing.  We all have lives that largely rob us of the joy we fanatics experience following our favorite teams.  We choose to give you our money/attention solely because we need a distraction from life.

And that is the reason the drunk fat dude in the 12th row is yelling all of those deplorable things about your mother when you jump offsides for the 3rd time on a crucial drive in a game (cough Flozell Adams cough). 

That is the reason that Barack Obama should have less of a personal guard in Philadelphia than Terrell Owens.  That is the reason countless people throughout the countries spend large amounts of their free time screaming at television sets and yanking their hair out in frustration.

So to those athletes who still refuse to acknowledge this fact, I implore you, recognize that it is not us who needs to get a life, but you who needs to recognize that we give you YOUR life, and that should be worth a measly high five, or two minutes out of an interview to talk fantasy football ramifications.

Because sports is the vehicle which allows the true fanatic to experience the emotional peaks and valleys that are so undeniably crucial to truly experiencing everything life has to offer.

So to all you fanatics out there agonizing over schedules that don't start for another four months.  To all of you who need a little more extra time to get to sleep when your favorite team loses to a rival. 

To all of you who feel the need to paint your face silver and adorn yourself with spiked-skull shoulder pads, I want to let you know one thing:

I get it.

To the rest of you who simply can't seem to understand how another human being could have so much emotional capital invested in the plight of a sports team they never have nor will play for, I would point at that in the case of sports, the "fanatic" should be an enviable position, not an object of scorn and ridicule. 

Otherwise, I hope you have found some other channel with which to move your emotions just as greatly and as equally, and have found something as great as sports that allows you to truly experience the full emotional spectrum this life has to offer.

I know Jimmy V would have wanted it that way.


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