When it comes to the NFL, I hate to admit it, but I’m a fraud.
A team was not handed down to me upon my birth.
I’ve never had season tickets.
Sundays were never that all-American holiday shared by father and son; my dad was usually golfing. Of two brothers, one is a musician and the other watches the Super Bowl for the commercials, if he remembers to tune in at all.
To say I was confused choosing which team to root for growing up can be explained with the simple statement that I was a Detroit Lions’ fan. And I live in New York.
Given the state of today’s Lions, it has the ring of a modern day tragedy; young boy grows up football-less, chooses to root for Lions, a lifetime of misery ensues.
But it wasn’t as bad as it sounds.
The Lions were actually somewhat successful during the ‘90s and they had arguably the most exciting player in the league, and my all-time favorite, Barry Sanders, whose negative yardage runs were the most captivating plays in football.
Sanders was amazing and humble, never spiking the ball after scoring or grandstanding for the cameras, instead flipping the ball to the referee the same way he might after a two yard gain. When I was playing in the street with the neighborhood kids, I followed suit. If it was good enough for Barry, it was good enough for me.
The Lions were guaranteed to be on TV at least once thanks to the yearly Thanksgiving Day tradition, and sometimes another two or three times as a result of Sanders’ brilliance.
It might not seem like a big deal, but this was still the early to mid ‘90s and the availability of out-of-town coverage and scores wasn’t quite at the level it is now (or if it was, I didn’t know it since I didn’t have Internet access or cable TV, a story for another time).
I can still recount the number of times John Madden told me to watch as Herman Moore caught the ball with his hands away from his pads instead of letting the ball reach his body.
Not to be forgotten, especially the importance as it pertained to an adolescent boy at the time, was the fact that Sanders was unstoppable in Tecmo Super Bowl for Nintendo.
It was settled. Sanders was my guy and the Lions were my team.
The marriage lasted for the better part of the ‘90s. Barry ran wild, a Lion winning the John Madden Turkey Leg Award became a source of pride, and Detroit had a few brief playoff runs to keep things interesting.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a lifetime of Lions misery (not a stretch to assume given Detroit’s past history). Barry Sanders abruptly retired with the all-time rushing record in sight.
After years of watching greatness, was I expected to fall in love with Greg Hill and Ron Rivers in the backfield? I was confused, dumbfounded, not sure where to turn next.
So I did what any logical person would do in a similar situation. I jumped ship. I changed teams.
I was on the cusp of becoming that guy who is endlessly mocked among real sports fans —the front runner.
Except I didn’t become a Cowboys’ fan, or a Steelers’ fan, or even a Giants’ fan. I turned to the Jets, an equally inept franchise that looked as if it was poised for a run of success following its AFC Championship game loss to Denver in ’98 with the “Big Tuna,” Bill Parcells, at the helm.
That offseason I joined with my friends in bragging about the sure Super Bowl that “my Jets” were going to play in that season. Then Vinny Testaverde blew out his ACL during the first series of ‘99.
Over the next few years, Parcells left us abruptly at the altar, Bill Belichick resigned as the “HC of NYJ,” Herm Edwards abysmal clock management and “play to win the game” speeches took centerstage and several more season-ending debacles ensued (thanks Doug Brien and Brett Favre).
Somehow through it all, or maybe because of it, I knew I had made the right choice. This was the team I should be rooting for.
Oddly enough, it was because I had found Barry Sanders again. Not because he had come out of retirement to don the green and white, but because he reappeared in the form of another dynamic running back, Curtis Martin, who had been acquired from New England.
While he could never replicate Barry’s incomparable make-‘em-miss style of running, he was everything else Barry was, right down to the equally unassuming nature on and off the field.
Curtis was a warrior, playing through injury and bad teams, much like Barry, and I loved him for it.
And maybe there was something to the fact that I couldn’t help but root for the underdog having been a die hard New York Mets’ fan for my whole life, a franchise forever the ugly stepchild of the New York Yankees, much in the way that the Jets are to the Giants.
Or maybe I didn’t know any better.
Now that I think about it, calling myself a fraud for switching from one bad team to another might be a little harsh.
Just call me crazy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.