My Life and Football


[align=center]How the sport has shaped my world. . .[/align]

 

Baseball may be the great American pastime, but football is the nation's true passion.

I like a lot of sports. I am a HUGE fan of ice hockey, mixed martial arts and boxing, and I cannot WAIT until the World Cup every four years. That said, no sport, and really, very few things in life, have captivated me for as LONG as football has.

I have thought long and hard about what my first real exposure to the sport was. After years of scouring my memory bank, I guess my introduction to American football was via, of all things, this thing right here. . .



I have no idea where it came from, or how I ended up possessing one, but for some reason, that giant old-school calculator-sized game of Electronic Football ignited what would soon become my lifelong passion for the pigskin. If you have never played one of these before, I think you may be surprised by just how engaging it is. Prior to the Game Boy, this was pretty much the zenith of handheld gaming, and while I cannot say it will likewise stir your fervency for football, it will at least give you something to do for a couple of hours on a rainy afternoon, at least.

I liked Electronic Football so much that I began pursuing the sport in NES form. Needless to say, there really were not a whole lot of decent options to choose from (lest we forget such gems as Ten Yard Fight and John Elway s Pro Quarterback), but when I finally got around to playing it, I simply knew that football would be an ineffaceable aspect of my life until my dying day.



For my money, not only is Tecmo Super Bowl FAR AND AWAY the best football game on the Nintendo Entertainment System, it may very well be my all time favorite video game on ANY console. I received the game for my birthday in 1992, and afterwards, it RARELY left the cartridge slot of my NES. If Electronic Football started the fire, then Tecmo Super Bowl dumped a ton of gasoline on the blaze - not only did the game get me interested in the sport, it made me a bona-fide fanatic for the National Football League.

In the 20 years since Tecmo Super Bowl has been released, I cannot tell you the number of hours I have spent playing the game on the NES or on emulation software. A couple of years back, I was even involved in an online community that held tournaments using updated (as in, circa 2009, real-life) NFL rosters. Beyond simply being a game that I really enjoyed playing, Tecmo Super Bowl is one of the rare video games in my life that has reached a transcendent point outside of simply being a kick-ass game and becoming an ingrained, highly influential aspect of my personality. If I never played this game, I am not quite sure my life would have turned out the way it did - that may sound like hyperbole, but I assure you, the game had THAT much weight on my childhood.

Of course, I had seen football on TV prior to playing Tecmo Super Bowl, but I really did not have a proverbial horse in the race UNTIL I played the game. Not only did the game begin my love of the sport, it created my love of The Oakland (then Los Angeles) Raiders, as I absolutely REFUSED to play as any other team in the game. The dual threat of Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson made the team UNSTOPPABLE on the ground, and QB Jay Schroeder could bomb it for touchdowns to Tim Brown and Willie Gault seemingly at will. And if that was not enough, the defense of the team was absolutely monstrous, as I was convinced that defenseman Howie Long could plow through brick walls based on his penetrative abilities on the Nintendo. In hindsight, I really do not think I could have fallen in love with any OTHER team - I mean, the Raiders had the dude from PRO-STARS, the teacher from Saved by the Bell: The Next Class (Bob Golic) AND the dude from all of those Ford commercials on ONE roster. Howie Long, in particular, became the first sports star I idolized. . .and to this day, I wonder if her ever got that one fan letter I sent him back in 1993.



And so, my passion for real life football officially began in 1992. Every Sunday, I would kick back and HOPE that NBC was carrying the Raiders game as part of their double header (since I lived on the other side of the country, it really did not happen too often), so most of the time, I would flick off the local Atlanta Falcons game and just play some more Tecmo Bowl. The Raiders may not have been a Super Bowl contender in the so-called real world, but on Planet Tecmo, they were riding high on a twenty year undefeated streak.

It was around this timeframe that I started getting really into collecting football cards. There was a gas station kind of by my house that had these old ass trading cards from the 1991 season sitting in a wheelbarrow next to the ice machine, and every time we stopped to fill up the car, I'd leave with an arm full of the packs. My goal was to complete the entire 1990-1991 Los Angeles Raiders roster, but for some reason, I never could get my hands on a Marcus Allen card. I had about ten of Howie Long, which I had posted all over my room - I think I may have even accidentally washed one by mistake once, and when I pulled it out of the dryer, it looked like a half-chewed piece of a cereal box. Even as a die-hard Raiders fan, I could not help but get excited when I unearthed a card featuring the other stars of the day, like Joe Montana and Troy Aikman. Essentially, any time I got a card featuring a player from the 49ers, the Cowboys or the Bills, I would get somewhat thrilled, since those were the three most successful teams during my stint in the first grade.



As much as I loved watching and playing pretend football, I really never wanted to actually play real life football. We could not play games on the playground because our teachers thought it was too dangerous, and since I did not have insurance, I was not allowed to sign up for pee wee football. Even so, I did enjoy the occasional bloodied lip and twisted ankle from a few backyard football games - besides, with the advent of those fancy, 16-bit consoles, virtual pigskin was FAR more desirable than getting yelled out for collecting grass stains on your clothing anyway.

It really did not matter if you had a Genesis or a Super Nintendo, the reality was that if you were a football fan during the early to mid 90s, you had an absolute WEALTH of awesome football games to play on both systems. Sega owners had the fantastic Joe Montana series, as well as the hyper violent fantasy titles Mutant League Football and Jerry Glanville s Pigskin Foot Brawl. If you had a Super Nintendo, you had access to games like Super Play Action Football and Super High Impact. And on both consoles, you had SCORES of kick-ass offerings from the John Madden, Bill Walsh and Tecmo Bowl franchises. As far as I am concerned, the 16 bit era was really the golden age of video football, and a time of quality titles that we will most likely never experience again (coughTHANKSALOT,EAcough).



I suppose my first falling out with the sport of football began in 1996. The Raiders were slowly turning into an absolute joke, and while the offensive juggernauts like the Cowboys and Steve Young s Niners were fun to watch, I absolutely could not STAND John Elway or Brett Favre, who were now considered the league's two best quarterbacks. Of course, as a Raiders fan, I have always hated John Elway and the Broncos, but my hatred of Brett Favre, and the Green Bay Packers as a whole, was something even more fervent.

Although the sport had been my passion in grade school, by the time I got to junior high, I was pretty much disinterested with football altogether.



With the 1998 season, I slowly began getting interested in the sport again, due to two primary reasons. For starters, after several years of sucking, the Raiders were finally beginning to put on respectable play again, and the hometown Falcons, much to surprise of EVERYONE, found themselves cruising to an easy 14-2 season. I think the third variable, which most people would kind of dismiss entirely, was the release of NFL Blitz on home consoles. Literally EVERYTIME I went to somebody's party or get-together, we ended up playing Blitz on the Nintendo 64 or Playstation, which definitely got me interested in seeing some live-action gridiron beat-downs again. The 98 season concluded with the Cinderella Falcons getting their asses kicked by the Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII, which as it turns out, would be John Elway s final game in the NFL. To say that it was a bittersweet afternoon would be the understatement of all possible understatements.



By the 1999 season, I was once again a full-fledged NFL fanatic. Now that the Raiders were a playoff-caliber team, I had an excuse to stay up until 11 p.m. on Sunday nights to catch the late scores, and a new football game, NFL 2K on the Dreamcast, absolutely captivated me for a solid year. Although Madden has always been considered THE football series, I think Sega s 2K line of NFL games was every bit as good, if not BETTER than Electronic Arts mega-massive titan of a franchise. NFL 2K1 was the first sports game I ever played online, and to this day, it remains one of the all time most memorable video game experiences I have ever had.



Although the Raiders bowed out of the playoffs around December that year, the 2000 tournament to decide an NFL champ was highly entertaining, beginning with the so-called Music City Miracle in Nashville, where the Tennessee Titans defeated the Buffalo Bills on a last second kick-return. As much as it sucked being a Raiders fan sometimes, I have to thank the skies above that at least I'm not a Buffalo supporter.

The season culminated with Super Bowl XXXIV, right down the road in Atlanta. I remember that weekend vividly, since it coincided with a freak ice storm that basically shut down the entire state of Georgia.

A lot of people consider that year's Super Bowl to be the most entertaining ever played, and I would be hard pressed to argue against them. The game literally came down to the last second, as Kevin Dyson (ironically, the same guy that scored the game winning touchdown against the Bills a few weeks earlier) came up ONE yard short of a TD that would have given the Titans a Super Bowl victory. Although I have never considered myself a fan of the Rams, I was pretty happy that Kurt Warner and the boys bested the Titans that day - if only to see all of the local Titans fans subsequently moping about until early spring.



By the 2000-2001 season, the Oakland Raiders (whom relocated from Los Angeles BACK to their original home in 1996), were once again a dominant force in the AFC West. Above all else, I would attribute the success of the Raiders in the early 2000s to one man, and one man only - Rich freaking Gannon.

Every time I see a photo of #12, I hear My Hero by the Foo Fighters in the background. For my money, this is the guy that served as the savior of my beloved Raiders, and in his absence, the team has never really been the same. I could go on all day about why I like this guy so much (and I will later on), but for the time being, just know this: when I graduate from college, I plan on wearing his jersey underneath my gown when I walk across the stage to receive my diploma.



Ultimately, the resurgent Raiders lost in the AFC title game to the Baltimore Ravens, thus instigating a good ten year period of time in which I absolutely HATED everything in the world that was purple. Going into the 2001-2002 season, however, I had high hopes for my beloved silver and black warriors, and needless to say, the season ended up giving me years worth of memories.

For the second consecutive year, the Raiders had won the AFC West division. After gutting through the New York Jets a week earlier, the Raiders found themselves visiting the Cinderella New England Patriots in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

For the rest of my life, I will NEVER forget the game that was played on the night of January 19, 2002. For starters, it was literally the day after my birthday, and the only thing I wanted for my 16th was a Silver and Black upset. For three hours, I watched my beloved Raiders battle against Tom Brady and the elements in what many people consider one of, if not THE, greatest game played in the history of the National Football League. Of course, the Snow Bowl, as it was later dubbed, also led to one of the most INFURIATING moments of my life when the infamous Tuck Rule call was made. . .an erroneous no-fumble decision that WOULD have given the Raiders the game. Instead, the Patriots maintained possession, sent the game to overtime, and kicked a game winning field goal which sent them to the AFC, and subsequently, a Super Bowl Championship. Ten years later, and I STILL cannot think about that evening without my heart filling with pure, unadulterated fury.



I was so pissed after the Tuck Rule game that I could not even bring myself to watch that year s Super Bowl. I actually did end up catching it during the summer, and it remains one of the most memorable games ever, as the New England Patriots defeated the heavily favored St. Louis Rams with a last second field goal to begin the Tom Brady and Adam Vinateri era of the National Football League. That said, there is still one thing that bugs me about Super Bowl XXXVI to this day: guys, you do know that there is STILL three seconds left on the clock AFTER Vinateri kicked the supposed game-winner, right?

The summer of 2002, I absolutely stewed in anger, waiting anxiously for the new season to begin so my Raiders could exact vengeance for the now-legendary Foxboro screw job. It seemed as if it took fall FOREVER to come that year, but when it did, it was TOTALLY worth it, as I consider the 2002-2003 season to be the most memorable NFL season I have YET had the pleasure to witness.



Simply put, I have NEVER been as into football as I was during that season. I bought about ten football annuals during the summer, I subscribed to a weekly betting newspaper (even though I have never so much as placed a penny on ANY football game) and would wake up before sunrise on Sundays JUST to psyche myself up for that week's lineup of games.

The Raiders got off to a ROARING start that year, beginning the season 4-0. There was a scare soon after, as the Raiders, inexplicably, dropped the next four games on the schedule. Just in time for a rematch against the Patriots, the Raiders managed to right the ship, ultimately amassing an AFC-best 11-5 record.

The 2002-2003 Raiders were absolutely LOADED on both sides of the ball with veterans, standouts, and truly underappreciated talents. On offense, you had future Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Tim Brown sharing passes with Tight End Doug Jolley and super-underrated wide-out Jerry Potter, and you had gifted running back Charlie Garner and wrecking ball full back Zach Crockett in the backfield. On defense, you had interception machines like Rod Woodson, Charles Woodson and Phillip Buchanan at corner and safety, and long time ass kickers like Sam Adams and Bill Romanoswki flanking the defensive line. Even the special teams unit was killer, as Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler helmed a league-best kicking and punting game.



As talented as the team was, there was one player that stood head and shoulders above all others, and that was QB Rich Gannon. Although the Raiders were being managed by a no-name, first year coach, Gannon was essentially leading the team himself, as he strategically carved up defenses from Nashville to Pittsburgh all season long. At the end of the season, Gannon was named the league s Most Valuable Player, an honor he most DEFINITELY deserved and then some.

Locally, long suffering Falcons fans had something to cheer for, too, as a resurgent Atlanta team, led by some kid from Virginia Tech named Michael Vick, single handedly changed the way people viewed offensive strategy in the sport, as #7 blasted by defenders like Bo Jackson in Tecmo Super Bowl from week 1 to week 17. Although I am now, and always will be, a supporter of the Oakland Raiders above all else, it was certainly nice to see a little bit of pigskin success around town, as for a brief glimmer of a second, it seemed as if an Oakland Raiders / Atlanta Falcons Super Bowl, my absolute dream match-up, could have become a reality that season.

I must have been watching, at the minimum, a good fifteen hours of football a week in 2002. That was the year that Al Michaels and John Madden became the official Monday Night Football announcing duo (we will not even TALK about the all-time misstep of giving Dennis Miller a booth job), and when I was not watching football, I was watching talking heads TALK about football on ESPN shows like Around the Horn and Pardon the Interruption. My life, literally, began revolving around football, and it remains one of the most joyous periods of my adolescence.



One of the things I always hated about being a Raiders fan was that the games were carried on CBS, whom I considered to have far worse production values than FOX, whom carried most of the NFC games. I think that is pretty much the consensus among hardcore football fans, as even the pre-game crew for Fox was more memorable than the one for CBS - JB, Terry, Howie and Jimmy were so much better than Dan, Deion, Boomer and Chris that it was ridiculous. That, and if there is one thing I sorely miss, it is hearing Jimmy Kimmel mock Terry Bradshaw merciless each week. It really does not feel like Sunday afternoon can commence without such banter.

January 19, 2003 remains my all time favorite memory as a football fan. Of course, I am not going to talk about what happened one week later, but still. I recently watched the AFC Championship Game, in which the Oakland Raiders triumphed over the Tennessee Titans, and my heart fluttered as if I were watching the game live for the first time, all over again. Despite the score, this was an INSANELY close game up until the fourth quarter, when the Raiders just began pouring on the touchdowns. For a brief moment, I kind of felt bad for Steve McNair, Eddie George and the rest of the crew. . .that is, until I realized that the Raiders just kicked their powder blue asses all the way to a Super Bowl berth, anyway.



I am not talking about Super Bowl XXXVII. As far as I am concerned, it never happened, and if it DID happen, it was all B.S. because Jon Gruden STILL had the Raiders playbook from a year earlier, when he was coaching the team HE FACED OFF AGAINST in the Super Bowl. And on a side note, from that day forward, I hate everything related to, coming from, or pertaining to the city of Tampa.

All right, I will come clean with you: for all of the Raiders fans out there, I take FULL responsibility for the team losing that years Super Bowl. Why do I except such a burden, you may ask? Because my mom threw out my good luck socks the day PRIOR to Super Bowl Sunday. I wore that pair for a solid month, and not once did the Raiders lose a SINGLE game. I am not going to lie to you: I spent almost ALL of the pre-game ceremony rummaging through the trash to find them, but to no avail. The rest, sadly, is history we shall not bother readdressing.

The 2003-2004 season was a downright heinous one from start to finish. Still reeling from that Super Bowl defeat, the Raider positively SUCKED that season, and to make things even worse, Michael Vick got injured in preseason so even the Falcons were in store for a lackluster showing that year. I suppose the only GOOD thing I can saw about that year was that it resulted in one of the most entertaining Super Bowls ever, ad the New England Patriots BARELY scrapped by the Carolina Panthers, an out-of-nowhere team consisting of QB Jake DelHomme and, of all people, that one guy from the XFL named He Hate Me. And also, something about Janet Jackson showing her garbanzos on live TV, which I missed because I was watching the Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet. An awesome turn of events, I know.



Although I have been a pro football fan pretty much my whole life, I never really got into college football, primarily due to the fact that I never, and to this day, still do not have, a particular college football team to root for (maybe, just maybe, I MIGHT think about rooting for Kennesaw State in 2014). I think the first NCAA game I really sat down and enjoyed watching from start-to-finish was the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, which saw the underdog Ohio State Buckeyes dethrone the defending National Champion Miami Hurricanes. Looking back on it, that really was a star-studded game, featuring future stars like Jeremy Shockey and Willis McGahee brushing elbows with future flops Craig Krenzel, Maurice Claurett and Ken Dorsey, who may very well be the single smallest QB to ever play division one football. As the Raiders began an incredibly painful slide towards mediocrity, I began watching more and more college football as a result - and in many instances, the results on the college level were FAR more entertaining than the ones I got from the pros.



While real world football became atypically boring, the world of virtual football was becoming more and more awesome. If the 16 bit era was the golden age of video football, then the 128 bit era was its silver age. As much trash as we all like to talk about EA being a monopoly, I do not think there is ANY denying that their Madden and NCAA football series are two of the most consistent, enjoyable games on the market year-in and year-out. If I had to pick my two favorite EA football games from the Xbox-PS2-Game Cube era, I would go with Madden NFL 05 (with the introduction of the HIT STICK!) and NCAA Football 06, which I was absolutely OBSESSED with for a solid year, thanks to a ridiculously in-depth career mode that saw my virtual avatar rise from walk-on freshman to Heisman trophy-winning college grad. And of course, there was still Sega s kick-ass 2K series (ESPN NFL Football might just be my favorite football game of the entire decade), as well as the criminally under-appreciated NFL Fever franchise on the Xbox. Seeing as how poorly the Raiders were playing for the rest of the decade, I was better off hitting the virtual gridiron every Sunday than I was tuning into the actual NFL games.

When I say my Raiders were terrible, I mean TERRIBLE. In 2005, Rich Gannon officially retired, followed shortly thereafter by Tim Brown, Jerry Rice and just about everybody else that played on that Super Bowl caliber team just three years earlier. From the AFC Championship to having RICK MIRRER as the team captain in a matter of months HAS to be the greatest fall from dignity in modern sports history.



Over five years, the team went through four head coaches and almost TEN starting quarterbacks, including fat assed Jamarcus Russell, a player many people consider to be the single worst first round bust in the history of the National Football League. As a pro football fan, there were VERY few things to look forward to in the autumn now that my favorite team had gone down the crapper. And just to make things WORSE, Atlanta Falcons QB Mike Vick got busted for dog-fighting (which was WEIRD, because in my freshman communication class, two people did Power Point presentations on Michael Vick and dog fighting SEPERATELY about a MONTH before the story broke.)

From 2005 to 2008, there were a FEW memorable moments from the NFL that I vividly recall, among them Super Bowl XXXIX (the closest Terrell Owens ever got to accomplishing anything in the League), a WILD AFC divisional game between the Steelers and Colts in 2006 and Peyton Manning FINALLY getting that monkey off his back and defeating the Patriots in the 2007 AFC Championship (a feat FAR more impressive than defeating the Chicago Bears in a turnover-laced Super Bowl two weeks later.) That said, my memories of college football were even MORE vivid than what I recall from the pros: there was the outstanding USC / Notre Dame game in 2005, the BCS Championship game of 2006 (which effectively ended the short-lived Southern Cal dynasty) and the absolutely INSANE 2007 Fiesta Bowl match-up featuring the Boise State Broncos upsetting the heavily favored Oklahoma Sooners using just about every trick in the book, as well as about three or four new ones, too.



One of the most inspirational sports moments, and in many ways, one of the most inspirational moments of my life in general occurred on February 3, 2008. At that point in my life, I was just about depressed to the point of not being able to carry on anymore - I did not know if I was going to stay in school, I could not find work, and I really did not have a place to live. That Sunday, just trying to get my mind off things, I stopped by a church party where I watched Super Bowl XLII, which I consider to be one of the single best moments not just in football history, but in the history of sports PERIOD.

The star-studded New England Patriots had just done the impossible, winning EVERY single game of the regular season. As expected, they breezed their way through the AFC playoffs, garnering a pretty easy Super Bowl berth. Their adversaries that night where the lowly New York Giants, a team that lost the first two games of the season, almost lost their coach, had a missing star tight end, barely MADE the playoffs at all, and oh yeah - their last LOSS during the regular season was to the Patriots. Pretty much everybody in the world thought the Pats would blow out the Giants, but as fate would have it, the scrappy New York squad would fight their hearts out, going on a two minute, 90 yard drive to a last second, game winning touchdown that gave them a 17-14 victory and the Lombardi Trophy.



When Eli Manning hit David Tyree with that forty yard scorcher, I knew I had just witnessed something I would never forget for the rest of my life. For my money, that catch is perhaps the single greatest play in football history, and a moment that makes my heart skip a beat EVERY time I watch out. Although I have never claimed to be a Giants fan, I think EVERYONE outside of Boston was one that night - seeing the underdogs pull off the unimaginable gave me hope that maybe, I too, would surmount the odds and do the impossible, and it was a moment that inspired me beyond words.

And so, another season came to pass, and another. As a junior in college, I really did not have much time at all to do ANYTHING but study, and since the Raiders had not turned the corner yet, my exposure to the sport was relegated to the occasional Yahoo! Score update during homework. But, with the 2010 season, things showed signs of ensuing, and deeply desired, change.



Since their Super Bowl, ahem, non-victory in 2003, my beloved Raiders have yet to post a winning record. However, after SEVEN years of abject failure, my Silver and Black heroes FINALLY began showing signs of life again, compiling an 8-8 record and doing a clean sweep of their division, winning all six of their rivalry games. When the Raiders DESTROYED the Broncos 59-21, I felt nearly TEN YEARS younger, sensing that finally, FINALLY, some optimistic, fervent joy had come back to the sport I have loved since grade school.

The 2011-2012 season marks my 20th anniversary as a football fan, and I think this year, the pigskin gods will smile down upon me and give me what I have been anxiously awaiting for the last eight years. Each and every autumn, hope springs anew for me, and the millions of other NFL, college, and yes, even high school fans across the United States. That second week of September, when EVERYBODY is officially 0-0, you can feel a palpable, if somewhat unrealistic, sense of hope, energy and anxiety, as fans of all 32 NFL teams PRAY that this year is their year. Of course, I will be rooting for my beloved Raiders each and every Sunday (and Mondays, and Thursdays, and maybe even Saturdays, if their games get flipped around thanks to flex scheduling), but so will fans of the other 31 teams in the league.

Say what you will about Christmas, but I think this time of year REALLY is the most magical point of the year. Even if you are a long-time suffering fan of the Bills, the Jets, the Niners, the Jaguars, the Texans or in my case, the Raiders, you can literally feel that HOPE that this year is the year all of that failure, and loss, and humiliation gets replaced by newfound sensations of glory, excellence, and triumph.

As a football fan, I have been praying for a return to glory for my team since 2003.

And this year, for the first time since the good old days, I am feeling it, too.

Happy 2011-2012 season, fellow Junkers. Just win, baby. Just win.


 
James Swift is a freelance writer and author of two books, How I Survived Three Years at a Two-Year Community College: A Junior Memoir of Epic Proportions and Mascara Contra Mascara: A Tale of Two Masks.

Follow him on Twitter at JSwiftMedia, or subscribe to his YouTube channel at youtube.com/user/JSwiftMedia
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