The first game of American Football I ever watched was Super Bowl XXIII. Growing up in Australia I was not exactly exposed to a great amount of the sport. I mean, sure, I had heard of it, but it's not like the sport was followed closely, except for that one day of the year.
The Super Bowl was (and still is, I assume) the only time when a full game of American football is shown live on Australian television, on the Aussie equivalent of the BBC. Being a government funded channel, the ABC (as it is known) does not have any advertisments, which allows them to show the "rest of the world" Super Bowl feed, and have people in a studio in Australia explaining stuff in between the (many) breaks.
I can't recall what drove my brother and I to sit down and expose ourselves to 3+ hours of Americana. Curiosity? Maybe. As a slightly sports-mad 12 year old it seems like something I might want to check out, ditto for my 10 year old brother. Being a football tabula rasa, it was left to the pre-game introductions to spark a rooting interest for the game. I settled on San Francisco, for whatever reason; maybe it was their mystique (this was the last game of Bill Walsh's career), or maybe it was the fact that I had actually head of San Francisco. I think the only way I may have been aware of the Bengals' home town was from "WKRP in Cincinnati". On second thought, perhaps it is not a shock that I became an instant 49'ers fan, given that choice.
My brother dutifully decided to cheer for Cincinnati, and we were rewarded for our curiosity with one of the greatest Super Bowls of all time. Immediately after the game my brother and I raced off to the backyard to throw an Aussie Rules football around in a poor attempt at mimicry.
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The 49'ers and I had bonded, and a couple of years passed before my family decided to move to Canada so my father could attempt to get his PhD from the University of Alberta. This gave me easy access to the NFL, not to mention the CFL (go Eskimoes!). I still recall lounging on my living room floor and watching Mark Rypien slicing and dicing the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVI.
Despite the fact that we only stayed in Edmonton for a touch under 30 months, I was now completely hooked on the American version of the game. Back home, the ABC had a weekly NFL highlights show (which had the benefit of not featuring Chris Berman), allowing me to stay in touch, more or less. The ABC also continued to show the Super Bowl live, which I was able to catch more times than not.
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I wasn't able to stay home to watch Super Bowl XXXVI, unfortunately I had to work. By this time I was living in Sydney, working at a job that would eventually provide the opportunity for me to return to live in North America. But in February 2002, the only thought on my mind was by how much the St. Louis Rams were going to stomp the upstart New England Patriots. I had no love for the Rams; Kurt Warner's story was a cute one, but he had already won a Super Bowl. Not only that, but St. Louis was a division rival. Give me the Patriots and their "out of nowhere" story, along with their own quarterback possessing an "out of nowhere" storyline. World, meet Mr Tom Brady.
In disbelief I paid close attention to the game updates as the Patriots rose up to punch the Rams in the mouth, going into half-time with a 14-3 lead. With a sense of dread I watched St Louis retake the lead in the fourth quarter. As the game hung in the balance, I knew I had no option; I quietly ducked out of the office and stepped into the bar across the street, which happened to be showing the Big Game. I ordered a beer and watched history being made, annoyed only slightly by the random guy who decided I was American (based solely on my interest in the game, as opposed to, say, my non-American accent) and proceeded to ask me dumb questions about the NFL.
After Vinatieri kicked the Patriots into the pages of history I finished off my beer, returned to my office desk, and spent the rest of the day reading web pages about the game. Once again I was reminded of how much I loved sports. Because these moments can happen.
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I had no special love for the Patriots in 2002. My 25 year old self was a little more worldly than my 12 year old self, sure, but the mere fact of their underdog status was enough for me to cheer for them. I'll admit to having a Boston bias; Boston was a city that I just assumed I'd love, but that's a story for another time. St Louis I knew next to nothing about, not even that it was the home of Budweiser (which would have provided me another reason to cheer against them). But it was the Patiots' role of David going against Goliath which brought it home for me.
In Super Bowl XXXVIII I cheered for the Panthers against those same Pats. This time the plucky underdog did not win. I was very torn during Super Bowl XXXIX, but even though I disliked the Eagles and (being a 49'ers fan) loathed
T.O., I hoped they would upset the Patriots' applecart, to no avail.
If I could cheer for T.O. and the Eagles, was there any doubt who I would cheer for in Super Bowl XLII?
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As AlCantHang will tell you, everyone needs a local bar. A bar, within close proximity to your place of residence, where you feel comfortable in. A bar where everyone indeed knows your name, and is able to pour your first drink for you before you open your mouth to request one.
I am fortunate enough to have a bar I frequent that fits these criteria. As luck would have it, it is a "New Yorker" bar, where New York sports games and such get top billing. This can occasionally be somewhat amusing, as in the complicated alchemy of my sports allegiances I am a Red Sox fan; I was actually at the bar during Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS, when the Red Sox got pounded and looked to be on their way to being swept. Good times! I had also been present in the same bar during the 2006 NLCS, soaking in the atmosphere as rabid Mets fans prayed their team could hold off the Cardinals. Being in that bar, watching Endy Chavez make a circus catch
to rob St Louis of the go ahead home run remains one of my favourite "sports spectating" moments ever.
For someone like myself who was determined to cheer for the New York Giants, there was no other option for where I would like to watch the game. I knew the bar would be packed to the rafters with Giants fans, adding tons of atmosphere to the biggest game of the year. All-Star and Saunter were keen to join me, so just after 4pm, almost two and a half hours before kick-off, we rocked up to secure decent seats.
Unfortunately I can't stand the normal pre-game shows on NFL game days, so the epic douchefest before the Super Bowl was quite painful. In response we were forced to concentrate on drinking our beverages to block out what was being inflicted upon us. Around the bar were various Budweiser party favours, including blue beads. Saunter and I came up with a drinking game involving three sets of beads, one which was broken: cup the three sets of beads in your hand, and your opponent must pull out one strand; pull out an unbroken strand, and you have to drink. It passed the time.
As Saunter and I played our Bead Drinking Game[tm], the bar was beginning to fill up. As game time approached the bar's buzz got louder and louder. Before we knew it, we were treated to a reading of the Declaration of Independence, and kick off was about to happen.
I just hoped the game stayed close. That's all, just keep it close. I didn't dare to imagine the Giants might actually win.
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To be honest, the opening drive surprised me. Not the fact that it was sustained, but the fact that Eli Manning was continuing to be "Playoff Eli Manning" rather than "Regular Season Eli Manning", repeatedly converting third downs. I began to get a little excited. If the Giants scored a touchdown here, all hell might break loose. I was a little concerned what that would do to this girl sitting directly behind us, who was screaming and chanting before, during, and after each play. I began hoping that her voice would give out, but was afraid her New York heritage would keep her in good stead.
I needn't have worried, as the Giants finally stalled, settling for a field goal. I motioned All-Star across, and voiced my concern that to beat the Patriots you had to score touchdowns, as the Conference Championship against the Chargers had shown. As if to confirm my fears the Patriots (given a headstart by Maroney's kick-off return) proceeded to march down the field, aided by the most obvious Pass Interference penalty I have ever seen. Needless to say the harpy behind us didn't believe it was Pass Interference. As Maroney drove in the first touchdown, my heart sank. Was that it already?
The Giants, however, decided to respond, marching back down the field and giving everyone in the bar hope... right up until the ball bounced off of Steve Smith's hands into the arms of a Patriots defender. OK, maybe that
But then the Patriots went three and out.
I was not
prepared for that.
And so went the game. At half-time the bar was abuzz; the Giants were behind, but it felt like they were outplaying the Patriots. I stepped outside to have a drunken phone conversation with my parents during which my Dad informed me that he hoped the Patriots would win. Thanks, Dad.
The rest of the game was a rollercoaster. The bar exploded as the Giants less-famous but also less-injured (and less-douchey) Tight End, Kevin Boss, rumbled for 45 yards enroute to the Giants finally scoring to to retake the lead. Until the Patriots once again became the Patriots, marching inexorably down the field, finally scoring with a touchdown to Randy Moss, of all people.
At that moment, it seemed that all the air had been sucked out of the bar. Two and a half minutes left. New England up by four.
That was it, right? The Giants played hard, but just couldn't slay the beast. A valiant effort, but the outcome was inevitable. At least they had given the Pats a good game, right? I mean... Eli Manning is the quarterback. Eli
Manning. You know, the dopier looking one.
That last Giants drive was simply amazing. The bar was living and dying with every play. I physically leapt out of my seat during "The Play" (or whatever it ends up being called), totally caught up in perhaps the greatest sports sequence I will ever see in my life. I still can't believe that Manning got free, or that Tyree took that catch.
But that wasn't all. Steve Smith atoned for his drop-turned-interception earlier in the game by converting (and getting out of bounds) for twelve yards on 3rd down and 11.
The last pass to a wide open Plaxico Burress in the end zone caused me to leap out of my seat again, hands on my head, screaming "Oh my God! Oh my God!" over and over and over again. With the fervour of a true fan I began screaming at some dumb bitch who immediately began shouting about how "the Giants have just won the Super Bowl!".
"Shut up! Shut up! There is still time! They have three timeouts!"
Seriously. Hello?! Have you seen the Patriots play at any time during the last 7 years?!
On pins and needles we watched as Tom Brady threw four bombs that never managed to find their target. And that was that. Pandemonium.
I sat back and drank in the scene, marvelling at sports and how it not only brought people together, but maintained an ability to surprise and amaze. We ordered another round of beers, as I couldn't imagine leaving the scene just yet. Drinking that final beer I watched the presentations with a goofy look on my face. The Pats were 18-1. Eli freaking Manning was the MVP. Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria!
After the last beer we decided to vamoose, All-Star going his way, Saunter and I heading back to my apartment. I proceeded to pour a couple of very strong whiskey sours, order a pizza, and spend the next hour and a half jumping between the various ESPN channels. We finally turned off the TV, and decided it was more than time for bed.
As I sat in bed, about to turn off the lights, I turned one last time to Saunter.
"I don't believe that. I just don't believe that happened. Imagine if I was a Giants fan!"