It’s hard to say exactly when my mother became a die-hard football fan. Sports were noticeably absent from my childhood; our participation in them was neither prohibited nor encouraged, so we remained uninterested due to its uncontroversial nature. Sports were for different families with different goals. Growing up in New Orleans definitely played a factor—to be a Saints fan was more amount urban solidarity and less a tribute to the success of the team.
A quick rundown:
Age 8: I joined the softball team at my local playground. I was too young to understand what “bench” meant, but only knew I sat on it for a considerable amount of time. I was put so far into left field that I doubted it was even a viable position, but it gave me time to myself, since no 8-year-old had ever been known to hit a softball 487 feet from the home plate.
Age 10: I tried karate. My instructor made us lie down in a row while he walked from one end of middle-school bodies to the other using our stomachs as a bridge. He insisted it was an exercise to teach us muscle strength. I believe that’s when I uttered my first cuss word, and it was “Screw this.”
Age 12: Much to the chagrin of my classmates, kickball was a required sport for anyone in the 7th grade P.E. class, which meant I was always going to have to be on someone’s team. I once won a game of Capture the Flag for my team, but only because no one noticed I was even playing the game, much less winning it.
Age 14: Soccer. I was on the junior high team. We had no uniforms. We smoked cigarettes in the locker room. We never played another team. I was the goalie. I still don’t know what that meant, since no one was ever trying to score against my team, since they were ON my team.
Age 15: While losing a game of HORSE against my sports-fanatic neighbor, he asked me what my favorite NFL team was. I answered with the only one I knew the name of, other than the Saints, because I wasn’t entirely sure they were part of the NFL. “The Cowboys,” I said, because they’d just won the Superbowl and their logo was all over my Taco Bell bag. He proceeded to scream at me and say he’d been a fan “since the beginning,” (he was 16) and that I was only “jumping on the bandwagon.” I was mortified, I cried, I kicked the air in his general direction, aimed the basketball at his snotty head, and got nothin’ but air.
Age 16: Intramural Volleyball. I was the Captain. We named our team after the pig I was dissecting in Biology class. I had no idea that the word “Intramural” was meaningless, but I should have guessed as much when I realized that we only played during lunchtime. I could really serve, I really could. On an Intramural team.
Until 2005, my life was happily sports-free. That was the year I moved to Chapel Hill, NC, the most basketball-crazed city on Earth. When I arrived close to the start of the ’05 NCAA season, the town was awash in families wearing my least favorite shade of blue, doing chestbumps in jerseys emblazoned with what looked to me like the silhouette of a foot that had just stepped in a large pile of shit. Everyone said it was just a matter of time before I became a Tarheel too, but they also said that about my crossover to ultra-liberalism which hasn’t happened yet, either. When my parents moved to Raleigh, they treated UNC sports fever with disdain, and that made me feel okay.
The darkness started seeping in last season when my mother, desperate for happiness in a state she’d never be caught dead living in pre-Katrina, decided the only vestige of New Orleans she was going to hold onto was the Saints. While my dad dreamed of a life back home in the Faubourg Marigny, eating ham biscuits from Mother’s and strolling along Royal Street during the open studio tour and shopping for VooDoo dolls in the French Market, my mom was busy setting up a satellite dish so she could catch the Monday games. Though she’d acquired season passes to the Hornets games back home, that was after I had moved away for college, so I could comfortably ignore it and know in my heart that I had no idea what sport she was even talking about. I still don’t know.
But our newfound proximity has afforded her the luxury of seamlessly transferring our Sunday Dinners at Mom and Dad’s to the Cleveland Drafthouse in Garner come football season. The first time I accompanied her, I sat in a packed pub at a high, straight-backed chair with no cushion, facing a beer I hated and a family platter of fried pickles. There were seven different games on the Drafthouse’s many super-cable-equipped, flat screen TVs, and I couldn’t follow anything except when my mom started screaming at one TV in particular, dashing up from the table to smack the heads of large, strange men in offending jerseys, her Blue Moon sloshing over the rim of her pint glass. Something had happened, and I could never tell if it was good or bad. I only knew it disturbed my crossword puzzle.
And my dad, my poor dad. NEVER a sports fan, but frantic to keep up with my mom, whose hobbies were taking a most sinister form, he was always by her side at every game, making sounds at the appropriate times and scowling at the cigarette dangling from mom’s lips while any one of fifty random, giant, oily men lit it for her. She’s not a smoker, by the way. Only during the games.
A few weeks ago, my dad asked my brother and me to meet him at the mall under the pretense of taking us out to lunch. When we found him at the foodcourt, he whisked us away from the Steak Escape and the Hagen-Daaz and marched us to a storefront wedged in between a Bath and Body Works and a Great American Cookie Company. The sign read Sports Fan-Attic, and its double doors yawned widely into a gruesome scene full of jerseys, hats, and keychains for every conceivable team and player from the NBA to the WPGA. My brother and I automatically clutched each other in a grip of simultaneous fear and disgust. Why had Father brought us to the twentieth level of Hell? Had we been bad? Well, I don’t know, but we’d definitely been had.
“WeneedtogetMomajersey,aSaintsjersey,” he said, pronouncing it all as one long, mumbled word.
I had to get out of that room. While my dad and brother peddled around, trying to interpret the shiny fabrics and roaring endorsements, I made a beeline for the front desk.
“Saints jersey. Black, not white. Child size,” was all I could manage, and it stunned me that I could even remember at that moment that my mom was 5’0 tall and 105 pounds soaking wet. It took us three grueling minutes to finish the transaction, and not one of us had any idea how much those jerseys cost. We know now.
Eager for the next game and an opportunity to show off her new favorite nightgown (seriously, she’s really tiny), my mom invited us to Sunset Grill the following Sunday to watch the Saints vs. Dolphins, a game she couldn’t catch with her mediocre cable subscription. My brother, his pregnant wife, my dad, Rockey and I all gathered around a table and tucked into some obligatory fried food while my mom befriended everyone in the bar wearing black and gold and shunned everyone who was not. After she made a comment about her family not being as into the game as she was, my dad tried his hand at cheering by bellowing at a rare quiet moment, “I SAY FOOTBALL YOU SAY SAINTS!!!!”
That’s all he said.
He didn’t follow it up with the much-needed prompt of “FOOTBALL,” as per his own instruction, so when no one said, “SAINTS,” he was mortified. A couple of people came up and tried to explain his gaffe, but it was too late. He was embarrassed and so resigned himself to a life just outside the sports spotlight, which was very bright and constantly trained on the tiny woman next to him whose fists would slam on the table after every fumble, sending our precious waffle fries to ground with a soft, defeated “thump.”