Like most people my age, I’ve watched the superbowl as long as I can remember. The event is a little older than me, so it lives in the childhood memories of a few generations now. I don’t follow football – never really have. I loved the rams when I was very young because of their helmet. Then I became a Bills fan when I lived outside of Buffalo – the Bills were terrible then. Then I became an enduring Packers fan because they had the audacity of wearing yellow and green. No other team had that kind of confidence.
But I didn’t really watch much football. The season would unfold and then mid January I would hear about the playoffs and which teams were doing well. It was usually a surprise – and occasionally it would be a team that was important to me. Then superbowl sunday arrived and I, along with the rest of the country, became a huge fan.
I watched this happen with my oldest boy this year. This was his first superbowl – it was always too late and we don’t have a television anyway – but this year he was 10 and the network decided to put it online. So we said yes. And I got really excited. I would be sharing this huge event with my boy and since it was online, it would be easy to blot out the commercials and focus on the game. Plus it was the Patriots and we live in New England.
So then the family proceeded to become huge football fans. We haven’t paid attention all year but suddenly we were rabid. Every move, every throw, every down became a nail biting experience. And when the game ended with a Hail Mary pass from Brady into the inzone – and was not caught – we were heartbroken. My boy cried. He professed his deep hatred for the Giants. He felt sick.
It took a while for him to fall asleep. He kept talking about all the “What ifs” and possibilities where the Patriots could have won. He was authentically grieving.
That is powerful stuff and I am not writing to either encourage or discourage this kind of emotional journey for a 10 year old – I am writing to acknowledge the power and importance of the super bowl in our culture.
We are starving for epic stories. It feeds our souls to navigate through an difficult journey of great hardship and life lessons – to follow a hero or heroine across miles of desert or tundra or rainforest or ocean – to be chased by alligators or enemy forces or giants or aggressive birds – to make one’s way back home, bringing back riches or a wife or a prince or a magical goose and to celebrate that a transformation has occurred. We hear those stories and sigh. We have just been fed.
We adults have a harder time finding these stories in their pure form so we find them all dressed up in films and TV shows and indeed, sports. Nothing like sports to get you into the us verses them mentality where archetypal dynamics can be played out in a safe, contained environment. The heroes and heroines take the ball and work it like a long sword or crossbow – fighting with majesty and grace and elegance and courage – never giving up, right to the bitter end. And then they face the music. One team has “won” and the other has “lost”. And we ,who have aligned ourselves with one side of the story, experience the emotional fallout together.
And so the Super Bowl is the big event. The best of the best. We learn about the players and their stories. We learn about the coaches and their stories. We learn about the teams and towns and their stories. And then they play. Their is strategy and surprise. There are thrills and huge disappointments. And then there is the final minute that can last a lifetime. We are braced and taught. We watch like we are watching our own lives – like everything might change according to how the game goes. And then it is over. And we have either won or lost. And we must deal with it.
To say “But it was a good game” meant nothing to my boy whose world had fallen with the Patriot’s defeat. He was in a purely narrative space and needed to work through its tragic conclusion.
The superbowl is important because it is thick with story. It is washed in it and every moment a part of a narrative that tugs at our basic humanity. Now, just because it is important does not mean it is for everyone and child development needs to be a factor in deciding whether this particular story is right for your child or not. There is a lot to swallow in this story of victory and defeat. There is no righteousness with the superbowl – that is why one can bet on it. The best team does not always win. The team that is winning for nearly the entire game does not always win in the end.
What does it mean? I don’t know. I don’t know why a pass completion makes me want to cry or why a particular defensive strategy can create incredible nostalgia but it does and I am grateful for it.