Those pre-cable football games, often viewed on black and white televisions, full of static caused by snowmobiles, seem from another lifetime. So much has changed in a few short decades. It is comforting to note, however, that some things remain constant: once a Vikings' fan, always a Vikings' fan. As they say, you can take the boy out of Minnesota, but you can't take Minnesota out of the boy. For many families, including my own, sports actually function as a catalyst for family gatherings. Sure, a birthday, an anniversary, or wedding brings us together occasionally; football actually brings us together on a weekly basis.
During the football season, telephone conversations (and e-mail messages) become both more frequent and intense. My father offers pessimistic commentary. My brother in San Francisco and another in Seattle reassess and predict games past and future. My brother in Spicer and even my sisters in the Twin Cities (not to mention my Packer fan brother-in-law) caught the Viking virus last year as the team sported a 15-1 record. Football euphoria erupted throughout the Voss family. We even drew up Super Bowl plans. But the story does not end happily, as we all know. An unexpected defeat changed the entire horizon.
True sports fans are a different sort. In fact, the word fan is simply a short form of fanatic. Yet such blind loyalty--even fidelity--comes with a price. While perhaps keeping families together, remaining faithful to the home team also forces dislocated fans to live in enemy territory. My wife and I (along with our three small children) enjoy Atlanta and our children consider it home. But it isn't really home for either of us. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than football.
The play-off loss to the Falcons last January devastated all Vikings' fans, yet the game evolved into a living nightmare for me, a Vikings' fan living in Atlanta. So while my family and friends still living in the North Star State mourned with thousands of Minnesotans, I found myself face to face with southern delirium and Dirty Bird hysteria. Every television promotion, radio program, news headline, and private discussion dealt with the game and mocked the suddenly impotent Vikings.
Watching the Super Bowl with a room full of fair-weather Falcons' supporters provided a small measure of relief as their Cinderella season ended with a loss to Denver. If misery loves company, I now had my fill of both.
Well, hope springs eternal in the world of sports. Vikings' fans across the country optimistically predict another winning season, another trip to the playoffs, and who knows, another crack at the elusive Super Bowl. But the pain from last year's loss still resonates.
As the Falcons prepared to face the Vikings' invasion to kickoff the 1999 season, I found myself full of mixed emotions. I enjoyed the phone calls and the speculations, the hype and the anticipation, but the prospect of another loss to the Falcons, and another year of ribbing from my colleagues and students, urged caution in all things. While a new season allows football fans to dream, it also reminds me that I am and always will be a Minnesotan. It reminds me that while I live in the Peach State, I cheer for another team. It reminds me that surviving as a Vikings' fan in Dirty Bird land requires both cowardice and bravery, both finesse and bombast.
Sitting in the sold out Georgia dome, surrounded by 69,555 screaming Falcons' fans (and a rather bizarre smattering of grown men wearing Randy Moss jerseys), can make even the proudest Vikings' booster a little sheepish. Sitting among the Atlanta players' wives and coaching staff families makes cheering even more dangerous. The game provided great drama with more ups and downs than Lake Koronis road.
Although obvious cheering could create hostility in such an environment, instinct takes over quite suddenly as I celebrated a Cris Carter touchdown reception or a Chris Chandler fumble. Such celebrations, of course, must be followed with a redeeming sign of disgust. The home team lost once again, sending thousands of somber Falcons' fans silently to the exits.
Inwardly, I delighted in the victory but refrained from making any outward sign of my pleasure. Prudence requires a stoic silence when confronting a hoard of disappointed fans with blood alcohol levels of .20 and higher, exclaiming, "We wus robbed by them Yankee referees."
For better or worse, sports still play a crucial role in our society as the 21st century beckons. Aside from the sheer entertainment factor, sports also grants us an identity in an increasingly homogenous society, providing us with a stable center as the world rapidly evolves before our very eyes.
Sports remind us of our youth; they tell us from where we come. Sports can also connect us with anonymous individuals dressed in purple and wearing funny nordic headgear. Rooting for the Vikings while living in Atlanta allows me to display my native-son pride while confronting the notion of exile and yearning for those innocent days of my youth. Our Sundays in Atlanta consist of morning mass and afternoon football, largely consistent with my childhood observations, with one major difference, my children have never heard of the Purple People Eaters; they dance the Dirty Bird.
(Dr. Paul Voss is the son of Joe and Sue Voss, Paynesville. He is a professor in the English department at Georgia State University.)
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