A few months ago, Brian Solomon invited me to write something for the inaugural issue of the Eagles Almanac. He gave me no restrictions, beyond a rough idea of a word count, and said it was okay if I wrote something a little more reflective than you might find in a standard season preview magazine. The other guys he’d lined up, they’re superior to me with the tactical and strategic football discussion, they’re much better schooled in all the advanced stats and film study, and the only thing I really have to offer is the stuff that is happening inside my brain when I’m alone.
The almanac sold pretty well, actually, and it’s still on sale, but since it was pitched as a season preview magazine and the season started Sunday, we’re pretty much counting out future sales. So, with Brian’s permission, I’m running my piece here. It’s half about the Eagles and half about how sad I was to turn 30, and it looks like this:
The Luxury of Feeling Okay
For most of your life, you are defined by your status as an Eagles fan. You watch every game, know every player, have internalized every rumor, are as much an insider as the beat writers because you care more about the team than they do. To them it’s a job, but to you it’s a calling.
People know you as The Eagles Guy because you’re always wearing a hooded Eagles sweatshirt and you hanging Eagles paraphernalia on your office door where others post comic strips and family photos. You own every Eagles-related accessory you can acquire, from bobbleheads to shoelaces to flags that flap patriotrically in the breeze in front of your house. You have led the Eagles to ten consecutive video game Super Bowls. You spend hundreds of hours every year researching fantasy football statistics and adjusting your rankings so that you can be sure that, say, Jabar Gaffney is actually the forty-eighth best fantasy receiver rather than the forty-seventh. You have other interests and hobbies and friends, but you get in the habit of telling people the only thing you need for your life to feel complete is an Eagles Super Bowl.
…and then you turn 30.
Which, okay, isn’t that old, but, really, it is kind of old, isn’t it? If you were a horse, you’d be dead by now. If this were the Renaissance, you’d be a village elder, making your peace with God just in case. If you’d been born on the wrong continent even today, you would have beaten the odds by surviving to thirty years old.
But, people remind you, you have the luxury of feeling okay about thirty, of believing it’s not even the halfway point, of thinking I’m only just getting started. Which, in one sense, you have to believe, because if you didn’t, then why would you have stayed in college, and then grad school, and then terrible entry-level jobs until you were twenty-six? How could you have rationalized any of that without being guided by the faith that you have plenty of time? Think about the arrogance it takes to just assume you’re going to get to live as long as you feel like living until you’ve accomplished everything you feel like accomplishing.
Because, here’s the thing: if you’re a football fan, especially if you’re an Eagles fan, you know thirty is the beginning of the end. Too often, thirty is the end.
Coaches hang around well until retirement age, but the lifespan of an athlete is uncomfortably similar to that of a Medieval serf. Players are more disposable, they disappear within a couple years, and they’re lucky to even stay in the league long enough to celebrate their thirtieth birthday.
Sports are theater in which age is the primary antagonist.
Imagine being twenty-seven and knowing you’ve peaked. Imagine devoting eighty percent of your life to doing one thing, and then not being allowed to do it anymore. Imagine the fans all blithely dismissing you as if you’re ancient, lazy sportswriters comparing you to Methuselah just because you remember Murphy Brown and Dan Quayle. Imagine being perpetually connected with the label elder statesman just because you remember receiving hundreds of free CDs from AOL in the mail. Imagine being a hero in the morning and an afterthought by the evening. Imagine being thirty and having to answer daily questions about your legacy, as if you’re a king abdicating his throne, as if you would even be capable of eulogizing yourself. Imagine yourself as a fan who has lived vicariously through these athletes for your entire life, and now finding yourself in a situation where you have to live vicariously through the players who are washed up, the burnouts, the wounded, the punch lines and the sad cases who held on a few years too long.
On birthdays, people like to ask: Do you feel older? And, usually, the answer is No, of course not, I feel exactly like I did yesterday except today everyone is paying attention to me and there’s cake. But when you’re thirty, you do feel a little older. Or maybe more accurately: you feel conscious of being older. Dates and times are arbitrary and such milestones are arbitrary and yet they still carry weight, they demand a certain level of introspection, and they require you to take stock of where you are, who you have become, if only because you need to have some answers ready for the inevitable questions from well-wishers and co-workers. Yesterday you were twenty-nine, a week ago you were twenty, and today you are thirty years old:
At which point you have a real, adult job with real responsibilities.
At which point, you can no longer eat food court pizza without feeling sick for the rest of the day.
At which point, it becomes a chore to meet a friend for a happy hour beer, the end result of twelve emails and extensive schedule juggling, rather than a spur-of-the-moment decision.
At which point you have a mortgage (or two).
At which point you either have a child (or two) or you spend half your waking hours explaining to people with children why you don’t have a child (or two) yet.
At which point you don’t invest your emotional well-being in football anymore, don’t allow your self-esteem to hinge on the outcome of a sporting event, cannot bring yourself to care like you used to.
I can’t pinpoint exactly the moment of epiphany—maybe it was while I was watching a game or maybe reading a fawning interview with an arrogant rookie in a glossy magazine—but I remember distinctly the realization that I have nothing in common with these players who I have idolized for so long. They live in a world I cannot access. They’ve had experiences I cannot understand. They are, by necessity, largely unplugged from real life and ignorant to world affairs. And they are bizarrely, almost grotesquely athletic to the extent that we may as well be classified as a different species. When I was younger, I thought I could relate to the players, felt like maybe someday I could be them. The league relies on this collective delusion, needs kids everywhere—even chubby kids, lazy kids with a negative vertical leap who would rather stay inside playing Tecmo Bowl than be outside risking sunburn or bee stings—to believe in the possibility of reaching the pinnacle. This is the point when the league can get someone hooked on their product for life. And, like countless others, I bought in because I loved watching games with my family, and besides it was nice to dream for a while.
Even after it became obvious that I would never be a great athlete—something I never verbalized, but must have intuited by the time I got to high school, when I didn’t even make the first cut on the freshman soccer team, actually fell asleep in the grass behind the goal during practice while the others played on without me—I still felt bonded to the Eagles. Still dreamed about possibly meeting them, still felt okay about rooting for strangers because I felt like I’d gotten to know them via Sundays in front of the TV and press conferences and profiles in the Inquirer, and maybe in my youthful enthusiasm I vaguely connected with them, saw an exciting rookie like Charlie Garner whistling past 49ers defenders and viewed him as analogous to my own life as an ascending student. Or maybe I was just a kid and I liked things kids like, and I wanted to spend time with my dad and my brother, and I never progressed beyond the simplistic notion that it would be cool, one day, to hang out with Andy Harmon or Seth Joyner. Never wanted much beyond the excitement that seemed inherent to football Sundays. Never tried to process what is so thrilling about waiting in line at West Chester for a half hour just to get autographs from Roy Green, David Archer, and Jeff Kemp. (Think about that—a twelve year old kid in Philly bragging to his friends that he got an autograph from Jeff Kemp, of all people, without knowing any of the context around him, the Senator father, the family’s NFL legacy, the fact that Kemp grew up in a different universe than I did, and also was overall a pretty terrible NFL quarterback).
And so we return to the realization: I don’t know anything about these guys and, truthfully, there is very little chance that I want to know more about them. The paradox here is that I actually could know the players better than ever before, can access their lives, however superficially, via Facebook and Twitter, and yet I find the idea deeply off-putting. My football obsessions used to be a specialized knowledge, but now all the information in the world is streaming toward us whether we like it or not, and it all seems like too much. Now if I’m reading the twitter feeds, I’m just one of thousands of people who know the same thing, I’m just another guy with some opinions.
Whereas my 17 year old self—or, let’s be honest, my 27 year old self—would have spent full days skimming players’ twitter feeds, searching for clues as to their whereabouts, maybe even trying to “accidentally” bump into them somewhere in the city, now I can barely bring myself to look. Really, it’s for the best that these options weren’t available when I was younger because there’s a good chance I would have burrowed myself so deeply in my Eagles lair that I would have suffocated. The thing is, I know there are perfectly reasonable people who can view these feeds in moderation and not lose themselves, but that has never been an option for me, and anyway, it seems clearer than ever that I’m better off knowing less about the players I cheer for.
What kind of conversation could I possibly have, for example, with DeSean Jackson? How long would I allow Jason Avant to quote Bible passages to me before I moved on and tested my resolve against one of Babin or Cole’s hunting stories? How many times in a row could I listen to Jamar Chaney’s story about that one time he made a tackle behind the line of scrimmage? How long until I wandered down toward the kickers, who at least are built a little more like I am, and then found out that, no, they’re actually elite athletes who have lived inside the elite athlete bubble their entire lives too, and, no, they don’t particularly care about the dumb things I care about either. How long could they tolerate me talking about a great novel by Michael Ondaatje or complaining about property taxes or explaining pedagogical issues in freshman composition classes? Our common ground is the Eagles, and yet we have completely different histories with the team, completely different motivations.
Maybe this seems obvious. But it took me a while to get there, and there is probably still a small part of me that thinks I could be friends with Sheldon Brown if we ever somehow met. Regardless, this realization is time-centric in that a) it took me such a long time to figure it out, and b) part of the gulf between me and the players is age-based, now that the Eagles have begun drafting players who were born in 1990 and soon enough they will be drafting players who were born when I was in high school, and they’ll be cutting guys who are younger than me because they are too old to perform adequately. Eventually, they will come to exist as an abstraction, something so far removed from my experience that I can’t even remember it.
This is what game day used to look like: there were a dozen people in my living room, there were empty bottles scattered across the coffee table, there were paper towels wadded up on the carpet to soak up spilled beer, there were numerous artery-clogging dips, there was a whole array of lucky charms and accessories, and there was actually a printed list of house rules on display so that the occasional interloper would understand that this was not just a game but an important and essential ritual that was to be respected. There was yelling, and there was profanity, sometimes a competition to see who could find the most creative way to spew obscenities at the opponents and Joe Buck. There were items hurled across the room and there were minor injuries, usually self-inflicted but sometimes incurred in fights with roommates. There was silence during plays, strategic phone calls placed between quarters, and a week full of brooding if the Eagles lost. The remainder of the day was wasted on message boards and postgame shows and talk radio.
This is what game day looked like during the Eagles’ loss to the Seahawks in 2011, the pitiful performance that both typified and effectively ended the season: there was me and there was my wife for one quarter before she went to bed, and there was a glass of water because I’m trying to adopt a healthier diet, and there were student essays to grade, and there was my cell phone for sending and receiving text messages from friends because it’s too hard to coordinate schedules with one another to actually watch games together, and there were U-haul boxes stacked in the corners because we had bought a new place and were moving in a few weeks. When Marshawn Lynch ran through the entire Eagles defense for a touchdown that was symbolic of last season’s effort—it doesn’t seem possible now, but I remember him breaking twelve tackle attempts by Kurt Coleman on a single play—I should have been outraged and there should have been destruction (stabbing a box with scissors, maybe? Putting my foot through the drywall?), but instead I laughed and I turned off the TV before the game was over. And I didn’t run to message boards or sports radio like I used to. I didn’t watch postgame shows. I went to bed, and in the morning when I woke up, I wasn’t angry or inconsolable. I was too tired and distracted by other responsibilities to worry about why the Eagles decided to use 2011 as a test case for running a flag football defense.
A few years ago, I published a book partly about being an Eagles fan. The second chapter was titled “Confessions of an Obsessed Football Fan,” in which I listed seven confessions. Well, here’s the eighth: I don’t care what happens to the Eagles this year.
Does this make me a bad fan? Probably it does. Probably it makes me a sellout and not a diehard and all of the things that would get me kicked out of any respectable tailgate party. Ten years ago, I would have felt like I had to do something stupid to atone for my sins against the Eagles, to re-establish my credibility. Get a tattoo, or vandalize the car of a Cowboys fan, or post a Youtube video in which I cursed Jerry Jones’ existence.
But I can’t bring myself to do it. Why should I have to defend my fandom anyway? I still root for the Eagles to win, of course, although mainly I do so because it’s more fun to see a win and I like some of the players (even though I generally found the 2011 team to be the least likable bunch of Eagles since Rich Kotite was in town). And I know a lot of my friends and family are as deeply devoted as ever, so I’d like them to enjoy it, want them to get that parade and experience the catharsis I’d been waiting on so long. Sometimes I try to will myself to feel about it the way I did before, because I feel obligated to do so—people count on me for Eagles news, I have whole years-long relationships with people built entirely on the foundation of football fandom to the extent that I know literally nothing about their personal lives. But nothing works: spending the morning researching reasons to hate the opponent, listening to the sports talk stations, getting drunk so that I might get rowdy, none of it sticks.
Some friends have undergone this same transformation; they watch the games, they would like the Eagles to win, but then they move on when the game is over, can sometimes even appreciate the skill of the opponent, admitting that the other team deserved to win. They are capable of engaging in rational human behavior in the immediate aftermath of a loss, and they can turn their focus toward their other responsibilities without having to decompress for two or three days.
Mostly, it happened because they got older. We got older. There’s no reason this has to happen exactly at thirty, although it basically did for me. It’s not even necessarily about maturity, but about having too much other stuff to do. What happens is, you get too busy to burn so much energy on the game. Or you run into real world problems and your fantasy escape either ceases to exist or becomes condensed into a smaller window. It becomes stupid (maybe even reckless) to invest so much of yourself into the game because you have other things going on and there are people depending on you to be a functional adult regardless of football outcomes. There are bosses to appease, wives or girlfriends to impress, hardwood floors to refinish, building inspections to pass, bills to pay, books to read, children to raise.
In my memoir, I portray myself engaging in a wide range of reprehensible fan behavior, ranging from violence to vandalism to mistreating and neglecting my wife in favor of the Eagles. I spent a year writing it and another two years promoting it, an all-consuming process at the end of which I felt like I had to make a choice: if I wanted to claim to be an intelligent, thinking person, then it was not possible to justify continuing to act the same way I had in the book. There was something fundamentally wrong with me as a person before, and with all the evidence now recorded for posterity, I had no excuse if I kept being that person. It would change from being a pathology to a consciously anti-social choice.
I don’t want to sound like I’m proselytizing, I don’t want to convert anyone or elevate myself above people who still care the way I used to. Some people manage to juggle the intense devotion with their real life duties and they rarely bleed into each other. That’s not something I’m capable of doing. If I’m all in, then it means I am allowing myself to be imprisoned by my reactions to the Eagles, allowing football to dictate the daily flow of my life, and it turns me into a worse person.
Is it maturity to acknowledge that, or is it immaturity to take so long to figure it out?
On sports radio, two hosts in their mid-40s are debating whether it’s a violation of some sacred man code for a player to have tweeted gossip about another player. One shouts, “he doesn’t have a right to say anything behind anybody’s back!” The other screams, “These athletes don’t understand Twitter etiquette!” The first host says: “It’s just ridiculous, his attitude, thinks he’s too good for the team! Thinks he’s bigger than the game!” The second says something about teamwork and heart and love of the game and respect and tradition and trust. There are five layers of irrelevancies to peel back in this argument before you reach the core issue, which is this: you used to care about the minutiae too, just like these guys do, just like they want you to, but you cannot do it anymore.
Time seems more valuable to you than it did ten years ago, seems harder to excuse wasting than when you were twenty, nestled safely in the cocoon of college life, when our cultural expectations gave you license to be frivolous and irresponsible. Then, it seemed like a perfectly good use of one’s days to fritter hours trying to debunk a dumb argument made by Skip Bayless or to proving to Internet Cowboys fans that, in fact, their team sucks. There are dozens of reasons (half of them related to hygiene and diet) that you could never live like you did ten years ago, and yet you still feel the need to defend yourself, still feel guilty for dropping out of your fantasy football leagues or for not having the Eagles’ schedule memorized or for sometimes feeling particularly squeamish about the fact that you’re watching grown men ruin their long-term health for your short-term entertainment. But here’s the thing: you were reasonably happy ten years ago, and you’re reasonably happy now. There is nothing else to explain, even if it feels like you need to keep explaining yourself, to your friends, to your past, to the Eagles themselves. If your feelings hadn’t evolved over the past decade, then you would have to feel badly, then you would have to justify why you’re the same person at thirty that you were at twenty, that you were at ten.
For the longest time, pro athletes seem like your future, and then suddenly they become your past.