The Dallas Cowboys were born when my father was a student at The University of Texas in Austin, thus defining each season’s moods in our household for a lifetime. When I joined the party in the middle 70s, both teams were at the peak of prominence. UT had the “Tyler Rose” Earl Campbell, the Cowboys had everybody’s All-American Roger Staubach, Too Tall Jones and Tony Dorsett. Coaches Tom Landry and Darrell Royal are central figures in the worship of many homes throughout Texas.
But as my young mind learned to love the game of football, I struggled to conjoin myself emotionally to a single squad. There was something terribly mystifying about how a group of strangers in Dallas or even on the nearby college campus could determine my father’s happiness. My love of the game was fueled not only by my father’s weekly lessons but in NFL Films cinematic productions with their combination of Sam Spence’s epic music and John Facenda’s colossal voice describing the monumental transformation of the professional game from hard-charging ground games to the beautifully complex aerial attacks of the modern passing era.
Much to my father’s chagrin, I could therefore become engrossed with opponents, even divisional rivals like Joe Theisman and Art Monk of Washington, Lawrence Taylor of New York or Reggie White of Philly. Increasingly, I found myself reading about earlier generations, drawn to legends like Slingin’ Sammy Baugh, Ray Nitschke and Jim Brown. On a Monday Night in November of 1985, the real-world ramifications of my fandom and this violent sport collided when Lawrence Taylor ended Theisman’s football career as he sacked him from the blind side.
But, despite the violence, I was inspired by the intensive choreography of play design and strategy much the same way I was intrigued by the composition of the multifarious symphonic parts of the classical music my father loved. On the other hand, there were awe-inspiring moments of unbelievable acuity like the virtuoso players I heard on his jazz records at home. As with music, the more I learned the less I could realistically devote myself to a single genre, band or team. Nor did I like the emotional ramifications of bearing the slings and arrows alongside one or two teams as it occurred in our household.
While living abroad, I decided to keep up with the NFL by playing Fantasy Football. The weekly team upkeep allowed me to follow the league as I devoted my strongest admiration for those players who would eventually help me win the 2001 Championship, stat generators like Rich Gannon and Tony Gonzalez. However, the virtual exaltation was riddled with disconcerting conflicts once stateside, as when players on my team faced off and rooting interests were torn asunder. If I had neglected those feelings, I would have ultimately become isolated celebrating a set of conditioned choices I made to start the season. This was too egocentric and self-congratulatory, running counter to the way I learned to love professional football.
In the many years since Jerry Jones and his evil empire sent legendary Cowboys’ head coach Tom Landry packing, there had been few consistencies in the league as fun to root for as Brett Favre. Back in Austin for the holidays during graduate school, I watched his infamous Monday Night Football game against the Oakland Raiders the night after his father passed away. It was like nothing many fans had ever experienced, at G&S Lounge complete strangers bonded as he completed over 70% of his passes for 4 touchdowns and nearly 400 yards. And as many males in American culture, the filter of sports undoubtedly connected our profound experience to a vibrant palette of emotions typically outside of the masculine vernacular. And time slows down in those moments, when you swear the whisper of history in on your neck, while watching a field general become a Maestro.
Like the old gunslinger, who like the legends before him left everything on the field, after migrating from Green Bay through New Jersey and back to the Minnesota Vikings, I was ready for a home base of my own as a fan. In a violent playoff game against the New Orleans Saints, Favre was battered and his squad lost in a heartbreaker that left me raw in a black shirt with his number 4 and ‘Legend’ in white. He came back one more year but his body was no longer willing and I found myself watching with hope another quarterback wearing purple, TCU’s Andy Dalton, who led his Horned Frogs to a perfect 13-0 eventually beating Wisconsin and monster Defensive End JJ Watt in a thrilling Rose Bowl, 21-19.
Watching Dalton as a leader through his senior season was nothing short of spectacular and as I learned more about how truly great he is as a human being it was terribly easy for me to hitch all of my wagons to whichever team selected him. And, in the second round, after gifted former juggler AJ Green, the Cincinnati Bengals took Andy Dalton. What struck me from the jump was the degree to which attention was given to his fiery red hair, and further the similarities in its color and that of the team, as opposed to what I saw as a field general with a lot of intangibles.
In the seasons since, the Bengals have seen highs and lows and there’s never a shortage of exciting moments. Each season, I follow the draft coverage for new names and faces and anxiously await the schedule. Three years ago, in December, we made the pilgrimage to Paul Brown stadium for a Monday Night showdown with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. It was cold and rainy, we bought striped ponchos, and we screamed the “Who Dey!” chant alongside a rambunctious crowd the intensity of which never wavered. Earlier, we rode Segways through downtown Cincinnati with our Airbnb host PJ, drank two dollar PBRs out of glass boots, and eventually threw down Skyline Chili dogs. As we parted ways, he pointed us into the Tailgate showing us where to grab beer on the way.
A few days later, I had surgery on both of my eyes, and my mind would return during the absolute darkness to our victorious march as a Who Dey Nation, hollering in unison and hopped up on Monday Night glory. I’ve formed friendships with other fans and I am often stopped by folks with some connection to Cincinnati whenever I’m identifying myself as a Bengals fan in the orange and black. I even bought a Reds hat and loosely followed a terrible season in order to appreciate more deeply the lives of those folks in the Jungle with us. On a few occasions, I’ve been asked why I would choose such a thing by people who have felt fated to root for Paul Brown’s downstate middle finger to his namesake in Cleveland. The only true answer is, “Who Dey think they gonna beat them Bengals?!” To which they must reply, “Noooobody!” Because, as I have learned, the measure of fandom is not the quality of the team at any given moment rather it is found in how well fans love their squad.