Bad Winners — Bradey, Belichick, and the Travail of New England Football Fans

Well, it is the time of year time to hate excellence, once again. Once again the New England Patriots have made it to the Superbowl.

Some players sweat and strain, and labor long and hard, and never make the playoffs even once, in their entire National Football League careers. The Patriots, however,  make the playoffs nearly every year, and this will be their seventh Superbowl since Brady and Belichick and Kraft teamed up. Obviously they are excellent at what they do, and deserve respect and admiration, but just as obviously the human traits of jealousy, envy, and poor-sportsmanship will rear their heads, and they will be loathed.

I can understand this loathing, for during my boyhood in the last century New England did not have successful sports teams, with the exception of basketball’s Celtics. (But, as a child who hated being stuck indoors, the Celtics didn’t really count, because basketball was an indoor winter sport, invented in Canada, which Springfield College then usurped, making basketball American. It was sort of like New England couldn’t win at outdoor sports because we were incarcerated indoors by long winters. The exception should have been ice hockey, but the Canadians, who were incarcerated indoors even more than we were, were foolishly allowed into the National Hockey League, so Montreal or Toronto usually won at that sport. Therefore New England took basketball, because we needed to win at something. The Celtics won nearly every year, but, to me as a boy, basketball didn’t really count.)

As a boy, baseball was king. But the Red Sox had fallen into doldrums, despite having perhaps the best hitter ever, Ted Williams. (He might have had as many home runs as Babe Ruth, but spent World War Two and the Korean War flying fighter airplanes and jets, serving his county.) As a small boy with a consciousness just awaking to the intricacies of sport, I was barely aware what a sports-hero was, yet was strangely moved, listening to Ted William’s last time at bat, on the radio in 1960.

It was an exercise in futility.  1960 was a losing season; the game meant nothing. However the roar of the crowd was different. I suppose the crowd was thanking Ted Williams for all his effort, though the Red Sox hadn’t made it to the World Series since the year Williams returned from the Army Air Force in 1946. Now it was 14 years later, and he had been a failure. The Red Sox had never won a World Series, (not even in 1946.) But rather than booing, the crowd was cheering. And then, at his final at-bat, he hit a home run. The announcer was practically sobbing, as Ted Williams trotted across home plate a final time.

This introduced me into the joys of being a loser, and supporting a superstar who never won. It should have made me a good loser, but I was not.

I wrote a post called “Bad Losers” about many of the aspects involved, (which was even published on WUWT) .

https://sunriseswansong.wordpress.com/2016/02/05/bad-losers/

An important thought was expressed in that post as follows: “It wasn’t fun being a bad sport. I couldn’t lose a game of checkers without my rage uplifting me and sending me stomping about the room, wildly thrashing and accusing the other person of cheating. The only one who would play checkers with me was a special sort of person who was able to say, “You’re right. I cheated. You win. Want to play again?” (He did this so he could beat me again.)”

Therefore I can safely say I know all about the mentality that hates winners. I understand and commiserate with those who loathe Brady and Belichick, because I loathed Roger Maris and Micky Mantle and Whitey Ford, and the amazing organization called the “New York Yankees.”

They had such a great system of scouts and minor league teams, and such a fat wallet, that some of their minor league teams could have beaten major league teams. They had, on the major league level, the best of the best. During my boyhood, in any four game series with the Yankees, the Red Sox might hope to win one game, only because the Red Sox had a single great pitcher named Bill Mombouquette.  After Momboquette’s wins I swaggered about, a boy full of victory, for we had defeated the Yankees!

Others could not find such satisfaction from losing 75% of the time, and one aspect of my boyhood was being able to walk into Fenway Park when there were only 4000 fans in a stadium built to hold 32,000. The Yankees were just too good, and were killing baseball. Therefore steps were taken to break their monopoly of good players. Baseball made a comeback, once other teams became competitive.

Not that the Yankees did anything wrong, in paying the best prospects to join the best minor league system that had the best coaches that could train the best to be superb. It was just that others couldn’t afford such talent. Therefore a “draft” was instituted that allowed other teams to get good prospects, and the Yankee dynasty briefly crashed to ruin. They finished 9th in 1967, a glorious season that awoke interest in, (and may have even saved), baseball.

During the spring and summer of 1967 five teams battled for first place in the American League through August, and then the California Angels slumped, (in part due to being swept when the Red Sox visited), but in September an amazing four teams were still in the race, separated by as little as a half-game in the standings. My beloved Red Sox, (who had finished 9th the year before, and had lost 100 games the year before that), were in the fight. In the last week of the season the Chicago White Sox faded, but on the very last day of the season three teams still had a chance. The Detroit Tigers and Red Sox were a game behind the Minnisota Twins, and Detroit had a doubleheader to play with the California Angels, as the Red Sox had a doubleheader to play with the Twins. To win the pennant, the Red Sox had to win both of their games, and Detroit had to lose at least one game. And that is exactly what came to pass.

As a fifteen-year-old youth who had long supported 9th place losers,  this sporting event was a sort of epiphany: Impossible dreams could come true.

One thing I remember about that September is that teachers didn’t hassle me as much about not getting my homework done, and that a TV was rolled into the high-school cafeteria for World Series day-games, and everyone skipped classes to watch the start of those games, and then rushed home to watch the final innings, with the school-bus-driver running his transistor radio up at top volume, so we could hear the middle innings.

As I sat in the school cafeteria at the start of the first game of the World Series,  and heard ordinarily staid, stuffy, and snobby teachers and students dissolve into raucous cheers over a first-inning hit, I recall sitting up and wondering to myself, “What the heck is happening here?” After all, a year before, I was something of an odd ball, to care a hoot about the Red Sox.

The same thing was happening in Boston’s ice hockey world. An amazing hockey player named Bobby Orr was changing the Boston Bruins from perpetual losers, who hadn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1941, to a team capturing the imagination of New England, and when the Bruins won the championship in 1970 as Orr scored the winning goal in overtime, a sizable percentage of the population of New England all stood up at once and yelled.

bobby_orr_in_mid-air_1970

This moment is now captured, in bronze, by a horizontal statue in Boston, (which will make archaeologists a thousand years in the future wonder what sort of weird religion we followed). And I must admit that, at the time, I was again wondering, “What the heck is happening here?” After all, not long before I was an oddball, for rooting for the loser Bruins.

Winning attracts people like honey attracts flies. Around here (and likely in many other places), the old joke goes: When the team wins people say, “WE won”, but when they lose people say, “THEY lost.”  

The days of glory were all too brief. All too soon a new season started, and the winners became ordinary and mortal, and the fair weather friends drifted away.

Me? As a boy, I wasn’t like the others. My loyalty was fierce, and when my team lost I suffered like a dagger was thrust into my stomach. It seems downright masochistic, looking back, because most of the time my faithfulness brought me pain.  The Bruins had two shining years, 1970 and 1972, and the Red Sox reached two World Series (and lost both) in 1967 and 1975, and beyond that I suffered the way one suffers, when one loves a loser.

Eventually I had to change my attitude, or else being a sports-fan would have killed me. I think it was football that really brought this home to me.

Boston was such a loser it had even lost its National Football League franchise,  (the Boston Braves, [later Redskins],  who moved to Washington). Because loyalty meant a lot to me as a boy, the betrayal of Boston by the NFL caused a simmering resentment, (even though it happened before I was born), especially because we were expected to root for the New York Giants, which was the most nearby team.

As a boy, New York could be nothing but the enemy. It’s lucky the NFL never met me face to face when I was aged nine, because I sure would have told them exactly where to go. I was totally sold on a better sort of football, played by a better sort of league, the new American Football League. It had appeared out of thin air when I was seven, and they had the wisdom, the decency, and the obvious spiritual superiority, to locate a team in Boston, (even though the team didn’t have a stadium, and for years played on rented fields.)

The Patriots of my boyhood were deemed by many to be upstarts,  far beneath the notice of the pompous, high-nosed dignity of the NFL. This did not lessen my loyalty in the slightest, and I was sure “my” team was the cream of the cream. After all, the quarterback was named “Babe”, and, to a boy, that is scientific proof of superiority.

They also possessed a superstar athlete named Gino Capelletti, who could do it all. He played offence and defense and kicked field goals. He might intercept three passes in a single game on defense, while catching touchdown passes on offence, and even threw a touchdown pass at least once. Then he would kick extra points and field goals. I doubt we will ever see such a versatile player again, yet some said he was only a midget player in a weakling league. I was, of course, extremely indignant when I heard such suggestions.

Only once did the Patriots rise to a degree where they were in the championship game, of the young American Football League, (which the NFL said didn’t matter). They got clobbered, and lost 51-10. I was ten years old, and can still recall how I paced around my boyhood bedroom,  listening to the slaughter on my crackling radio, sick to my stomach. I was not a good sport. I wanted the entire city of San Diego to be nuked.

When I was fourteen the young AFL challenged the haughty NFL to a fight between the champions of each league, and got trashed. (They were taking on Vince Lombardi.) Undeterred, they challenged Lombardi again the following year, and got whupped again.   (This did not convince me the NFL was better. I was fairly certain my beloved Patriots could have humbled Vince Lombardi, had they been allowed to play. They could have clobbered Lombardi’s snide, superior Green Bay Packers. Gino Capelletti and Babe Parilli would have showed those bums a thing or two. It didn’t matter much to me that the Patriots had only won three and four games, those two respective seasons. My fierce loyalty trumped reality.) However the AFL’s losses were a knife to my gut.

The only balm to my pain was that these were the impossible-dream-years, when underdogs could accomplish miracles. And the following year, (when the fight between the NFL and the AFL was first officially dubbed the “Superbowl”), the eccentric quarterback Joe Namath and the New York Jets shocked the smug fossils of the NFL, by beating them in the third duel between best-teams.

This affirmed what I already knew: My league was the best. However I didn’t like New York getting the glory. I would have preferred it to have been the Patriots, and Gino Capelletti, that taught the NFL to be humble. New York already had had enough of success, with their Damn Yankees, and it didn’t seem right to me for any New York team to be dubbed an “underdog”.

An odd aspect of my boyhood was that New Yorkers themselves seemingly got tired of the New York Yankee’s unending success. The Yankees were so great they drove the two national league franchises from their city (the Giants and Dodgers), and then, when the national league expanded in 1962, a new team, called the New York Mets, came to town. They were the complete antithesis of the World Champion Yankees, winning only 40 games while losing 120 in their first season, yet drew enormous crowds, crowds even greater than the Yankees could draw.  Perhaps this suggests New Yorkers love comedy. (One ballplayer explained he dropped an easy pop-up because, “The moon got in my eyes.”) However perhaps even New Yorkers also love an underdog.  The lowly Mets slowly improved, striving and struggling, but remained a 9th place team.

During the time when impossible-dreams happened, these same lousy, underdog,  New York Mets unexpectedly rose from the depths and became world champions in 1969. I did not approve. If there were to be true underdogs, they could not be a New York team. It must be a New England team, like my Patriots.

That wasn’t to be. In fact New England’s Patriots, after the fleeting glory when I was ten, simply never made the play-offs until the mid 1970’s, when my attitude towards sports was undergoing a radical change.

I had been struck by how fleeting victory was, and how it could not be clung to without turning into a tarnishing trophy. Victory was like trying to grip a cloud; it was something that slipped away.

I think the worst part of seeing winners become losers was when it involved the aging of an superb athlete. Bobby Orr was completely wonderful to watch skate, amazingly graceful, but opponents brutally checked him, intentionally aiming at his knees, until his knee injuries started to make it painful to watch him skate.

Mohammed Ali had been a great boxer, so smart he made brutality like chess, but he got old, and it became painful to watch his final fights, which one person described as “like watching an autopsy be performed on a living man.”

I think the most jarring event, to my twenty-five year old sensibilities, was when a great wide receiver of the Patriots, Darrel Stingley, was paralyzed by a tackle that is now illegal, but was legal back then, where a vicious opponent’s helmet drove into the base of his neck.

To see a gifted athlete made old in a flash capsulized the mental pictures of many old athletes past their prime, with bodies and brains battered, made more crippled at age forty-five than forty-five year old weaklings, weaklings who dared not step on the same star’s shadows, back when they were twenty-five.

I found myself contemplating old age, and even death. This may seem a silly thing for a guy aged only twenty-five to contemplate, and more like the business of the old and doddering, but I took my retirement when I was young and could enjoy it. I avoided getting a real job, for I deemed myself an “artist”, and sat around like a retired person, contemplating life I hadn’t really even experienced yet.

Many poets contemplate the fleeting nature of victory. Robert Frost is superb:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

Simon and Garfunkle put it to music in the song, “The Boxer”,

I have squandered my resistance
For a pocketful of mumbles
Such are promises

The poet John Keats wrote an ode to the let-down that follows the thrill of victory, that he called “Ode To Melancholy”.

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
       And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
       Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:

All this contemplation is depressing, and makes winning seem a sort of exercise in futility. I found myself turning away from sports, in a sense recoiling from the pain of human imperfection.  The triumphs seemed too few and too far between, and triumph was too short-lived, for a new day would always dawn, and you’d have get up and do it all over again, and maybe you’d be too old, and couldn’t repeat what you’d done at age twenty-five. Lastly, there was a factor involving the fact most victory makes someone else a loser, and there existed a lurking potential for feeling guilty, about that.

When I turned away from sports I discovered sports was actually like an addiction. When I was passing through a room that had a boxing match or hockey game or Superbowl on the screen, I had to grit my teeth to keep walking. If I even paused, it would be like the bit of rum in a sponge-cake that sends an alcoholic off on a bender. I’d be drawn into the sport, and find myself rooting for “my team”, and a knife would stab my stomach if “my” team lost, and I’d want “the other team’s” home city nuked.

For the most part I stayed “on the wagon” for nearly a quarter century. I didn’t need to avoid sports on TV for I was often an artist too poor to own a TV set, and often I was sleeping in my car and too poor to buy a newspaper, so I didn’t need to worry about the enticements of sports-sections. I will confess I did sneak a peek, if I found a newspaper sitting on a park bench, to see how my beloved Red Sox were doing that summer, but largely I lived a sports-free existence.

There is much to be said for such an existence. You hardly ever want to nuke entire cities, and can hear a person comes from New York without automatically hating them. However you also learn there is no real escape from phenomenon of winners and losers. They continue to exist, even if all sports are outlawed.

Outside of sports, when two men woo the same woman, one or both will experience losing. When two businessmen pursue the same customer, only one can win. In power politics there are winners and losers. If a local newspaper offers a $15.00 poetry award, they will receive 286 awful submissions, and only one will win. 285 will lose.

My life devoid-of-sports convinced me life cannot help but involve losing. I could not avoid the pain of losing simply by shutting off the TV. After all, even the most victorious life is terminated by the loss of death. Even the most beautiful marriage owns the clause, “Until in death do we part.”

In other words, life involves loss. If you attempt to remove loss from life, you lessen life.

That is a darned profound thing I just wrote. It is something all too many of my generation lack the wits to grasp. They hate losing with such a passion they want every child to get a trophy, whether they win or lose. A child who utterly hates football, disdainfully ignores his coach, sits backwards on the bench focusing on cheerleaders, and is utterly flattened the one time the coach thinks he is doing the kid a favor by putting him into a game, still gets a “participation trophy”.  For what?

In like manner, those who love football, heed their coach, focus on the game and not the cheerleaders, and are involved in exceptional plays, can wind up damned. For what?

Also in like manner, the (thankfully now) ex-president of the United States snubbed our forefathers and Constitution, because they and It brought about victory and winners, which involved others who were losers. Our former president apparently felt such overpowering guilt for winning that he fawned and bowed and gave trophies to losers who did not deserve praise. For what?

I can only assume that my generation is downright neurotic about winning. Many, myself included, were spoiled, overly blessed by prosperity brought about by the preceding generation; a generation that knew all too much about losing and loss, due to the Great Depression and World War Two.  They, out of the softness of their hearts, were too permissive, wanting to spare my generation the hardships oldsters had experienced, but inadvertently denying us the very things most vital to appreciating joy: The agony of defeats.

You have to pay the dues if you want to sing the blues.

I tried to avoid ever losing by avoiding sports, and many other things. In a sense my avoidance was spiritual, for I was seeking Something that is lasting. Unfortunately there is nothing in creation that is lasting. The only Thing that really is lasting is something many are uncertain even exists, a Thing that exists outside of all creation, and outside space and time, called the Creator.

In another sense my detachment from caring about victory and losing was not spiritual, and was a form of cowardice. I was simply a wimp, and couldn’t stand the pain of being  a New England sports fan any more. I was rather clever, if I do say so myself, when it came to avoiding pain (and responsibility), but eventually you must pay the dues. Sleeping in your car is one example of the dues you must pay. If you don’t always win, you sin, and if you lose, you bruise.

The cool thing is that, (if you can avoid the maximum cowardice of suicide), paying the dues, bruise after bruise, does allow you to start hearing a beautiful music. Some call it “the blues”, but it is full of joy, and Beethoven could hear it although he lost even his hearing. It enables you to take a different attitude towards losing and being a loser, and it even, (and this is coolest and oddest of all), makes you a winner.

There are all sorts of platitudes that lamely attempt to describe this stunning revelation, the lamest being, “It is not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Such platitudes are easily checkmated by the platitudes of the cynical.

In actual fact I think it (whatever “it” is), is a thing a person needs to experience for themselves. No amount of blather can communicate it. A thousand sermons cannot transfer what someone gains from a single glance from beaming eyes.

During the time I was renouncing sports I did occasionally fall off the wagon. The temptation was usually the chance to be a fair-weather fan, and to rush and see a New England team actually be a champion. This involved considerable work, back in the day when I lived in the Four-Corners Area, sometimes without electricity, let alone a TV.

One job I worked was at a remote gas station off Interstate 40, where I lived without electricity or a radio. I’d get my information from people passing through. Occasionally the information seemed worth driving a half hour to Gallup, New Mexico, where I could watch TV with my own eyes. For example, when I first heard of the Space Shuttle Challenger exploding, I held out hope of survivors, until I drove to Gallup and saw a replay of the event on TV at the El Rancho cocktail lounge. After seeing, I turned around and somberly drove home.

It was in the same lounge that I sat down to watch the Patriots at their first Superbowl, in 1985. The Patriots were huge underdogs. They were a lowly “wildcard” team that had made it to the Superbowl  by defeating three superior teams, while the Chicago Bears were a powerhouse. No one had scored a single point against them so far, during the entire play-offs.

New England actually did score against the Bear’s awesome defense, (losing yardage as they did so), and was actually ahead 3-0, early in the game, but when I left in disgust during the third quarter the score was 44-3. What I noticed was that the knife in my stomach hardly hurt at all any more. At age 32 my heart was hardened, and I’d lost the sensitivity I’d once owned, at age ten.

The next year I headed back to Gallup to see if the Red Sox might win their first World Series since 1918, against a nemesis New York team, the Mets. Due to some strange twist of fate I found myself watching the game next to a New York fan, in a desert barroom in the west side of Gallup, and the poor fellow was sobbing into his seventh beer as the Mets teetered on the verge of defeat. The Red Sox were one out away from victory. For some reason I turned to the man and said, “Come on, brother! Keep the faith! Don’t you know New York always wins? Boston will find a way to lose.”  And it was exactly then the following happened:

I wish I could describe the look on the tear-stained face of the Met’s fan. It was hope dawning at midnight.

Of course, for New England fans, it was midnight descending upon noon, but back then we were a tougher sort and were used to it. Only the younger and more immature fans made Bill Buckner’s life absolutely miserable, after the ball went through his legs. The rest of us New Englander’s became a superior and highly spiritual people, like iron annealed red hot and hammered on an anvil and tempered in ice water and then buffeted into burnished steel.

One thing did bother me, and make me a bit bitter, but it wasn’t that the Red Sox lost. I barely felt that sword in my gut at all. Rather it was that the Met’s fan had nothing to offer me in return. Here I’d been so nice when he was weeping, but when I had cause for weeping, was he nice in return? The least he could have done is to buy me a beer, but he didn’t, and, as I had spent my last cent, there was no reason to stay at that bar, so I staggered out the door into the desert night.

Because it took me three tries to put the key into the ignition I decided it would be unwise to drive on Interstate 40, where other cars and State Police might be encountered, and instead headed home on old route 66, which was basically an abandoned frontage road with a few crumbling ghost-motels along its edges, (which the Interstate had put out of business). It wandered through the sagebrush without the fences the Interstate had along its edges, to keep herds of cows and horses off the road, so I suppose I should have driven more slowly, and also should have been thinking about livestock, and not the travails of New England Sports fans. Then I suddenly saw a herd of horses straight ahead…but that is a story for another night.

(Purely as an aside, I will mention that, whereas in football a running back eludes tacklers with millions watching and cheering, under bright lights, an obscure poet in tiny Toyota can speed into a herd of huge horses, and nobody sees the desperate, amazing swerving, the glancing collision, or the car flying backwards out of bounds into sagebrush and darkness, and nobody cheers.)

The important thing is that I survived. Few New England fans thought they could live it down, when the ball went through Buckner’s legs, but most survived, and grew stronger through the experience. Not that a few didn’t become embittered and nasty, but the majority became amazing. Amazing? Yes, because it didn’t matter that they were mocked as losers by haughty people from New York, who always made more money, and always won, and were always bigger, and could write musicals about people who write musicals, glorifying their music. The more amazing music was Boston’s.  Why? Because Boston, back then, appreciated sports without needing any stupid trophy.

How amazing is this?  It is so amazing that I think the Creator himself took note. Of course that is sheer speculation on my part, and attempts to explain how New Englanders were such losers and failures that they even failed to lose and fail, which ruined their reputation as the epitome of losers. However I humbly concede that some readers do not believe there is any such thing as as a Creator, and therefore I grant such readers licence to skip the next five paragraphs.

It seems to me that an aspect of Infinity involves the Creator watching us, his creation, like a sports fan. Some might think there could be no reason for Him to do this, for He knows the ending already, but I like to think the Creator does get pleasure from our silly efforts and antics.

I feel this way because, in a small way, I too am a creator. When I am writing this essay I am too hard at work to appreciate it, but when the work is done, and I sit back to reread, I am too tired to rewrite or be an editor. That first rereading is bliss, because the work is done.

Later I see all the flaws, but during the first rereading I am god, with a small “g”, who knows the entire creation from beginning to end, watching his creation unfold, like a sport’s fan watching a game, and, because I have the “inside scoop”, I see things in the plot of my story no other reader will see.

In like manner, I think God, with a capital “G”, gets pleasure rereading his work. Even though He knows the ending, (a happy one), He likes seeing all the characters He has created do their thing. He is like a fan in the stands, but he appreciates both teams, and therefore He is always cheering. The bliss he gets rereading his work is infinitely greater than my bliss, when I am done my essays and my sonnets.

Too many so-called “religious authorities” have an attitude that suggests that we characters in the Creator’s creation are sinful, and a royal pain. Yes, we must be a royal pain, for the Creator Himself must be crucified just to fix us. But I beg to differ on one point, and that is that some suggest we are nothing but a pain.  I think that, instead of purely a pain, we fools are aqlso the Creator’s Superbowl, and the Creator is the one Man crowd. He thinks so much of watching us play that he will pay a high price for a ticket. “Religious authorities” tell us that the price the Creator paid included Crucifixion, as if we should all be ashamed, but I like to think that, if He would pay such a high price to scalp a ticket, we ought to give Him a Superbowl worth watching.

As the twentieth century dwindled to its end there were signs the long travail of New England football fans as perpetual losers might also end, partly because the Patriots themselves might leave their crumbling stadium. (You can’t be a loser if you don’t have a team.)  The NFL was preparing to ditch New England a second time. They were planning to move the Patriots to Jacksonville, in the deep south, which might have restarted the Civil War. Boston fans were incredulous. The Jacksonville Patriots?  Shouldn’t they be “The Rebels?”

I was watching all this from afar, but not because I was physically distant. I’d returned to New England like a bit of refuse brought in by the tide, in 1988, originally for two weeks, but one thing led to another, and in 1990 I married a woman with three small children. We had two more, and I, soon enough, found myself coaching teams of small boys, as a dad around twenty years older than the other fathers.

The younger fathers lacked my silver hair and hoary wisdom and, too be honest, were in some ways completely insane. There should be some phrase like “Road Rage” that describes young fathers coaching sons. (My wife suggests “Daddy Drama”).  I realized I was far more removed and detached than they were.  I owned an objectivity that may have made me in some ways dull and boring and less passionate, but also made me a better sport, and even more able to enjoy sports.

To my own astonishment I found myself reminding myself of my own stepfather, though I was not even close to being the fossil he was.

(Flashback to 1968) Initially I resented my stepfather deeply for making my mother a “trophy wife”, for she was 27 years younger than he was. As years passed the old man charmed my socks off, and I came to respect him, as he loved sports and had played semi-pro ball as a young man. There was only one thing I found hard to forgive: He had been a teenager at Fenway Park when the Red Sox last won a World Series in 1918. I figured that was why he could be so calm and contemplative when the Red Sox lost the Series in 1975. He’d experienced being a winner, but me? Never, never, never would I ever experience that brief pinnacle of pleasure.

(Flash-forward to 1998) Now that I was thirty years older, it occurred to me that, when the old man died in 1978, he had been a loser for sixty straight years, yet seemingly never let it get to him. What’s more, now that I had past age forty I myself was seemingly changed, and losing didn’t get to me, or make me foam at the mouth as much, either.

As I dealt with the emotional young Dads, who were all convinced their sons were the next Babe Ruth, and felt anything short of a starring role for their sons was nipping the buds of genius, I became aware that, besides geezers like myself who were attempting to bring sanity to the situation, there was a sleazy sort who hoped to make money off the situation.

Examples of such sleaze are countless, and include many teachers who think they can parent better than parents, at a price (while parents work for free), but my favorite examples were shoe salesman. They spent large amounts of money pressuring parents, insisting footwear that cost $150.00 would make overworked parents be better parents than footwear the parents could afford, that cost only $25.00.

So effective were footwear advertisements that, in my little town, the autumn of 1995 saw thirteen-year-old girls clumping around in “fashionable” army boots, until the first snow fell, when the fashion took a bizarre twist to ballet slippers, and thirteen-year-old girls refused to wear the very boots they had nagged parents for, sixty days earlier, and instead painfully picked their way to school in the ruts cars made in the deep snow, wearing slippers. It slowed traffic, because the girls couldn’t step from the ruts and allow the cars to pass, and why? Because the people selling shoes didn’t care if parents were late to work.

I was deemed a cruel and insensitive stepfather, because when wind-chills were at minus twenty and the powder snow drifted, I not only said my daughters should wear army boots, but also that my son should wear a hat, despite the fact a woolen hat messed up his “spike” hairstyle. Furthermore I refused to buy my son $150.00 “Michael Jordan” basketball sneakers, despite the fact it ruined his future in the NBA. I muttered something along the lines of, “When I was young we played basketball in wooden shoes, and had to carve them ourselves.” Younger fathers were not as tough as me, and caved, and bought the $150.00 sneakers they could ill afford, and not only saw that their sons failed to make the NBA, but saw the sneakers failed to fit their sons in only two months, as feet grew.

I got fed up with the ludicrous social pressures of that time. The so-called “Massachusetts Miracle” had collapsed into a so-called “economic downturn”, and young fathers were unable to make mortgage payments, and lost their homes. One reason I kept my home was because I hadn’t fallen for footwear commercials. Another reason was that I worked three jobs. One late-night job was to clean up foreclosed houses, for a bank. They were houses littered with expensive toys and outgrown $150.00 sneakers. It was obvious the young parents had been fools with their money.

My response was to scorn social norms. This was not all that difficult, because I’d scorned social norms back when I was an artist sleeping in my car. However it tweaked my pride a little, because before I had been called a “liberal”, but now I was abruptly labeled a “conservative”, when I yanked my children from the nonsense they were being subjected to, and went through the trouble of home-schooling them.

Because I was so scornful of all the hoopla the media and Madison Avenue blared, my interest in sports hit rock bottom. I cared about my kids, not some absurdly overpaid athlete who was busy being a terrible example, and incapable of any Real Job, and who instead was infatuated with some silly ball or puck. However, like a king peering over ramparts to see what the enemy was up to, I did still occasionally check the sports section of newspapers, and the standings. I did know the Patriots might move to Jacksonville, and was surprised I cared, for I felt I was beyond caring for a bunch of overpaid idiots.

I told myself I didn’t really care, and was only spying out the strategy of the enemy, but maybe there was still a little boy in me that didn’t want my beloved Patriots leaving town.  In any case, despite being overworked I was a sleuth, when it came to seeking out the reasons that the team could never finalize the deals, and ditch New England.

The wrench in the works of the team leaving town for Jacksonville, (or later Saint Louis), was a fanatical New England Patriots fan, named Robert Kraft.  A season-ticket-holder, he’d been a fan since back before the AFL merged with the NFL, and he was determined to keep the team in town. For most fans that desire would have been merely an infantile delusion-of-grandeur, but Robert Kraft was no ordinary fan. He knew how to wheel and deal, and how to utilize delusions-of-grandeur in the high art of salesmanship, and how to play a sort of organized sport called, “big business”.

Basically Robert Kraft sold paper, but paper includes wrappers, and it is amazing how he convinced people his paper was the perfect paper to wrap their produce in, and even to wrap products you would not normally think needed a wrapper. Why the military would think its missiles needed wrappers I can’t say, but Robert Kraft sold them the wrappers. (I suppose it was a bit like selling schoolgirls army boots; some sort of delusion is involved in the salesmanship.)

Robert Kraft knew all the ins and outs of wheeling and dealing, and for the most part was extremely practical. His only impractical investment was in a losing football team it seemed impossible he could buy.  However he was tricky and bought property abutting the New England Patriots’ stadium, even when he couldn’t buy the crumbling concrete itself. It turned out owning this abutting property included certain clauses involving the Patriots, and enabled Kraft to get in the way, when the team wanted to flee New England. He wouldn’t let the team off long-term leases, so they couldn’t escape to Jacksonville.  Finally, when the team was basically bankrupt, he became very unbusinesslike and impractical, and offered more money than had ever been paid before, for a NFL team, to buy the team. The offer was too good to refuse.

Suddenly an actual fan, who cared more for sports than for investing wisely, became the owner of the loser team. New England breathed a sigh of relief. (Oddly, as if Robert Kraft’s infectious enthusiasm caught on, the stadium was immediately sold out, even for practice games.)

Some of the enthusiasm was because the new coach of the Patriots, Bill Parcells, had a reputation for taking broken teams and making them into champions. He’d turned the loser New York giants into Superbowl champions in 1986 and 1990, before health concerns caused him to retire. When he recovered and returned to coaching he returned to coach New England. The loser team immediately began improving, hope awoke among the fans, and when they reached the Superbowl for only the second time in their history in 1996 hope was peaking, though New England fans, being New England fans, feared some unforeseen disaster might occur. And they were correct to fear,  the worst did occur, albeit in a new and fascinating way.

There had been disagreement between Bill Parcells and Robert Kraft about who to draft, (a defensive end or an offensive end), and this ego-struggle led Parcells to reject Kraft and to seek a coaching job where he would have the powers of a general manager. The dreaded nemesis of New England, New York, then appeared to “steal” Parcells ( the same way New York had “stolen” Babe Ruth and Roger Clemens). What was completely inconceivable to the New England fans was  that Parcells’s desertion was worked out and leaked out to the press during the two week lead-up to the Superbowl. (His assistant coach, Bill Belichick, later suggested Parcells should have put off the negotiations until after the Superbowl, and that his attention was not fully on the game.)

In any case confusion and dismay reigned before the Superbowl, which some suggest was the reason New England lost. (Then, perhaps to accentuate his disdain towards Robert Kraft, Parcells ditched his own players after the defeat, and let them fly home alone on the team jet, as he flew to his new job in New York on a different jet. Even if this gesture was aimed at Robert Kraft,  players never forgot it. Parcells could never regain the player-loyalty he once felt was his to utilize, and never reached a Superbowl again.)

To me this was just the same old stuff. One way or another, New England always finds a way to lose. Selfishness and egotism always triumphed over gifts and talent.  Some other team wins, and gets to see how gifts and talent can work in harmony and lead to triumph, but the people of New England learn the same lesson from the other side. After all, the sun shines on the rich and poor alike, and the same law of gravity applies to both, and therefore the same higher truths can be learned from all experiences, whether they are experiences of winning or the experiences of losing.

This returns me to the subject of some people who “appreciated sports without needing any stupid trophy”,  which was something literally brought home to me, because my home seldom included the things Madison Avenue claims are vital to happiness.  It was not only my children who didn’t get the $150.00 footwear they desired; my truck was always a rust-bucket and a clunker, and often the only way it could pass inspection was for me to go to a neighboring small town where a small garage was operated by the local police chief, dubbed “the quicker sticker licker.” However despite the fact nothing in my life could be called a “trophy” (except perhaps my wife) my home was a happy home.

It was all to easy to contrast my happiness as a “Have not” with the lot of those who seemingly “Had it made”, and to see they suffered alcoholism, drug addiction, divorce, and various forms of abuse. One does not have to be particularly smart to see Madison Avenue is full of bleep, and what they claim is “vital to happiness” is an empty promise, a pig in a poke, complete con-artistry, and likely countless other expressions that imply the buyer should beware.

In the 1800’s the American government was far more frugal than it has become, and to save money the mint used the same mold to make both the nickle and the five-dollar coin. The coins looked exactly the same, but one was made of cheap metal and one was solid gold. So, of course, tricksters gilded the five-cent-piece with gold leaf and tried to pass them as five-dollar-coins. This led to the more careful sorts biting gold coins, to make sure they were soft gold that could be dented by teeth, and not gilded nickles.

This is an excellent symbol for the testing one learns to do in life, to determine whether various things have deep and meaningful value, or only the most superficial veneer of value.

In terms of footwear in January, slippers may own the superficial value of being fashionable, but after a few toes are amputated due to frostbite, boots may seem to have a deeper and more lasting value.  However it depends on what matters most to you. Some care so much for fashion that the loss of a few toes seems a small thing.

In like manner, some men care so much for the love of a woman that the complete shambles such love makes of the rest of their life seems a small thing. This complication to the excellent business sense of Harry Frazee likely led his to divorce and  remarriage.curse-1-220px-harry-frazee

The gentleman pictured above sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. (I urge all to study him further, to understand the complexities, for he was in some ways like a modern owner battling a NFL commissioner.)

Harry Frazee had been on a businessman’s winning-streak, when it came to sponsoring winning Broadway plays, and also the (then) small-potatoes investments in things like heavyweight boxing championships, and champion professional baseball teams. This businessman’s winning-streak came to an end right when his first marriage hit its reef, which I suggest indicates his values were stressed, and he experienced a “disturbance in the Force.” In any case,  he sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. In the superstitions of athletes and sports fans, that choice cursed New England.

Superstition is silly, but the bad luck of New England became such a neurosis that a road sign reading “Reverse Curve”, when marred by graffiti to read “Reverse the Curse”, was left besmirched and became a landmark.

 curse-2-download

As the twentieth century ended it seemed nothing could succeed in reversing the curse, but as the twenty-first century began something very odd happened. The fanatic fan and owner of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft, turned the tables on New York, and convinced them to trade a Babe Ruth to New England, and the name of this Babe Ruth was Bill Belicheck.

There is some debate as to whether the twenty-first century ended with the year 1999 or the year 2000, and the 2000 season was not great, as Belichick began his work on the team of football losers. However Parcells’ first season of rebuilding was not the greatest. New England fans had been through it before, and enjoyed the 2001 season, where Tom Brady first rose from the bench to lead the team when the star quarterback Drew Bledsoe was hurt. Brady’s success was enjoyed with the expectation that, in the end, losing would be the result. Or, I should say, that was how I felt.

The team showed sterling qualities, but I fully expected some fiasco to descend and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Rather than letting the eventual doom depress me, I just enjoyed the sterling displayed by men who were half my age, when I could watch the games at all, with my old TV that had bad reception, until I strung not sterling, but old copper wire in the back yard, and attached it to the “rabbit ears” atop the set.

I didn’t catch all the games, as I had to work hard and grab work when I could find it, even when it was during games, but I did enjoy the class displayed by the young players, when I had a chance to watch it. (I was particularly impressed by Drew Bledsoe, for when he had recovered from his injury he didn’t make a stink about Brady still playing, and instead publicly seemed to put the team ahead of his own status, as star quarterback.)

The inevitable doom came when the Patriots played the Raiders in a play-off game in a snowstorm. After leading a heroic comeback, Brady appeared to fumble the ball, and the game was lost. As I walked to the TV to shut it off I felt no knife in my gut about the loss, but was feeling very sad for younger New England fans who I knew were suffering the way I once suffered, before I learned to be a better sport. And then, just before I turned the set off, the referee appeared on the screen and stated the fumble was not a fumble, but a incomplete pass. The “tuck rule” was evoked

I was incredulous. To me it looked all the world like Brady was not going to pass; he had decided to check that impulse.  If the tackler had hit his arm a quarter second later, his choice to hold the ball would have been clear, and it would have been a fumble. However he was hit when he was in the process of making that choice, when his arm was slowing but still going forward. It is a hair’s-breadth distinction, and it had always been my experience that such judgments went against New England. However luck had changed like a tide. As I returned to the couch to watch the rest of the game I had the sense the World, even the Universe,  had been altered.

The rest is history. The team continued to be a team. When Brady was hurt Drew Bledsoe arose from the bench to win a crucial game, and then sat back down without the egotistical whining I fully expected. Finally, when it came time to introduce the players in the Superbowl they set aside individual egotism, and insisted on being introduced “as a team”. And they won, though 14 points underdogs, against “The Greatest Show On Turf.”

Ever since then New England fans have had to endure something they never expected: Being the new winners, the new New York Yankees; being the team that crushes the hopes of out-of-town fans, and of earning the hate of small, loyal boys who now want, en mass, to see New England nuked.

I don’t much want to be nuked, but it would be worth it, just to have lived through this remarkable start to the twenty-first century, in New England. I have seen remarkable things I never expected to see, (including the Red Sox be behind the Yankees 3 games to none in the 2004 7-game-series, and trail 4-3 in the bottom of the 9th, in game 4, yet go on to win four straight games, and then go on to win the Red Sox first World Series in 86 years.) The Bruins have been champions as well, in hockey, and the Celtics, in basketball, but the the Patriots have been most steadfast and dependable of all.

To be young in New England the past fifteen years is to have grown up spoiled rotten, and the young likely miss what I glimpse, due to my long experience of being a loser. And what is it that I glimpse?  It is that to be a true champion you must be a bad winner.

To be a good winner you must put your fat ego first, and concentrate on your own success. Yet what I have noticed about the great New England teams of the past fifteen years is that the ego is put aside for the “team”. For example, back in 2001 Drew Bledsoe didn’t make a stink about being benched, and didn’t put his own status as “star” first, and thus earned himself a Superbowl ring, (and hopefully status as a legend.) However it takes more than a single individual agreeing to lose, to make a great team.  In a sense the entire team must agree to lose, (also called “sacrifice”), and out of such loss comes a championship.

I am not sure how or why or what has made the New England Patriots so much fun to watch the past fifteen years, but it is obvious it is a glimpse of greatness. Likely success is due to no single individual, and rather a fortuitous combination of owner, coach, quarterback and many, many players.

Such combinations are rare, and the current combination is getting old. Robert Kraft is old, Bill Belicheck is old, and Tom Brady is old for a quarterback, at age 39. The current Superbowl may be the last time we see the magic manifested.

What is obvious? What is obvious is that those who only care about “winning” are seeing only the superficial surface. They wind up with the eggshell, and miss the egg. They wind up hurt, and hateful, and want entire cities nuked. They are fooled like I was, as a boyish sports fan, or wind up like schoolgirls wearing fashionable slippers in deep snow.

When you get old and wise like me, you could care less about being a good winner, or fashionable, and would rather be a bad winner. And let that be a lesson to you, this Superbowl Sunday.

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7 thoughts on “Bad Winners — Bradey, Belichick, and the Travail of New England Football Fans

  1. Sorry to be picky and maybe you are simply not a basketball fan, but as a lifelong Boston area sports fan, how can you not mention the great and exciting 1980’s Celtics teams led by their living God, known as Larry Bird and their incredible rivalry with the Lakers?

    I suppose it might seem racist/politically incorrect to recognize a white player as one of the all time greats, or mention him in the same breath as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson or Labron James (not to mention Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russel) as one of the all time greats. But he truly was and the 1980’s Celts provided some of the most exciting basketball ever played.

    Also, as I feel your pain as a Boston sports fan, you have to remember that I am a DC fan and except for the Joe Gibbs football era between 1983 and 1992, our cupboard has been very bare.

    A baseball history where not one, but two teams left our city. Now a team that regularly makes the playoffs, just to get crushed in the playoffs. Same for the Capitals. The Wizards did win one championship in the late 1970’s, but have been the personification of mediocrity ever since.

    Then the Redskins of recent years with perhaps the worst owner of all time and a sports media that chews up players and spits them out. Now they finally have a decent QB (Kirk Cousins) and they can’t or won’t sign him.

    There is then the idiot owner stubbornly refuses to change the obviously racist team name. Anybody that watches old Westerns for fun as I do is appalled to hear the phrase “filthy, stinking Redskins” being used enough to make you want to puke. Not exactly a term of endearment!

    • I had to exclude basketball for two reasons. First, I didn’t play it well and, to be honest, didn’t understand the strategy of the game. Second, the Celtics didn’t fit my theme, for they were winners and the theme of this post involves losers.

      Red Auerbach was a sort of Bill Belichick of basketball. Did you know he started coaching in Washington DC, for an early pro team called the “Capitals” of the BAA? (Basketball Association of America). He coached winning teams, but quit after a fight with the owner. Washington’s loss was Boston’s gain.

      Auerbach broke the “color line” in basketball without much fuss or hoop-la, (as a purely practical, business matter), and judged players by their skill and not their skin. He was an innovative genius, but his early teams played so much fast-break basketball they tended to become exhausted and lose in the fourth quarter. It took Bill Russel’s defense to create the “dynasty”.

      Perhaps the clearest indication of Auerbach’s genius is that so many he taught went on to be champion coaches in their own right.

      Another indication of the Celtic’s teamwork is that they never had a superstar scorer like Wilt Chamberlin, who once scored a hundred points in a game. The Celtics were such passers they tended to have five players who scored twenty points, and never had a player who led the league in scoring (though Larry Bird comes close to qualifying as that sort of superstar.)

      If you can see passing the ball off as “losing” a chance to score, you can see how “losing” makes for a better team, which is something Belichick seems to teach. It is a philosophy that runs counter to the me-first egotism of our times.

      The idea behind this post is that to be a champion you have to sacrifice, and give up on “winning” in a selfish, personal sense. You have to be “bad” at such winning, which led to the clever (I hope) title, “Bad Winners.”

      If I had focused on Auerbach’s genius at the start I would have spoiled the development of this post’s punch line, which is why I left basketball out of the equation. The punchline works better with Belichick’s genius appearing at the end.

      I actually did become a fan of the Larry Bird Celtics in the 1980’s, while a drifter, down south and out west, and went out of my way to find a TV and see certain games. I became a little more knowledgeable about basketball, but my attraction to the sport was partly because the sport didn’t cripple athletes the way football and boxing and hockey does, and I was a bit snooty and PC about such things, when in my late twenties and early thirties.

      When I wandered about in the Four Corners Area I was often a lone white man among Navajo and Zuni, and discovered they largely didn’t take offence at teams being named after Indians, or Indians being on coins. They knew all too well the peculiar love-hate relationship America has had with its original inhabitants, and tended to have a tongue-in-cheek attitude about being glorified in a strangely demeaning way by environmentalists. I watched some fellows play the part, speaking one way to tourists and anthropologists, and a completely different way when drinking a beer with me. One fellow told me that when watching old westerns as a boy all the boys would root for the cowboys against the Indians in the movie, because “We knew those Indians in the movie were bad ones.”

      However they did set me straight about the details of “Custer’s Last Stand.” Hollywood had made the battle look like the Alamo, with twenty Indians dying for each white man falling, but in truth Custer seemingly was committing suicide, and his troops got slaughtered. One Navajo even gave me a history book, so I could read the details of the event myself.

      As a boy I recall I had a love of Sonny Jurgensen of the Washington Redskins, primarily because he had a bit of a pot belly, and I liked the idea of a fat guy being such a great passer.

      Good to hear from you. And don’t drop your guard. I have a sense the second half of winter will have some late-season surprises for the east coast.

  2. 1986. Quite a year. The Pats had their high profile QB – Tony Eason – and it was the old warhorse Steve Grogan that got them to the superbowl. The last quarterback to call his own game, But it was Eason that put the Pats so far out of the game that no man could work a miracle big enough though Grogan tried. I lost all real interest in the Patriots when Grogan left the field. Loved to watch him play. Even slowed, he could still pull off the naked bootleg.

    As for Bellichek, I can remember that year with Bledsoe and Brady. Brady was hurt in the superbowl, and Bellichek wouldn’t even allow Bledsoe a single set of downs to insure Brady was okay so he could say he played in a superbowl. That ring must be an empty prize to him. Nothing more than your “participation award” probably given the water boy. Never cared what happened after that and also gave up football. I will admit that they’ve had their run though.

  3. What an incredible game! I don’t even think it is debatable in terms of who is the greatest QB ever.

    The Atlanta fans were outraged that the Falcons were snapping the ball in the 2nd half with 15-20 seconds still left on the clock. Also not running more during the 2nd half.

    Maybe they were overconfident. Or maybe the coaches thought the only way to lose was to go into a shell on offense and run a “prevent defense” which never prevents anything.

    Truly a game for the ages.

    • It was really an unbelievable game. Just when you think you have seen it all, this amazing team pulls off something even more amazing than before. But they can’t top this last effort.

      I’ve heard a lot of Monday-morning-quarterbacks say what Atlanta “should have done”, but such 20-20 hindsight is not there in the heat of the moment. I think a sort of “fog of war” sets in, and that is where Belichick is best, because he makes the right choices during crazy-time, when you are not given time to think. He would have burned up the clock and run the ball, if in Atlanta’s shoes, but Atlanta was seemingly stuck in using what had worked before, thinking it would continue to work. It didn’t. Belichick had adjusted. (One of my favorite camera shots was him jotting notes in a notebook with a pen; [he smashed his tablet-computer in the middle of a game, two months ago]; he looked as detached as a coach jotting notes in a practice session. Wouldn’t it be fun to get a peek at that notebook?)

      Atlanta’s defense was utterly exhausted (or “gassed”, as the player’s say), by the end, as the Patriots had that defense on the field for 40:31 and they were off the field for only 23:27. I don’t think this is an “accident of fate”, because when Belicheck was defensive coordinator of the Giants, and they were up against the high powered offence of Kelly and the Buffalo Bills, the Bill’s defense was on the field over 40 minutes. Can it be that Belichick actually plans that, if the opponent is going to score, they will do it fast, and their defense will get no rest?

      At the end of the game it looked like Atlanta was still in that “score fast” mode, because it had been easy earlier.

      Sort of a strategy similar to “rope-a-dope.”

      In any case, an amazing game. I’m going to write a post about how that parents looked, dropping their kids off at my Childcare, the day after.

  4. Many poets contemplate the fleeting nature of victory.

    Rudyard Kipling, in his poem “If” wrote

    “If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;”

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