My Packers: The Emotional Tribalism Of Fandom

[Article republished from January 2010]

I can’t sit still when it’s down to the wire.

Four minutes to go in the fourth, the Packers are driving for the game-tying score and I’m on my feet, pacing around my room. It’s been a wild shootout at the NFC Wild Card game: Green Bay’s young gun Aaron Rodgers and Arizona’s grizzled gunslinger Kurt Warner were taking turns tearing up the turf with laser-precision touchdown throws, the defense on both teams nonexistent. In the third quarter, the Packers were down by 21 and gasping for air; now, they’re knocking on the door.

This is the second time in three years the Packers have been in the playoffs. In 2007, we—in Green Bay, Packers fans own the team—had quite the playoff run. We demolished the Seahawks at Lambeau Field in the divisional round on a snow-covered turf. The next week, with the field temperature at or around arctic, the Giants come to Lambeau for the NFC Championship game. In the fourth we tie it up 20-20. The Giants have a chance to win with a field goal, but Tynes sends it wide left. Overtime. I’m on my feet, pacing nervously around the room. Favre throws an interception, and the Giants win it with a field goal. It’s all over.

Today, the Packers are sweating in the Arizona dome. Rodgers connects with Havner, tying the game 45-45. Less than two minutes left, the Cardinals drive and set up for a field goal. Wide left. Overtime. I’m on my feet, pacing nervously around my room. Not again, I think. We win the coin toss. The lob to Jennings downfield – the game winner – is overthrown. Then Rodgers is hit, fumbles, a Cardinal picks it up and runs it in for the score. The game. It’s all over.

The heartbreak hangover. Every sports fan has gone through it: the empty feeling after a devastating loss. The aimlessness. The Packers were on such a roll coming into the playoffs—the loss doesn’t seem real. Its suddenness makes it harder to accept. We were playing, then suddenly the ball came loose, it was in the end zone, and we were done. A bad dream, really.

In the days after I joked with friends that I was going through the stages of grief. The denial came quickly: No, it’ll be called back. There was a penalty. Once it settled in, the anger showed up: What the hell? Why didn’t someone pick up that block? Then the bargaining took place: If we could just do the last play over again… The depression stuck for longer. Seeing the highlights from the game on TV the next few days made it worse. It wasn’t until about four days later when I was finally able to accept the loss and look forward to next year.

This is all very melodramatic, is it not? Applying such a serious paradigm to what is ultimately just a game seems belittling to those suffering the loss of something more than a game. But it is a process many sports fan goes through—consciously or not—with teams and games they invest so much of themselves into; surely these emotions cannot be entirely frivolous.

According to some research, avid fandom and a deep commitment to one sports team are anything but frivolous. A 2000 New York Times article explored the psychology of hardcore sports fans—what their investment means and why it is important. “Our sports heroes are our warriors,” Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, said in the article about sports fans. “This is not some light diversion to be enjoyed for its inherent grace and harmony. The self is centrally involved in the outcome of the event. Whoever you root for represents you.”

Often fanatics of any sport are looked down upon as obsessed, depressed loners in search of diversion and self-identity. But one theory the New York Times floats suggests fan psychology has its roots in “a primitive time when human beings lived in small tribes, and warriors fighting to protect tribes were true genetic representatives of their people.” Every team in its own way is a culture of people who share similar beliefs and customs. In sports those customs – unique chants, specialized uniforms, shared investment in the team’s history – allow spectators to form bonds with their “warriors.” Dr. James Dabbs, a psychologist at George State University, said in an interview that “fans empathize with the competitors to such a degree that they mentally project themselves into the game and experience the same hormonal surges athletes do,” especially in important contests, like a playoff game. “We really are tribal creatures,” he said.

We wear jerseys and decorate our homes with the colors and faces of our favorite athletes – our warriors – and follow them into the field of battle, though our battle happens in the living room or in the stadium seats and instead of using our bodies to fight like the athletes do we use our voices and emotional support. So when our favorite team loses an important game, the effect is not just mental and emotional; it is common to feel physically depressed or even ill.

Which brings us back to the Wild Card weekend. I watch my team – my tribe – fall as the others smile victoriously on the field of battle. I don’t feel ill, but I’m not happy. I commiserate with my fellow Cheeseheads online. I call my dad to make sense of the game.

“That throw to Jennings,” I say. “That was the game.”

“I know,” he says. We were so close. We rehash everything that went wrong, but then turn to everything we did right. Everything that gives us hope for next year. And there is a lot of hope for next year.

I think my tribe will be just fine.

What Is Aaron Rodgers?

A point of pride here: Jason Wilde is the Packers beat writer for ESPNMilwaukee.com and a Twitter fiend and also hosts “The Aaron Rodgers Show” on Tuesdays. He solicits questions for Aaron on Twitter and today on a whim I submitted one.

Turns out, he asked the future 2011 league MVP my question. What was the question? and what was his answer? Listen to the whole show below, or skip right to my question at the 37-minute mark.

Update (April 2015): The audio from the show is no longer available. I asked which Jeopardy category, besides football, would he most excel at, and he said history or religion.

What’s Going On?

Haven’t been on much—camp is keeping me busy. It is nice, though, to be able to unplug from the world for a while and not be able to check your email and keep up on the news even if you want to. Here’s a few thoughts on random stuff:

—The Dark Knight was just amazing. I’m looking forward to seeing it again.

—In regards to the Favre-Packers debacle, the Packers organization I think has done right. Favre has lost all of the goodwill he earned throughout his career by continuing to flip-flop and run his mouth. I’ll always be a Favre fan, but I’m a Packers fan above all. He retired quite tearfully and emphatically. If he wants to come back he has to do it on the team’s terms.

—Ebert & Roeper at the Movies, Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper’s weekly movie review show will no longer be. Ebert and Disney could not come to an agreement about the show’s direction after Ebert’s departure and so both Ebert and Roeper will be leaving the show. I really, really hope they find a way to get back on the air on their own terms because the intelligent and entertaining film criticism it provides week to week is one of a kind.

—The two movies I was most looking forward to this summer—The Dark Knight and Wall-E—did not let me down. I’m not sure what else is coming out this summer that will be worth watching, but I’ll have lots of time after camp to check them out.

Favre’s Retirement Ends Golden Age Of Quarterbacks

Published in the North Central Chronicle on March 28, 2008.

February 3, 1997. My first Super Bowl. It was so exciting; the first game I remember seeing on television and my team was playing. It was my Green Bay Packers. And it was my Brett Favre.

My family hosted the party. I was decked out in my No. 4 jersey and brand new Cheesehead as I watched Favre throw touchdown after touchdown against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI. He even managed a rare quarterback sneak for a score. He helped bring the Lombardi Trophy back where it belongs to Lombardi’s home sweet home; the legendary Lambeau Field. I felt so proud that the Packers were my team and that Brett Favre was my quarterback.

Unfortunately, as every football fan knows, good times like these never last long. Injury, free agency, or retirement always snatches our heroes away from us. Sometimes they make their exit after a tragic injury in the twilight of their career or after a triumphant Super Bowl victory. Brett Favre did neither; he left on his own terms.

My dad called me to tell me the news. “Favre retired.” I should have been somewhat prepared for this; sports writers and non-Packer fans have been calling for his retirement for years, but I was shocked. I felt empty. I have not known life without Brett Favre as the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers.

I spent the next couple of days disheartened. I watched every highlight reel I could find of his top plays and memorable moments. I even got teary with him as he formally announced his retirement (not kidding). I pushed through all of the stages of grief, albeit superficially. I probably won’t reach full acceptance until the season opener when, for the first time in my memory, Brett Favre will not be there to take the snap.

I know this all seems melodramatic. After all, football is just a game and Favre is just a man. But I grew up with a legendary quarterback who started every game and made big plays when they mattered. I realize now how special and rare it is to have such a gift. I’ve never had to constantly shift my trust to the next fifth-round draft pick who would just let me down again. I’ve been able to turn on the television on Sundays during football season and know that, win or lose, the Packers would be okay.

I felt that way because Favre was more than a quarterback. He was the anchor and the image of the Packers organization and of the entire state of Wisconsin. Politicians cycled in and out while Favre kept driving down the Frozen Tundra looking for a score. But even more than that; he was a constant in my life in which I could find solace and inspiration as I trekked through the rockiness of childhood and adolescence. I felt safe knowing that Favre would remain, no matter how good or bad the Packers performed.

What Favre brought to the game was his playground antics, his improvisational skills, his grit, and his pure joy for the game. He was no cookie cutter quarterback. Even Vikings and Bears fans, the Packers’ true nemeses, fell victim of his charm every time he flashed that toothy grin after making a ridiculous play. He threw off of his heels constantly and scrambled in the pocket like a decapitated chicken. He threw the most touchdowns as well as the most interceptions. He was a true gunslinger, a rugged man’s man; the John Wayne of the gridiron.

Still, as hard as it is for me to say, it was a good time for him to go. He broke nearly every major NFL record a quarterback can break and had fun doing it. Even though he didn’t get the second Super Bowl win he wanted, he is leaving on top after arguably the best year of his career, Super Bowl ring or not. (I’m planning on repressing the memory of his last pass; an interception that cost a Super Bowl bid.)

With Favre hanging up his cleats, a golden age of quarterbacks has ended. Steve Young, Dan Marino, John Elway, Troy Aikman, and Brett Favre all epitomized what was great about football and the everyday heroes it can give us. The Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings are talented of course, but they don’t have the spark that made Favre football fun to watch.

Outside of the realm of football, Favre is leaving behind a legacy decorated with not just wins and losses, but also the fond memories of a scrawny redhead who loved to run routes with his dad and imagine he was catching the winning pass in Lambeau Field from one of the game’s greats. That is a bond that time cannot erode.

The march to football season is going to be strange for me and my fellow Packers fans. We will be out of step for the first time in a long time. The sparkle we’ve grown to know and love has faded from the Packers franchise and from the NFL. But once we move on, we’ll be able to get back to beating the Bears and winning the Super Bowl. It is what Favre would have wanted.

On Brett Favre’s Retirement

My first memory of Brett Favre was watching him win Super Bowl XXXI. My family hosted a huge party in our basement. I watched as he threw a long shot down the middle on an audible to Andre Rison for the first score, then to Antonio Freeman down the right sideline for a score. I saw him dive into the near left corner of the endzone for a touchdown. And I saw him thrust his helmet into the air in celebration with that bright smile on.

Brett has been with me since that time. I’ve watched him win a Super Bowl, then lose one, then go into the deepest of ruts. I watched him battle back to the playoffs–making heroic last-second plays to win, and tragic mistakes to lose. He was a gunslinger. No apologies. The plays he made were impossibly reckless, yet he still made them.

He loved to play. Everyone knew this. He got into the habit of hoisting his receivers in the air after they caught another one of his zingers for a score. Every time he attempted a run or made a block, we couldn’t help but laugh, then make sure he was okay. Of all of the records he recently broke, none is as special to Brett as the consecutive games started. As a quarterback, the player that gets hit the most and hardest, he managed to take the hits and keep on ticking. Even when he did get injured, he was back the next week lobbing Hail Marys and tossing the ball underhanded.

He was so close last year to getting back to the Super Bowl. But he was right when he said that it is much worse to get to the Super Bowl and lose than to not get there at all. That’s why I figured he was coming back this year–the team is so talented and motivated to win. But it will never be. He won’t get to add another ring to his fingers.

He’s still a Super Bowl winner, a Pro Bowler, a record holder, a 3-time MVP, and a favorite among fans–even Bears’ fans.

A part of me is leaving with Brett. I mean that sincerely. He’s the kind of icon that inspires kids to play sports and to have fun while they do it. I never went into football, but every time I play a pick up game with my friends, I call the play-by-play for him. Favre drops back, scrambles, evades another defender, sees Driver streaking down the sideline, zips a rocket downfield, Driver’s got it! Touchdown!

As much as it pains me to say, Brett needs to stay retired. He can’t pull a Michael Jordan and come back and play for a half-rate team just because the money is right or he feels better about playing. He will retire as a Packer and stay one forever. I don’t know how my fellow Packer fans will take this. Brett Favre is seriously is a huge part of my life, and that part is now gone. Sunday afternoons and Monday nights will never be the same.

I have faith in Aaron Rodgers, Mike McCarthy, and the entire team. Brett may have led them here, but they can finish it themselves. I have always been and will remain a Packer fan, though the spark that we Cheeseheads love seeing every fall is gone.

Thanks Brett. For the memories, for your dumbass plays, for your constant scrambling, for your enthusiasm, for supporting your family when they’ve supported you, and for giving football fans everywhere something to cherish forever.

Dear Packers Fans…

We had a fantastic year. It did not end so fantastically, but nobody could have predicted how well we did with such a young, inexperienced team led by a grizzled veteran quarterback who may or may not have had his best years pass him by.

Sure, we shot ourselves in the foot with those penalties, missed third-down conversions, blown coverage, and failure to convert turnovers into big points; but we fought all the way to overtime, where anything can happen. We as Packers fans should know that much:

The Seahawks a couple of years ago and Denver earlier this year; we came out on the victor’s side of overtime. The “4th and 26” Philadelphia game and tonight; we simply came out on the wrong end. That’s how the game is played.

Regardless, I enjoyed the ride. 13 wins and 3 losses. It’s an incredible feat, no matter if another team will probably go undefeated. We gave the country something to talk about. They remembered why the Packers are such a esteemed organization and great ball club.

The Cowboys have been branded “America’s Team,” but we all know who the rightful team team of that label is. It’s the only team that is owned by thousands of individuals, rather than one person or a wealthy family, in all of professional sports. It’s the only team that has won more NFL Championships and Super Bowls than any other football club. It’s the only team with more Hall-of-Famers than any other team.

It’s the Green Bay Packers, and tonight they fought a good fight, and lost. So it goes.

The phrase, “next year is our year” is normally reserved for Cubs and Red Sox fans, but I think we can reclaim it. But it’s not a phrase we utter in vain desperation for it to come true; I think next year is our year. History shows that teams who lose their conference championship come roaring back the next year, assuming all of their pieces are intact. We did it after the 1995 conference championship loss to Dallas – I think we can do it now.

Of course, “assuming all of our pieces are intact” refers primarily to Brett Favre. I’m not naive. I know that we would not be where we are if not for the Iron Man with the Golden Arm.

But I think he’s coming back next year. He came so close. His year to quit would have been last year, with the tears and the closing horizon of his viability in a younger man’s profession. He said himself that this was the most talented group of players with which he’s ever played – he wouldn’t simply walk away from it. He’s too good. Too fun. Too needed.

We Packers fans know loss. After our victorious Super Bowl year, things went downhill. We lost the next Super Bowl (a hurt too deep for tears), then went 8-8. It was then a quick ascension into playoff-caliber play with Mike Sherman, then he too led us down an ugly slope.Now, Mike McCarthy has taken the reigns and steered us back into relevance. Thank goodness.

Winning so many games this year seemed strange. We were used to losing a few more due to Favre’s interceptions stupid mistakes and last-second botches. It all seemed a little too easy. We were racking up too many points; winning by too much; seeing Favre play too well.

Well, now that the dream had faded and we’re grounded back in our now-empty lives, we must accept the loss with dignity and resilience – as we always do. We’ll come back stronger, more experienced, and with a vendetta.

We’re coming back full throttle, ready to beat the Giants and the Patriots and the Bears.

So, good luck Eli and the Giants. Brady and the Pats are the team to beat, and I think most of America, sans Patriots fans, are hoping for an upset. It would certainly help Eli’s respectability.

Here’s to a great year, Cheeseheads. Let’s hold our heads high and remind ourselves how blessed we are to be a part of such a historic and talented team, and that we have a good quarterback.

Be grateful for that. The Bears have never been as fortunate. (And let’s hope it stays that way.)

We’re witnessing history with every Favre pass, touchdown, interception, and win we see.

Remember that, and enjoy the ride. I most certainly am.

Always and forever a Packer fan,

CHAD