Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How Did I Become A Gators Fan?

That I am a big Tim Tebow fan is somewhat self-evident. (I would say that I recognized somewhere between his freshman and sophomore seasons that he is my favorite player of all time. Earning a fan's "Favorite Player of All Time" in any sport -- let alone all sports -- is a pretty big deal.)

But there is this larger question: I wouldn't be a Tebow fan if I wasn't a Gators fan. So how did I become a Gators fan?

It's not like I went to Florida for college. It's not like I grew up in Florida -- let alone Gainesville, like my wife did. It's not like my parents were Gator fans and passed it down to me.

So where did my Gator fandom come from? You can read an abbreviated version here, or below...

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What kind of self-respecting lifelong sports nut discovers his fan-defining allegiance in the rooting interest... of his spouse?

Of the few things I am regularly and consistently questioned about (and, yes, mocked for), my fan allegiance to Florida has gotten the most visceral reaction from fellow fans. Inspired by that, I put this essay together for a prestigious mainstream publication, which – predictably – fell through. Rather than have the essay sit on my laptop, I decided to publish it here (where apparently they'll publish ANYTHING) and use it for future reference, when people ask me about my non-traditional fan allegiance.

This fall, every Saturday I will wake up with rabid anticipation, choose between a dozen different possible "lucky" outfits, then set up (or stand up) on the couch next to my wife to root on my Florida Gators football team.

Or should I say: HER Florida Gators football team.

She is the one born and raised in Gainesville, Florida, home of the University of Florida. She is the one with the lifetime of memories of going to Gator games with her family, meeting idolized players and coaches, celebrating Florida's 1996 National Championship.

I, however, am a Gator-by-marriage – a fan-in-law.

My passion for my wife's favorite team was sparked six years ago on our first date -- even before my passion was sparked for her. Actually, as soon as she started talking about her Gator fandom, I was smitten by meeting a woman who loved sports as much as I do... and particularly smitten with envy for her particular rooting interest.

I was a huge lifelong sports fan, to be sure, but I lacked that dominant gravitational, life-defining pull of a single team. Growing up in D.C., I had adolescent rooting interest as a displaced Bears and Cubs loyalist, the product of a paternal lineage to Chicago. However, when I moved to Chicago for college, my immersion into Windy City fandom actually turned me off to the teams. Meanwhile, like other incoming freshmen in Big Ten country, I immediately gravitated to my new school's football team: But Northwestern was a perennial punchline. How satisfying could my fandom be when my deepest hope was for a .500 record and postseason bowl eligiblility in the Local Yokel Bowl? After Northwestern's Rose Bowl year – the greatest season of my life as a fan – I left Chicago, and my aimless career path in sports was mirrored in my fandom.

That foundation made me vulnerable to be seduced by a winner. That was the initial attraction to this woman across the table from me on our first date. I have heard stories of people on dates with successful professionals and fantasizing themselves as spouses of a doctor or hedge-fund manager; I sat across from my date and imagined how happy I would be married to a fan of a great sports team.

In the months that followed after we met, that first football season of our courtship – 2001 – was my initial tryout as a Gators fan. I fell for them quickly: The rabid fan base, Gator Nation. The legendary stadium, The Swamp. The charismatic gun-slinging coach, Steve Spurrier. The legacy of All-American players and future NFL superstars, like Emmitt Smith (my wife's all-time favorite Gator). The never-ending selection of garish merchandise and memorabilia.

More than anything, I was instantly addicted to the expectations. It wasn't just that the team won as a basic matter of course, which they did, often prolifically. It was that they were expected to win. Even a single loss had the potential to be season-crushing. For a Northwestern fan whose idea of an extremely satisfying year included being able to count the wins on more than one hand, the acutely experienced tightrope of a season spent following a national-title contender -- where every week was a win-or-bust virtual playoff -- felt more real than anything I had ever before experienced as a fan.

But would Gator Nation even want me? More than anything As a bonus, embracing the Gators became the fastest, easiest and most palpable way I could win the approval of my future spouse's extended family. My immersion into the local media, Southeastern Conference team two-deep depth charts and next week's opponent gave way to an obsession with tracking recruiting battles, lurking on online message boards and attending the opening of spring practice. If it didn't win my in-laws over, it didn't hurt that at the same time I displayed devotion to their daughter, I showcased fealty for their sports team.

(Years later, I am still not quite sure what my wife thinks about our arrangement. She never asked me to join her as a Gators fan; I simply encroached. I can see it from her perspective: It is one thing to agree to share your life with someone, but it is an entirely different compromise to agree to share your sports fandom with someone. Despite the nature of fandom as collective, there is something intensely personal about how each person roots for their team. For better or worse, I confess to co-opting that from her.)

Given the randomness of romance – my wife and I met on a blind date – I wonder what the state of my fandom would be had my wife and I never met. Would I, like the rest of the country, mostly despise the arrogance of Gator Nation, particularly after the last 18 months of championships in football and basketball? Would another team have filled this void I felt? (I cringe: What if I had met a woman whose favorite team was... Florida State?) And what would have stuffed my closet shelves if not my two-dozen Gator-themed T-shirts?

This fall marks the start of the seventh year of my Florida fandom, pre-puberty stage by common sports-fan standards. But most other fans don't see it as positively. When I explain to them how I came to root for Florida, they usually first question my masculinity at having adopted my wife's team, quickly followed by universal agreement that I am the worst kind of fan: A bandwagoneer.

Fair enough. But in return, I argue that making an active choice about my fandom -- even pushing 30, in what some would describe as a "mid-fan-life-crisis" -- wasn't just acceptable, but arguably superior to the more traditional, passive roots of sports allegiance:

Biology: Let me guess – you root for your favorite team because it's the team your father rooted for, and he "passed it on" to you. While I agree that's a nice way for parent and child to bond, it smacks of inheritance rather than fandom earned through independent, thoughtful decision.

Geography: Another accident of circumstance. Your fandom is less about the team itself and more about having a sense of civic pride. This is how fans in cities without teams can so quickly latch on to a new team in town – stay classy, Jacksonville -- or how fans in cities like Cleveland or Baltimore, where legendary teams left town for relocation, can so quickly latch onto the replacement team. I don't question your town pride; I question why, if you live in St. Louis, you aren't still a Cardinals fan (even though they play in Arizona) and why you are a Rams fan (even though they came from Los Angeles).

College acceptance: Even with nearly two decades of perspective on it, fandom for one's college team feels artificial; you do it because you're supposed to. I appreciate that your first day on campus included learning the words to the school fight song and taking a trip to the bookstore to buy your first piece of Michigan paraphernalia. But you were one rejection letter or underperforming high school semester away from rooting for Sparty up the highway at Michigan State... or staying on Long Island and going to a state school without a football team like the one you so unquestioningly root for today.

Despite these observations, my personal experience has made me a lot less judgmental of the origins -- and sincerity -- of other people's fan allegiances. You can crow that you "care more" than other types of fans (both outside and inside your own team's base), but I'd argue that it's possible you're only projecting your own insecurities.

There might be an argument at the margins: How many "real" fans have rooted for their team to tank for draft position? Yet how many fans, however casual, would never even THINK about doing something like that? Who the bigger fan is in that scenario is up for debate. The most important point isn't who cares more (or even who has cared longer); it's that fans care, period.

I am sure most fans fall into one or more of those root causes of rooting interest. I don't question the sincerity of your devotion, and I don't question why the top criteria for your personal brand of fandom would be serendipity. I wasn't bestowed my favorite team like a birthright or boxed into it through my zip code or delivered it in a fat envelope during my senior year of high school. Undeniably, chance played a big role for me, too.

But I was 28, the sports version of a 40-year-old virgin, when I fell in love with my favorite team in the same college football season I fell in love with my future wife. I did it with a lifetime of fan experiences behind me, similar to my lifetime of dating experiences -- enough to know the real thing when I felt it.

And it is enough to drown out the jeers of "Bandwagoneer!" with my own sincere cheer: "Go Gators." (Um, right, sweetie?)

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