Monday, January 31, 2011

Blues and Greys

And on the eighth day, God created the Dallas Cowboys. Years later in a stony communique with a man named Moses, he stopped short of adding an eleventh commandment to love the Cowboys above all other teams. With that being said, I've read the text between the lines in Exodus, and so I do as God says.

Much like the Jews living under the copper fist of slavery in Egypt, I spent four long years of my childhood in Steeler country, just outside of Pittsburgh. I took my share of beatings for the love of God's team. During the 1970s the Cowboys went to the Superbowl five times, losing to the Steelers twice. New England fans could learn a thing or two from my eight year old self. It takes little heart to cheer when those you love are winning, but it takes everything you have to keep cheering when they lose.

I was in the third grade when the Cowboys lost the Superbowl to the Steelers in 1979. I was puny, weighing about as much as the pads that Roger Staubauch donned each week before heading out onto the gridiron. Still, I loved my Cowboys, and so I wore my number 12 jersey to school the next day with courage and pride. I got my ass kicked, and the teachers watched. No bloody nose, no abrasions, but some bruises that my favorite shirt covered up well. Worse than the physical thumping was the verbal abuse. I was threatened, called filthy names, and teased without mercy.

The following year the Steelers once again made it to the Superbowl. This time they were to face the Los Angeles Rams. I had a choice to make. My Cowboys were out of it, and while I didn't love them any less, you can't pull for a team that isn't playing. I agonized over what to do. Steelers fans were the sworn enemy of Cowboys fans, and to become one, no matter the reasoning, seemed a betrayal of the highest degree. On the other hand, the Rams had taken Dallas out of contention, and I loved them not a whit. To pull for the Rams was a fresher betrayal of my 'boys.

Putting all of the above aside, I felt that for once I might belong if I could find it within myself to cheer for the "Black and Gold." I had never fit in at school; it seemed that everything I did served to push me further away from popularity. I longed for complete social invisibility and the comfort I imagined it would bring. To be ignored entirely had to be better than living every day as a walking target.

After a few days of painful deliberation, I decided that the better benefit would be to embrace the enemy of my enemy for a short while. I thought I might find temporary refuge from the storm of social persecution that had rained upon me for years.

It amazed me, how quickly the mindless mouth-breathers accepted me into their black and gold flock. All I had to do was declare my (momentary) loyalty to the Steeler cause. The mad mob rushed to embrace me as if I had arrived at an ill-planned lynching with a rope in one hand and a stack of pizzas in the other. I was soon enjoying the thrill of walking through the lunchroom rather than being chased, and the odd joy of sitting with fellow students as I ate. I felt no shame in opening my lunch box to reveal a homemade lunch, as my peers inhaled hot brown food substitutes from the green plastic trays that were in my mind the lunchtime standard of popularity.

I was soon reminded, however, that my childhood was not destined to be one of fearless security, endless acceptance, and joyful ease. The recollection itself was not so difficult to take as the fact that it came from such an unexpected direction.

I was at home one afternoon, singing the Steeler fight song that my new friends had taught me. I don't remember the words now, I never intended to. I knew that ours was a winter romance, centered around one Sunday night in Pasadena. After the game (win or lose Pittsburgh) I would let the fervor die down for a week before putting on my Cowboys gear again, and wait for another year of ass-kicking and solitary confinement to commence. Nevertheless, I knew the words on that afternoon and my heart was happy, so I gave them voice as I sat on the floor and played with my Star Wars toys.

"Matthew, stop singing that song! It hurts my feelings!" The sudden boom of my mother's voice bouncing off the paneled walls of the family room startled me into silence.

"I grew up in the Los Angeles area, you know that. Didn't you stop and think that I might want the Rams to win? " I stared at the floor rather than face her. An action figure quivered in my hand.

She went on to explain how insensitive and thoughtless I had been in my decision to cheer on a team that stood between her hometown and a championship title. I knew then that I had hurt my mother with my reckless betrayal of the Cowboys. And for what? A short break from the persecution of my classmates, who were sure to go back to hating me the moment I showed up for school dressed in blue and silver. I felt the warm welling of tears, but held them back as best I could. I sat on the floor, quiet, embarrassed, and ashamed. Within a few moments she was gone, and I was left to digest what had occurred. I spent the rest of the afternoon in muted play, unable to fully enjoy myself.

Later that night, as I lay in my bed wondering what I was to do about school the next day, I began to think about mom's blitzkrieg-like descent upon my new found social standing. I searched my memory banks for a single instance of my mother having claimed the Rams as her favorite football team. I could not recall one such moment; in fact everything I had ever heard her say about California led me to believe that she had fled the state like a refugee. I could not understand her intentions, and it angered me that she would accuse me of being insensitive, when she herself had been so thoughtless.

Still, she was my mother, and I feared her. I decided to root for the Steelers in secret at home, and with great vigor at school. All that week, there were pep rallies and posters making parties, and I participated in all of them. I made new friends, stopped fearing the bullies, and even garnered the respect of the teachers that had given me such grief over my love for the Cowboys.

The day came and the Steelers beat the Rams without much trouble. I was happy inside, and ignored my mother as best I could. The following day I shared in the joy at school, squeezing the last bit of happiness out of a strange situation.

Life soon returned to normal. I didn't last the wee, and the blue and silver colors of my apparel betrayed my true loyalties, and I was cast out, forced to live once again on the fringes of schoolyard society. The Cowboys have since had their ups and downs, and but for a few moments of disgust with some of their off the field antics, I have remained loyal. So much so that I was once caught half-naked in a hospital waiting room, watching the Cowboys play the Bills. It was Superbowl XXVII, and I should have been in surgery prep, having my privates shaved for an emergency appendectomy.

All of this loyalty has paid off, for I now have an heir in Solomon, my eight year old son. He loves his Cowboys, and is so fond of the sweatshirt that we bought him for Christmas that we have to sneak it into the wash.

My oldest, Caleb, was born in Seattle. Though he doesn't watch much football, he has expressed a love for the Seattle Seahawks. This year, they surprised everyone by beating the Superbowl champion Saints up and down the field, expelling them from the playoffs.

Gee, isn't he lucky I never lived in New Orleans?

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