Saturday, November 17, 2007


Tomorrow at one in the afternoon, I will get to enjoy an event that only comes around once every four years: my two favorite professional football teams will play against each other. The odds are that whoever you are, and wherever you live, you won’t watch it. Indeed, you won’t be able to. It was almost blacked out on TV in the city where the game will be played. I say “almost,” because a couple of days before the game, when 2,000 tickets remained unsold, the Miller Brewing Company stepped up and bought out the remaining tickets. That’s right: the company that sells the most watered down beer wanted to help out a football franchise that sells some of the most watered down football.

The truth is that the home team stinks. And yet they are a clear favorite to win the game. They don’t call this tilt “The Toilet Bowl” for nothing.

This game, my friends, promises to be professional football at its most pathetic – and I mean that in the sense of engendering true pathos, especially in the heart of yours truly. I’ve been rooting for these teams since the days of Woodstock. Since the time that Mick, Keith, John, Paul, Janis and Jimmy were at their peaks. I was rooting for these teams since before I even visited their cities. And hey, I wasn’t alone in not paying those places a visit. We’re not exactly talking about garden spots, you know. We’re talking about Oakland, California (about which Gertrude Stein once said “There’s nothing there, there”) and Minneapolis, Minnesota (as in “It’s not the North Pole, but you can see it from there”). We’re talking about two of the Rodney Dangerfields of professional sports: the Oakland Raiders and the Minnesota Vikings. Like I said, they don’t call this tilt “The Toilet Bowl” for nothing.

Some of you may know that my love for football borders on the fanatic. I bought a satellite dish so that I can watch the above teams – and my Stanford Cardinal – as often as possible. I schlepped my family to Mankato, Minnesota in the summer of 2006 so that we could attend the Vikings training camp. And after having completed 1.9 novels (the second is about to be edited by my publisher, but it’s done as far as I’m concerned), I realize that I’m incapable of writing at length about anything without talking about football.

When I watch football, I become a little boy again. Back then, I didn’t just watch, I played. In fact, I had the best hands in the neighborhood. If the ball was anywhere close to me, I’d hang on to it. Just as my least favorite nickname was Abner (based on the fact that Gore and I share the same name – his first, my middle), my favorite was “Biletnikoff.” To be compared to the greatest Raiders receiver of all-time, even if only in a small quadrant of North Bethesda, was one of my greatest honors. Needless to say, however, by the time I matriculated in high school, my playing days were over. Are you kidding? Did you actually think I would give up the chance to watch Star Trek every afternoon to beat up a blocking sled? Did you actually think I was a talented athlete?

Give me a break.

Back in the day – the day being the late 60s and early 70s – the Raiders and Vikings were both quite good. But neither could win “The Big One.” One of the cruelest ironies of my childhood was that by the time one of them won the Super Bowl, which was in January 1977, it was only by beating the tar out of the other. That’s right. The same God who gave my people the Holocaust made sure that I couldn’t enjoy a childhood Super Bowl because my Raiders would only be able to reach the pinnacle of their sport by thoroughly humiliating my Vikings. The Vikings had the opportunity to play in the Big Dance three times before they were destroyed by the Raiders. They’ve never been back since. But they have had a few close shaves.

In 1987, the Vikes were playing in the NFC Championship Game against my local team, the Redskins (who I hate), needing only to win that game to play for the World Championship. They lost when Darrin Nelson, a guy who lived three doors down in my freshman dorm, dropped a TD pass in the end zone that would have sent the game into overtime. You think that’s bad? A decade later, the Vikes were up by a TD late in the 4th quarter against the Falcons, needing only to connect on a moderately long field goal to earn a bid to the Super Bowl. The Vikes’ kicker hadn’t missed a kick all year. But you guessed it – he missed, the Falcons scored a TD on the next possession, and the Vikes would go on to lose in overtime. The only other time the Vikes made the penultimate game, they lost 41-0.

So what do you think – three parts schlemiels, four parts schlimazels?

I could sing the praises of the Raiders, who have won a total of three Super Bowls, but who would I be kidding? They’ve only played in one Super Bowl in the last two decades, and that was back in 2003 when they lost by 27 to a team led by Jon Gruden, their former coach. Since then, they’ve lost at least three times for every victory, culminating in last season, when they earned the title of “The NFL’s Worst Team.”

Tomorrow, the “once proud” Raiders will bring a 2-7 record to Minnesota where they are 5 ½ point underdogs against a 3-6 Vikings team whose wins have come courtesy of a running back who won’t even play tomorrow. In short, the Vikes are one of football’s worst teams, but the Raiders are even worse. Or at least that’s what the odds makers say. Personally, I’d bet on the Raiders. They at least seem to like their coach. I think the Vikes players would like to see their coach shipped down the Mississippi. The last straw was when Troy Williamson, one of the team’s stable of lousy receivers, said that he’d be missing a game to spend time with his family and the coach said fine, but he’d have to forfeit his game check. Sounds reasonable, I suppose, unless you realize that Williamson had just lost his grandmother, and less than two months had elapsed since his brother was severely injured in a car accident. Strangely enough, he needed a slight break from football. Go figure.

When I think about the Williamson story, or about the lunatic who owns the Raiders (moving the team twice, always being involved in litigation, etc.), or about how lousy these franchises have been on the field, or about how much time I have spent watching them over the years … the word “certifiable” comes to mind. Truly, I don’t think it’s about masochism. But what is it, then? Why do I keep watching so dutifully?

Loyalty plays a big part. As long as you’re not hurting anyone other than yourself, loyalty has always struck me as an incredibly important characteristic. Our collective loyalties allow us to count on what we love most – whether they are parents, children, friends … or in the case of professional athletes, fans like me. Loyalty gives us an emotional foundation -- a dry rock to stand on in a dangerously slippery world. But there’s more to this than loyalty, or than a man’s desire to summon the little boy that lies within. Somehow, the Vikings and Raiders have become integral parts of my self-image. When I was in an Israeli yeshiva and the Orthodox rabbis were trying to persuade me to “make aliyah” (immigrate to Israel), one of the reasons I decided to go back to the States was because I didn’t want to lose my football teams. I didn’t want to lose who I was.

I may not be the smartest person I could be, or for that matter the wisest, happiest, most time-efficient, or athletic. But I’ll say this for myself – the people I met 40 years ago, 30 years ago, 20 years ago, or 10 years ago would tell you the same thing: in my core, I haven’t really changed. And that’s the way I like it.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines from Star Trek – and specifically, the episode called “Balance of Terror.” It was spoken by Dr. McCoy to Captain Kirk, who was stressed out over a battle with a Romulan ship.

"In this galaxy, there's a mathematical probability of three million Earth-type planets. And, in all the universe, three million million galaxies like this. And in all of that – and perhaps more – only one of each of us. . . . Don't destroy the one named 'Kirk'."

I’ve always lived my life by that sentiment. “The one named Spiro” (as Dr. McCoy might put it) has all sorts of problems, but he is what he is and needs to nurture himself. If there is something that he finds compelling, something that he has “enjoyed” for decades, something that doesn’t involve deceiving or hurting anyone else … why not nurture that too? Why submit it to the crucible of utility, that shibboleth of modern man? Why not accept it as part of that which makes us enduring … and endearing?

If you’re reading this post today, Saturday November 17th, please honor me with this request. Even if you hate football -- even if you totally don’t appreciate anything as crude and pedestrian as professional sports – do me a favor.

Tomorrow, before you go to bed, check out the score to the Vikings-Raiders game. And remember that in a tiny little nook and cranny of the galaxy, where a supposedly meaningless battle is taking place between two hapless sports franchises with rapidly diminishing fan bases, there are those of us who are deriving all sorts of meaning from this encounter. And if that is possible, if a game like that can take on such incredible meaning, just consider how much meaning resides in this entire universe. We might supply the meaning – we, not some overarching deity – but that doesn’t render it any less infinite.


Betty C. said...

I'm not quite sure how I inspired this post, but I'll take any credit I can get. Very clever ending.

Is your next novel about footbal? Maybe it should be...

I hadn't thought about Darren Nelson for ages!

Betty C. said...

PS: I'm not sure you "got" that what you were really supposed to do was the same list I did: Ten Random Things About Yourself.

You see, these "memes" are games bloggers play. Some other blogger wrote his list, then asked three people to write theirs, including me, then I asked three people, including you.

That's okay. At least you wrote about something different!

Daniel Spiro said...

My next novel isn't primarily about football (it's mostly about religion), but I do work football in.

I saw Darren at our last reunion briefly as we were both walking to the football game. I think he works for the Stanford Athletic Department.

As for the Ten Random Things about Yourself, I didn't realize I was supposed to do that. I can't do it next week (I have something else in mind). But I'll think about it for the week after.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations! Your team has won!

Daniel Spiro said...

Yes, maybe I should follow every team in every sport -- then I could never lose!

Simmer Down! said...

Young Man

Spell my ex roomate's name right! And do not blame him for your misplaced football obsessions. You like the Vikings and Raiders because they come from socialist states not because of Bilitnekoff or Tarkenton.

Ytteb. Washington State has not been the same since there's no more Vitamin R or Oly (although Joe A. says there is a bodega in Orange Cove, CA where you can buy 30 yr old flip tops for a quarter a can). Has Sarkozy washed you down with a fire hose yet?

Joe A. is sitting here and endorses my remarks.

Daniel Spiro said...

Simmer Down:

My apologies to your ex-roomy if I screwed up the spelling of his first name (don't tell me I didn't spell "Nelson" properly). Truth be told, I never learned how to spell. I think my younger daughter was about 8 when I realized that I was already the worst speller in the family.

In any event, you and I met in 1977 (the same year we both met Betty C) and as you recall, I was already a long time Vikings and Raiders fan. Little did we know back then how bad those franchises would become for literally decades. :(

What's your view about your party's Presidential nominee-to-be? And which guy do you support if you were allowed to choose the candidate? Since I've decided not to vote for Hillary, I'm especially interested in the GOP nominee this year (though I may indeed simply sit out the election and, I don't know, write in Alan Page ... or Ken Stabler).

Anonymous said...

Young Man

You are a congenital socialist. It is your DNA.
Your NFL preferences follow your molecular structure.
Who has the most structured government? And highest taxes? I'll root for thrir football teams?

Actually, the most disappointing thing I read about was the RFK Memorial.....

Danny Boy, even I thought u had more sense than's easy to plan others' lives when Daddy's (JPK's) motto was "50 dollars and a flask of Crown (Royal)"....and like you, he never earned a private sector dollar in his lifetime.

Just think of how different the world would have been had people actually listened to RFK's father.

Had you read anything about your hero FDR, when he named JP Kennedy to head the SEC..his comment was.."It takes a thief to catch one"......

Light a candle for something else.....

Simmer Down!