My first college assignment was simple: I had to describe myself in five words. Not a difficult task for myself and the roughly twenty-five other students herded into Prof. Rizova's Social Science 101 class. It was something we've been trying to do since orientation: figure out who were are, what we want, how to deal with strangers as roommates, coping with the idea of living in Boston for the next four years (relatively), imagining how we would survive this strip of Commonwealth Avenue which is now our homes.
Most people treated it like an elementary school art project. They wrote such descriptive, insightful traits as: funny, tall, smart, fun, articulate (obviously). I was the only person in the class to do the assignment "correctly," as Prof. Rizova was fishing for examples to start us on our lesson for the semester. On my paper, proudly scratched out in terrible handwriting, was "Jerseyan," a title that already brought about scorn and ridicule way before the "Jersey Shore" gave people specific examples to point to (even though only one cast member is actually from the state). In Boston -- in 2004, in my Yankees hat -- my home state and rooting allegiances therein, became my most defining features.
And it would damn near ruin me over the rest of my college experience.
Tribalism runs deep in sports. The entrenched idea of "Us Against Them," a more-than-likely natural feeling built into all of us, is expressed most easily -- and bloodlessly -- through these children's games. Using war as a metaphor for sports is fitting: there are uniforms (matched in color and ferocity by those in the stands), there are clear winners and losers, there are high stakes, and it helps the economy in the long run. We naturally feed into it.
Each fan base seems to beget a team, a style, that reflects their own morals, ideas, and ways of working. The Red Sox of the mid-2000s invariably took on the qualities of its denizens: plucky, blue-collar, hard-working, tough-on-their-luck, hopeful but weathered, a group who's gone through too much harsh reality to dream. New York is filled with people who know they're the best (and are usually right), who take everything for granted, get all the breaks, run their mouths and get away with it. So we have the spirit of animosity around the New York Yankees. Are these generalizations entirely accurate? No. However, after attending to a school where Fenway Park is practically on campus, with a student body of 40,000 where 25% of which hail from the Tri-State area, I can tell you that it's pretty damn close.
When I first visited Boston University in 2003, the Red Sox loomed large over my visit. After waking up at the Hotel Commonwealth, opening my window, and getting blasted with a full view of The Green Monster at the adjacent Fenway Park, my father and I took to the streets where I marveled at all the "Cowboy Up!" bumper stickers adorned on nearly ever car on the street. "Cowboy Up" was the Sox's silly, unofficial slogan during their 2003 playoff run, dashed once and for all by a home run from Aaron Boone (Aaron Boone!!!!) in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, on the door step of a World Series appearance.
The Red Sox had a drought of, at that point, 85 years without a World Series win. Over the years, they had fielded many good, sometimes great, teams to no avail. They had their demons, with blown calls and bad luck abounding through the years. But they always measured themselves against the 25-time World Champion Yankees, the boogeymen of Broadway who always triumphed while the Red Sox always failed.
So when Boone happened, it didn't come as a surprise to either teams' fan base. Of course it happened in Yankee Stadium. Of course it was the Yankees. With every car I passed, my smirk grew and grew. Almost on cue, someone registered my happiness at these relics of heartache forever glued to these cars and shot me a look of disdain. Smug, I looked back at them and smiled even wider. "Just another day in Boston," I thought.
I could get used to this feeling.
One year later, at almost exactly the same spot, thousands of my fellow students descended on Kenmore Square to battle cops, stand next to tear gas canisters, and break the front glass of anything in the vicinity. Oh, and because the Sox has improbably come back from 3-0 to beat the Yankees in the very same ALCS, earning a trip to their first World Series since 1986 (where they lost to New York's other team, The Mets, in crushing fashion), to surely end their 86 year run of championship futility.
I, however, stayed in my dorm, specifically in the shower stall. Still dressed in my jeans and Gary Sheffield jersey-shirt, I tried to shower away the shame and contempt I was beginning to feel. This wasn't natural. This wasn't right. And as those beads of water fell off me, I realized something even more disturbing: I still have to live here.
Walking through the streets wearing my Yankee hat always felt like a fun reminder of where I was from. Naturally I was hit with disdain and scorn, Bostonites (an their few sympathizers) looking at me like I had plastered images of their personal failures to my head to constantly remind them of their own shortcomings. But after the famed collapse of 2004, after everyone who liked baseball jumped on the Red Sox bandwagon (including many on my floor who were Yankee fans by geographical association mere days before the Sox improbable title run), my hat wasn't looked upon as a threat, but a farce.
Now people would see me and laugh. Just openly point and laugh. Once, I would see other Yankee fans on the street, and we'd share a happy smile, knowing that we were part of a group of winners, knowing that the people back home were holding it down for us until we returned. Now we just shared looks of pity, communicating, "I know, man" through sad eyes before casting them back down to the drab, grey sidewalk as Sully or Murph would invariably call us "losing faggots" for the hundredth-plus day.
This continued for a while before being exacerbated by yet another Red Sox World Series win in 2007. At this point I had moved in with two devout Red Sox fans, where a giant magnet of the team's logo stuck to the majority of the the fridge. It was like someone printed out a project I had received an F on and left it for me to see, day after day, month after month.
When Ben, a native, returned from celebrating the victory to continue celebrating with much cheaper booze in our apartment, he had to wrestle a bottle of Jack Daniels out of my hands. Such was the contempt I had for being who I was at that time in that city. Once again, I had to go outside, show my face on their turf, and get ridiculed for it. I would not hide my allegiance -- I would not hide myself -- and would pay the price for it. So be it. Again.
The Red Sox win in 2007 was a cresting point for the entire region's new-founded dominance in all sports. That summer, the Celtics, winner of the most NBA titles in the league's history who, like the Sox, had not grabbed glory in a few decades, made the moves necessary to send a super team out on the floor every night. The Patriots had already collected three Super Bowl championships before acquiring future Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss, making an already great football team better. The Bruins were at least mediocre. Even the New England Revolution, the area's Major League Soccer club, were doing well.
When backed up against that sort of menace, you get desperate. Considering all other teams in the area were kinda awful (save for the New Jersey Devils, everyone else was facing a nadir while our northern brethren hit a climax) I became a massive New York Giants fan.
I placed all my angst and anger and frustration solely at the feet of Eli Manning, a somewhat competent quarterback whose goofy nature and ineffectual leadership seemed to speak to me so succinctly. Eli was a Manning, so we thought that his background came with greatness. It came with the price tag (as Eli was acquired via trade, it certainly did bump up the asking price). Now, though, we can only see a bumbling attempt to make things right, but in the end, we all knew it would end in failure. He was mocked, ridiculed, and put down constantly. He was my proxy as much as my potential hero, and he wasn't doing anything to satisfy the back half of that title. So it seemed rather fitting, all things considered.
Super Bowl XLII was my improbable catharsis. The Boston fans, now feeling entitled and cocky, could not believe that the gods didn't deign them worthy to be undefeated champions, that they had to lose the undeserving, plucky underdogs from New York. I watched the game in my apartment, the same one where I drank myself into a solitary stupor upon the Red Sox most recent world championship, holed up with two of my friends from New York. When Plaxico Burress caught the eventual game winner, there were two reactions between us. One was to kiss everyone on the mouth (...we were really excited). The other was to set right a personal vendetta.
As soon as the ref's arms went straight in the air, I took off like a bat out of hell. Throwing the apartment door open (and leaving it so in my wake), I raced down the three flights of steps and through the two doors that separated me from the outside world. Then I just started screaming obscenities at Boston. Not specifically worded as its fans, the Pariots, the landmass, but the city, the culture, everything that came with it. It was as if that city, the giant mass of organisms, had taken something from me when I entered their land. Now, mere months away from graduation, I finally got some of it back.
Writing this column, and looking back on the words and feelings attached to a bunch of millionaires playing a children's game who have no care or connection to you at all seems a bit...childish? Weird? Pathetic? Sad? But none the less true. Sports are our escape, sure, but they're also our connection to our friends, our "countrymen," our homes. To witness a Super Bowl victory -- in the most improbable of fashions, the most unlikely of upsets -- while stationed in the enemy's territory was as cathartic a moment as I've ever lived through.
You bet your ass I bought the New York Giants official championship t-shirt, hoodie, and hat and walked around showing one of the three items off well into April. You can also comfortably bet that I wasn't alone, for a large swath of outcasts had finally found something to rally behind. Finally we could look at each other and smile, knowing that we no longer had to hide our dirty little secret that we came from White Plains or Livingston or New Milford. We could laugh openly when they said "it was just luck." We could smile when, after years of championships in many sports, this one stuck so mightily in their craw.
In that game, we gained redemption, letting another team own up the embarrassment of Game 7, a loss from another group of people whose indignity and burden we had to carry for them. And now, with this year's Super Bowl a rematch of that fateful championship game, I can't help but think of karma, how New England deserves their shot to shake away the ghosts of the past and get their own catharsis. A win this year won't give them a perfect season in 2007, but the Super Bowl didn't exactly erase the indignity of Game 7, either. But it was something. It was enough.
And I wish, from the bottom of my heart, that they never get to experience it. Go Giants.