The question was posed to me today about what it meant to be a sports fan? I was immediately struck with a sense of panic and was paralyzed by fear. I couldn't answer the question. I began to doubt my own fandom. Why WAS I a fan? Why do I live and die with what happens to the Jets on and off the field?
My initial panic eventually gave way to clarity after I took a few moments to really examine the question. I realized that my feelings as a fan went back to a basic feeling of being part of a group; to feel like you are part of something. More specifically, how much I loved being part of the various sports teams of my childhood. I may not be able to be out on the field myself anymore, but I can experience that same feeling of belonging while being a part of the fan community.
Growing up, I am sure my experiences were much like most other kids' in America. I played a different sport each season: soccer, football, basketball and lacrosse. Truth be told, I was never much of an athlete. Despite all of my shortcomings as an player, I always loved being part of those teams. It was that feeling of sharing moments with my friends that only we would ever know, and we were in it together.
Only the people on the football practice field would know the hell of preseason football double sessions on a hot, dusty field in the middle of August, or the elation we felt when practice ended and our mothers picked us to take us home. The cool sensation of the car's air conditioner and the thought of icy Gatorades waiting for us became our beacon of hope during those practices. At one point, it became a rallying cry. My friend Brian said to our group of car pool buddies during some terrible drill, "Just focus on making it to the car home." For the rest of that year's sessions, if things got tough we would all just look at each other and say, "Car!", and then get back up and get back to work.
As we grew up and the competition increased, most of us with lesser abilities are slowly whittled away until only the elite few are left on the field to compete. However, we never lose that sense of wanting to belong to a team, so we pour that energy into being a fan. I know that is the case with me and the New York Jets.
I will never get a chance to relive the way that I felt while playing football when I was a kid. My football abilities peaked in 7th or 8th grade while I was still one of the bigger kids around, and could hold my own on the offensive line. Sure, I hated practice but I still remember the feeling of pride when we were all given our red team jackets when we made the "A" team in 8th grade. Those jackets probably cost no more than $20, but their value was incalculable to us as we wore them around town. If you had that jacket on, you were one of us. I feel the same way now whenever I put on my Mangold jersey, a "Can't Wait" t-shirt or my Jets hat, or when I see another fan wearing Jets gear.
Truth be told, I was not born a Jets fan. Like most kids, my team allegiance was passed on to me by my father to support the New York Giants. My dad grew up in a time when there was only one football team in New York. He had been a die hard Giants fan, and was part of a group that attended most home games via another friend's block of eight season tickets. That group followed the Giants from Yankee Stadium, to the Yale Bowl, to Shea Stadium and finally to the original Giants stadium until the owner of the tickets lost half in his divorce (no joke.) As a result, my dad lost his access to Giants home games.
When this happened I was still a kid playing football, and my dad and I enjoyed going to football games together. (We still do.) The waiting list for Giants season ticket was, and still is, eternally long. In an attempt to continue to see games, my dad signed up for Jets season tickets and was quickly granted 4 seats.
I remember my first Jets game, not for the outcome (most likely a loss during the Coslet era), but for the vibe I got from being at the old Meadowlands for a Jets home game. It was unlike any NFL game I had previously attended: rock music was playing on the loudspeaker; the fans were laughing and high-fiving each other in the stands and everyone was having a good time. Giants' games, by contrast, were a stodgier affair with a much older fan base with little energy, while the Jets fans were younger, louder and more vibrant. And then I heard my first "J-E-T-S Jets! Jets! Jets!" chant and that was it. I was hooked, and I never looked back.
My love for the Jets has not waivered, regardless of performance on the field. A 4-28 record during the Kotite era did not deter me from shivering at the stadium to watch my team. Sure, I will yell, scream and curse at the TV or anyone who will listen about a bad play or a terrible personnel decision, but they are still my team. They will ALWAYS be MY team, OUR team. In many ways, my feelings for the Jets are rooted in the fan community. The Jets are our team, and we will defend them vigorously. We will make MetLife stadium one of the most inhospitable places to play for a visiting team. We will boo you, or light seats on fire if we don't like what we see. Visiting fans are not welcome in our stadium. You will be heckled, and some will fight you. If a Patriots fan brazenly walks up and down an aisle waving a Patriots flag after a score, you deserve to be pegged in the head with a full can of beer. (True story!) The Gang Green fan base is my team now, and I love being a part of it.
My ultimate experience as a Jets fan came during the 2010 season playoff run. The elation I felt after beating the Patriots in the Divisional Playoffs was only surpassed by what I saw in the celebrations after the victory. As I navigated various bars on Manhattan's Upper East Side, a sea of fans clad in green and white hugged, laughed, high-fived and sang in the utter joy brought to us by a Jets victory. We were complete strangers united in our fandom of Gang Green. It was my ultimate joy as a fan that I hope will one day be eclipsed when we get over the Super Bowl hump.
Another important fan moment occurred prior to the AFC Championship game. My wife and I took a brief vacation to the warmer climates of the Caribbean, and our flight back to New York was due to land just prior to the kickoff against the Steelers. In a sign of solidarity to my team, I packed my Mangold jersey and a Jets hat to wear on the plane ride home. In fact, it was the exact same outfit I wore when the Jets beat New England. I was taking no chances on omens or luck; a trip to the Super Bowl was on the line.
We were one of the first to board that plane back home, and we sat in one of the front rows. As the rest of the passengers began to file onto the plane, I saw other passengers dressed like me in Jets paraphernalia. When they saw my green and white, we all exchanged high-fives, fist bumps and a few words. Some were nervous, others confident, and we were all excited. No matter what, we were in this together.
As the Jets wrap up a dismal preseason, there are many question marks as we head into the regular season. I am still not sure about the team that will show up on the field at MetLife Stadium, but I have no doubt about the team that will be in the stands, in the parking lots tailgating or watching the action from home. Our team, the fans of the New York Jets, will be ready for whatever happens over the course of the next 16 games.