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Friday, September 12, 2008

Can We Party Like It's 1999?

I've avoided thinking about this all week. I've avoided experiencing the strange, cruel elation that lurks within me when I think about it. I'm not a good person, really, when I consider that another person's misery is at the source of my happiness. But being a fan leaves you no other option. You are so reliant upon the well-being of other people whom you'll never meet in your life that it is inevitable for the fan to wish as much ill on his team's biggest rival as he does hope for a win each week. When the most important player on your biggest division rival goes down, it's a big deal. A big, terrible, happy deal. Nowhere else but in sports are you allowed (is that even the right word?) to wish ill on others.

The Patriots. Their position as dread rivals, their salaries and ancillary air of hubris drain all the sympathy from us when they fall. I will not lie. Tom Brady's agony last week was like a Christmas gift that you finally got but have given up wishing for, thinking that it would never come. In fact, last year I had this premonition of Brady's blowing out a knee in the opener, an experience that I suggested may have cursed the Jets in their first game against the Pats last year (as if the Pats needed a curse to be placed on their 2007 victims; they didn't even need to spy on the Jets). I remember what it was like, sitting in with a bunch of Patriots fans in 1999, dreading another day of student teaching on Monday, spirited by the notion that the Jets might repeat a division championship, watching their opener against New England. Then Vinny Testaverde's Achilles' tendon snapped, and with it every plan for success that season. The Jets went 8-8. I don't talk anymore to the friends/Patriot fans I was hanging around with that day. Their instinctive vitriolic joy at seeing Vinny on the ground writhing in agony made me sick to my stomach. These were guys with whom I had eaten in college every day, people with whom I had gotten drunk every weekend. I just walked out on them, and I have never looked back. As I've said before, some things are more important than the semblance of friendship.

Some people have suggested to me that it was a shame to see Brady go down because fans wanted to see how the Patriots rebounded from February. But I feel none of that. Let the mighty fall. No, I don't like wishing misery on someone else, even someone like Brady whose sense of his own infallibility blinded him to how effective the Giants' pass rush was going to be last February. (Ha!) But it was not enough. His humiliation was not complete. It is a terrible thing to say. It is: I feel satisfied that Tom Brady is out for the year. It has soothed the feelings of disappointment that have bothered me since September 1999. It may be unfair that I have lost sight of his soul in all of this. He's a fucking human being; I know this. But with its masks, its padding, its vastness, its excess, the sport encourages us to dehumanize these players to this point. It's a crap excuse, but if you're a football fan, you know it's true.

I blame football. One player makes all the difference in football, and he is the quarterback, the player on whom too much depends. Crushing the the quarterback's spirit has always been the objective in a sport that rests so precariously on that focal point. And this is a fault in the game, one even Vince Lombardi brought up again and again. Too much rests on a guy who would have benefited from a graduate course in Statistics at Rutgers, which lately is what a good QB needs. The Jets were not going to be successful with Pennington at QB, nor will they be with Favre if the old man comes up lame. The question of the Vikings' future rests with the growth of Tarvaris Jackson, which will probably never come. Matt Leinart is not going to cut it the way Jim Plunkett eventually did. Like Michael Vick, Vince Young is showing that a singular ability at one aspect at QB cannot account for the wealth of spontaneous decision-making he needs on the field. It was too much for one man when the quarterback called the plays himself; it's too much for one man now when he needs to memorize three other people's play calling. Just ask Billy Joe Hobert.

Will the peerless machine of New England get back into gear? Yes, and at the expense of the Jets, most likely. And don't forget Buffalo - they'll win the division if the Patriots don't. But now at least I feel that with Brady out, I can at least stop blaming Fate for a lack of trying. And even if this is not the beginning of the end of the Patriot Dynasty (and it is not) I can at least take comfort from the thought that maybe my old friends from college remember how rotten they were to Vinny and to me that day of seeming promise in September 1999.

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