On Moral Victories
“The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”
— Muhammad Ali
I have been a die-hard Chicago Bears fan since I was four years old.
I became a Bear fan because in general, everyone I knew and loved who loved American football was a Bear fan, and specifically, because my dad was a Bear fan.
Circumstances from The Great Migrations of the early and mid-twentieth century led to our eventual fandom. Millions of black families migrated from the harsh inequities of the Jim Crow south to the marginally less harsh discriminations of northern city life. It gives me chills to think that things could’ve turned out much worse for me had my family kept going past Chicago, settling in Detroit instead.
Phew! Dodged a bullet there.
Dad became a die-hard Bear fan because his family moved to Chicago from somewhere in the red mud of Mississippi. Mom’s family moved to Chicago from somewhere in Tennessee, according to my brother, who I assume gleaned this info from our maternal grandmother. Momma became a casual Bears fan because she met dad and thought he was cute, and plus everyone she knew was a fan, so meh, why not?
The Bears had a young unknown halfback called Walter Payton. His nickname was Sweetness, and somehow it fit that soft-spoken brute. Dad didn’t think much of him at first, but Payton quickly ascended as the third male hero of my early memories behind Muhammad Ali and Dad. Like Dad, he was also from Mississippi. I sometimes fantasized about Dad hanging out with Sweetness as small children, or Payton somehow being my long-lost uncle.
Before we knew he would be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – before we knew that Walter Payton would become WALTER PAYTON – I marveled at how he never, ever quit on a play, not even when it was obviously doomed to fail. Not even when his teammates obviously lacked talent, effort, or otherwise played like hot garbage. Not even during the very last play of the 1984 NFC Championship game, with the game already decided, on the ass-end of a 23-0 ass-whupping at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers.
Not even in 1979, when his father Edward Payton died under mysterious circumstances inside a jailcell in Columbia, Mississippi after being arrested by a white police officer.
Sweetness seemed to approach any challenge the same way; he kept his head down, kept using his body as battering ram, kept moving forward, seldom spoke above a whisper, and never complained. I admired and wanted to emulate him, but I usually fell short.
But the greatness that was Sweetness was a welcome outlier among the years (decades?) of comically-sad futility that passed for Chicago Bears football. As a Bear fan, you quickly became acquainted with words and terms like grit, and moral victory, and maybe next year, and almost had ‘em that time, and “why did he do that?!?” and “Why not try the second-string QB?” and “Holy shit, OK we’ve seen enough of the second guy; how about the third-string QB?” and “Fuck me, that third-string guy blows; how about the punter? Can he throw?” and “Jesus! Is there anyone on defense willing to make a tackle, or are you all just gonna wait to get the ball-carrier’s autograph later?”
I have watched decades of mostly-bad Bears football with little complaint. Sure, I’ve flung a remote or two and broken a few TV’s in the throws of defeat, but after each tantrum – and even the mantrums of my adult years – I always returned for more, head down, moving forward in silent fanaticism.
But the Chicago Bears were not just a mostly bad football team in a civic vacuum. When I was eight years old, I realized that the city of Chicago hosted mostly bad professional sports teams across multiple venues. In baseball, the Cubs were the “lovable losers” who made me hate all of baseball. I guess that made the White Sox apathetic losers since they were usually slightly better than the Cubs, but few cared because who really gives a damn about a team that’s only marginally better than dogshit?
In hockey, the Blackhawks blew too, and nobody cared that their mascot was an indigenous people that were mostly wiped out by the U.S. government, and therefore, it’s a really racist mascot if you think about it too much, or at all (it is now 2017 and guess what? Nobody seems to care now either.)
In basketball, we had the Bulls before they signed some guy named Mike Jordan. And let me be clear; the pre-MJ-Bulls squads of the late 70’s/early 80’s are not teams you will ever see featured on the network ESPN Classic. In my entire childhood, I might’ve watched a single quarter of their basic chest-passes and bricked shots before getting bored and switching over to Trapper John M.D.
One night, I recall Momma tucking me in. This was two years after my parents separated, and the second time that Momma failed to pave her way alone as a single parent. This was the second time that she had to crawl back to her mother’s house with me and my baby brother Phil in tow. I knew she felt like a failure because she said as much in my presence without knowing I was listening. Plus, it was in her body language.
There was something about the accumulation of these moments that struck me. My parents failed in marriage. Dad failed in his own autonomy and had to rent a room from his mother. Mom failed in her autonomy as well, but with her kids watching her every misstep. I had recently failed to stand up to my bullying maternal uncles with Grandmother’s admonishment falling down upon my incredulous ears for daring to try standing up for myself against grown men who should know better than to abuse their power.
My Bears took L’s, my other teams took L’s, my parents took L’s, and I was taking L’s daily; It began to feel like maybe I was born to lose.
I guess at that moment I was the right amount of dejected and inquisitive to form a few questions in my head.
“Momma,” I asked, “why do all the teams from Chicago lose so much? Is it because of me?”
“Oh, no baby! You didn’t do anything wrong at all!” Momma reassured me, kissing my forehead. “All the Chicago teams lose so much because their owners are too cheap to hire good players and coaches, and because the people they hire to run their teams are very bad at math. Goodnight, sweetie.”
To steal a phrase from Forest Gump, Momma always had a knack for breaking down complex ideas into terms my young brain could grasp.
But oh, what a difference four years makes! Dad had leveled-up to renting a swank townhouse in an affluent suburb, and Momma moved us out on her own, though we were in a housing project one of the more dangerous southside Chicago neighborhoods. This was a source of friction between Momma and me. Obviously, I wanted to move in with Dad in the safe suburbs with the delicious dinners and unending chocolate chip cookies, and Dad wanted me with him too.
The main thing that being a Bear fan taught me is that even when we get a come-up, it almost always comes laced with some type of L. Some kind of moral defeat always piggy-backing on a fleeting victory, if you will. Perhaps that’s just how life works, though it seemed that it was just how my life worked. Sadly, for Mom to remain eligible for the government assistance she needed to maintain her independence, Phil and I were required to live with her.
Mom had asthma, and I mean that she had the type of asthma that got her laid up in hospitals for long stretches of winter. On more than one occasion during her hospital visits, her heart stopped and she had to be forcibly brought back from the other side. Basically, her illness rendered her unemployable, but the government dragged their asses on approving her medical disability.
It was all a bunch of convoluted bureaucratic nonsense that mostly went over my twelve-year-old head. All it meant to me was that I couldn’t go live with Dad because Mom needed me with her. From my limited, selfish perspective, I couldn’t grasp why Momma would be so selfish, not knowing or caring how much my words and actions wounded her. I seethed and resented her and we clashed and butted heads frequently. I took ass-whuppins from her like hotcakes, but I could never silence my resentment. I couldn’t keep my head down and move forward quietly.
I’d take it all back if I could.
But oh! Four years and my Bears were good! I mean, really good! I’d spend Sundays high-fiving with Dad and weekdays being surly to Mom and counting the days until I could spend Sundays high-fiving with Dad again.
This all came to a head on Super Bowl Sunday, when my Bears would destroy the New England Patriots! The game was a formality, really; a coronation I’d waited for my entire thirteen-year life. Leave it to Momma to throw a curveball and guilt me into watching the big game with her and her sister, my aunt Judy. Momma didn’t even like football! But we’d had a pretty rough month of beefing, and all mothers know how to lay on just enough guilt, you know? Just enough.
So, I stayed and watch the Super Bowl on our wack-ass TV in the wack-ass projects with Momma, lil’ Phil, aunt Judy, and her wack-ass husband, my uncle Fred. It wasn’t ideal, but for the most part, I got over myself. (I can only assume that wack-ass uncle Fred had also lost a battle of wills that day, because nobody wakes up in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom suburban palace with his own den and decides, “You know what would be even better than this? Returning to the ghetto I barely escaped from not even twenty years ago just so I can watch the Big Game on a wack-ass TV in the wack-ass projects with my sister-in-law and my wack-ass sass-mouthed nephew!” Sorry about that, Fred.)
Things took a dark turn just after the game ended, and I take full responsibility for my actions. I wanted to bask in the glory of my team’s win, watch them hoist the trophy, listen to the postgame interviews, and all those wonderful things.
Mom wanted me to take out the trash. Immediately.
In the grand scheme of things, we basically just disagreed about how I would spend the next 15-20 minutes of my life. But things escalated quickly. I pleaded, begged, whined, and used all the basic negotiation tactics of a thirteen-year-old mini-supervillain, up to, and including the tantrum-to-end-all-tantrums. But Momma, merely a casual Bears fan, failed to grasp how important this was to me, and she did not yield one inch.
Left with no outlet to adequately vent my frustration, I calmly gathered the kitchen trash, tied it off securely, picked it up, and flung it across the living room as hard as I fucking could. The bag tore and some garbage spilled out, but it was only a little. No big, right?
I know. I know. You can stop looking at me like that. I know, OK?
Mom knew too. That’s why she beat the shit out of me. And she was right to do so. I had that one coming. But at the time, I was filled with righteous rage, and so I decided to run away. In Chicago. During January. Wearing only jeans and a t-shirt.
I bolted down the stairs and made it the length of the building before realizing that I should probably turn back before I froze to death. I could give Momma the silent treatment from the comfort of my room after I finished taking out the garbage.
To recap: at the pinnacle of my favorite team’s most triumphant moment, just after they finally became the best NFL team on the planet, and I mean directly after that happened, I got my ass-whupped and almost gave myself hypothermia. All my come-ups come with L’s included. It’s just my lot in life.
I could stop right here and write, “And that’s what being a Bears fan is all about, Charlie Brown,” but I’m not quite done.
A few hours later, after we had time to calm down and make our apologies, I finally voiced the crux of my frustration. I wanted to watch the game with Dad. Dad would’ve understood why the end was so important. Why had Mom imposed herself upon me if she just didn’t get it?
This is what my sweet, loving Momma said to me, verbatim:
“Oh boy, hush! Quit being so dramatic! You can watch with your dad the next time the Bears win the Super Bowl.”
Momma died of complications with asthma in 2009. Doctors couldn’t force her back to us that last time. Dad died of throat cancer four years later.
The Bears went to one more Super Bowl in 2007, where they faced the Indianapolis Colts during a freak monsoon. The Bears were easily the superior team on defense, special teams, and running game. The Colts were easily the superior passing team, as they had Peyton Manning and the Bears historically suck at passing the ball through the air. All the Bears had to do to win the game were two things:
- Make the game as ugly, muddy, and unwatchable as humanly possible.
- Do NOT, under ANY circumstances, try to pass the freaking football through the air, which again, is historically the Bears’ weakest freaking attribute, especially during a freak monsoon.
Well, my Bears only accomplished one of those two things as they were defeated. They haven’t sniffed a Super Bowl since, and they probably won’t until well after my own dirt-nap. So, if you believe in some form of afterlife, technically, Momma was right. I’ll probably be watching with Dad the next time the Bears win the Super Bowl.
And that’s what being a Bears fan is all about, Charlie Brown!
Except I’m not a Bears fan anymore.
To be more specific, I’m not an NFL fan anymore. At least not a die-hard, pay for streaming, watch every game fan anymore. Ironically, my mother’s casual fan approach turns out to be the best way of dealing with the modern NFL. Who knew?
Why am I taking several giant steps back from NFL fandom?
You see, there’s a gentleman named Colin Kaepernick who played for the San Francisco 49ers. You’ve probably heard of him because last year he famously took a knee during each of his game’s National Anthem Ceremony in protest of police brutality and police killings of unarmed African Americans (people who look a lot like me).
There are many (myself included) who viewed this gesture as a brave act to draw attention to egregious injustices occurring across the U. S. Unfortunately, there are others who view this protest as disrespectful to the troops and veterans who fight for the freedoms us Americans share, which baffles me (I am a U.S. Navy Veteran, so if you disagree with me, you have that right. I just ask that you please try not to disrespect me in the comments area while you’re disagreeing with me.)
It would seem that most NFL owners fall into the latter camp, as Kaepernick cannot seem to get a job in the NFL. Kaep isn’t an elite QB, but he is certainly better than half the QB’s in the league who already have jobs, including the guy currently starting for the Bears. For the Bears to not even look at Kaep via a workout tells me that NFL ownership in general, and Bears ownership specifically, would rather make their ill-conceived rhetorical point than win football games. And that’s where I get off the bus.
Please do not misunderstand me; this is not a boycott. A boycott is me withholding my time, energy, and money until certain conditions are met. I have no reason to believe that me withholding my one lousy NFL Sunday Ticket subscription, or pairing down my cable sports package will register as even a blip on the NFL’s revenue stream. I am just one guy, so who gives a shit where my chump-change goes?
No, this is not a boycott; this is me severing ties with an organization that I spent two-score foolishly and overzealously treating like an extension of my family. As the NFL said in their disingenuous anti-domestic abuse ad; No More. I can and have tolerated four decades of mostly bad football and moral victories from this team. I must part ways with any organization who would rather settle for being on the wrong side of history than – you know – actually try to win football games.
Failing to even look at a free-agent that could be best equipped to help your team win because you find his activism uncomfortable? I thought my Bears were made of sterner stuff than that. I cannot keep my head down while The Bears can take that L by themselves; I’m not taking this one with them.
Perhaps I’ll see you guys on free network TV if I can’t find any Trapper John M.D. reruns to watch.
For anyone cringing at my suffering so-called child abuse at the hands of my mom after the Super Bowl or whatever, please stop and consider this. Three years later, my dad punched me out when I was 16. That was probably abuse. What my mom did to me in ‘86 was not abuse; it was an old-fashioned ass-whupping, and I had it coming.
What can I say? It was the 80’s. We lived in the ghetto. We didn’t know then what we know now.
My kids are adults now. In their childhood, I maybe spanked them three times. Knowing what we know now, that was probably three times too many. But like I said, different time, different era.
Momma didn’t have the luxury of discussing my feelings with me while I was flinging garbage across her clean floors like a jackass. For all she knew, I could’ve also been acting like a jackass outside in public where the very real possibility existed that I could’ve been shot and killed by a gangster or police officer or arrested and left to die a jailcell under mysterious circumstances.
In 2017, perhaps this is abuse. But in 1986 in the projects, it was just damn good Johnny-on-the-spot parenting.