When it comes to following a favorite professional football team, I’m a stranger in a strange land.
I live in Arkansas – a hotbed of support for the Dallas Cowboys, but because of a single play that happened nearly half a century ago, I can’t stand “America’s Team.” It’s a grudge I carried from childhood through middle ages and even now into my later years.
It involved one of the nicest players in football against my beloved Minnesota Vikings, and it created a religious name for the play, and similar plays that followed, in the decades since.
I grew up in a small college town in northern Minnesota and became a Vikings fan when I first learned about football. The team actually held summer camp at Bemidji State University, where my father taught, and my friends and I would go to the college stadium to watch the team. This was years ago, remember, when football players were accessible, and not prima donnas with posses and security agents keeping the fans away.
We’d climb over a fence that separated our grade school playground from the stadium, and watch as Joe Kapp and Mick Tingelhoff and Roy Winston practiced and became our heroes.
So, the team was a family of sorts – making what happened on Dec. 28, 1975, that much worse.
Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, the clean-cut Navy graduate who never cursed, caused cussing aplenty that day. With 24 seconds remaining in a playoff game between the Cowboys and Vikings, Staubach heaved a 50-yard pass to Drew Pearson who, depending on who you rooted for, either pushed Vikings defender Nate Wright in a blatant pass interference penalty, or made a miraculous catch and scampered in for the winning score, 17-14. Staubach later told reporters that he prayed during that play and threw what he called a “Hail Mary” pass.
“Hail Mary?” I thought after it happened. “More like hell, Roger.”
Because of my support of the Vikings, I chose to believe the Vikes’ Wright was wronged in that game. Dallas went on to Super Bowl X, losing to Pittsburgh, and giving me only a slight sense of revenge.
Now, nearly 47 years later, the pain is still there. And because I live within an eye poke of one of the points on the Cowboy’s blue star logo, I hear about the team constantly from fans. I used to work in an office in which the building superintendent was related by marriage to Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones’ wife. The superintendent built a shrine to the Cowboys with photographs, game tickets and field passes in a prominent place in the building. I suggested it may be more appropriate to move the display to the building’s bathroom. He suggested it may be more appropriate for me to find a new office.
The Cowboys are everywhere here. The team takes precedence on the sports pages of the state’s newspaper. On Sundays in the fall, when I would leave church, I’d turn on the car radio and be treated to Cowboy game broadcasts. I felt like turning around, heading back to the chapel and begging forgiveness for the sinful thoughts that suddenly popped in my head.
Such is the nature of sports mania. “Fan,” you know, is a derivative of “fanatic.” You follow a team, and it becomes a vital part of your life. The Vikings win – I’m happy. They lose – I lose. As an obsessive sports fan, I take losses, especially those like that 1975 Dallas game, very personally. My first heartache didn’t occur over some girl dumping me, but instead when Kansas City beat Minnesota in Super Bowl IV in 1970.
Granted, historically, Dallas is a better team than Minnesota. The Vikings went to four Super Bowls and lost them all. Dallas has won five championships. But, that doesn’t matter.
Sports stay with you. My ill feelings continue toward a team, hinging on that single pass play that happened so long ago.
As this year’s NFL season is underway, I notice that the Vikings will host Dallas in a game in Minneapolis on Nov. 20. Maybe, just maybe, a Vikings win will help ease some of the animosity I’ve carried for so long.