Monday, January 19, 2015

Now all my football demons have been cast out...

I've been watching professional football since 1976, when I was eight years old and my maternal grandfather, along with my dad, introduced me to Fran Tarkenton and the Minnesota Vikings. I've been a die-hard Vikings fan ever since, which means that I've suffered a lot of heartbreak. My grandpa was from St. Louis, so I've also followed the football Cardinals until their departure after a dismal 1985 campaign, then welcomed the St. Louis Rams in 1995. The Rams gave us the Greatest Show on Turf, four years of glory, a lonely island in a sea of feckless ineptitude.

My football fandom has not been a total loss. I saw the Rams win what many people think was the most exciting of all the Super Bowls in 2000 over the Tennessee Titans, and I celebrated in 2006 when Peyton Manning and the Colts beat the Patriots in the AFC Championship (what my blog entry calls "The Greatest NFL Game Ever Played"), followed his sole Super Bowl win over the Bears. So it's not like I've never had the chance to break out my copy of Queen's "Greatest Hits" and blast "We Are The Champions" throughout my house.

But for the most part, NFL fandom is an exercise in annual heartbreak. Even the great champion cities of Pittsburgh, Dallas, and San Francisco have lost more season than they've won. For me, it's reached the point where I'm happy if one of my favorite teams makes it to the playoffs (which has been forever for Minnesota and St. Louis).

With that said, the following are my five most heartbreaking NFL losing experiences, all of which were expelled with the same force as Legion being cast into a herd of swine after yesterday's NFC Championship game. We'll get to that in a bit; first, my pain, then my redemption.

Still my favorite QB of all time.
#5. Vikings vs. Raiders, Super Bowl 11, 1977
This was the year I was introduced to the Vikings, who went 10-0 before finishing 11-2-1 and beating Washington and the L.A. Rams to get to their fourth Super Bowl. Then they met the best Oakland Raiders team that John Madden ever coached and lost 32-14. I remember walking out of the house and trudging miserably through the snow before the game was over when I realized the Vikings had no chance to win. I should have just given up then.

#4. Cardinals vs. Washington, 1984
This was the last St. Louis football Cardinals game I ever watched. After taking a 27-26 fourth quarter lead, the Cardinals gave up a field goal to trail 29-27. QB Neil Lomax took the team down in the waning moments to give kicker Neil O'Donahue a chance at a 38-yard game-winning field goal that would have put the Cardinals into the playoffs. Wide right. Four years later, the team moved to Phoenix. I didn't care.

#3. Vikings vs. Saints, NFC Championship, 2010
This was the year Brett Favre came out of retirement (again) and had a simply magical season with the Vikings. Had the referees decided to actually call one or two of the at least 17 roughing the passer personal foul penalties that should have been called on the New Orleans defense, the Vikings probably win this game by two touchdowns. They would have played Peyton's Colts in the Super Bowl, giving me the rare opportunity to root for both teams and be happy regardless of who won. Instead, I hope New Orleans never makes the playoffs again. Ever.

Kurt Warner, HOF (soon!)
#2. Rams vs. Patriots, Super Bowl 36, 2002
The Patriots illegally videotaped the Rams' practice walk-throughs, giving their defense the necessary advantage to derail an offense that was utterly unstoppable that year. Years later,  when the cheating came to light and after the NFL's "investigation," all the recorded evidence of the cheating was destroyed. Yeah, yeah, move along, nothing to see here. I can only take solace in the fact that some day Tom Brady will be too old to play football, and even further into the future, when Bill Belicheck passes away, the devil will finally cash in on Belicheat's end of their bargain.

What Moss meant to the Vikings
#1. Vikings vs. Falcons, NFC Championship, 1998
This is the Rosetta Stone of misery for all Vikings fans. All it would have taken to seal the game in the fourth quarter was a 38-yard field goal by Gary Anderson, who hadn't missed all season. He missed, of course, and Atlanta tied the game with less than two minutes remaining, then won it in overtime. Until yesterday, all you had to say to a Vikings fan was "1998" to either: a) reduce him to tears; or b) enrage him to the point of homicidal psychosis. But thanks to our longtime rivals, the Green Bay Packers, Vikings fans can at last take solace in the fact that we no longer own the worst choke-job in the history of conference championship games.

Here's why my list no longer matters: Up 19-7 with five minutes to go in Seattle, a venue where most visiting teams have no chance to win, Green Bay, led by the NFL's best QB, Aaron Rodgers, goes three-and-out with three weak runs. On the next series, Russell Wilson throws his fourth interception of the day. Green Bay takes over near midfield with less than four minutes to play. Run, run, run, punt. Rodgers never throws the ball.

Next, a Packers defense that had successfully contained Seattle's offense all day allows them to score a touchdown in less than a minute, then loses the on-side kick when it goes through the hands of a backup tight end, then gives up another touchdown by being unable to tackle either Marshawn Lynch or Russell Wilson on long runs, then gives up a two-point conversion that Wilson just threw up for grabs as he was going down, then ties it up with a field goal to send it to overtime (even though it would have won them the game except for the miracle two-point conversion), then loses the overtime coin toss, then gives up a Hail-Mary touchdown pass on the first Seattle possession in overtime.

Go ahead. Let it out.
Count it up. 1) Three and out. 2) Intercepted Wilson AGAIN! 3) Three and out. 4) Gives up TD. 5) Loses onside kick. 6) Gives up go-ahead touchdown. 7) Gives up impossible two-point conversion. 8) Can't score winning TD, settles for overtime. 9) Loses OT coin toss. 10) Gives up game-winning TD on Hail-Mary pass on Seattle's first possession. Ten disastrous events, all coming after they held a 12-point lead with five minutes to play.

Thank you, Green Bay. You've just relieved me of 30 years of football futility. I'd like to tell you that you'll get over it someday, but that day is likely to be a long time coming.