On Sunday, September 27th, 2014, at 3:26 PM, while boarding a northbound red line train at the Belmont stop in Chicago, I was booed (in chorus) by a car full of tired, angry people. I have my character flaws, but it’s not often that the general public turns on me. That day was different, however. On that day, I donned three pieces of Green Bay Packers apparel — t-shirt, hat, and socks. And, on that day, the Packers beat the Bears.
The NFL is a tangle of scandal and suspicion these days. The news cycle hovers over questionable leadership, off-field accountability, on-field penalties and punishments, and player health concerns. At the risk of committing a well-refereed sin in Titletown USA–I’m not sure about what that means for me and my near-biological, forced-for-perpetuity relationship with the Green Bay Packers. With Sunday obligations and piles of philosophy to read, I simply don’t make the commitment anymore. I don’t feel like I have time. It stresses me out to think that I have some obligation to them, and while the team exists in part for my enjoyment, lately, it hasn’t been a major source of happiness.
No team will ever hold my heart in the same way. Brett Favre, for better or worse, is my boyhood hero. I feel sick inside when the Packers lose. The Packers organization is inextricably linked with my human experience. I remember my first game, Don Majkowski slinging ducks for a W over the Colts; a grade school classmate even named his cat after him. I remember chasing police officers down to obtain coveted rookie cards. I remember the first time I went to a game unsupervised by my parents, feeling awfully adult buying rounds of hot chocolate, hot dogs, and RC Cola.
Even now, the hype remains around training camp, the requisite check-in with friends and family after the game, the slight possibility that gameday might fall on one of the few days I’m home over the winter holidays. Even while halfway around the world this summer I taught hundreds of Indian children a famous Packers cheer.
A stadium-sized potential for happiness exists in each of these memories and moments. And yet, lately I haven’t found that old sense of happiness. Adding insult to injury, there I was on the red line in Chicago in my Packers t-shirt less than half-an-hour after a huge win for my team and I was being booed. The Bears had lost. The train was full of navy blue and orange. I was scared. These Bear-backers were going to turn on me. What did I expect?
One guy close to where I stood on the packed train flipped me off with a devilish smile. He was likely drunk, team decals stamped on his and his partner’s cheeks. But, he started talking to me anyway. “Cutler,” he said with deep contempt. “What are we going to do with him?”
“Not sure,” I said. “But, Forte and Bennett looked amazing, and you’re coming off two great wins. Something good is coming–lots of football left to play. Were you at the game?”
He was. He told me all about it, from the wild tailgate to the mood at Soldier Field as people started to leave, defeat unavoidable. Then, we talked about how fun the NFL game experience is. “Nothing beats Lambeau,” he said. We talked about how the NFL is in trouble, and what it would mean not to have it anymore.
We talked about his work, and how after moving to Chicago, he started cheering for the local team (Sox, not the Cubs). He talked about taking his nephew to his first Bulls game, and about how Chicago, in part because of the sports teams, feels like home. How it was tough to leave his family in LA behind, but now, he’s settled and satisfied with his life. He was still happy, even after a loss.
It’s a long lesson to learn, but I’m convinced that our happiness exists somewhere outside ourselves. Everything around us gives us everything we need to be either miserable or filled with joy. How we choose to respond is telling of what drives us into greater love, into greater joy, into greater hope, and into greater happiness. On that day in late September the Packers won and I felt great about it. The Bears lost and he was down. But not really. And not forever.
There’s something behind this reality, behind our moments of happiness and disappointment, something beyond our control. It was an afternoon of eating, drinking, and being merry with loved ones. His partner’s head was resting gently on his shoulder. I had just left behind my oldest friend, a Green Bay companion living in Chicago with his wife and two beautiful children. The sun was shining on a surprisingly warm late September day. Two people, bred in the realm of football to boo and curse each other, came together and were grateful for each other and for life.
At my stop, I said goodbye, and he put his fist out. “So long, you filthy cheesehead,” he said. I bumped his fist, wished him well, and went on my way. The discomfort I felt boarding the train and the memory of being booed was, for the moment, not only waning, but replaced by something much greater–a feeling of connection, a feeling of familiar happiness.
The cover image, from Flickr user Earl, can be found here.