Javier Arenas in Tuscaloosa.

More Than Just A Game


No, the world didn’t end on Saturday—the reports of the Rapture and our impending demise were greatly exaggerated. But the pictures we saw the next day from Joplin, and have been seeing for weeks from Alabama and Mississippi (and now also Kansas and Iowa and Minnesota), look more than enough like a real Armageddon.

When tornadoes tore through Alabama, it got our attention; we were all touched and even inspired by Javier Arenas‘s story of survival and singular mission to help others, as detailed in Lars Anderson’s recent Sports Illustrated cover story. When a mile-wide twister, the single deadliest in the U.S. in almost 60 years, mangled Joplin on Sunday, the story hit much closer to home, literally for some, as those members of our AA team and their families felt the anguish first hand. I’m sure that’s true, too, for many of you out there.

I remember that when I read how Alabama head football coach Nick Saban was encouraging his players to reach out to the people of Tuscaloosa—“Just by your presence and being with them, you can help people,” he said—I was cynical at first. Perhaps because while Arenas’s first move after cheating death was to load up his SUV with $1,600 worth of supplies to hand out, Saban hasn’t yet announced how much of his $4.15 million salary for the 2011 season will be earmarked for disaster relief. Or maybe because the focus seemed to be on sports as a temporarily helpful but otherwise superficial distraction: “We can create a psychological escape for the people of this town,” Saban told SI. “They have a great passion for sports, and we’ll be there for them.”

Sure, sports are and can be a healthy diversion, especially in times like this, what another SI reporter, writing days after September 11, 2001, likened to “pulling a blanket over your head when you’re a kid—suddenly the world goes away and nothing outside that little space even exists; it’s delicious.” But that’s just the game. And being a fan extends beyond the game. There’s something much more important going on here, and we’re starting to see it.

The Chiefs have launched a bottled-water-donation drive that’s going on in the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot right now. It’s not so much the $35,000 the team is donating—that would have paid for about six minutes of Matt Cassel’s time on the bench last year, or the postage for a few thousand insincere letters from Clark Hunt—but the way they are using their image, their media partnerships, and heck, even K.C. Wolf and the Chiefs cheerleaders to mobilize the community. And, of course, the AA leadership* has made a point to raise awareness of what’s happened down South and in Joplin and how we can help.

*Patrick “Paddy” Allen is our leader, and this is his ship.

Sure, it’s a great PR move for the Chiefs, but there’s a reason teams and their fan bases are called upon to make a difference in situations where they bare no direct responsibility and their only connection might be proximity. There’s a reason we, as fans, call ourselves a Nation, one without borders.*

*Or at least, the borders are purely ideological. For example, wherever Al Davis’s influence reigns is to be considered beyond our frontiers, Enemy Territory, or, if you prefer, the Dark Side.

Being a fan isn’t just about the highs, or the lows, but about feeling them together. That’s not a completely unique phenomenon, of course; it’s characteristic of any group or community based on a shared passion. Yet there’s something about how being a sports fan cuts across time and space. There is an essay I read in Time magazine a number of years ago that I’ve kept figuratively pinned to my bulletin board (i.e., saved on my computer desktop) ever since. Writer Michael Elliott attempts to explain his emotional reaction to watching his hometown team win the European soccer championship. I don’t care so much for English “football,” but substitute Kansas City Chiefs for Liverpool FC, and Elliott’s essay explains the healthy devotion and common bond of fanhood better than I think I ever could. More than once, I’ve forwarded it to people who had told me they “don’t get it”—“it” being what seems to them like an obsessive dedication to a group of men, their names and faces often changing, who we fans don’t know and will likely never meet. But that’s not what it’s all about.

As you get older, it becomes harder to believe… That, however, is when you appreciate the deeper benefits of being a fan. For me, following one soccer team has been the connective tissue of my life. I left Liverpool to go to college and have never had the slightest desire to live there again, but wandering around the world, living in seven different cities on three continents, my passion was the thing that gave me a sense of what home meant. Being a fan became a fixed point, wherever I lived. It was—it is—one of the two or three things that I think of as making me, well, me.

But fandom does more than defeat distance and geography. It acts as a time machine. There is only one thing I have done consistently for nearly 50 years, and that is support Liverpool. To be a fan is a blessing, for it connects you as nothing else can to childhood, and to everything and everyone that marked your life between your time as a child and the present. So when I sat in Hong Kong at dawn watching the championship game on TV, I didn’t have to try to manufacture the tiny, inconsequential strands that make up a life. They were there all around me. Tea at my Grandma’s after a game; a favorite uncle who died too young; bemused girlfriends who didn’t get it (I married the one who did); the 21st-birthday cake that my mother iced in Liverpool’s colors; my tiny daughters in their first club shirts; the best friends with whom I’ve long lost touch. What does being a fan mean? It means you’ll never walk alone.

This is how and why we’ve all found our way here, figuratively and digitally, from Kansas City, from Joplin, from Brooklyn, from beyond. Being Chiefs fans is part of what makes us, well, us. And whether in the hour of celebration or a moment of reflection or a time for action, that’s a comfort and a calling we can all be grateful is ours.

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