American football used to be popular in the UK back in the late 1980s when Channel 4 showed games every Sunday. People loved watching players like Joe Montana and John Elway because, well, who doesn’t love a handsome, successful athlete?

I was born in 1989, two years before Joe Montana’s career as a 49er would be effectively ended by a tackle from Leonard Marshall in the 1990 NFC Championship Game. As Montana faded so did the British love affair with American football. Coverage would continue right up until 1998, but the popularity would decline rapidly.

1998 was the year I got into soccer. It was the World Cup, and I became obsessed with the game. Although I would take passing interest in other sports soccer was the only one I’d follow intently. And stayed like that until a dull afternoon in a San Francisco hotel almost a decade later.

Preseason: A Gridiron Galaxy

San Francisco, August 2007

The Grant Plaza hotel was a small hotel in the middle of Chinatown. It was no Hepatitis Hotel, but it was no palace either. The rooms were small and dark and the view out of the window was half courtyard, half scrapheap. But it had a TV.

My brother and I watched that TV a lot, because he and my mother had fallen ill and we couldn’t go out much. This is how we came to witness the stars of the gridiron galaxy come out to shine in a preseason game between the San Diego Chargers and the Seattle Seahawks. I don’t remember that game at all, but I think the Seahawks won.

It was hardly love at first sight, but we’d both gained an understanding of the game. We were keen to learn more, and knew that it was a sport we could come to love in time.

Week Six: Brady Does Dallas

October 2007

My bother and I didn’t pay any attention to the NFL until Week Six. We decided the best way to get into it properly was to start supporting a team. He picked Chicago seemingly at random whilst I unwittingly jumped on a bandwagon.

I didn’t feel too bad when I found out that the Patriots were one of the best teams in the NFL. For the past twelve years I’ve supported Tottenham Hotspur, a soccer team. In that time they’ve managed to win two minor cups and threatened both success and relegation in a rollercoaster of frustrating mediocrity. I felt it was about time I knew what it was like to follow a winning team.

I almost picked the Cowboys— because I’d heard of them. And I’d only heard of them because of the porn film Debbie Does Dallas. Ultimately I picked the Patriots because of their MySpace group. I’d joined a Cowboys group and got told to fuck off. The Pats group members welcomed me like it was an episode of Cheers and I was Norm.

In a twist worthy of a cheap thriller, Week Six of the 2007 season saw the Patriots going to Dallas to play the Cowboys. The Pats would end up annihilating the Cowboys, scoring two points shy of fifty.

I didn’t get to watch the game live. I followed it via updates on NFL.com, and caught the online highlights the next morning after I’d showered. The first time I saw Tom Brady throw a football I was drinking tea and feversishly trying to get my balls dry…

Week Eight: Giant Dolphin

October 2007

I was excited about Week Eight; the Giants would be playing the Dolphins at Wembley Stadium and it would be shown live on the BBC. I was going to watch an entire, proper NFL game.

I was in London on the Saturday before the game. There were stalls and stands all over the place selling football paraphernalia ranging from replica jerseys to commemorative t-shirts to over-sized novelty head gear.

In Trafalgar Square I saw a robotic Jason Taylor of the Miami Dolphins. If you’re going to have the Dolphins over to play a game of football then why not build a towering twenty-six foot likeness of their only decent player?

* * * *

By Week Eight the bad feeling towards the Patriots had increased. First there was ‘Spygate’, then they kept beating everyone and now rival fans were taking great offence at the manner in which the Patriots were winning. Week Eight was the week that the fifty point mark was reached as New England put fifty-two up against the Redskins.

‘Running up the score’ was frowned upon. I didn’t understand it; I was coming from soccer where teams are encouraged to score as many goals as possible. That’s how you win games: by scoring more than the other guys.

On the MySpace group the Pats hatred was fostering an isolated, communal, us-against-them atmosphere. It made for good fun, and it was almost worth the slight discomfort in supporting the sort of sports team that I would probably be outraged by if I didn’t support them. To us the Patriots were the good guys, and they were very, very good.

* * * *

I sat down on Sunday afternoon and took it all in. There was over an hour of build up where all the celebrities that were lurking about got interviewed and talked about watching the NFL in the Eighties.

Eventually the game itself got underway. The Wembley turf was being churned to shit. It was pouring with rain and the Giants’ white jerseys were dirtied and browned by the wet mud.

And there on the BBC Eli Manning threw the first touchdown I’d seen live in the 2007 season.

Week Thirteen: It Was In the Bleak December

December 2007

It had been close— almost too close. But it was 12-0 now, the Pats had beaten the Ravens and the Patriots were just four games away from an undefeated regular season: a perfect season.

At 27-24 it’d been the closest game of the season since the 24-20 victory over the Colts in Indianapolis a month earlier. Talk of the Perfect Season had become almost feverish; in the previous four weeks the Pats had destroyed the Bills and beaten the Colts, the Eagles, and The Ravens on the road. 

Meanwhile on the MySpace group I’d become popular with the regular members. They made me an honorary New Englander. A lot of it had to do with my talent for responding to the rival fans that would join the group to start arguments or spew abuse. It didn’t matter that I lived across the Atlantic and hardly ever got to watch live games, I was one of ‘them.’ The closer the Patriots came to the perfect season the more vitriolic the hate become. The us-against-the-rest mentality grew stronger, and I was ‘us’ because I was against the rest as well.

Week Sixteen: T’was Two Nights Before Christmas

December 2007

On December 23rd 2007 the New England Patriots beat the Miami Dolphins 28-7, and we were just one game away. The Dolphins were easily pushed aside, despite defeating the Ravens the previous week— the only game they won all season.

Over at the MySpace group seasonal greetings we discussed the game, the near-certainty of the 16-0 season and we exchanged season’s greetings. And then it was Christmas.

When Christmas Day arrived my brother and I received our present: cable subscription for the NFL postseason.

Week Seventeen: Standing On the Padded Shoulders of Giants

December 2007

My internet had gone down at home and I was out of contact with the guys on the MySpace group up to, and including game day. I don’t know what the general feeling was, but personally there was no doubt in my mind that the Patriots were going to do it. Defeat was inconceivable, and the Patriots were unbeatable. Sure, Eli Manning was a good QB, but he was no Peyton and over the season the Patriots had just been the best, they’d been the best by a long, long way.

The Giants led 21-16 at the half.

In the second half Brady and Moss would break NFL season records for touchdown passes and receptions to give the Pats a narrow lead. Later Maroney would run for a touchdown and a more comfortable ten point lead.

But right at the end of the last game of the regular season Eli Manning throws to Plaxico Buress for a touchdown. They go for an onside kick.

Vrabel recovers for New England and Brady kneels three times. It’s over: 38-35 Patriots. And it’s undefeated regular season. 16-0. A perfect season.

Super Bowl XLII: Failing to Graduate to Greatness in Glendale

Sunday, February 3rd 2008

Straightforward playoff wins over Jacksonville and San Diego put the now 18-0 Patriots in the Super Bowl. 19-0 seemed almost a formality. On the Myspace group moods were high. Someone in Hartford promised to post me a shirt when we won. A lot of jokes were made about Eli Manning. They were less jokes and more baseless accusations of mental retardation. We didn’t feel any need for caution, and why would we? We’d watched our team beat eighteen teams in a row in the NFL— twenty-one if you back to the end of the 2006 season. It stood to reason that we’d win the next one against a team we’d only beaten a few weeks earlier.

The concept of defeat was even mentioned on the MySpace group. Losing was something that happened to other teams, not the Patriots. Spirits were high on Saturday night, and the next day, whether for real or via TV, we descended on the Arizona desert for Super Bowl XLII.

* * * *

I still don’t understand how Manning spun past Green, or how Tyree caught the ball between hand and helmet. Then a twelve yard gain. All my pessimism, it comes flooding back. This is it. This is where it’s 18-1 and somehow, because it’s the Super Bowl and because it’s the Giants it’s even more humiliating than the Dolphins season.

I could hardly call myself a proper football fan at that stage. It was my first season, and I’d come in to it a few weeks late. I don’t think the Patriots winning every game of the regular season helped much either. It’s easy to support a winning team. I’d kind of just coasted a long on a tide of glory, and I felt pretty bad about it. Despite all the camaraderie on the MySpace group I didn’t feel like a proper fan. I felt like I was playing at it… I was riding a bandwagon from the comfort of a leather sofa three thousand miles from Foxboro— I was a plastic Patriot.

It would change, of course. The next season Brady would suffer a season ending injury and victories would be harder to come by. But at that time my future as a Pats fan was being shaped. The last thirty seconds of the Super Bowl would let me know defeat and lead me to receive gloating and abusive MySpace messages from strangers. It would draw the MySpace group even closer together. We’d become survivors of a harrowing sporting trauma.

Because there on the BBC Eli Manning threw the last touchdown I’d see live of the 2007 season. 

Giant Leap

By Greg Olear


Sometime around New Year’s Day, 1991, my girlfriend Polly, who I’ve been dating seriously for nine months, decides it’s time to take our relationship to the next level.

Here is an exact transcript of the conversation:

POLLY: I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I love you very much, and I think you and I are ready. We love each other like adults, so we should behave accordingly. It’s time to have sex, seems to me. What do you think?

ME: (gulp) OK?

Senior year of high school, both of uninitiated in the ways of love, this is a big deal. Contrary to popular news reports, which like to talk up the promiscuity of Kids These Days, the vast majority of my classmates are virgins. Reluctant virgins, but still. Even most of the cool kids have yet to go all the way, and I am not a cool kid. I cannot overstate the enormity of this development.

I’m going to a) lose my virginity, b) before I graduate from high school, c) with a smart, talented gal with whom I’m genuinely in love. Talk about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! That Polly bears an uncanny resemblance to Daphne from Scooby Doo is so much icing on the cake. Or the cherry pie, as it were.

Not that it’s all peaches and cream. Losing your virginity is like singing at a karaoke bar—sure, it’s thrilling when your number gets called, but once you get up there, you have to perform. What if I get stage fright?

And there are other concerns: birth control (research, procurement, implementation), the potential for cold feet, the need to shield the news from the veritable TMZ that is the high school grapevine, and, of course, the act itself, with its potential for embarrassment of the kind found in lesser Ben Stiller movies.

Then there’s the matter of venue. From which pier should our maiden voyage be launched?

Rather than utilize the back seat of my Skylark, or some deserted ballfield, we decide to wait until we can find a suitable location—a place where we are guaranteed to be undisturbed for a six hour period of time, to at least eliminate the nightmarish possibility of parents walking in on us.

Alas, such opportunities are rare at our respective homes. Godot might come and go and come back again before one of our suburban split-levels is sufficiently vacant.

Imagine my delight, then, when the starting tackle of the New York Giants, for whom I have occasionally but not recently house-sat, calls up, out of the blue, with a proposition that could well be the answer to our logistical problem:

“If we get to the Superbowl,” he tells me, “I’m going to need you to stay at the house.”

* * *

The job is easy enough. Feed the cats, scoop the poops, sleep at the house so would-be burglars steer clear. And $300 for the week is insanely good money for a high school kid who makes minimum wage working the McDonald’s drive-thru.

The cats are named Argus and Hopper. The former is the hundred-eyed sentinel of Greek myth; the latter, the artist who painted Boulevard of Broken Dreams. These are names you’d expect from a poet, a classics professor, a man of letters, and not a very large man whose lucrative job involves moving other very large men out of the way. But then, Daryl Reid is not your average football player.

He’s six-eight—he towered over my father, who at six feet tall is not a small guy, when I saw them standing side by side—and big, but unlike many offensive linemen, he’s not at all fat. He’s built more for the basketball court than the gridiron, like a fill-the-lane power forward with a nose for the glass. He’s also handsome, smart, and, oh yeah, wealthy. Our local paper, the Daily Record, reported that Reid earned a cool $300,000 for the 1990 season. Not too shabby.

He also has a killer collection of compact discs.

His wife Susan, a short, curvy, cute brunette—if I possessed the ability to see her as someone other than my mom’s chum from exercise class, which is how I happened upon the gig to begin with, I’d say she was hot—does most of the talking during my interactions with them.

“You can drive the Porsche if you want,” Susan told me, during the initial interview two years ago.

I am about as easy a teenager as can be hoped for. I don’t drink, smoke, do drugs, sniff glue, shoplift, break curfew, or cut class, and that C+ I got in AP calculus is the lone blemish on a superlative report card. Aside from two bathetic puffs on a Newport Light with my friend Mike Huening sophomore year, my most egregious act of rebellion in eighteen years involved eschewing evening mass at Youth Ministry for a slice of pizza at Romanelli’s. I’m the kind of kid Judd Nelson makes fun of in Breakfast Club. A goody-two-shoes geek. Ferris Bueller would take the Porsche; Greg Olear, not so much.

“Um, that’s OK. I have my own car.”

“Do you want me to buy you beer?”

Born in 1965, Daryl Reid is just six-and-a-half years older than me, a kid himself really, but because I’m still in high school, mired in the most narcissistic of the Eriksonian stages of development, I can’t discern the empire-vast difference between the Reids and my parents. I don’t realize that Susan Reid, closer to my age than my mom’s 43, wants to buy me beer because she would have liked someone to do that for her when she was a senior in high school, not that long ago.

“No, that’s OK.”

But she insists on buying something special for me, so I ask for Cocoa Pebbles.

* * *

The only circumstance under which I will openly disobey my parents’ orders is when the opportunity presents itself to make out. I will prevaricate, I will stretch the truth, I will omit key details, I will perjure myself in order to French kiss with impunity. Like, in eighth grade, I used to go to my girlfriend’s house after school, where we’d listen to Squeeze records and smooch. Afterward, when my mom would ask if we were alone, I’d say, “No. Her older sister was there.” This was true, but I would leave out the part about how her sister was downstairs with her boyfriend the entire length of my visit, doing things that would make Joe Francis blush.

The first time I watched the Reid house, I got into a heated argument with my mom. I wanted to have the girl I was seeing at the time, Sara, over the house to watch a movie. My mom said no. I maintained that if I was mature enough to live in a house for a week by myself, I was mature enough to have a friend over to watch TV. That’s when my father, who had been silent during the argument, asked me, “Do you have a prophylactic in your wallet?”

I had never heard the word spoken aloud before—I don’t know if I have since—but there was open-sesame-esque magic in those four syllables. My mother fell silent as if she’d been shot, her parental legs kicked out from underneath her, as I explained to my dad that I did not need a prophylactic because activities involving prophylactics were not on the agenda. Not with Sara, who was cute but kind of annoying.

“You’re not supposed to keep them in your wallet anyway,” I added sagely, “because they go bad.”

But I had held my ground, and by playing my parents against each other, had won both the battle and the war. Thus, if I land Reid’s housesitting gig this time, they won’t say boo about Polly being there unchaperoned.

“If we get to the Superbowl, I’m going to need you to stay at the house.”

A simple equation: If the Giants—a good team, but hardly the favorites—make it to the big game, I’m in like Flynn. The only obstacle to my happiness? Joe Montana and the mighty San Francisco 49ers.

* * *

After dispatching the Washington Redskins and the Chicago Bears in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Giants fly to the Bay for an NFC Championship showdown with the Niners. The winner will advance to the Super Bowl. The loser will go home (which would be, in Reid’s case, the house at which I wouldn’t be losing my virginity).

The 49ers, owners of the top seed, are heavily favored. They are at home, where they beat the Giants by 7-3 a month before. Their starting quarterback, Joe Montana, is probably the best to ever play the position; New York, meanwhile, lost its starting QB, Phil Simms, in Week Ten, and heads to Candlestick Park with the backup, Jeff “Hoss” Hostetler, a Tarkentonian scrambler—and the owner of one of the worst mustaches in the history of professional sport—under center.


I’m watching the game with my parents and my brother, none of whom have any inkling of what’s at stake. I didn’t bring it up, of course, and how could they have guessed that my sex life was directly tied to the outcome of the contest? We are all fired up, even my footballphobic mother—it’s more fun to watch when you know someone on the team. We eat popcorn and drink Coke and cheer.

The first half is a grueling defensive battle, all hard hits and field position, not much scoring. At halftime the teams are knotted at six—two field goals apiece.

Five minutes into the third quarter, the 49ers’ vaunted offensive attack comes alive. Montana hits John Taylor (the wide receiver, not the bass player) on a slant pass that goes for 61 yards and a touchdown.

13-6 Niners, and my stomach begins to ache. If these fuckers score again, I think to myself, the game is over.

But the Giants strike back. On the next possession, Matt Bahr, the stout-hearted placekicker, kicks his third field goal of the game. 13-9, with fifteen minutes to play (fifteen football minutes, which is about an hour in realtime).

The fourth quarter begins. New York gets the ball, down four. San Francisco’s Jim Burt, a defensive lineman who looks like a tractor trailer with a red jersey draped over him, hits Hostetler low, sacking him, and causing Hoss’s knee to bend in ways that would snap a GI Joe action figure’s leg clean off.

This would be infuriating enough, but because Burt used to play for the Giants—he’s one of us, damn it!—the hit carries the additional sting of betrayal. At that moment, as ridiculous as it sounds, I hate Jim Burt more than I’ve ever hated another human being (this sports-hate will not be exceeded until Larry Brown begins coaching the Knicks). And I’m not alone. If Jim Burt were somehow teleported at that moment to some sports bar in, say, Bayonne, the beer-addled crowd would tear him limb from rhinosaurian limb.

Worse, the Giants don’t convert the third down. Facing fourth and long, Giants’ head coach Bill Parcells sends in the punting unit. But this is subterfuge. As the punter stands at the ready, the ball is snapped directly to the upback, linebacker Gary Reasons, who scampers eight yards for a first down. Three plays later, the unflappable Matt Bahr kicks his fourth field goal, pulling the Giants within one, 13-12.

More nervous cheering in my living room, but not much relief. The 49ers still have the lead, and the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year at quarterback.

They won’t have him for long.

As Montana rolls out right to pass, Giants’ defensive lineman Leonard Marshall, who had been pancake-blocked clear to the ground, recovers himself, rushes at Montana from the blind side, and smashes into his back with such ferocity that, as New York linebacker Carl Banks will later recall, “We thought he killed him.”

Marshall does not kill him. But he does break several ribs and his right hand. (Joe Montana will not return today. He will be sidelined for a season and a half. He will never start another game at quarterback for the 49ers).

In the living room, all four of us—even my mother—cheer as the future Hall of Fame quarterback writhes in agony. The Bad Boy crew weren’t this happy when 2Pac got dropped.

Cathartic as it is to watch San Francisco lose its best player, we’re by no means out of the woods. The 49ers’ second-stringer, Steve Young—a graduate of Brigham Young University and a descendent of its eponymous founder—is easily the best backup quarterback in the history of the National Football League, a fleet-of-foot lefty who will go on to win two MVP awards and a place in Canton. Plus, the Giants now face an enemy more imposing than even the great Montana: time. Two more first downs will run out clock, ending New York’s Superbowl dreams—and my even loftier ones.

Almost immediately, Young completes a long pass to tight end Brent Jones. First down, Niners. This feels like someone has just sucker-punched me in the kidney. All the 49ers need now is a single first down, ten more measly yards, and they can run out the clock. And even if the Giants force fourth down, the resulting punt will force us to go the length of the field, in very little time, with a quarterback on a bum knee, against a defense that has only allowed four field goals all day.

The game is over, I say to myself. I’m screwed—and not in the way that I was hoping for.

And then, something truly magical happens. Young hands the ball off to running back Roger Craig, who manages, during his burst through the line, to lose the handle. Giants’ outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor, arguably the best defensive player of all time, somehow comes up with the loose ball.

First down, Giants! In 49er territory!

(Across town, Polly’s parents, both academics, are wondering why their daughter, whose knowledge of and interest in football are cursory at best, is joyously jumping up and down in front of the TV.)

After a sick pass from Hostetler to tight end and Sly Stallone lookalike Mark Bavaro, eight seconds remain on the game clock. The ball is spotted on the 49ers’ 25-yard line. Matt Bahr, as tough a kicker as ever played the game, trots onto the field, his blood as cold as the ice in my Coke, to attempt a 37-yard field goal—what would be his fifth of the game.

Bahr does his stretches, follows through on several imaginary kicks, and steps into position. I resist the urge to close my eyes. My parents and my brother are riveted too, but no one—not my family, not Daryl Reid or any of the other players, not every degenerate gambler who took the Giants and the points—has as much riding on this kick as Yours Truly.

It’s come down to the wire. To one play. If Bahr makes the kick, the Giants go to the Superbowl, and I lose my virginity; if he misses, the Giants don’t go to the Superbowl—and I lose a whole lot more.

Before I can think about it too much, it’s over. The snap is good, the kick true. The ball sails cleanly through the uprights. The referees raise both arms above their heads—NFL sign language for “score”—and any vestigial Catholic qualm I might have about premarital sex evaporates along with the 49ers’ championship hopes.

This is an unequivocal go-ahead from the Almighty: just do it!

A week later, the Reids pay me five hundred bucks to watch their house, feed their cats, and eat their stash of Cocoa Pebbles; Polly and I gather rosebuds; and the Giants beat the Buffalo Bills (on a shanked Scott Norwood field goal that would inspire Vincent Gallo’s film Buffalo ’66) to win the Superbowl.

The next day, the Daily Record runs a huge photo of Daryl Reid, his arms outstretched, jubilant. I clip it and hang it on his refrigerator.