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. 

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James D. Irwin is a British writer based in the Hampshire countryside. His work has appeared online, in print, and on stage. He can be contacted at [email protected]

39 responses to “Plastic Patriot”

  1. Greg Olear says:

    That was a great season for the Pats. I watched every game I could, because the Brady-to-Moss combo clicked so well, it was like watching high school kids kick the crap out of eighth graders. They made it look so damned easy.

    A few days before the Super Bowl, I had a dream. In the dream, I was told that a) the Giants would win b) because of something great Eli Manning did, and c) I would not watch the game. Not watch the game?!? Inconceivable!

    As a nominal Giants fan (per your pingback; thanks!), I wouldn’t mind seeing them win. But I’d watched more Pats games, and I was also rooting for a perfect season. It was win-win.

    I got the flu, bad, the day before the game. I spent all day Sunday in bed, asleep, and forced myself to crawl downstairs and watch one of the best football games, and easily the best Super Bowl, ever. Eli. Who knew? My subconscious, apparently, which was bang-on.

    The Giants don’t win all the time, but when they do, they sure make it exciting.

    • I really liked the Giants the whole season. I’m useless with sporting rivalries, I can’t really hate the teams I’m supposed to. With soccer I’m supposed to hate Arsenal— Uche’s team. But there’s too much to respect about them.

      With the Giants I’d spent most of my life watching shows like Friends and Seinfeld where the Giants were referenced frequently. Ironically that was exactly why I dismissed following them.

      And looking back it was a pretty great Super Bowl. I’d technically seen a bit of football a few years earlier, the Super Bowl the Bears score within the first twenty-six seconds before losing to the Colts. They’ve all been pretty good since then.

      As for the dream, that’s pretty strange. It happens to me sometimes, but more often than not I’m wrong. At one point in July I’d convinced myself the USA would make the World Cup final…

  2. Matt says:

    Seahawks vs. Chargers? In 2007? Yeah, the Seahawks probably won.

    Nice one, James. Though I do worry a bit about what could happen to you should word of this get ’round the U.K. I mean, you ARE supporting a team named for a movement that kicked the British out of the colonies, after all.

    Did the Hartford people ever send you a shirt? Winning or losing, seems you deserve it.

    • I don’t think supporting the Patriots really matters in the U.K. Most people here think American football is ‘gay’ anyway because of the helmets. Then they proudly go on about how rugby platers are ‘real men.’

      They don’t want to know that tackling in the NFL is more vicious than rugby. in rugby you can only tackle at the waist. also, most rugby players end up fuck ugly all missing teeth and cauliflower ears…

      Never got the t-shirt because a garment marking the 16-0 felt inappropraite in light of losing to the Giants…

      • Brian Eckert says:

        Oh man, I’m so sick of rugby-nation people attempting to convince me of how rugby lads are so much tougher b/c they don’t wear pads. I try to explain the enormity of some of these NFL boys, that without pads, there would be deaths every game. don’t get me wrong…rugby players are nuts…frankly, to play either sport, you have to be a tough bastard. end of story.

        • Pretty much as soon as I posted a link on facebook I got some snooty comment about rugby being a superior sport.

          Firstly, they’re two very different games. Secondly, rugby is very, very boring. International rugby is cool, but most games of rugby are at least an hour of men huddled together fighting for possession of a ball. The brilliant beautiful runs and quick passes are pretty rare.

          When Marshall took Montana out of the Championship Game a few Giants would later say how they thought he might have killed Montana. You don’t get that in rugby. And then there’s shit about it being a ‘gentleman’s game.’ bullshit. almost as much cheating in rugby as there is soccer. bunch of violent posh bastards.

          Incidentally, many rugby players are NFL fans. It’s not them I have a problem with, it’s the rugby fans who get all superior… But if rugby is so great why do most clubs struggle to fill their stadiums on match days..?

  3. Joe Daly says:

    When the Pats lost that game to the Giants, it was brutal. Living here in Chargers country, the vitriol towards the Patriots often borders on violent and everyone was rooting against New England. When the Pats lost in such a heartbreaking fashion, I went home, was depressed for a little while, and then got over it. Which made me very happy because I used to be the guy who punched walls and threw things when his team lost. It was a small victory.

    Growing up in New England, I bore uncomfortable, depressing witness to some of the worst Patriots teams ever. Even when they made it to the Superbowl in the 80s, they were embarrassed by the Bears. Combined with the Red Sox long string of disasters, I understood that losing in painful, spectacular ways was simply part of the deal. On the other side of the coin, it was easy to hate the New York teams not just because they always won, and their fans seemed incapable of enjoying those successes, arrogantly insisting that all non-championships were complete failures for their teams.

    Fast forward to the Naughties, and I’ve seen the Patriots win three Super Bowls, the Red Sox win the World Series twice, and the Celtics win an NBA title. I’m good now.

    But next time you get to the States, you and I are going to a game!

    • I don’t think I could have felt the pain of that defeat as truly and as honestly as life-long Pats fans. I still really, really ended up quite down and upset about it because I care about sports despite not wanting to. It’s stupid. But I do it anyway.

      I did however have twelve years of supporting two frustrating soccer teams, as I mentioned. I support the club from my hometown, Swindon, who have the record for the most goals conceded in a single season. My ‘proper’ team were great in the 60s and 70s but drifted into mediocrity.

      Not quite in the same league as the Red Sox though. I mostly know about that because of the Dropkick Murphys song ‘Tessie.’ The one with the radio commentary of the first World Series win for what? 24 years?

      I can’t get into baseball. I tried. I have a Tigers cap as part of an obsession with the show Magnum, PI and I watched a few games but i just didn’t make sense. The guys on the Pats MySpace group tried to help me out but it didn’t work out…

      I’m going to try and get into basketball this season. Think I’ll go for the Miami Heat. Everyone loves LeBron James, right?

      And definitely. The next time I’m in the States a proper football game is on the agenda. Unfortunately the next time I’m in the States is probably going to be a while…

      • Sarah says:

        It was 86 years. 1918-2004. Curse of the Bambino, if you believe in that.

        Williams, Foxx, Yaz. Never won a ring. Sad, really sad. If people try to lure you into baseball, maybe not even the game itself but the history and drama of it (which is a big part of the appeal, perhaps partially explaining people not “getting it” just by watching), don’t let Cubs fans make you feel bad for them. They’re just whiners, it’s the Red Sox fans who really suffered.

        Basketball: The Heat’s bandwagon is filling up fast so hurry up and squeeze yourself a space. LeBron has amazingly gone from the most beloved to the most hated sports star, almost faster and with more vitriol than Tiger but without the whole sleezebag part.

        • 2004. That’s where the 24 came from.

          I really want to understand baseball because of the history. And it always seems so dramatic when I read about it in the paper. I might give it another go next time.

          I was joking about the Heat because they’re sort of like the Patriots team I started following…

    • Sarah says:

      Chargers, blech. I hope LT gets his blocked knocked off with the Jets this year.

      I’d like to see the Bruins with the Cup. Then I’ll really be good.

      My 8-year-old son doesn’t believe me that the Pats, Sox, and Celtics used to be really bad and that he’s seen just as many Pats and Sox championships as my 60-year-old father has.

      • Joe Daly says:

        But we remember, Sarah. In fact, good luck forgetting those dark years. My buddy and I were just talking about that a couple weeks ago- how kids growing up in Massachusetts these days will have this entitled swagger about them as if every few years they get some kind of title, completely oblivious to the days of Bill Buckner.

        Shawne Merriman goes to my yoga studio. I caught him looking at my Red Sox tattoo once. I could have sworn he scowled. It was pretty sweet.

        • Sarah says:

          That is pretty sweet. Merriman and yoga you say? Hmm, never would have thought.

          Of course, by the way, I meant to say, “block knocked off” above.

          And, I’m sure millions of people have similar sentiments and stories but I’m very glad my grandfather got to see the Sox win in 2004 before passing away the next summer. My father and I went to a game exactly one month after he passed and it happened to be Grandparents Day at Fenway. It was pretty cool. We spent most of the game in silence just kind of goofy grinning.

        • I still struggle to get my head around the fact that all the Boston area sports teams went so long without winning anything.

          My awareness of US sports begins after the 2004 Red Sox and all I’ve seen is New England teams winning everything and being hated by the rest…

          I love that your grandfather got to see the Sox win before he died. I love stories like that. Sport is kind of more special than non-sports fans ever realise…

  4. Brian Eckert says:

    Oh man. That Tyree catch haunts me, even more so because he is now out of the NFL.

  5. Gloria says:

    I care not about sports, but I adore you.

    Hi Irwin!!! How’re you, darlin’?

    • I adore you for commenting even though you don’t like sports.

      My next post won’t be about sports, I promise. The one after that will though. Yeah, I have stuff ‘in the pipeline’!

      I’m as well as I can be. Which is ‘very.’ Bit boring back at the family home, but there’s cable and free food so it’s a fair trade…

      How’re you?

      • Gloria says:

        Cool! I’ll look forward to your next post. (And I’m sure that if I could muster up the energy to care or understand this post, it would be fabulous.)

        • you could give it a go… it’s surprisingly light on major terminology. it’s more like a badly told stories with numbers… then again if you did you’d realise it was less than fabulous…

          the next one is… well, it’s not about sports. and it has feelings and emotion and other girly shit like that. this just has men in hard hats hitting each other in an attempt to get an oval ball from one end of a field to the other as many times as possible within a one hour time frame…

    • and looking forward to part two of your interview. Which is tomorrow, right?

  6. Simon Smithson says:

    I know precisely jack about just about all sports. And less about American football. Although I root for (ahahahahahaha) the Steelers. What can I say? I got recruited.

    I should probably actually watch a game at some point…

  7. Sarah says:

    “The Pats group members welcomed me like it was an episode of Cheers and I was Norm.”

    Haha!! That’s what we do, until/unless you say you like the Jets/Colts.

    Okay, going back to finish reading now.

    • It was weird and totally awesome. I’m not going back to America unless I can go to Boston and the rest of New England.

      How can anyone like the Jets?

      I don’t like the Colts, or Manning the QB. Manning the Mastercard spokesman is okay though. ‘Cut that meat!’ I reckon he’ll do an OJ— go into comedic acting after retirement, not all the other stuff that OJ insists he didn’t do.

      Of course that’ll change if the Colts beat the Pats next season. Then he’ll be a dribbling retard who like, can barely throw, and does those gay ads with his sister Elle Manning…

  8. Sarah says:

    Were it not for the previous three Super Bowl victories in the past decade, David Tyree’s name would be in Boston/New England lore forever with the likes of Bucky Dent, Bill Buckner, and Aaron Boone. Mention any of those names to a Red Sox fan and see what happens.

  9. It sounds like our interests in American football came around the same time. I only followed it for maybe 4 seasons, and out of those four seasons I only really gave a crap for maybe two.

    I liked the Dallas Cowboys because of the Simpsons, and the New England Patriots because of Family Guy. I also liked the Oakland Raiders because when they played in LA my dad used to support them, and we had a lot of LA Raiders merchandise in our house.

    Ultimately I got bored as hell with the game. Who wants to spend four or five hours staring at the most stop-start jumpy game on earth? It’s tedious. Although, admittedly, with some beer, friends and a tight game it can be pretty awesome.

    I watched college football when I was living briefly in the States and I must say it was far more entertaining, but still nothing compared to games where people actually keep moving instead of just playing for five seconds at a time.

    • Haha. I originally wrote a paragrapgh about The Simpsons and Family Guy. They were kind of reasons for possibly choosing them. I edited it out because it was too long.

      It can be boring at times. But it’s usually only three hours. And it can be impressive to watch at times. I do prefer games with constant movement and flow. That’s why proper football will always be my favourite sport…

  10. Hey, James. As you know, you’re not gonna get much sports talk outta me (being deficient of the sports gene, and all). Still, like I’ve said, I’ll read your sports writing, and Brother Reno’s any day of the week. Peace and plenty of punching bags…

    • You said before how you’re sports-gene deficient, so I really appreciate you taking the time out to read and comment. Thanks

      I love Reno’s NFL round-ups, they’re just so much fun— pretty much my favourite thing about NFL…

      Ever since I read ‘The Fight’ by Norman Mailer I’ve been trying to combine the love of sports with writing so I can get good at it and get paid to watch sports. That’s the dream now professional athelte and rock star are careers I’m unlikely to break into…

      Working on two pieces now. One sports, one not. And the sports one is more about growing up as a soccer fan than the sport itself…

  11. Rachel Pollon says:

    I’ve never turned on to football and I think it’s because I can’t see the players’ faces. I need to connect with something and apparently it’s not going to be the players broad shoulders or strong thighs. However, I’m glad for all you fans who can feel this passion. (Oh –gotta split. “Say Yes To The Dress” is about to start and I have to turn up the volume on my TV.)

  12. Lorna says:

    Oh yeah, I remember this year. Every time the Chargers get to the Superbowl playoffs, some team shuts them down. Grrrrr! Oh well, It was an awesome year for the Patriots….up until that Superbowl game, anyway.

  13. Richard Cox says:

    I remember that Dallas-New England regular season game. The Cowboys were just starting to become relevant and I was excited to see how we would fare. I expected to lose, but not give up 48 points or whatever. Unfortunate.

    In the Super Bowl, I was mainly rooting for the Patriots. I didn’t really want to see them have a perfect season, but I even less wanted the Giants to win. Eli, to me, is the most overrated player in the NFL. He’s the last guy I wanted to see get a ring. On that Tyree play, the Giants offensive line committed numerous holding penalties and Manning just threw the ball up for grabs. Tyree is the one who made the miraculous play. Eli did drive the Giants to another touchdown, but even a blind squirrel finds a nut every so often. The Giants D won the game and they deserved the MVP award. I think Eli has demonstrated his mediocrity in the years since.

    It’s interesting to read a post about the NFL written by someone fairly new to the game. It’s quite a fresh perspective. Good post, Irwin. And such a wild ride for you in your first season as a fully invested fan.

    • was that the season where Romo was largely distracted by Jessica Simpson, or the year after. I forget.

      I don’t know anyone who like Eli Manning…

      The Giants defence were immense in that game, although I’m certain Brady was injured. I’m not sure it owuld have mattered the way the Giants were going for him, but he definitely looked slower than his usual self. And I vaguely remember seeing a picture of him on crutched before the game, but a lot of people thought it was part of the Patriots mind games…

      It was a good season to come in. I sort of lost interest a bit recently because I haven’t been able to watch any live football and the online highlights stopped working. I’ve been cut off. Next year I’m living with my brother who analyses the whole thing intensely. Hope to write more on the subject in future.

      Incidentally my aforementioned brother has a bet on the Cowboys making the Super Bowl this year…

  14. […] he is not to be confused with Keith Richards.  He also enjoys sports, especially football (both American and the kind Americans call […]

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