On Football

The Sun Finally Shines -- In a Good Way -- on Two Cardinals Fans

Preparations begin leading up to the NFL Championship game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals in Tampa, Fla. on Feb. 1, 2009.
By Les Carpenter
Saturday, January 31, 2009

TAMPA Don McCullar and his son Kevin arrived at the Super Bowl in a monsoon. All around them the rain pounded down, loading gutters and filling the streets until entire lanes had become small lakes. It was a fitting welcome. They are Arizona Cardinals fans after all.

They are accustomed to such suffering.

All week at this Super Bowl, the joke has been that no one has seen a Cardinals fan. Only this wasn't a joke. No one had. Not on the sidewalks. Not in restaurants. Not in nightclubs. Not even at the stadium that looms over the airport on the west side of town. But you lose like the Cardinals have lost for the last 20 years, and you aren't going to have many fans left.

Then came Don and Kevin McCullar on Friday afternoon, standing in a plaza outside the Super Bowl headquarters. Kevin wore a red Larry Fitzgerald jersey. His father wore a Cardinals T-shirt. Both looked around with wonder.

"We're at the Super Bowl with the Cardinals, pinch me," Kevin McCullar said to his father the night before.

What else could he say? For two decades they had dreamed of such a day, buying season tickets that first hopeful spring in 1988 when the team moved down from St. Louis, then renewing the seats year after year even as the Cardinals broke their hearts with folly and disaster.

On Friday, as they stood there near the edge of Hillsborough Bay, they weren't just a father and son traveling together to a football game. They were a living history of sports despair, chroniclers of countless agonizing Sunday afternoons spent on Sun Devil Stadium's sizzling metal bleachers, often the only people for as many rows as they could see, witnesses to a weekly anguish.

Kevin McCullar still remembers the moment he heard the Cardinals were moving to town. He was 12 years old, just lining up for gym class at his elementary school in Scottsdale, Ariz., when the P.E. teacher raced onto the fields carrying a radio screaming, "We got an NFL team!" The children cheered, then gathered around as the teacher held up his radio so they could hear for themselves. The NFL was coming. Phoenix had arrived.

Don McCullar immediately decided he and his son should buy tickets. He ordered season seats, landing them a spot on the stadium's sunny east side where temperatures often exceed 100 degrees; the west side, sequestered in the shade, was filled. They didn't care. Football had arrived, and they were just happy to be a part of it. Especially after the Cardinals started 7-4 that first season and looked certain to make the playoffs.

Only the Cardinals didn't. They lost the last five games of the season to finish 7-9, and the losing wouldn't stop.

So much went wrong, starting with all the coaches: from Gene Stallings to Hank Kuhlmann to Joe Bugel to Buddy Ryan to Vince Tobin to Dave McGinnis to Dennis Green, who finally went crazy that night on television after the team had moved into the new air-conditioned indoor stadium that had been promised two decades before and blew a 20-0 lead, losing 24-23.

The moment they saw Green hollering, "The Bears were who we thought they were!" they knew he would soon be gone, too. Not that they had much use for him. Or for any of the litany of Arizona coaches who paraded in promising new starts and great beginnings, only to crawl away in defeat when it became clear the Cardinals were impossible to fix.

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