A strange thing happened last year at the Super Bowl. No, not the miraculous comeback engineered by my stupid favorite team of jerks, the New England Patriots, but before that. About halfway through the third quarter, the Atlanta Falcons led 28-3, with what ESPN declared a 99.8 percent probability of winning, and an eerie serenity came over me. They’re going to lose, I thought. Finally, it’s over. I’m free.
There’s a common trope in horror fiction, wherein killing the head monster, usually a vampire, releases all the coverts in thrall to his wretched glamour. They snap back to lucidity, unsure of what unspeakable evils they’ve done while worshiping their master, but free at last. Surely a loss this crushing, a historic Super Bowl collapse just as Brady was set to turn 40, would spell the beginning of such an unraveling, I thought, releasing those of us still held captive by the quarterback and his sinister eldritch monarch Bill Belichick’s arcane curse.
It didn’t happen, of course. Dont’a Hightower strip-sacked Matt Ryan. Julian Edelman made a miraculous catch that I still think he’s going to drop when I see highlights a year later. James White turned into Walter Payton, and the comeback was secured. What is Brady if not a vampire, after all? Ageless, reclusive, given to a truly stomach-turning diet, and virtually unkillable. Until this year, that is. On Sunday, it’s going to be different. When the Patriots lose to the Philadelphia Eagles, I will get my perverted, self-loathing wish: my Sundays free to run errands and get work done without the pressure to pay attention to a truly remarkable football player. Not to mention the inevitable IQ spike when I don’t feel compelled to concuss myself daily listening to Boston sport talk radio.
Next year is gonna be our year, man. The year we start to suck. I can’t wait.
It’s a weird feeling, to take solace in or hope for your own team’s loss. But it would be weirder still not to feel some happiness for their opponents’ joy if there’s no particular rivalry at stake. Admittedly, Eagles fans are not making this part easy, but the Atlanta fans I met in Houston last year were, to a person, genuinely happy and friendly in a way we’re unaccustomed to around here in Boston, where a pleasant greeting is an affront to decency. They danced and laughed in the parking lot, took excitable group selfies to commemorate what was sure to be a memorable experience, and wished us good luck. All game, I felt happy for the young Falcons fan seated next to me. I wanted him to have this one.
The typical Patriots fan, on the other hand, was miserable with success by then, our blood long since curdled and our spines crooked with the glut of good fortune. Anything less than a Super Bowl win last year, as this year, would be considered a failure. The team’s continued success means a constant supply of articles from other cities constantly reminding us just how uniquely annoying we are. (So yes, I know how many of you are thinking about where I can stuff my sob story about my team winning too much. Finally, a white guy from Boston writing about his sports emotions!) But now it’s gotten to the point where writers are contacting ethicists to ask if it’s okay to cheer for the Patriots, and otherwise decent New England natives are pledging to donate to charity every time the team scores as a form of penance for their fandom. There’s a common expression in Boston media about this sort of thing: “They hate us ’cause they ain’t us.” I would probably edit that down by four words.
It’s not just fans here I no longer want to be associated with. It’s also the triumvirate at the top of the organization: coach, quarterback and owner Robert Kraft. As I wrote last year just before the Super Bowl, rooting for Brady and company has become an ugly proposition in the Trump era. I probably don’t need to rehash the highlights of the trio’s long-standing bromance with our president — Brady, mercifully, was not in attendance when I went to cover the team’s depressing appearance at the White House, a visit in which President Trump surprisingly (or not, considering his pettiness) declined to mention his name even once — but since then Kraft has further retrenched himself as a trusted adviser. It’s enough to make you want to renounce your allegiance to the team you’ve loved your entire life.
Or almost, anyway. Because when I had my foot out the door, they completed the greatest comeback in the history of the Super Bowl. Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in. So this time, I’m hoping they get the losing out of the way quickly, so I can turn the TV off and never look back.
“I’m enjoying it until it’s no longer possible to,” a friend of mine told me this week. “The fact the Patriots have a couple once-in-a-generation pieces makes it impossible to quit and really a marvel to watch and appreciate on multiple levels.”
That’s pretty close to how I feel. Although I watched most of their games this year, my fandom had a different tenor: I no longer consider Brady a godlike hero walking among men. He’s just a dude. A weird, weird dude. And the more we learn about him, from the partnership with a snake-oil salesman guru and his shilling of questionable wellness products to less-than-ideal charity practices, the less relatable he gets. The most likable thing he’s done in years was tell off Boston radio station WEEI this week when they took a swipe at his 5-year-old daughter, but even the Buddha would find those bores infuriating.
Now I want to be free. You could say, “just stop watching,” and sure, that would be one completely reasonable way to do things, but there’s no such thing as reason in sports. After so many years, it feels like I’m reading a book I’ve long since stopped enjoying, but I have to make myself see through to the end out of sheer stubbornness. Or maybe it’s more like a long-running procedural on television, with an aging lead the writers need to concoct increasingly implausible and far-flung complications for to keep viewers interested. In Brady’s case, no matter what the plot twist is — huge late-game deficits in the playoffs, a four-game suspension, the emergence of a threatening young upstart eager to take his job, the loss of his favorite receiver for the entire year, an out-of-nowhere Act III hand gash — he still finds a way, MacGyver-like, to worm his way out of it. Maybe that’s why he and Trump are pals: No matter how bad things look for them at any given time, they land on their feet.
And so I have to keep watching to see how convoluted this thing can get. It feels like a harmful addiction: bad for my mental health, bad for my sense of self-worth, but easy to ignore most of the time. And then the game is on, and it worms its way back into my brain. Come on, man, just one more Super Bowl. You know it’s gonna feel good.
“Why does everyone want me to retire so bad?” Brady said this week, half-joking. “I don’t get it. I’m having fun. The team’s doing good. I know I’m a little bit older than most of the guys, but I’m really enjoying it.”
I’m not. It’s just not fun anymore. So after Sunday, I make this solemn promise to you all. This is it for me. Win or lose (but seriously, please lose), I’m walking away. I’m gonna kick tomorrow. This time I mean it.