THE RELUCTANT FAN

by MICHELLE THOMPSON

I WASN’T RAISED IN A sporty family. Our Marches didn’t contain madness. We were never ready for Monday Night Football. The only conference I cared about was when my parents were summoned to the parent/teacher kind.

Despite this, I was an athletic kid by nature, and I dabbled a bit in team sports. I tried soccer when I was 6 but had no idea what I was doing. I remember getting yelled at for running offsides, and when the coach yelled “subs” to switch me out, I thought he was saying “suds,” wanting me to go wash my hands. The first time I saw a real basketball game in action was in seventh grade PE class. On my first play, I threw an air ball and knocked over the coach’s can of Coke. The look on her face smothered any vision I may have had about a future career in the WNBA. And football? That sport was so foreign to me that when I was a cheerleader in high school, I had to ask if we were offense or defense before calling out what cheer to do. It did not occur to me to learn the basics of the game, because everyone knows high school football games are for socializing, not watching, right?

When college came around, one would think an environment filled with tailgates and raucous game days cheering alongside my fellow classmates would encourage me to develop some semblance of sports fandom. Isn’t that a requisite part of the college experience? Not for me. My school canceled its football program in my first year, and when I landed an enviable internship filming our national championship baseball team, I was more excited about the fact I got to drink beer on the job. I breezed happily into young adulthood sportily clueless, with no allegiance or team to call my own—and I cared not one bit.

But then, something strange happened when I got married to a sports fanatic (his term is “enthusiast”). During Lakers, Chiefs or Royals seasons, if I wanted to hang out with him during game time, it would have to be sitting in front of the TV. To his credit, he went out of his way to try and make it interesting for me, regaling me with tales of barn burners, gruesome injuries, player antics and bitter rivalries. Sitting for a couple of hours watching a game went from the equivalent of getting a tooth pulled to maybe just a routine cleaning. In some instances, I even found myself yelling at the TV, too.

In time, we welcomed a son to our family, and I recall bringing him to a sports bar in Las Vegas to watch a Chiefs football game. There, I had a shocking moment of clarity—not about the fact we were clearly in a parental gray area filled with colorful (some would say inappropriate) language that his tender ears were far too young to decipher what was being said. It was the fact that I had a baby, in a bar, dressed in a football jersey, and I was OK with it. What was happening to me?

I found myself sliding even further down this slippery slope when my husband went back to school to get his MBA at the University of Central Florida (UCF). He had a choice of schools to attend, but I know for a fact that coming from the same football-less college I did, the deciding factor was UCF had a football team. He now had a college team to call his own, and much to my surprise, it became my team, too.

I danced down Beale Street in Memphis high-fiving strangers on New Year’s Eve after UCF bested the Georgia Bulldogs in the Liberty Bowl. During a New Year’s Eve blizzard in Boone, North Carolina, I celebrated a UCF vs. Baylor barn burner with a victorious toast of champagne. At the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, my fingernail-less hands proved to be a worthy sacrifice and a talisman of good luck after they secured the sweetest of underdog victories against Auburn. I was hooked. Not just on UCF football, but on the incredible sense of community, goodwill and fun.

It all came full circle for me when my son and daughter were old enough to join Little League. Sitting on the sidelines cheering for little people who were swinging at pitches three feet outside of the batter’s box while the bored outfielders made dirt angels could have been the equivalent of a root canal. But to me, it was now magic. This special place encouraged friendships built on common ground with a common purpose: to encourage our kids to try their best, work together and learn how to win, and lose, gracefully. My journey to fandom was complete.

And so, it is fitting that I finish writing this having just spent the evening sitting on ice-cold bleachers with my husband, cheering our kids’ high school varsity football team to playoff victory. The irony is neither of my kids attended the game. They are both naturally gifted athletes, but sports fandom in general, and football in particular, has never been their thing. I’m happy to hold the torch though, because if it’s true the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, someday they’ll be glad I kept the seat next to me warm.

Michelle Thompson is a children’s book author, freelance writer, marketing guru. She resides in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband, two children, a dog and a tarantula.