Are you ready for some football? Go, Fighting Armadillos!
It's January, when red-blooded Americans' thoughts turn to… OK, points off for all of you who answered "New Year's resolutions" or "losing weight," and anyone who piped in, "The Iowa caucuses!" is simply on the wrong page. It's football, of course.
Bowl games, which began last month with the much-heralded New Mexico Bowl (pitting, I'm pretty sure, the mighty Oskaloosa Junior College Warthogs versus the formidable San Bernadino School of Cosmetology Pluckers) and such lesser bowls as, I think, the Kalamata Olive Bowl and the Bob's Friendly Funeral Parlor Bowl, continue with the traditional New Year's Day bowls. Except this year they won't be on New Year's Day, which is a Sunday and thus already devoted to the NFL. That puts the Hefty Bag Bowl on Jan. 3, I believe, and the Foreclosure Bowl on Jan. 4 at 1 a.m.
The college action leads up to the BCS National Championship Game, which this year matches the undefeated Louisiana State Tigers against the one-loss (to LSU, in overtime, gosh darnit) Alabama Crimson Tide. Our household will be rooting hysterically for 'Bama, which my wife attended for one year and where she earned a BFA degree. After growing up at (three of our four parents being college professors) and attending a small liberal-arts college that consistently got walloped by the state schools, it's such a joy to root for a team that actually wins more than it loses.
Our devotion to the University of Alabama — and I think I'm more nuts about it than my wife, who's the alumnae — represents a sharp break with my youth. My parents not only taught and studied at Auburn, but actually met there (after my dad spent a brief stint teaching at, of all places, the forerunner of NMSU). So the annual Iron Bowl (a real game) found the Fryxell household raptly watching the tiny black-and-white TV that got turned on in our dining room only for special occasions, cheering for Auburn over arch-rival Alabama. I was going to say "screaming for Auburn," but I don't believe my dignified Southern mother ever screamed about a football game — a faint "rah!" or "huzzah!," maybe, when Auburn scored.
Despite this upbringing, my ardor shifted immediately when we spent 13 months in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and my wife joined the Crimson Tide, albeit with a degree in art rather than "communications" or "exercise science" like the boys on Coach Bear Bryant's team. We were there near the end of the houndstooth-hatted Bear's tenure, but I can still remember seeing him up on a platform at the practice field, hollering at his charges (if it's possible to holler with that thick a drawl). We'd see the coach on local TV commercials, too, where the stations had to fiddle with the audio of his voice to make him semi-comprehensible.
We even attended a pre-Homecoming pep rally at the stadium (since enlarged to hold the entire population of Tuscaloosa, if they could get tickets). As I recall, Crystal Gayle — then a top country star — performed and Joe Namath was there; Michael Martin Murphey, composer of New Mexico's official cowboy song, performed free the night before. By comparison, Homecoming at our little liberal-arts school reached its apex the year when the parade featured inflatable balloon heads.
Over the years, our career-driven cross-country moves have added a bevy of other teams to our rooting interests. Besides the accumulation of packing boxes, that's been one of the big benefits of our journalist's tour of America. We'd grown up rooting for the NFL's Minnesota Vikings, the nearest pro team (a five-hour drive, or eight hours through a blizzard), and our years as adults in the Twin Cities cemented that relationship. We never really took to the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, though, perhaps because their glory days were back before the invention of color television.
Three years in Dubuque, Iowa, where our daughter was born, gave us a passive, obligatory fondness for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes. A later stint in Milwaukee was too brief to cement a fanship for the Green Bay Packers — a shame, given their recent success.
Five years in Pittsburgh was enough to make us Steeler fans, and since I worked for the University of Pittsburgh, naturally I continue to root for the Pitt Panthers. (Timing being everything in life, alas I missed the Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino glory years.) But an equal time in Cincinnati failed to truly bond us to the Bengals, and we had no ties to the University of Cincinnati. Xavier University, which was just down the street from our house, doesn't play football, which might have been a productive way to harness the energy of its drunken students rather than tipping over our streetlights and denting parked cars.
All these past lives usually give us some rooting interest in any football game, whether the NFL or the Wet Wipes Bowl. When nobody we care even dimly about is playing, though, I have Pigskin Pick-em.
A free ESPN online game, Pigskin Pick-em is not true "fantasy football," where you assemble a team and crunch their statistics to see whose players performed better each week. Rather, it's simply a challenge to pick the winners of each week's NFL games, either "straight up" or against the spread. After several years of picking against the spread — the way real men and those indebted to Las Vegas bookies do — this season I added a second, straight-up entry, to prove my contention that any idiot can pick the winners. (To date, that theory is looking pretty solid, with my straight-up entry 27 correct picks ahead of my spread entry.)
Being able to hedge my bets (not literally, as the game is free) — picking team A to win but team B to beat the spread — has also reduced my craziness when last-minute, meaningless scoring or stubborn refusal to pad a lead has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, picks-wise. More about that craziness in a minute.
I got in the habit of picking NFL winners when I worked at the newspaper in St. Paul and joined a newsroom office pool. Unlike the ESPN game, whose "prizes" I've never even bothered to investigate, we played for cash money, both per week and for the best overall season record. I think the pool cost a whopping $5 a week. I loved that it gave me a rooting interest even in blowout games — would the Patriots win by 23 or beat the spread with 24? — down to the last second, and in otherwise forgettable matchups between cellar-dwellers.
So, naturally, when I left the paper, I missed the pool. Eventually, ESPN's website stepped in to fill this aching void in my life.
My wife, however, declines to thank ESPN. Some Sunday afternoons and Monday nights, I have been known to get a tad worked up over a game I would otherwise have zero emotion invested in. Or let's say the Raiders are beating the 7.5-point spread against the Steelers (a team I would otherwise be rooting for, but this is Pigskin Pick-em, people!), 20-27. Then, in a doomed fourth-quarter drive, the latest in the Raiders' succession of unmemorable quarterbacks tosses an interception. The Steelers' Troy Polamalu sprints downfield with the stolen ball to score a meaningless touchdown as the clock expires. Steelers win, 34-20. Suddenly, the happy green Pigskin Pick-em checkmark I'd been anticipating turns to a nasty red "x" for a wrong pick.
Let's just say I've seen Tea Party protesters who are less angry. Despite the utter meaninglessness of it all, I might become an eentsy-weentsy bit upset. Wroth, even.
The ill-fated season our daughter competed against me in Pigskin Pick-em, my wife threatened to take my computer away to keep me off the game. Or, worse, seize the TV remote.
Our daughter actually knows plenty about football, but that year she was pretty busy with real life and seemed to make her picks at random, at the last minute. I'd study football websites, create statistics spreadsheets and jump from one sure-fire "system" to the next. Week after week, her afterthought picks would beat my painstaking, scientific ones. I love her dearly, but I couldn't stand it.
This season she's in a more standard "fantasy football" pool that her fiancé has long played with his buddies, and if their relationship can withstand that kind of pressure, the marriage is good to go. I'm playing my two Pick-em entries sans father-daughter dynamics and doing just fine, thanks. Going into the last weeks of the season, I was ahead of 20,617 people picking against the spread, putting me in the 86.3 percentile, and leading a whopping 65,769 weenies picking straight up (86.6%). I'm also beating three of the five CBS Sports "experts" who get paid to do this — not that I'm competitive or anything.
My only real worry, besides whether 'Bama can get revenge and the national title against LSU, is what I'm going to do after the Super Bowl.
I wonder, does ESPN have a Golf Pick-em?
David A. Fryxell edits Desert Exposure — just not on Thursday nights,
Saturdays, Sundays or Monday nights.