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I'm a Football Fan. I Just Didn't Know It.

Oct 06, 2016

One of the best things about living in Los Angeles was that it had no NFL team. So for the past 10 years, I got away with pretending to watch football by spouting analysis about my hometown New York Giants such as, "Eli Manning throws the football with his arm."

So I was upset when, after 21 blissful NFL-free years, L.A. got a team, the Rams. Then I realized that this was an amazing opportunity. The new fans would be as ignorant as I am about the team. So I could experience whatever it is that America loves about the NFL and not be mocked while I did it. I could go back in time and fix the mistake I made when I was 5 and assumed people would continue to watch baseball.

To figure out how people become loyal to a team they didn't care about a month earlier, I called Ed Hirt, a psychology professor at Indiana University who has studied fandom. He explained that we do this all the time. The moment we arrive at college, we root for the team in order to fit in. We cheer for Olympians we'd never heard of a week earlier. We support Gary Johnson without ever having seen Gary Johnson. "It's really hard to watch and be completely impartial," Hirt explained.

My problem, however, is that it's really easy not to watch. To find out how to motivate myself, I turned to Christian End, an associate professor of psychology at Xavier University who also studies sports fans. He said I just needed to buy a Rams jersey, take photos of myself at games and pick a favorite player I had something in common with. Also, it would help if the Rams won, because people like to bask in reflective glory. "If the Rams are 9-1, the watercooler talk will be about them," he said before the season started. "But if the Rams start out 0 and 8, are people going to want to pay $20 for parking?" This made sense to me, since I am a fair-weather fan not just of sports teams but also of co-workers, friends, family members and moral systems.

For my favorite player, I chose punter and co-captain Johnny Hekker. To find out what we had in common, I called my all-time favorite NFL player, Johnny Hekker. He was pretty excited to talk to a hardcore fan and told me that, like me, he hates horror movies and likes to cook--he even loves the same soup-dumpling place I do. Although we had different stances on Jesus as the Lord and Savior, we both love comedy. Like me, he uses his wife as a comedic foil. On his ESPN radio show, What the Hekk, they played the Newlywed Game. "I didn't do too hot," he said. "Men and women just think differently." He precisely summed up 18 years of my TIME columns.

Still, I worried that I would fail to fit in because I'm too different from football fans, with their love of violence, face paint and not spending Sundays with their families. Then I found out that L.A.'s biggest Rams fan is Ty Burrell, who plays a character on TV exactly like me--the cheerfully oblivious dad on Modern Family--which was written for him. To turn me into a Rams fan, Burrell employed the logic he used on kids when he was 6. "It is the only helmet that makes any sense. Rams actually run into each other to mark their territory. Think about it!" he said. I pointed out that Vikings wore helmets in battle. He hadn't considered that. Burrell switched to selling me on the drama of the game, which he constantly defends to his artsy actor friends. I, meanwhile, wanted artsy actor friends, and hanging out with Ty Burrell at Rams games seemed like an easy way to get them.

I headed to the Rams' first home game and found my friends Ross Novie and Trevor Goth, who despite being fans of other teams bought season tickets to force themselves to become fans by spending lots of money. After a few plays I turned to Ross and said, "If we're struggling to establish the run game, we don't have the outside speed to stretch the defense so we're basically dealing with an extra person in the box." Ross looked at me, possibly because I was reading from a note on my phone that Ty Burrell had given me. "That's living-room fan stuff," Ross said. "Here it's grunts, fingers and chants." I could do this. Football, I was learning, was like having sex with my yoga-loving wife.

The Rams won 9-3 in spectacular fashion, and that fashion was getting a lot of penalty calls. Hekker had six punts, with a net punt average of 39.5 yd., which was good enough. Since I became a fan, the team is 3-0. This Sunday, I will again root for Hekker and the Rams, cheering them on with the pronoun we. I just hope no one asks me to explain the we with proper nouns.

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