Sports Biz: Calling it quits
There won’t be a teary press conference. No jersey will be retired. You won’t see a new name unveiled on the Ring of Fame this fall. But yes, the rumors are true. I have retired as a Denver Broncos season ticket holder.
It was a great run, but I probably should have gone out years ago, when I was at the top of my game. Hollering like a madman on third-and-long. Exhorting the crowd around me to cause, by sheer collective psychic force, an opponent’s fumble or an interception late in the game, when it mattered most. Dressing in four layers on a 6-degree winter afternoon so that my orange sweatshirt would still show on the outside. I am reasonably certain the intimidating look I affected accounted for at least one win over my 23-year career. Probably more.
You’ll remember me, of course, by certain plays. John Elway had the heroic helicopter spin against Green Bay in the first, glorious Super Bowl victory. I had Boomer Esiason, Cincinnati, week 13 of the 1986 season. The Bengals were good that year.
We were up 34-28, but Esiason and the Bengals were driving into our territory late in the fourth quarter. I was one of the three guys you saw up on their feet in section 313 of the old, wonderful stadium, an aisle seat situated three rows down from a portal flanked by the dual requisites of an ideal stadium outpost: a beer stand and a men’s room. My mates, Rick and Rob, making up the triumvirate. Yelling, waving arms, pumping fists.
Then it followed: everybody else on their feet, too, a mad crescendo of collective will, rising up from the third deck and rippling across the old iron building, until the entire place was vibrating, too loud to even hear the guy next to you, whose name you didn’t even know but who you’d high-fived for years, bellowing through his cupped, gloved hands, white fog rising from his mouth in the cold, promising air. It was third down and Esiason was in the shotgun, and you could sense it before it even happened.
The crowd was too much. The Cincinnati quarterback tried to bark out a snap count, but the center got it wrong and the ball soared – beautifully, in slow-motion – over his head. The place went mad. The opposing quarterback scrambled 10 yards backward for the ball and a wall of orange collapsed over him and the crowd let loose a harmonized deafening roar and the game was over.
Confetti – shards of paper thoughtfully cut into rectangles from phone books by the loyal fans up in section four – floated down like a miracle. We caught pieces in our beer, a ritual signifying victory and celebration.
Those were the days.
So what changes? How do you go from gleefully, happily zipping off checks and credit-card payments for $70 a seat to staring for a long time at the envelope that arrives in February with this season’s invoice?
I suppose it’s similar for every fan who reaches that point. Where once you could scarcely have imagined not seizing on every half-bit of off-season news, one day you find yourself ignoring the sports pages except to find out how Helton’s hitting in Tucson. Desire … fades.
There are external factors: a new, still-unfamiliar stadium and the many contrivances that characterize it, from loud commercials on a towering video screen to a giant helmet that inflates to signal the team’s entrance onto the field. The kids love it, but I miss the organic quality of the old place. The idea that the crowd did not require instruction from the scoreboard to know when to cheer. The old guy who snuck in a flask, sat alone, and muttered “Defense!” with an understated ferocity in the second half.
He has been replaced at the new stadium by a bubbly young newlywed wearing a Champ Bailey jersey who, between plays, teaches me a sing-song rhyme describing what the word “Budweiser” stands for. I admire her zest. She is loyal and passionate and screams like a banshee when we’re on defense. I recognize something familiar in her. This year I’ve decided to turn things over to her.
She should do just fine.