For the fan, sports is entertainment. We live vicariously through our chosen heroes, celebrating their accomplishments, bemoaning their defeats. We all live for the moment where our heroes are crowned champion, the best of all the contestants, something that I have never experienced. Granted, most fans only occasionally experience such joys; however, my personal sports history is epitomized by the Arsenal of the last couple of years: good and able to compete with the best, but never able to emerge as champions. Instead, moral victories are fabricated to draw the best out of the season. So with the FA Cup Final approaching, I want to list my personal sports history of good, but not great, teams to express what this final means for me.
My initial sport was baseball. Our backyard was big enough to have a small area for playing ball, but as my older siblings became less interested in playing, I was left to myself, imagining myself playing for the Oakland A's while throwing a ball as hard as I could against the fence in our backyard. I started to spend my summer listening to games on the radio, since watching TV was not accepted in my house. Right as I entered high school, Billy Beane's sabermetrics started to pull the team out of years of mediocrity and the A's reached the playoffs every year while I was in high school. My only memories, however, are the Yankees coming to town and and winning with their bloated payroll and then coming back in the offseason to steal away the best players. Instead, the fans had to be content with a "small market" team punching above their weight, but ultimately succumbing to the big boys.
In high school, my interested in baseball started to subside and I picked up a new favorite: hockey. Once again, I selected the local team, the San Jose Sharks, as my favorite. The first game that I attended, the final game of the 2000-01 season, was an amazing sporting experience. Being fan appreciation day, everyone got a free hat to commemorate the Shark's tenth season. The Sharks were losing at the end of the game until Mike Ricci finished a hat trick with 3.6 seconds left and many of the free hats were used to celebrate. While the Stars won in overtime, the excitement of that play, coupled with the hat trick and avalanche of hats, is one of the highlights of my fandom.
While the NHL has a much less restrictive playoff structure than baseball (currently 16 out of 30 teams enter), the Sharks have qualified for the playoffs every year since 2004 (obviously excluding the year that Gary Bettman stole), a streak only bested by the Detroit Red Wings. Many years, the Sharks have been a higher seed with expectations of a deep run in the playoffs and chances at the Cup. Every year, the season has ended in disappointment, culminating this year with a series loss after leading 3-0. The team have always been good, but never great; a model "nontraditional" hockey market that is successful in a league that has some difficulties in warmer climes. My interest in hockey has waned, partially due to living in Michigan where most Sharks games begin at 10:30 and I don't have the time to stay up that late, but I still live in the hope that they can get their act together and lift Lord Stanley's Cup.
I did take interest in college sports while attending Brigham Young University. The football team did win the Mountain West Conference, followed by a bowl game against the 4th or 5th place team from the Pac-10. In fact, they played in that bowl for several years straight. But they were never able to make the big jump from winning a minor conference to breaking into the BCS party, like several other schools did (including Utah, our main rival). Jimmermania, though I left BYU before the final year, was an exciting basketball story, but the team wasn't strong enough to keep up with the star. Even at the University of Michigan, where I am currently studying, the football team has failed to live up to the hype of the stars and break into contention for a national title.
With time zones not working out for hockey, my interest in soccer picked up in Spring 2011. I had played rec league soccer for several years growing up and refereed my senior year of high school, but had never (and still have not) attended a professional game. However, with ESPN3 showing streaming games (occasionally), I began to watch and enjoy the beautiful game. I initially tried to just watch the games, but the pull of rooting for a team eventually won out. I have had an affinity for Arsenal for several years; my last year of rec league (2000), my team was named Arsenal. Instead of getting us a cheap participation trophy that was forgotten within 10 minutes, at the end of the season our coach gave each of us an Arsenal flag. I immediately put the flag above my bed, where it hung all through high school and followed me to college, even though I did not actively follow the team. While I have enjoyed partaking in the fan experience these past couple of years, every season has ended with the usual stories about financial responsibility and 4th place trophies. Not that those are bad accomplishments, but there is a promise of more that is never quite achieved.
So, for me, the FA Cup final this Saturday is more than just a chance for Arsenal to break their trophy drought; it is a chance for me, as a fan, to break my own trophy drought. I don't pretend to say that my accomplishment is anything more than a fan's emotional attachment to a team and requires no more effort than being stubborn enough to continually root for teams that disappoint. Previously, the my high experiences as a fan were limited to single game victories over rivals or great regular seasons that ended with disappointing defeats in the playoffs. Sure, seeing BYU convert on 4th and 18 in the final drive of the game against rival Utah, leading to the game winning touchdown, is exciting and that memory will live on. However, there is a different feel to seeing your team raise a trophy, the best team as judged by that competition.
If Arsenal bottle it this Saturday, it won't be anything new. Life will go on. Monday, I will still have to start my summer research experiments, my kids will still want love and attention and the sun will still rise. I will just shrug my shoulders, say "it happened again" to myself, question why I put energy into following sports, and move on to my next project. But for once, I want that cycle to change. I obviously will not affect the outcome of the game, sitting on a couch thousands of miles away watching the game at a friends house. But the entertainment and thrill of the trophy is something that I would like to vicariously experience, at least once.
P.S. Thanks for coming with me on my personal journey though sports.