Before I head off to the next chapter of my life at Northwestern University, I want to take a trip back down memory lane with the Nostalgia Blast series. Each column will focus on a certain part of my childhood and explain how it made my last 17 years so unique and fun. Kicking things off is a comprehensive look at being a sports fanatic, Riker-style.
Take a pie chart of my childhood, and it’ll look roughly like this: 33% school, 33% sleep, 33% sports. No, that’s not a typo – 33% sports. And considering all the times I’ve dreamt about Super Bowls with a Nerf football tucked (securely, in Heisman trophy position) under my arm and the school time I’ve wasted watching March Madness or reading ESPN articles, overlap between the two other sections should definitely factor into the equation. Sure, there are cases to be made for other categories, like Sunday School. But even within the confines of the church classroom, I’ve witnessed our Sunday School teachers break down Malcolm Butler’s Super Bowl interception as a prelude to our lesson and compare the Miami Heat Big Three to the Holy Trinity. Point is, being a sports fan has been an integral part of my life for the past 18 years.
Part of what has made the experience of being a sports fan so essential to me is how much it encompasses. To nostalgically reflect on the years spent jumping off the couch, reading the USA Today sports page in every Holiday Inn Express and browsing for jerseys at the sporting goods store, I’ll explore the ten pillars of my sports fan experience.
I’ll admit it, I was a well-read kid when I got to kindergarten. I had a pretty wide range of knowledge, with my primary interests science and reading. Through reading encyclopedias and hosting Super Bowl parties (with more Little Einsteins than NFL, but still a party), I had a general sense of what sports were, but I didn’t have any interest and my parents certainly didn’t force it on me. That changed in October of 2007, when a couple of life-altering events took place.
On my seventh birthday, I received the NFL preview edition of Sports Illustrated Kids. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I pored over those early issues (first a Vince Young cover NFL preview, then the Celtics’ Big Three on the covered NBA preview) intently. I took every word literally, once calling my grandmother and informing her that the 2007 Patriots were “a touchdown-scoring machine.”
The second was when my dad told me that he had a second cousin who played baseball for the Boston Red Sox, and that he was pitching in Game 4 of the World Series against the Colorado Rockies that night. As it turned out, Jon Lester closed out the Rockies and gave the Sox a World Series title, all while earning himself a super-fan in the process.
A couple months later, I truly became a fan. Seeing all of the kids at my school following the Redskins, I jumped on the bandwagon and cheered along as unsung backup Todd Collins ripped off a couple big wins to sneak into the playoffs. I tried to watch glimpses the games whenever I could at the gym and nearly cried when the Jaguars and Chargers lost to the Patriots. While I was sad to see Washington lose in the first round to Seattle (I still loathe the Seahawks to the day because of that), a more significant memory came a couple weeks later. On the way home from the indoor pool, my dad asked whether we thought the 16-0 Patriots or heavy underdog Giants would win, and I said the Patriots. My brother Jeffrey, wanting to be the contrarian, picked New York, and the next morning, my dad announced the news – the Giants pulled off the upset. That result demonstrated to me the unpredictability of sports, something that always had me coming back for more.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but I was the fan equivalent of a free agent – I had yet to decide which teams I wanted to pledge allegiance, and my parents weren’t forcing it on me. The Red Sox were established as the de facto MLB team, and after watching Paul Pierce and the Celtics take down Kobe’s Lakers in the first basketball game I watched, I was in again for Boston (a year later, I switched to Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic due to their playoff success and appealing jerseys, and I’ve stayed since).
The most significant development came later, when I wanted to pick an NFL jersey to wear. The Redskins, the team I’d followed the previous season, had a variety of expensive jerseys on display at the Dicks’ Sporting Goods (Santana Moss, Jason Campbell and Chris Cooley), while the nearby Ravens had a couple Ed Reed unis on the racks. But with my first grade budget, I took a trip over to the discount rack and found three jerseys that fell within my price range. It came down to Vince Young and the Titans, Jay Cutler and the Broncos, and, on double discount, Tony Romo and the Cowboys. The Romo caught my eye. Though I’d rooted against them as the Redskins’ rival and knew the history between them and my hometown team, I loved the glittery silver stripe on the navy jersey and I chose the $22 Reebok Romo jersey over Reed. It turned out to be quite the prudent investment.
Suffice it to say, it cost more than $22 dollars. I caught a lot of flak around school whenever I wore the jersey, whether from fellow first graders or janitors or even parents, who jokingly threatened to kick me out of the car. Being the first grader that I was, those comments left their mark on me, but it only made me stronger as a fan, and on the rare occasion that I met a fellow Cowboy supporter, we bonded over our shared rooting interest. I didn’t back down, not for a second. In second grade, one of my friends got a Redskins cake for his birthday and I refused to eat it in honor of the Cowboys. He returned the favor the next week by not eating my Tony Romo cake. There was no turning back.
While it was awesome to be a Cowboy fan, Dallas isn’t close to Washington, and I wanted to be a part of a Kids’ Club like the Redskins had. The Cowboys were too far away and I couldn’t go back to the Redskins, so my attention turned to two AFC North rivals that happened to be the closest teams – the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. It horrifies me now that I considered the Steelers, but it didn’t last for long. In my first event as a Ravens’ Rookie, I attended training camp at McDaniel College. Being the clueless sports fan I was, I wore my KG Celtics jersey to the practice, which turned out to be great – I got a noogie from Super Bowl MVP Ray Lewis and an affirmation of support from my favorite player, Ed Reed. That sealed the deal – the Ravens and Cowboys had my heart.
The first seasons of cheering for my newfound favorites and getting into sports created some of the most treasured sports memories. Though I couldn’t stay up past my bedtime for primetime games, I watched every single game that I could and devoured SI Kids and the Washington Post sports coverage. I followed the Ravens as they nearly reached the Super Bowl in quarterback Joe Flacco’s first year, then felt Baltimore pride as they reached the postseason in each of the next four seasons. Watching the Cowboys could be equally exciting if not doubly irritating, though a playoff berth in 2009 was a definite highlight. The Red Sox were always in the World Series hunt (and Jon Lester threw a no-hitter), and whichever NBA team I followed competed for championships. I also attended my first games at the great venues of M&T Bank Stadium and Camden Yards.
My interest for sports grew at an exponential rate those first few years, and the primary means I had of learning more came through the written word. I read every SI Kids issue and sports book in my elementary school’s library, fiction and nonfiction. The newspaper was another indispensable source. I fondly remember the barefoot scampers down the driveway on cold winter mornings to pick up the Sunday edition of the Washington Post, or scouring through the treasure trove of Patriot News papers that my grandmother collected. It sounds antiquated now, but one of my primary news sources was the radio (though it teetered on the brink of destruction after I heard of the Red Sox trading away Adrian Gonzalez and the Magic trading Dwight Howard on the sports station). My first PG-13 movie was The Blind Side at the age of nine, chronicling the journey of Ravens offensive tackle Michael Oher. I loved that there was always more trivia or stories to know, and I couldn’t get enough.
There were times that the bounds of my love for sports was tested, and when said love prevailed. There were the trials of being a Cowboys fan in Redskins country, the reading time I spent so I could play Madden or watch the games on Sunday, and the money I spent to grow my jersey collection and accrue the gear of my favorite teams. But the dedication grew from there. Wherever I was, I wasn’t far from sports. In many cases, I was moving toward sports. Evidence: a visit to the Cowboys Stadium weeks before it opened during a cross-country road trip and a summer getaway to the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame in Massachusetts with my dad. Thanksgiving football was a double-whammy- the entertainment of watching the Lions and Cowboys and the excuse of watching the Lions and Cowboys to sidestep the bustle of Thanksgiving family reunions.
The annual Super Bowl party deserves its own paragraph. The Super Bowl party precedes me – I attended one for the Ravens’ 34-7 throttling of the Giants at only a couple months old. But the tradition of hosting one myself was a fine display of my sports fandom. Some years I was too young to stay up to watch the game, but I hosted one anyway. The guest list varied from year by year, and those guests varied on a sports knowledge spectrum (ranging from fanatic to utterly unaware). In fourth grade, all of my friends from my magnet program sat watching the TV, until one found “Snap Circuits” and the whole posse raced to the opposite room. At least I tried. Flag football, Super Bowl ring cupcakes, and root beer floats have been constants. There have been memorable moments, from ad breaks to Super Bowl halftime performances to the Atlanta Falcons’ massive lead. “Nah, I don’t think the Patriots can come back,” said Joseph Pohoryles to my mother, about an hour before the Patriots came back from their 28-3 deficit to win the game.
One of the knocks on watching sports is that it’s more fun to play than watch, but for me the relationship between the two experiences has been a symbiotic one. Watching the on-field heroics of my favorite players made me want to play myself. I played seven seasons of flag football due to my interest in watching games, always trying to be Larry Fitzgerald running to the end zone or Ed Reed picking off an errant pass. At home, I’d play home run derby in my backyard with my friends and brothers, and let me just say that the premise of The Sandlot is extremely relatable. I’d see a move on TV, like LeBron’s behind-the-back dribble in the NBA Finals, and then work non-stop before school until I could master it myself.
I also discovered Madden, the best-selling football video game. I came from humble beginnings – a 20-yard sack that prompted the owner of the XBox to yank the controller out of my hand, but once I got Madden 2002, I elevated from rookie to pro. I did the same thing on, wait for it… NBA Live 97. My Windows XP computer had a bevy of other sports titles, most prominently the Backyard Sports series. For the record, I won two Backyard World Series titles, one Backyard Hockey title, a Madden 2005 Super Bowl and an NBA 2K12 championship – all of which rank among my finest accomplishments. I could also use the games to live out the fantasy of being a team’s general manager and draft my own team, which in turn led me to the sensation of fantasy sports. I loved drafting the players and studying their stats, though many of my opponents lacked the same interest. I retired before high school, riding off into the sunset off a 14-0 championship year.
Above all, I lived out my sports dreams inside my own head. To pick who I thought would win a game, I would act out all of the big plays I thought would happen with a Nerf football, then jot down the big plays in a journal and write up a preview. Given that my mom wouldn’t allow me to play tackle football, I pretended to be a star myself, whether becoming the first 16-seed to beat a 1 in March Madness by virtue of a stunning buzzer beater, being the first player to ever block a kickoff or catching a pass in the end zone as a Wootton Patriot. I cradled a Nerf football when I went to bed all the way through elementary school. I just loved the feel and the kinesthetics of the games. I couldn’t just watch it, I had to experience the action on-screen.
This is the part of the column where I proudly enumerate all of the ways that sports took over my life. My vice became the $5 packs of sports cards at Target, which I used to amass an astonishing collection of football, baseball and basketball cards that I in turn used to supplement my imaginary world as a general manager of a team. My NFL team helmets were another staple on my desk growing up, as I’d rearrange them as my own form of power rankings.
Routines were affected. Sunday mornings were all church, but after one o’clock, the armchair quarterback always took his position on the couch. Monday mornings were even more magical. At some unholy hour before dawn, I would heat up my mug of apple cider, take my place on the couch under the covers, and turn on the classic show known as NFL Primetime. With the iconic voices of Chris “Boomer” Berman and Tom Jackson narrating the highlights of each NFL game over the most fitting tunes that NFL Films could find, NFL Primetime started my week off right. Unless, of course, the Ravens or Cowboys lost.
I couldn’t contain my passion for sports, so I naturally sprinkled the seeds of sports on anyone who crossed my path. For some, it worked. My mom talked about the Super Bowl with her physical therapy patients, and my grandparents received regular updates on my favorite teams. To the Snap Circuits crew of fourth grade, the seeds landed on rough soil and failed to take root. But it was all worth it for the sports fans I created, namely, my brothers. By first grade, I knew all of the NFL divisions. When my younger brother Nate was in his elementary school years, I left him in a room with my NFL helmets one day and, the next thing I knew, he was an expert and knew the divisions like the back of his hand. Then, almost ten years later, my youngest brother Christopher found my NFL standings magnet board and became entranced. At the age of six, he began correcting me about the scores of Super Bowls dating back to 1967. My parents might use the phrase “created a monster” to describe these developments, but I prefer the much friendlier and more accurate term of “protege” for my fellow football friends. And to my parents, just watch out for five-year-old Isabella… my Cowboys counterpart has big-time potential, too. Moral or not, having two other sports crazies under the same roof has enhanced the fan experience and made watching games a team sport for me.
The natural progression from spectator to analyst has afforded me the opportunity to merge my two interests of writing and sports. I enjoy expressing my thoughts through writing, so sportswriting became a definite interest and way to emulate the books and newspaper articles I had read since I was young. Since 2011, I’ve written my own NFL preview and picked each of the 256 NFL regular season games in my projections. Beginning in middle school, I’ve had three blogs that were mainly focused on sports, Professor Sports, Any Given Monday, and johnriker.com/Riker’s Block. I’ve also enjoyed the chance to write over 100 articles for the NFL’s former kids website, NFLRush, as a kid reporter through middle school, and serve as my school newspaper’s sports columnist during my junior and senior seasons of high school. These experiences have inspired me to pursue sports journalism and set me on the path to Northwestern University, where I will study at the Medill School of Journalism.
Like a lot of young kids, I cycled through a bunch of diverse interests, from outer space to cars (I once asked my dad to teach me physics, to which he did not reply and shut the door). Unlike those temporary flings, sports stuck, but I wouldn’t have stayed if not for the affirmation of my own enjoyment of watching sports. The Ravens’ Super Bowl, the Red Sox’ and Cubs’ World Series, and the Spurs’ NBA Finals runs (I know, bandwagon) constitute some of my favorite memories ever, and the euphoria of victory has never faded, all these years later. The emotion hasn’t been limited to happiness, either. The phrase “living through your team” or moniker “die-hard fan” may be cliche, but through sports I’ve felt moving emotions of all kinds.
There’s also the affirmation of the relationships I’ve forged through sports. Over the years, I’ve come to see being a sports fan as a team game. My best friends and I have bonded over sports. Playing rec sports has provided me a way to work alongside kids my age and work as a team. Even with those I don’t know well, sports has been an invaluable conversation starter or fun topic. Sports unites people like few other things in life, I’ve seen that firsthand.
Every last layer of sports, every memory and big game and relationship, makes me proud to hold and have held the title of sports fan. Go Cowboys.