The generation gap being as wide as it is, young adults are more likely to turn to their peers than to their parents for comfort during difficult times. It can seem presumptuous and patronizing for a parent to tell his adult kids he knows what they are truly feeling at any particular moment. But I did just that on Super Bowl Sunday, and for once it seemed to help.
The sports gene in our family is very strong. I grew up a rabid Denver Broncos fan. We lived walking distance to Mile High Stadium (at the time called “Bears Stadium” for our minor league Denver Bears baseball team – for which I was also rabid). As kids we went to every Broncos home game and sat on a grassy knoll outside the stadium from which only the southwestern-most corner of the field could be seen with binoculars.
I suffered through the Broncos most humiliating years, 14 of them from the birth of the team until it achieved its first winning season. Understandably, I was beyond euphoric when, in 1977, Denver and its potent Orange Crush Defense advanced through the playoffs to its first Super Bowl.
At the time I was a 3rd year medical student living in New York City, the only Denverite in my Cornell Medical School class. Seeing me so obviously obsessed with the extraordinary season my Broncos had that year, my classmates planned a surprise Super Bowl party for me. When Don and Karen invited me to their apartment to watch the game, I naively accepted because they had a bigger TV than I or any of the rest of my friends. But I wasn’t prepared for the sea of orange that greeted me when I arrived. Orange clothes, wigs, and face paint. Pom-poms, homemade banners, orange cupcakes and cookies, and, of course, six-packs of Orange Crush soda. Suddenly the game was about more than me, my Broncos, and my private angst about the outcome – I was now on display as the face of Denver for all of my friends. The Broncos needed my undivided attention, and I desperately wanted to be alone to focus on the game, undistracted by the outside world who didn’t understand the historical pain of being a Broncos fan. But there would be no alone time.
The headlines leading up to Super Bowl XII were all about Broncos quarterback Craig Morton. He had previously been the star QB for the Dallas Cowboys, but despite a successful career was traded when Dallas management deemed a younger QB to be the future of the franchise. The years that followed for Morton were filled with frustrations and injuries, but in this magical season with the Broncos, Morton earned the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award. The Super Bowl was hailed as the biggest game of his career, a chance to establish his legacy as a great QB.
It was clear from early in that 1977 game that Denver was overmatched. They played sloppily, giving up 7 turnovers in the first half. Trailing 13-0 at halftime, they went on to lose Super Bowl XII, 27-10. Morton was ineffective, throwing two interceptions that lead to scores for the opponents in the first quarter.
The humiliation of the Broncos on the field was nothing compared with my personal mortification in Don and Karen’s apartment that evening. I tried to be social, but the last thing I needed was to be surrounded by well-meaning friends in party mode hoping to cheer me up. I (and the Broncos) had come so close to redemption after all those years in the toilet. Now, I just needed a place to hide with no one looking at me, a place to suffer in silence as I had done for so many previous Broncos seasons.
Fast forward 36 years to Super Bowl XLVIII. As impossible as it seems to me, our kids are even bigger Denver sports fanatics than I was as a kid. So when our son and daughter-in-law told us they were hosting a Super Bowl party in their NYC apartment, we declared it a family reunion, traveling from Denver and summoning our other kids to do the same from their current college and graduate school locales.
The headlines were, again, of a comeback QB getting a second chance after being traded to make room for the young star who management said would be the future of the franchise. Staring down hardship and injury, Peyton Manning had a magical season with the Broncos. Now, his legacy on the line, Manning became only the 3rd QB in history to lead two different teams to a Super Bowl. Craig Morton was the first.
As kickoff time approached, a couple dozen of our kids’ friends gathered in a sea of orange, but the anxious looks on our kids’ faces told me they were already having second thoughts about the whole party idea. Surrounded by non-Denverites who couldn’t feel the historical pain of being a Broncos fan, our kids tried to be social, but everyone in the room now became a distraction. Twelve seconds (and one terrible snap) into the game, I again recognized the looks on our kids’ faces. By half time, due to sloppy play and turnovers, the Broncos were down 22-0 and went on to lose 43-8. Manning was ineffective, throwing two interceptions in the first half including one returned for a touchdown.
At the end of the game, despite the 36 years that had passed, I knew well the now ashen looks on our kids’ faces. The last thing they needed was a roomful of friends in party mode offering solace. Our kids just wanted to hide, to find a place where they could suffer in silence. I took them aside and told them I knew precisely how they felt. Precisely. This time I think they believed me, finding comfort in our shared intergenerational agony.