I was 12 years old when Los Angeles lost both of its professional football teams. In the same 1995 off-season, the Rams moved to St. Louis, while the Raiders returned to Oakland. Neither had been particularly successful for a fair amount of time. The Rams, playing in the dump that was the pre-renovated Anaheim Stadium, managed five consecutive losing seasons prior to their departure, holding a pitiful 28.75% winning percentage (23-57) in that span. The Raiders fared a bit better, making three trips to the playoffs in those five years (going 47-34), but had won just a grand total of two postseason games over the course of the previous decade. It could be argued that both teams were as renowned for their eccentric owners as they were for anything else.
Football in Los Angeles had always presented an interesting conundrum, at least for me. Rooting for the Raiders was untenable, as they were deeply ingrained in the city’s street gang culture. My elementary school in fact banned the silver and black worn by the Raiders and the Kings, a common – if exaggerated – response in the ‘burbs. Raider fans thus came to acquire a kind of terrifying mystique in my eyes, one reaffirmed by the images I would sporadically see of the Black Hole and the news stories I would hear about innocent kids gunned down for wearing their paraphernalia. Meanwhile, I didn’t much care about the Rams, who resided in faraway Anaheim*, and were so bad that they were essentially a non-entity. Adding to the complication, the biggest personality on the sports radio station I frequented (Lee Hamilton, XTRA 690) was actually the play-by-play announcer for the nearby San Diego Chargers.
*ironic given my baseball team
Oddly enough then, I started out as a Buffalo Bills fan. I was introduced to football in the early 1990s largely through the spectacle of the Super Bowl, and it was after Buffalo’s second consecutive trip to the game that I found myself sympathizing with a team that couldn’t make it over the final hurdle. What began as rather tepid support, founded on the generic ‘root for the underdog’ mentality, developed into an active interest over the course of several years. Video games certainly helped the process; even as a child, I played exclusively with a single virtual team. And the Bills’ continued prominence in the Super Bowl spotlight definitely provided another factor. They’d be featured, albeit on the wrong end of the outcome, in the Sports Illustrated Year in Review videos I’d get in the mail and watch devoutly. Mine therefore became a real affinity.
It took a while before I considered myself a full-fledged football fan, watching regular season games on a weekly basis. By then, both L.A. teams had left, removing any geographic rationale for an allegiance to one franchise or the other (even if both, the Raiders especially, would be featured on local broadcasts for years to come). I had cast my lot with Buffalo, and became as good a fan as I possibly could – given the fact that I could watch only a minuscule number of their regular season games, and in the pre-internet age, had little access to information about them outside of trade magazines and newspapers. Regardless, I stayed loyal, keeping myself apprised of major developments. Most notably, I was appropriately devastated watching the Music City Forward Lateral on television during the ‘99 playoffs.*
*My out-of-state sister, demonstrating the impeccable sports timing that she inherited from my mom, phoned to chat in the commercial break immediately preceding the play. It made for a vivid memory, at least: sitting on the floor with phone in hand, completely dumb-struck as Wycheck to Dyson unfolded with the barest of volumes, and then pretending to listen (sorry, sis) as I held back tears and obscenities through replay after replay.
My infatuation with the Buffalo franchise eventually subsided, however. I have some excuses, most having to do with the nature of the sport. I didn’t know the faces of all the players, couldn’t familiarize myself with the considerable roster. The season was relatively fleeting, and again, the team was barely on television in Los Angeles – in terms of games, let alone weekly coverage. All of that aside, it was kind of simple: a long-distance, non-casual relationship with a franchise in the National Football League – a mediocre and increasingly nondescript one, no less – required an extreme level of dedication. Compared to the religious fervor with which I held my teams in the other major sports, compared to the level of exposure I had to those local teams, the Bills didn’t stand a chance. So when push came to shove, as I gradually morphed into a true fan of the sport, I came to realize that I didn’t really have a team after all.
I continued keeping up with the Bills, but it eventually came to resemble the way I kept up with every other team in the league. By this time, I watched nearly 10 hours of games a week, caught every playoff match-up, glanced at the studio shows regularly, and flipped through the analyses offered in a selection of magazines. And obviously, with the advent of the digital age, I came to keep up in an even more comprehensive manner. I’d imagine that my interests were akin to that of any other sports fan, at least when their particular teams are not involved. I rooted for the individuals on my fantasy team. For players, for moments, for stories.* For the underdog, naturally. The stance was especially easy to take with this sport. After all, in a manner unique to the NFL, by virtue of their infrequency, physicality, and parity, every game felt like a true event.
* I’ve watched Chuck Pagano’s speech at least a dozen times. #chuckstrong
There have been times, naturally, when I flirted with the idea of adopting a franchise, the way I did the Bills when I was younger and far more disconnected. But I never could come up with a viable selection process. If I picked a good team, I’d be an unabashed bandwagon fan – a violation of one of the most important unwritten rule of sport (I was quite familiar with the non-existent book, given my decades-long involvement with my other teams). Picking a terrible team didn’t seem to make any sense either, as demonstrated by the final years of the Buffalo experience. The true expansion teams – Jacksonville and Carolina – were too far away, again ensuring minimal exposure, while the franchises involved in recent relocations – Houston, Tennessee, Cleveland, and Baltimore – had too much history. And that was the general problem, really.
To justify the type of commitment I wanted to make, there had to be something substantial there, a connection of sorts. I suppose I could have gone with the Raiders or the Rams, but it would have been strange to suddenly hop aboard after years of willfully ignoring their existence. The Chargers might have appeared as the most logical choice geographically – especially after I moved to Orange County for graduate school, shifting ever closer – but I hated the core group of players at the time. I rooted halfheartedly for the Redskins when a friend was employed by the team for a few years, but that never blossomed into anything more. At some point, I figured I would adopt the team of whatever city I would end up in, but I’ve spent the last two years in Boston, and for a list of reasons too numerous to detail*, the Patriots were not an option.
*1) It’s Boston.
On a weekly basis then, I still root for individuals. I root for moments and stories, but mostly, for good games. In the meantime, I continue to wait, hoping against hope that Los Angeles will get a team sooner rather than later, regardless of the particulars of my whereabouts. There have been some minor developments to that end, albeit at a glacial pace. For the first time, there is a concrete site for a stadium, an actual stadium deal, and the support of public – even league – officials. Admittedly though, I don’t want the remnants of a discarded franchise, be it the Chargers or the Jaguars or anyone else. I’m desperately holding out for expansion. I want a team that isn’t stripped from another fanbase, a team that isn’t burdened with a history and a narrative. I want a football team that belongs to Los Angeles, and one that belongs to me.