Faith and Football

Growing up in my house, Sunday was sacred.

My parents met through my grandfather’s Presbyterian church in Lafayette, California. Our family is deeply rooted in ritual and tradition. My brother and I were raised to respect the sanctity of the last day of the week. One path of devotion. One house of worship. A single, spiritual force to believe in.

The San Francisco 49ers.

September through January revolved around professional football. I woke up every Sunday morning to my mom’s anxiety and a house buzzing with anticipation. For the morning game, powdered sugar mini donuts and orange juice. When the Niners were at home, pepperoni pizza and beer for my parents. Niners gear on, prayers complete, the four of us huddled on the couch holding our breath until kick-off.

Most weeks we celebrated triumphant victories. Screaming and leaping to our feet for a spectacular catch or defensive stop. We high-fived and hugged and cheered. My mom paced and mumbled the F-word when the game got close.

In the late eighties and early nineties, it was good to be us.

But as the nineties wore on, the red and gold glory faded.

Steve Young retired and Jerry Rice wore a Raider jersey. Sunday morning lost its spark and the joy seeped out of our weekly family gathering.

The Niners changed. Life changed. The pride and love that once connected the community of Forty-Niner faithful was replaced by frustration, angst and a nostalgic longing for a lost legacy.

I rarely stood up on my couch with both arms in the air yelling, “go,” repeatedly until the receiver reached the end zone.

But me, my mom, and the die-hards among us never gave up hope.

The Niner fall from grace made televised games hard to come by while I was away at college in Los Angeles.  But in the pre-streaming era, I followed every quarter on ESPN.com. “Gamecast” mostly brought disappointment and Sportscenter highlights rarely featured my favorite team. Through the rise of the New England Patriots, the Green Bay Packers and both of the Manning quarterbacks, the Niners struggled to bounce back from what was becoming a decade-long slump.

Still, every Sunday I wore my tattered “Team of the 80’s” t-shirt, my favorite wardrobe piece, stolen from my high school boyfriend.

I graduated from college, had more than one career and found my way back to school, and Southern California. Slowly, but surely, just as we’d always talked about, the 49ers started to “rebuild.”

In my final year of law school, the Niners came within a freak-fumble of the Superbowl.

After many years when it wasn’t, it was good to be us, again.

This week, my team heads to their second consecutive NFC Championship. In reflecting on my relationship with the Forty-Niners. I think about faith, patience, and unconditional love.

I think about all of the disappointment, heartbreak and hopelessness felt by Niner fans over the last few years. I think about my forgiveness for their mistakes, my acceptance of a period of struggle, and my commitment to them, through it all.

I think about all of the other relationships and situations in my life through which I failed to demonstrate the same  grace and understanding.

In the dark days of 49er football, my brother struggled with alcoholism and addiction. He stole from my parents, manipulated his friends. He’d call me late at night to ask if I’d sneak away from my house to buy him a meal. Three years into his struggle, I gave up on him. I shut him out. Withdrew my investment. Stopped following his life on my family’s dysfunctional version of Gamecast. I surrendered any hope that he would ever look or act like the big brother I’d worshipped growing up.

More recently, I turned this behavior on myself. I created a negative inner-dialogue around what I believed to be under-performance. My inability to make my self-identified version of the late-twenties post-season. If my mom suggested I was “re-building,” I replied that I didn’t have the time, nor energy, for that.

Along the way, smaller issues and instances reflect a similar pattern. An unwillingness to accept what is. An inability to be where I am. Lack of contentment. A strong feeling of resistance. A desire for things to be different, or better, right away.

When I imagine my “best-self,” I treat everyone like the Forty-Niners. I feel deep sadness when they don’t live up to my expectations, but quickly let go of the feeling, looking forward to their next opportunity to shine. I want them to be the best, but accept that they can’t win every game. I defend them to critics, and try not to judge them out loud. I show up and cheer for them, with my whole heart, no matter what.

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