Forgive me, Cowboys Nation.
I have not always been a faithful football fan. For a few years, I did not support the Dallas Cowboys. In fact, for the majority of high school, there were many times I rooted against the only football team I had ever loved. I rooted against the very team I cried over when it fell in an upset to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the 2007 season. I turned my back on the team belonging to the only city I ever lived in before college.
As the start of the 2012 NFL season, I did what most dedicated fans never do — I quit on my team.
You see, while being an athlete relies primarily on physical capabilities, one’s fandom is entirely dictated by emotional endurance and pure heart. A sports fan has no actual power over his or her team. We can whine and complain on social media about a team’s performance or the front office’s decisions — but we never get to control the team, we never get to dictate what happens on the field or court.
Moreover, contrary to what one might think, a sports fan doesn’t choose his choose sports team out of pure objectivity. Something always compels you to select a favorite team, whether it’s the team your parents bestowed upon you through their own fandom — regardless of where you grew up — or if you simply latched onto the hometown squad because you love where you live. There’s always a reason why you love your team. For me, it was simple as an eight-year-old — I loved Dallas and I loved football, so the Cowboys stole my heart. From September through December — and sometimes until January if it was a special season — every one of my Sundays revolved around the Cowboys’ schedule. Everything else I liked — GameCube, Pokémon, my dogs — took a back seat when Tony Romo was under center for the boys in white and blue.
While there were some great moments, there were far more miserable ones. Year after year, the Cowboys ripped my heart out. The team was quite creative and diverse in the ways it tested my fandom — whether it ruined my Thanksgiving by blowing a lead, collapsed in the playoffs or played so poorly in the regular season that it missed the postseason altogether. Being a Cowboys fan hurt. In 2009, I got my first taste of playoff success with a win over the Eagles. That joy was short lived after a 31-point mind-numbing defeat against the Vikings one week later. The next year the Cowboys missed the playoffs, winning only six games.
Then, after an 8-8 season in 2011, I decided I was “done” with my hometown team. I wanted a fresh start — and no more broken hearts. An avid sports fan, I simply couldn’t quit watching football, so I chose to root for the Baltimore Ravens. I have cousins in Baltimore who had gifted me Ravens apparel in years past so it seemed appropriate to pick the team with which I had some ties. The Ravens won the Super Bowl that first year in 2012.
While I began purchasing Ravens gear, and celebrated the team’s 2012 Super Bowl victory, it never felt as good as when I rejoiced over the Dallas Mavericks 2011 NBA Championship, or the Texas Rangers’ back-to-back AL pennants in 2010 and 2011.
When the Ravens lost a game, I never suffered from the same raw bitterness and heartache I would when the Rangers or Mavericks would falter, or in previous years, when the Cowboys would lose. Compared to what I had had with the Cowboys, I was so emotionally detached from the Ravens I would occasionally even “root” for the Indianapolis Colts because they drafted Andrew Luck, my favorite college quarterback.
Throughout the next few years, every time I wanted the Cowboys to lose, it came from a desire to validate my decision to abandon my first love. Yet, I learned the hard way — through a stubborn allegiance to a Dallas Mavericks team that won despite many past struggles (but not nearly as many as the Cowboys) — that ditching your team for another doesn’t solve the problem, it only complicates it; your true team will never stop tugging on your heart strings.
Before the 2016 season, the future did not seem bright for Dallas. Tony Romo had suffered yet another severe back injury in the preseason, and unproven backups Kellen Moore and Dak Prescott offered little reason for optimism. Over the years, I had found reasons to justify not supporting the Cowboys: “Jerry Jones is a bad owner … they’ve let me down so many times.” However, it’s the second reason that drove me back to the Cowboys — you can only be let down by something you care about. So, I didn’t think about the bleak prospects of the upcoming season, all I wanted was to root for my hometown team. I was tired of forcing myself to not like the Cowboys. To quote The Office’s Michael Scott, I was “ready to get hurt again.”
My first game as a reborn fan, the Cowboys opened the season with a one-point heartbreaking defeat to the New York Giants. The loss ruined my day — I finally felt like a true football fan again.
In the past two years, I’ve seen the Cowboys go 13-3, but suffer a bitter playoff loss, and then finish 9-7 and miss the postseason altogether with the team’s best player suspended almost half of the season.
Both years ended in tremendous heartbreak. However, I’ve learned you can’t celebrate the highs as an invested fan without being there for the many, painful lows. Excluding those who root for the Alabama Crimson Tide, San Antonio Spurs or New England Patriots, dedicated and passionate fans endure far more agony than joy from supporting their teams.
But that’s what makes loving a sports team so painfully gratifying: the numerous soul-crushing valleys we experience from our team only amplify the unfettered euphoria from the rare peak — an upset win, signing a big free agent, or, if you’re really lucky, hoisting that championship trophy at the end of season.
Contact Zach Naidu at znaidu ‘at’ stanford.edu.