Sometimes, Opening Day takes your breath away. Other times, it knocks the wind right out of you.
The NFL likes its season-openers to be galas, and they often are. Last year’s prime-time television kickoff was not just a great game, but a glittering diamond ring of an apology to fans who suffered through the lockout. We arrived at the opener disillusioned and a little angry, but how can you stay mad during a Packers-Saints 42-34 fireworks display?
But the most satisfying Opening Days do not sparkle like a Mariah Carey rhinestone. The ones that stick in your mind often began by sticking in your craw.
Long ago, in the low-def days before dialup, a promising Eagles season crashed just moments after launch. It was 1991, Reggie White led the most feared defense in the NFL, and for about 12 minutes, the breathtaking, baffling Randall Cunningham was their quarterback.
Cunningham took a hard sack by the Packers’ Bryce Paup early in the first quarter of the opener, his season finished before some fans even tuned in to the game. I was one of those fans, a college kid late for kickoff at a Philadelphia tavern with gourmet hamburgers and waitresses who wouldn’t spot an underage patron if he rolled up in a stroller. By the time I settled onto a barstool and looked up, Jim McMahon was doing his Keith Richards impression in the pocket, stumbling and staggering but still inexplicably effective.
Opening Day is eight months of wishful anticipation made suddenly real, and a cataclysmic injury can cause hope to briefly collapse upon itself. You sit down dreaming of an autumn filled with thrills and glory, then suddenly find yourself drinking until Jim McMahon looks good enough to take home.
Patriots fans experienced the same feeling in 2008, when Bernard Pollard ended Tom Brady’s year on the season’s second drive. It was easy to dismiss the feelings of Patriots fans that year -- why, they can spend their autumn afternoons uploading and organizing pictures from their three recent Super Bowl parades! -- unless you could relate to them. A guy in a beat-up Andre Tippett jersey finished mowing the lawn, or chauffeuring the kids from Sunday school, then plopped down in front of the television to learn the season he dreamed of all spring and summer was essentially canceled. It’s like a father’s threat to turn the car around on the trip to Disney World, except that dad really does turn around. Your dreams of thrill rides are replaced by the dread of spending 15 weeks idling in the driveway.
But then, Opening-Day disasters are rarely what they seem. The 1991 Eagles defense rallied to the challenge of winning without Cunningham, then without McMahon, then without any quarterback who could throw 20 yards without a stiff wind and a running start. They missed the playoffs but became fearsome legends for their efforts, winning games that are still talked about a generation later.
The Patriots dusted themselves off after Brady’s injury as well, winning 11 games and skirting the playoffs. They were no longer unbeatable, which made them more likeable beyond their core fan base, and when the Dolphins hung an upset on them, it spawned the Wildcat, a fad that mixed the Single Wing with the “Macarena.” They became a weaker team but a more interesting tale.
A season-opener that goes as planned is a delight. One that goes awry shapes and strengthens our love for our favorite teams, or the sport itself. Opening Day gives the most when it takes away.
If we are talking seriously about Graham Harrell or Chase Daniel next week, it means that we lost a great quarterback for a few months but gained an exciting new mystery. Opening Day also shares the illusionist’s love for misdirection, so if the national spotlight is on Denver or Green Bay, chances are that the real story will unfold in Kansas City or Tampa Bay. After the Saints and Packers traded lightning bolts in the 2011 opener, the Giants lost an ugly little game to a bad Redskins team, the once-and-future champions concealed behind a curtain.
That is the bittersweet promise of Opening Day. The season you get will be better than the one you expect. The unpleasant surprise will prove more rewarding than no surprise. The deepest love is born from despair, the strongest faith from doubt. Without pain, there can be no House of Pain game.
Yet football provides these surprises with clockwork precision, a schedule that has changed little since you carried a lunchbox to school, a consistency that makes 1991 feel like yesterday and that first sip of beer at kickoff taste like home. This year’s Wednesday start is a little hinky, but Sunday will come, chores will be hurried, tailgates dropped, fantasy lineups set, friends who have cousins who know bookies contacted, and the true Opening Day will wash over us with its full sweep and breadth. Football will once again be our passion, our lifestyle, our consensus. Football will fill us with wonder, excitement, and admiration, and perhaps a little frustration, disappointment, and outrage. It will fill us with feelings: deep, raw, and real. Feelings we can share with other fans and with whole communities. Feelings that can still seem fresh 20 years later.
That is the promise of Opening Day. So don’t be late. You might miss something.