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NFL

How Lonely Losing Can Be

1:03 PM EST on January 18, 2023

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 06: Fans clap for the Minnesota Vikings during the game against the Washington Commanders at FedExField on November 6, 2022 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

I don’t remember anything about the game except that we won. It was Christmas Day 1989, and my parents had bought us two tickets for Bengals-Vikings. The final Monday Night game of the season. My brother went with me, despite the fact that he didn’t give a crap about football and still doesn’t. We settled into our blue plastic seats—hard seats, the kind that violently flip back into place the second you even think about standing up—and watched the Vikings win that game to secure the NFC Central title. I forgot that the game itself was really good. I forgot that Wade Wilson was the QB. I forgot that Bud Grant holdover Jerry Burns was the coach. I forgot that Rick Fenney, despite the presence of Herschel Walker on the roster, was the team’s leading rusher. I just remembered walking out of the Metrodome (getting blown out of it, really) happy. When you’re a kid, sports are a lot more binary that way. You won, or you lost. Players are good, or they’re bad. That’s about it. Sports are easier to digest that way.

The Vikings were housed by the eventual Super Bowl champion 49ers in the Divisional Round that 1989 season. Two years later, my family left Minnesota for good. It was not my choice. I begged my parents to stay, or at least to let me live with my best friend Andy until I graduated high school. Mine had been, up until then, a transient childhood: born in Australia, then moving to Connecticut at age zero, then to Chicago at age five, and then finally to Minnesota at age eight. This was the last stop, as far as I was concerned. This was home. This is where I discovered how much I loved football, and girls, and music, and so many other things. This is where I became myself. I was 15 now, that age where everything you see and hear and do is indelible; where I’d dance with a girl who I was deeply in puppy love with, smell her hair, and think to myself I’m gonna remember that scent for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to lose any of that. I wanted to make it in Minnesota. My parents, who were not from there and never developed much affection for it, were unmoved. They left for Connecticut, I left for prep school (my choice), and my family left Minnesota behind for good.

Almost.

As I worked my way through boarding school, college, and my eventual entry into the American workforce, I kept sliding a door. Kept thinking about everything I still wanted to do in Minnesota that I hadn’t gotten to do: become popular at school, get that girl, be voted Homecoming King, all that. Even when it was far too late for me to do any of things, I still yearned to do them. For me, Minnesota was a land of unfinished business. Given that, it’s fitting that the one piece of my adopted home that I kept with me after we left—the only one that I really could keep—was the Vikings. The fucking Vikings.

After we moved, I inexplicably became an even bigger fan of the team. Never again were the particulars of any victory or defeat lost on me, especially not the defeats. I could have adopted the Patriots, or one of the New York teams, or any other team in the Northeast. But I didn’t want them. I wanted the one Minnesotan thing I could bring with me to this new and gray place. So I kept the Vikings, and put every last scrap of memory into them. Many people have roots. I only had one: this team. Through the Vikings, I could keep the smell of that girl’s hair. I could keep my first taste of peach schnapps in the school parking lot. I could keep afternoons splayed out atop my brother’s nubby bedspread, reading liner notes from heavy metal albums. I could keep my own middle school football career, where I had the best football coach I ever had or ever will have. I could keep it all.

But not without a great deal of effort. Being the only fan of your team for miles around is a lot of work. Especially so in the pre-internet, pre–Sunday Ticket years. If I wanted to watch the Vikings on Sunday, I had to wait for them to be the national game, and then make sure that no one else in the common room changed the channel away from them. If I ever wanted to buy Vikings merch, I had to trek to the mall and pray that the Lids there was the kind of Lids that had hats for every NFL franchise and not just the local team. If the Vikings ever played in primetime, I had to make sure there was an available television, and that there wasn’t a chemistry exam I had to study for the next morning. Anytime I couldn’t see the Vikings, highlights were mandatory. I’d watch their highlights on SportsCenter, then again on CNN’s Sports Tonight, and then AGAIN on The George Michael Sports Machine if it was syndicated in my area. If the national press talked about the Vikings, I savored it like a $500 dinner. If any TV guy was mean or dismissive of the Vikings, I’d hold it against them for life.

In nearly every single case, I was alone. Even after Sunday Ticket was introduced, I was still the only Vikings fan in my house, or at school, or at the bar. I was alone when Gary Anderson missed that kick. I was alone when Brett Favre threw the pick that ended the 2009 NFC title game. I was alone for Blair Walsh. I was also alone for the good stuff, too: for Randy Moss’s coming out party in Lambeau, for the Minneapolis Miracle, and for the astonishing comebacks against Buffalo and Indianapolis this season. When the Vikings beat the Giants this year on a 61-yard Greg Joseph field goal, I was watching it on my phone while at Dulles airport: pumping my fist and jumping while making no other noise. Like a mime in training. I never had anyone to share those moments with in person. I could only join in the proceedings remotely: a work-from-home fan. My family was milling around here and there during these games, but they only care about the Vikings because I do. When the Vikings win, they’re happy for me. When they lose, they’re sad for me. But they can only be so sad. It’s not their team. It’s not their door that’s sliding off of its track and splintering on the ground. So they give me a RIGHT ON in the joyous moments and leave me to my grief in the awful ones, and then I sit in that grief alone.

It’s not fun to lose this way. If you’re a fan of any star-crossed NFL team—and God, there are so many of them—you know how much it hurts to lose. You know how many times you slide that door and your kicker makes that kick, or you draft that QB and not this one, or your coach calls the right play instead of the wrong one. You know what it’s like to stew in all of those hypotheticals, and you also know how profoundly isolating it is. Your team loses and then the whole world walks away from it. And you. Everyone leaves. No one cares how bad it hurts you.

And it never stops hurting. NFL players have to have short memories, but fans do not. It hurts to see other teams win the Super Bowl instead of yours. It hurts to see your fondest dreams fall incomplete over and over. Those other teams get to be happy. They get to be where they wanted to be. You get left out in the wilderness. That’s why the losses stay with you, and why every reminder of those losses feels so cruel, even when it’s basic sports fan trash talk, or even an anodyne Remember that game? quip from someone in the booth.

It’s also why fans like me stay. I refuse to believe that my fandom is a sunken cost. I’d rather stick around and hope that fate finally smiles on my team, because the law of averages says it’s inevitable, and because I fucking deserve it. So I love the Vikings unreservedly. Love to worry about them. I think about them all the time. I once told my wife this and it genuinely threw her. I almost regret having confessed it, but it was the truth. Even after that ‘98 team blew it, even after Blair Walsh, and even after a 38-7 beatdown that rendered my return to Minnesota five years ago an exercise in nostalgia instead of validation … I still love this team to death. To steal from a wise man, I’ve worked too hard for my illusions just to throw them all away. The illusions are the point—addictive because they’re always just out of reach.

And what better Vikings team to invest my illusions in than this outrageous lot: the worst 13-win team in NFL history, a team that could not win any game in a convincing manner nor lose any in a dignified one? This 2022 team was due, if you went by the numbers, to bow out meekly sometime before the conference championship round. But what fun is it when the universe behaves itself? I don’t watch sports for the ORDER of it. I don’t sit there hoping that what everyone predicted will happen does happen. That’s asshole shit. And I’d already seen this ragtag crew pull off wins that the Vikings normally never pull off. I had to go be with them. I had to stop sliding doors and open one instead. I had to go back.

And hey, maybe the Vikes would win a game while I was there.


I fly to Minneapolis. A guy sitting next to me on the plane asks if I’m going to the game and I say YES excitedly. I desperately wanna tell him everything I told you up there, but I don’t. We land. I do a double take every time I see someone in Vikings gear, and it happens a lot. SO THIS PLACE DOES EXIST. I go to the Mall of America and make a beeline for the Vikings store. It sells Vikings swag and Vikings swag only. Being a sports fan is, at its core, an exercise in self-indulgence. Hell, I’m jerking myself off just by telling you all of the shit I’m telling you right now. So I indulge. I buy a Vikings jacket, and a Vikings beer coozy, and a Vikings fanchain, and a Vikings car magnet, and even a Vikings foam finger. None of it feels like enough. I wanna buy it all.

I wake up early in my hotel room the next morning. Once the sun breaks the horizon, I grab a chorizo-and-egg bowl for breakfast (not a lot of foresight in that decision) and hop into my rental car. I go back to my old neighborhood, remembering the drive there from downtown to the inch. I remember all of the route names: 394, then 12, then 15. I remember the curve of each exit ramp. I remember buildings along 12 that have no architectural value but a surprising amount of nostalgic value. I remember the Minnetonka Water Tower that stands sentry over the Ridgedale mall, where I took my first (and last) guitar lessons. I remember all of the tony streets that my school bus used to turn into, including the one where Mike Lynn, the guy who masterminded the Herschel Walker trade, lived. I remember the snowdrifts that look permanent: always there, never changing shape, never melting. I make the turn into my neighborhood and remember all of the childhood landmarks in it effortlessly: a roadside depression I did mountain bike tricks in, a lakeside picnic area where we went to neighborhood association BBQs, a big island across the lake that’s literally called Big Island, and a crude hill I used to climb that led to a relatively secluded patch of woods where I could crack open dirty magazines I had just stolen from the nearby Rexall. I carry all of that with me, all the time. I haven’t forgotten any of it. Haven’t wanted to.

I get out of my car and walk around the old block. Still gorgeous. Still pretty lavish; Minneapolis is the wealthiest city in the Midwest. I turn the corner where my old house should come into view, but it doesn’t. Five years ago I visited this house (the woman let me in and even let me check out my old bedroom; way too trusting of her), saw new builds popping up around it, and knew it probably wasn’t long for this world. It wasn’t. Our house is gone now. Torn down two years ago, replaced by a new build. The last traces of my life from this place are gone. There’s nothing more for me to return to, if there ever was. And why would there be? I haven’t lived here in decades, I have no claim to this land, and life fills every void another life creates. I walk away from our old address and I remind myself that I have capably filled my own void in the intervening years: falling in love with a girl who actually loved me back, getting married, having kids, settling down in Maryland, and becoming a successful writer. A more-than-even trade-off. This is how things should be. Everything replaces everything else eventually.

I walk to the edge of Lake Minnetonka and take in the view of Big Island across the way. It’s bright in Minnesota. So, so bright. The sun ricochets off of the frozen lake and blinds you while coddling you. The snowpack atop the lake ice is pockmarked with abandoned fishing holes and snowmobile tracks. A pair of neighbors walking their dogs greet me and tell me that the new owners of my old house’s lot are very nice. I believe them. I goof on Minnesotans for being fake nice a lot, but the truth is that Minnesotans truly are nice people. But they also like to be left alone when they wanna be left alone. I’m like that.

Except when the Vikings are playing. And there’s a game in five hours.


From the sky, the Vikings stadium makes downtown Minneapolis look like a living room that has a wifi router as its centerpiece. From the ground, the stadium manages to hide behind other skyscrapers, before you turn a corner and it suddenly towers over you, all glass and support beams and neon purple signage for a local casino. The closer I get to the stadium, the more Vikings jerseys I see. It’s a heady mix of familiar nameplates and fondly remembered ones: Jefferson, Thielen, Randle, Moss, Carter, Reed, Kramer, etc. And yes, a lot of Kirk Cousins jerseys. I am not wearing a Cousins jersey myself, but the idea isn’t anywhere near as repellent to me as it was a year ago. I have my Pat Williams jersey tucked into my laptop bag. I won't wear it in the press box, because decorum. But I WILL wear it when I take my seat in the crowd. I'll get to be a fan when I plunk down into that seat, and a loyal one. I believe in this team. I know I’m a sucker for thinking they’re going to win the Super Bowl, but I don’t mind indulging in the delusion anyway. Never have. And neither do the tens of thousands of other fans crowding into the joint. A few Giants fans, many of whom look like their head coach, are among the attendees. But they’re vastly outnumbered. They’re the strangers here, not me.

I take my seat in the second level and the woman behind me offers me her popcorn. I politely decline, but the dude two seats to the left of me forces two kernels into my palm anyway and I eat them. His name is Shaab, and when he sees my press pass he says, “Write it down: we’re fucking awesome.” Done, Shaab.

Shaab is already drunk, as is everyone else in my row. To the right of me is Jake, who once got a tour of this stadium as a high school engineering student when it was under construction. The head engineer told Jake that every bolt in the stadium had to be custom-made, due to the odd angles everywhere. Jake is super into this Howard Hughes level of specificity. He even marvels that the seats needed custom bolts, too. I marvel alongside him. If you like custom bolts, cameramen stationed atop the Jumbotron like federal snipers on the White House roof, and the color gray, this stadium is your wet dream.

To my left is Robbie, who’s wearing a Dalvin Cook jersey and well-worn Vikings Zubaz. I had those same pants back when I was in middle school and loved them. Robbie, drunk, leans in close and tells me through the growing din, “You have no idea how much we love this shit.” I think I do.

For 34 years, I’ve only seen this stadium, these in-game rituals, and these fans on a TV screen. Now I’m with them. I get to hear the Gjallarhorn blast live. I get to do the SKOL chant, which I execute with the sloppy joy of a grade school student. I get to sing along to the Vikings fight song, but only the first two lines because those are the only lines I know. When any call goes against the Vikings, I get to boo the refs to their ugly faces. Even when Robbie and I agree that the call was right, we boo the refs anyway. BOO, MOTHERFUCKER. BOO. And I get to fire off my takes in real time to other, physical Vikings fans, who know their shit. They know the defense is helpless. They know that Cook is washed because he almost always stumbles right when he can break a run open. They know that calling a throwback pass to Cousins in any situation is a lousy idea, especially on third-and-short. They may all be drunk, but they know this team just as well as I do, and God that feels good.

Shaab, Jake, and Robbie all know each other, and they treat me—sitting smack dab among them—like they’ve known me forever too. I told you Minnesotans really were nice. This crew is so nice, in fact, that I’m a little overwhelmed just thinking about it right now. I hug Robbie at least five times during the ensuing game, and then I watch him go through the progression that every Vikings fan goes through during a tough loss: fired up, then REALLY fired up, then irritated, then quiet, then moderately fired up again, then worried, then clinging to hope, and then ultimately exhausted. All through the game, I tell Robbie that it’s gonna be fine. This’ll be another one-score win, same as all the other one-score wins. I’m reassuring him, not unlike my family members reassuring me whenever I’m freaking out in the TV room. That’s when I realize that I am being way more chill watching this game at the stadium than I would have been watching it on TV. This is because I don’t have to be the ONLY fan rooting for the Vikings this time. I have backup now. So when the Vikings lose, and in signature fashion, I’m hurt, but at least I’m not alone.

I say goodbye to my new friends and leave my seat. One random Minnesota fan in the stairwell says, “Fuck the Vikings,” and none of us bat an eyelash, because that's part of being a fan too. I peel off my jersey, tuck it into the back of my pants, and take the elevator down to the Vikings locker room. It’s dead silent inside. Radio announcer Paul Allen walks around the room with damp eyes, hugging anyone who will hug him. Some players face their lockers and stare straight down at their phones. Others proceed in and out the shower area with their heads hanging down. Justin Jefferson stands in what looks very much like a designated This is where you talk to Justin Jefferson area, and says his usual post-loss lines just to get them out of the way. Reporters and cameramen form a looser scrum around tight end T.J. Hockenson, who caught the pass short of the sticks that ended the game. All of these players look hollowed out, like they’d rather be at any other point in their lives. All of them are sliding doors. All of them look more alone than I ever have over the course of my fandom. None of them were ready for the season to be over; if you’re an NFL player, you can’t afford to think that way. Then the final whistle blows and you have to absorb all of the impact at once. I’m watching these men take that hit right now. All of them are dazed. None of them know what to do with themselves.

Neither do I. I get out my recorder and realize that, in my exhaustion, I can barely remember a fucking thing that happened during the game. Even my notes are of little help. I remember the failed Cousins throwback pass, Hockenson’s futile effort to get that last first down, and the defense being terrible. Nothing else. So when I walk over to Thielen, I interview him like I’m still a middle schooler.

How are you feeling?
“I mean, obviously disappointed. Not a whole lot of feeling right now, to be honest.”

Does it feel abrupt when it's a playoff game? Like, “Shit, it's over”?
“Yeah, absolutely.”

Do you think Kirk justified having his contract extended again?
“Yeah, for sure.”

What about you? Do you feel like you’ll be here this year?
“Uh, I have no idea. I can't think about that right now.”

Same deal when I approached safety Harrison Smith.

Did all the criticism of this defense wear on you guys as the season went on?
“Who's the criticism coming from?”

Knowing I’m lost, I try to frame the question differently.

Were you happy with today's defensive performance?
“No.”

What can be done about it?
“I think that's a pretty big question for a player. I can't give you a good answer right now. Obviously, we gave up too much shit.”

And with that, I take leave of the locker room and file out of the stadium. I see a handful of other Vikings fans meandering through the exits, and then staggering out into the cold. All of them, like the Vikings players, look lost. All of them look lonely. And now I know where they come from.

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