Living the Chiefs

Let's begin with this Facebook post from my wife, Margo.

Good Griefs, what a night on Sunday. Remember that first time you felt heartache? Not some silly crush, but that true pull-your-heart-out-of-your-body-and-stomp-on-it kind of hurt. That big game that went bust and sucky ending you never, ever want to see, hear or experience again. (Curse replay and broadcasting rights and stupid people who just have to remind you the next day that your team lost!) Yeah, we've all been there. Sunday as a family we watched the AFC Championship game where the good, wholesome KC Chiefs battled the all-too-hoggy with their NFL hardware and all-around nasty Patriots.

Elizabeth was on pins and needles because somehow and somewhere this season she became a Chiefs fan. We've not lived in KC in more than 7 years. We're in NASCAR country, but this was the season that captured Elizabeth's heart, beating Chiefs' red, asking for a #15 Mahomes jersey. (She cheered for her high school football team so that might have made her realize there's this crazy, maddening sport with a pro level.) Anyway, she was ready to cheer HER Mahomes-led Chiefs team to victory. Only then it wasn't a victory. And well, no need to rehash the overtime game. Sigh. Sadness. So how do we make this a learning experience? Teach patience? Teach fortitude? Sports seasons aren't about instant gratification. (Joe is STILL a Browns fan, and Katie would also like to go on record as being a Browns fan, too.)

You can't just order a winning season on Amazon or queue it up on Netflix. You can't be a fair weather fan (well, you could, but that doesn't count) and sometimes you have to make it through with whatever it takes. Joe, in the only quick way of making Elizabeth feel better, ordered her that red Mahomes hoodie. I told her how her nemesis (that Brady dude who drinks too much water, thinks tomatoes are evil but avocado is an ice cream flavor -- I mean HOW do you trust someone LIKE that!?) would someday be on TV hawking orthopedic shoes with his glory days behind him. I told her every sports fan has a villain and that's part of the sports fan's story lore. Joe's childhood sports nemesis John Elway retired (eventually) and my nemesis, the entire damn Yankees, aren't the beloved "America's team" anymore but I'm still leery of anyone wearing pinstripes. (My passion is across the parking lot from Arrowhead at the K! Memories!).

I try to tell Elizabeth that today's winners will be tomorrow's forgotten, lost in a world of more games and dramas, comedies and tragedies. (But are these losses really tragedies and do we put too much stock on the ending game?) We hope. We cheer. Repeat. So Elizabeth, time moves on and so must we ... after we've gotten our hearts crushed, picking up the empty chips bags we were hyperventilating into, throwing on our team jersey and hoping for next season and the glory beyond.

* * *

Pretty good, huh? Always said I'm the fourth-best writer in this house.

So, let me tell you my own thoughts about all this, and let me begin with when Elizabeth was born. We didn't know if she was going to be a boy or a girl, so we did what parents do: We had names for each. If it was a boy, we were going to name him Joshua, and we were going to call him Josh, and to be honest, we didn't think much more about it, because we both had impossibly strong feelings that we were going to have a girl. It was weird.

Anyway, our girl name was Elizabeth, and we were going to call her Beth. We were so sure of this that when I wrote a column celebrating the moment -- and I will admit I wrote most of it before the actual birth, because that's what newspaper columnists with deadlines have to do -- I wrote about our first child, Baby Beth.

When she was born, we looked at her and held her and instantly -- INSTANTLY -- knew that we would never call her Beth. She wasn't a Beth. She was an Elizabeth. We didn't even talk about it, we just felt it, and we have never called her Beth. Through the years, Elizabeth has looked to have a nickname, and she's been OK with Liz, and she's in love with the name Eliza*, but just say the name "Beth" to her and she makes the face of disgust and shakes her head and, no, she ain't a Beth.

*and Peggy.

The point is: We didn't know anything, not even what we would call her. Elizabeth has been a constant surprise from the day she was born.

Years ago, I gave up any thought that Elizabeth would ever care about a team the way I cared about the Cleveland teams of my childhood. She made her anti-sports feelings abundantly clear from her earliest words, and that was OK by me. We would take her to baseball games, and she would read a book. She would walk into the room when I was watching any kind of sport, groan a little, and walk out. When it was movie night, and she and her sister, Katie, couldn't agree on what to watch, I would threaten to make them watch "some sports movie," and they would both panic a little and make a decision.

This all happened so naturally, that I honestly never thought about it. So, yes, I was a bit taken back when she started showing some interest in football this year. It began, I suspect, because she became a cheerleader, and as such wanted to try to understand this foreign world. I remember we were in a car dealership, of all places, and a football game was on television, and she began asking basic questions about what was happening, what a quarterback did, what penalties meant and all that. It seemed a passing thing.

[caption id="attachment_24069" align="aligncenter" width="454"] How can you not root for this guy?[/caption]

Not long after that, she announced that -- being born and raised in Kansas City -- she would be a Chiefs fan. This was shortly after Katie announced that as the daughter of a Browns fan, she would be a Browns fan too. It's been a banner year for the NFL in our house, which is weird, considering that this is happening EXACTLY when I've mostly stopped caring about the NFL.

Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.

Elizabeth began asking if she could come to watch the Chiefs play. She was immediately drawn to Patrick Mahomes, because of course she was. I was the columnist at The Kansas City Star for 15 or so years, and in that time the Chiefs almost never even TRIED to develop their own quarterback. Year after year, I had to write about some old quarterback that they shipped in from somewhere to run the railroad, some successfully (Trent Green), some less so (Elvis Grbac, Steve Bono, Warren Moon, Matt Cassel, one of the Huards, I can't remember which) and some infuriatingly (Rich Gannon, who nobody could figure out and then left for Oakland, where he was named league MVP).

The efforts to actually go with a young quarterback were rare and, without exception, disastrous (Tyler Thigpen, Brodie Croyle and, well, that was about it).

And now they have Mahomes, who isn't just amazing, he's wonderful. He's football's Steph Curry. Someone was asking me who reminds me of -- she brought up Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre, among others. And it's true, he has some of their attributes, but what makes him so much fun is that there's something in him that I've never seen before, that compares to no one, those no-look passes, those sidearm darts through a mess of hands, those throws across the body that everyone (EVERYONE) tells you not to throw. He's a thrilling combination of some classics AND some music that feels entirely new.

Anyway, Elizabeth fell in love immediately. She had nothing to compare him to. But it didn't matter. She knew, instinctively, that he was amazing.

"Dad," she said to me at some point, "I saw something that said Mahomes' 50 touchdowns were like the second-most ever?"

"Yeah. Touchdown passes. It's tied for most ever in a season."

"So, I mean, he's like one of the best quarterbacks ever?"

"Absolutely."

It was so strange to hear her ask that -- I was thrown back almost 40 years, to a tiny living room in a tiny house where my father and I watched Brian Sipe throw passes on a tiny television. "Dad," I'm sure I asked, "is Brian Sipe one of the best quarterbacks ever?"

"Absolutely," I'm sure he said.

I had no idea how long this particular interest would last for Elizabeth. But come playoff time, she was stoked all day, the way I was stoked all day for Browns' games. She watched the first game against Indianapolis in almost complete silence, the way I used to watch the Browns in almost complete silence. She was so nervous, and so excited and, eventually, ecstatic. Just like me.

Then came the New England game, and all those things that Margo talked about in her post. Elizabeth couldn't even talk, she was so scared, and that was exactly how I felt with the Browns. I remember it being some weird combination of awful and incredible, just this heightened, frenzied sense of being, and there was Elizabeth going through all of it.

There she was at the end of the game, so nervous that she actually trembled. There she was, asking (the way I asked): "Do they still have a chance? Can they still win?" There she was at the start of the overtime, the Patriots won the coin toss and she shouted in agony, "Well, that's it, they lost!" How many times had I shouted something like that in my childhood?

And I thought: Did I want this? Was there a time, before my children were born, when I dreamed of sharing my childhood sports obsession with my kids? Was I ever that father who wanted that family sports experience, the whole thing, taking kids to the games and teaching them how to score and wearing the same jersey and ...

I don't think I was. That stuff, as cool as it sounds, it never mattered to me. I always wanted to follow their lead. And it's been wonderful with both of them, connected by Hamilton or Scooby Doo or Harry Potter or Death Cab or the Dancing Princesses or SNL's Celebrity Jeopardy or The Good Place or ...

But suddenly, here she was, deep into my world of sports insanity. And I won't lie, a part of me thought: Come on. She only just became a fan. She doesn't know all the rules yet. She's still learning the names of the non-Mahomes players. She couldn't be feeling this that intensely, not yet.

But then I realized: No. Intensity doesn't come from knowledge. This is real. And she is me. She is investing everything of herself into this game the way I did.

And when the Patriots won, and the Chiefs lost, and she broke down crying, I came into her room a little later to talk. She didn't want to talk. Well, obviously she didn't. Did I ever want to talk after a Browns game? No. Not for days after.

"You know what?" I said. "You need a Patrick Mahomes sweatshirt."

And she perked up with that, and we found a cool sweatshirt online, and she smiled and said exactly what I hoped she would.

"Dad," she said, "next year we're going to the Super Bowl."