Two years ago, the most attention I paid to the NFL was the first ten minutes of the Super Bowl. I was dimly aware that the Patriots were an all-conquering franchise and I knew the name of the players who transcended the sport; the likes of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
I couldn’t really understand how some of my friends could embrace teams from cities they’d never visited and who they’d never seen live. It seemed, from the outside, a bit like the NBA fad in the early 1990’s; a short-lived blast of Americana that’d die out as soon as something more fashionable came along.
It comes as something of a surprise, then, that I’ve spent the last two seasons giving myself up to the same sport. From highlight packages, to Game Passes, to computer games, to full live games – I’ve embraced the NFL so completely that it still feels slightly embarrassing.
If it wasn’t for the hour-long train journeys to Edinburgh for work, it might never have started. Keen to kill time, it was the BBC highlights of the NFL that I turned to. It wasn’t a choice made with any great passion, but sport – any sport – seemed more appealing than repetitious reality shows or gritty dramas.
I began from the start of the 2016-17 season. The first few episodes largely washed over me, but there was enough to keep me interested. Mark Chapman was a familiar, likeable host and his two pundits – Jason Bell & Osi Umenyiora – were informative, passionate and entertaining. In those early weeks, it was them rather than the football which kept me coming back.
As the season progressed, so did my knowledge and my enjoyment.
It helps that the BBC shows discuss the NFL from the perspective of the uninitiated. In a sense, it’s easier to make the analysis interesting to a relatively uninformed audience – even the simplest of tactical tweaks can be made to look novel – but the harder task is keeping potential viewers interested enough to keep tuning in. If the gateway drug fails to deliver the goods, it’s going to make the harder stuff even more difficult to sell.
The BBC programmes certainly worked for me. It was only through them that I began to appreciate all the little decisions and movements that go into a successful play; the teamwork and skill that goes far beyond running fats or hitting hard.
Still though, my interest last season hadn’t progress much past the highlights.
That all changed after a September visit to Los Angeles. The moment Todd Gurley hurdled a Washington Redskins player near the touchline before running in for six points was the moment it changed.
Beforehand, I thought this might be the point I realised my interest was only superficial; where I’d become a highlights-or-nothing punter. Thankfully, the live game was thrilling. The complexity of the plays, the athleticism, the skill of the players involved, kept me rapt under the unusually grey skies of LA.
That the Rams lost a close encounter added something to the occasion (as a Raith fan, it’s easy to embrace an underdog story). I left the Coliseum – a fantastic abnormality of a football stadium – tired, but happy.
Back home, energised by the thrill of learning more and with a new-found affection for the Rams, I went all-in. I began watching full games on television; I bought weekly Game Passes to keep up with the Goff & co.’s progress; I got a Madden game for Christmas. I even watched the Superbowl twice; the second time to enjoy the big moments again.
As a 20-year football fan it can feel sometimes like there’s nothing new to learn, but as a NFL fan there’s everything to learn. That’s almost as much fun as the games themselves; developing an understanding that goes beyond my current thin veneer.
Despite my new-found positivity towards the sport, I’m also aware that it’s a strange time to start following the NFL. The CTE issue is, clearly, incredibly serious and it’s depressing how glibly the sport seems to take it (but not unsurprising given the consequences). Whenever someone takes a huge hit to the head, a flash of shame passes through me: I shouldn’t be watching these men damage each other so irredeemably. Justin Timberlake was asked at his post Superbowl press conference if he’d let his kids play football and he answered definitively in the negative. Had I kids, I’d have answered the same.
The sport also sometimes reminds me of last year’s film – and this year’s Oscar hopeful – Get Out. The Jordan Peele film (spoilers) sees ageing white people transfer the consciousness into the bodies of athletic, fit black people. The white people covet certain characteristics of the black population – primarily the physical aspects – while disregarding the personal, human elements. Black people are there to be admired, just so long as they stay in their boxes.
This seemed especially resonant during the ‘take a knee’ protests started by Colin Kaepernick and which exploded following Donald Trump’s interjections. The litany of comments from white people who couldn’t countenance that their sporting heroes might have opinions that extended beyond the pitch were as depressing as they were unsurprising. It was uncomfortable evidence of how the NFL can appear like a sport for white people, played by black people.
Perhaps in part for the reasons mentioned above, the NFL also seems to be declining in popularity in its own country. Television audiences are down and there have been countless articles discussing how the game might be losing its lustre.
Not for me.
The Donald Trump affair highlighted the bravery of those players who took a stand against prejudice in the face of overwhelming criticism and, more than that, I’d grown to love watching the game. It’s slow, it’s stupid, but it’s also great.
If the Rams could just get to the Super Bowl next season you’ll have me for life.