One of my friends has a theory about the sports teams I root for: in each place I live, I pick the most successful team. He’s wrong about how I pick my teams, but he’s right that I have a random assortment of teams to call my own.
Some sports team affiliations run in families. I remember being struck years ago by how a number of Spaniards I met phrased their sports-team affiliations:
“Soy de Real Madrid,” one man told me. “Pero mi novia es de Barcelona.”
“I’m of Real Madrid, but my girlfriend is from/of Barcelona” is essentially what he said, indicating a deep, familial, to-the-core connection to the clubs — as if by virtue of birth or clan, Real Madrid was his team, and FC Barcelona was hers. It was non-negotiable, and really cool to me.
If I rooted for all the teams that, say, my 92-year-old Grandpa does, I would be a Detroit fan through and through. But I never lived in or near Detroit, and I haven’t lived in Michigan since 1999. Here are the teams I root for, and why:
NHL: The Detroit Red Wings
As a young kid in Portage, Michigan, a town in Southwest Michigan, our family rooted mainly for two sports teams: the Detroit Red Wings and the University of Michigan football team. My godfather, who is my dad’s youngest brother, once attended a game with a round, black hockey puck atop his head. A photo of this incident ran in a newspaper, with the caption calling him Michael “Puckhead” Welch. I have no idea when this happened, but it was mentioned many times throughout my childhood.
At age eight, I had two friends over for a sleepover. The Red Wings had a playoff game that night. Earlier games in the series had gone deep into overtime, and my mom had always let me stay up to see the end (I was a third grader, and it was summer vacation). My friend David’s mom asked my mom if we would go to bed by 11. My mom said, yes, but if the Wings game went late, she’d let us stay up late. David’s mom was horrified.
“EVEN IF IT GOES TO DOUBLE OVERTIME?!” she shrieked. My mom said yes, even if it’s in double overtime. Looking back, David’s mom was one of those fake-nice sorts of people, and I imagine she considered forbidding David from our house ever again. (She didn’t.) David was a nice kid, but the Red Wings were that important in my household growing up.
In my lifetime, the Detroit Red Wings have only missed the playoffs once. They are a great franchise, and I began following them because of where I lived, and I remember when the team won its first Stanley Cup in more than 40 years. Since then, they’ve won three more Cups, and lost some series in excruciating fashion. From the Yzerman, Russian Five and the Grind Line to the Shanahan-Hull-Yzerman days to teams led by Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Franzen, and the new crop like Justin Abdelkader and Gustav Nyquist, the Wings are my team in hockey.
NFL: The Indianapolis Colts
My family always used to prefer college football to NFL football, even talking about how college was more pure and just a better version of the sport. All Division I college sports are dirty, of course, and for a number of reasons I’m much less of a college football fan now than I used to. (I still root, mostly, for the University of Michigan, but I’m not the superfans that my sister and brother-in-law are. They both graduated from Michigan.) We were Lions fans, out of obligation. My grandpa still watches the Lions, and whenever they are ahead, he grumbles that they’ll “find a way to lose” like they always do.
In 1998, the Indianapolis Colts drafted Peyton Manning. In 1999, my dad got a new job and we moved to the suburbs of Indianapolis. With no real ties to an NFL team, and an up-and-coming team to root for, I started to follow the Colts. In high school, I asked for and got a Manning jersey for Christmas. I was hooked, to a team that was easy to root for and a quarterback who is an amazing specimen of intelligence and athletic ability. Peyton is everything, and he is a gigantic part of why I’m a Colts fan.
The Colts won the Super Bowl in 2006, my family got season tickets in 2007, and the rest is history. I grew up in Indiana, really — middle school, high school, college, and the past two years — and I’ve embraced the Colts fully, probably more than any other sports team I root for. They’re my team. Colts forever.
MLB: The Chicago Cubs
Peyton Manning is only my second favorite athlete, however. Greg Maddux, the pitcher, is my favorite athlete of all time. I began following Maddux when I was very young, and, on summer nights, you could turn on TBS and find the Atlanta Braves. For much of the 1990s, I was a Braves fan, since my parents and I could watch them on TV every night, they were good, and they featured some amazing players I could look up to, as a little kid who played baseball (badly).
Maddux won four Cy Young awards in an incredible career, and in my childhood bedroom there’s still a plastic Braves “locker” with my name and Maddux’s number 31 on it. I loved how calm he was under fire, loved that he wasn’t the fastest pitcher but had the most control, loved how he conducted interviews.
My love for Maddux outlasted his time with the Braves, as he returned to the Cubs (his first team) and played for a few other clubs before retiring. I also more or less retired from following baseball that closely after moving to Indy and getting older, leaving me being a sort-of Braves fan, and an almost Tigers fan (much of my family roots for the Tigers).
But then I met a girl, and we got married, and she is from the Chicago suburbs. She’s from a Cubs family, and she is a Cubs fan. (When we lived in Florida, she bought the MLB Radio subscription in order to listen to Cubs games at work.) It was only appropriate to root permanently for the Cubs, a team I’d rooted for before. At age 10, my family had taken a trip to Wrigley to see a few Braves games. Maddux pitched the first game, and he won. But after that, I rooted for the Cubs, who my friend Tom was pulling for. The experience of Wrigley definitely inspired me as a little kid, and it was really cool to go to a Cubs game as part of our bachelor/bachelorette parties two years ago.
They’re awful right now, and maybe they always be. But I married into a Cubs family, so they’re my baseball team. And Greg Maddux is a Cubs great, which brings it full circle. They even retired his number last year.
To my friend’s theory that I only pick the best teams, this is the current answer: I root for the bottom-dwelling Cubs, not the competitive Tigers.
NBA: The Indiana Pacers
I’m not that big into the NBA, and I’ll admit that. My family and friends never followed it in Michigan, but in Indiana (basketball country), you have to follow basketball. I root for the Pacers because they’re a small-market team that has a chance to beat the big guys, Larry Bird seems like a very honest guy, and “Hoosiers.” And because of “Winning Time: Reggie Miller Vs. The New York Knicks.”
“Winning Time” is my favorite ESPN 30 for 30 documentary. It outlines what I remember as some of the first highlights of Pacers basketball when we moved here: Reggie Miller’s teams duking it out with Knicks teams in a physical, nasty way. Tough, exciting, with big stakes. It’s an incredible documentary, and I recommend it to you.
I’m not sure I know anyone who roots for all of these teams, but they’re my teams — by birth, by choice, by marriage. Go Colts, Go Wings, Go Pacers and Go Cubs!
Sports are fun, aren’t they?