On the joy and pain of rooting for the New York football team
"Why did football bring me so to life?" Frederick Exley asks himself in the opening pages of his 1968 "fictional memoir," A Fan's Notes. "I can't say precisely. Part of it was my feeling that football was an island of directness in a world of circumspection. In football a man was asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and he either did it or got out." It's no surprise Exley was a fan of the New York Giants. His succinct answer is a compact manifesto on what it means to prize hard work over big championships, scrappiness over finesse—in short, to be a fan of the underdog.
On Sunday night, it was wet, windy, and cold at Candlestick Park. The New York Giants were meeting the San Francisco 49ers for the eighth time in the playoff history. In January 2003, the last time the two teams faced each other in the playoffs, the Giants lost by one point, a real heartbreaker. This game, of course, was going to be different. The mood in the air was tense. The 49ers fans booed the Giants as Kristen Chenoweth sang the national anthem. Old rivalries never die. The game was being touted as one to remember before it even started. Prior to the opening kickoff, it was reported that, during an emotional pre-game meeting, Giants coach Tom Coughlin told his players that the upcoming game was "one you will want to tell your grandkids about someday."
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In the week leading up to the game, Pete Prisco at CBS Sports continued to refer to the Giants as underdogs, even as he and the rest of his staff unamiously named them as their top picks of the week. Bleacher Report called the team underdogs while predicting they would win by at least ten points. Curtis Eichelberger at Bloomberg refers to the Giants as underdogs even as he salivates over the potentional television ratings for a rematch with the Patriots. Bill Barnwell at Grantland exclaimed that "the Giants can't keep playing at this high of a level," immediately prior to picking them as the winner. In a column last week, Mike Lupica casually mentioned the "two more underdog games" ahead for the Giants, as if the destinction, and winning, were assumed. It was as if being the underdog was a badge of honor, a compliment.
On paper, the 49ers were clear favorites on Sunday. They had the better regualr season record, a comparable offense, and a defense ranked fourth in the league. Their special teams were the best in the NFL, an unstoppable force. As surprising as the Giants' win last week was over Green Bay, what was more shocking was how badly the Packers played. The Giants got lucky, and were smart enough to take advantage. The 49ers' win against the Saints was just as surprising, but the way it went down—in the final seconds, to the amazement of all watching—made a big difference. It was a big win, in a big way, the kind of motivational factor that can decide an outcome down the stretch. The Giants' win against Green Bay also meant San Francisco secured home-field advantage, a big coup at this stage in the playoffs. "Our fans turned that stadium into a fortress,"49ers coach Jim Harbaugh told the Wall Street Journal about playing at home. "That was as good as it can get. Our crowd was behind us, our players felt it, it was a great environment."
Even though predictions were split down the middle, the New York still entered San Francisco the team on the bottom. For the Giants, the underdog is a familiar position, one the team, and the fans, feel comfortable, even prefer, occupying. They are the squad that's always running uphill. It's been near impossible to read about the Giants in the last couple of weeks without running into a reference to the 2007 season, in which the Giants, seemingly out of nowhere, went on to win the Super Bowl against the towering New England Patriots. It's a season, an overwhelming feeling, which fans want to relive, again and again. I don't blame them. It was a great year. The benefit of sticking with the underdog is that those stories will eventually multiply; you'll be able to pick and choose your moments.