Leitch: The Troubles — and Triumphs — I Have Seen, Rooting for the Underdog

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We are a culture that loves underdogs, whether they’re Seth Rogen or (campaign-era) Barack Obama. We’re a capitalist superpower, but think of ourselves as scrappy opponents of communists, terrorists, and Axis powers. That’s why our most treasured sports moment is USA over Russia in the Miracle on Ice rather than Michael Phelps winning his medals, and why we didn’t truly love Lance Armstrong until he had something to overcome.

But this isn’t how New York sports fans feel. Winning is what matters, and if the rest of the country hates us for it, all the better. We don’t care if everyone’s cheering against the Yankees, as long as the Yankees win. This by definition assures that our teams go into every season making themselves up to win a title. (No one ever rebuilds in New York — other than the Knicks, who had no choice after years of pretending they were actually contenders.) But there is a downside: New York teams will never truly “shock the world.” New York teams will never truly be underdogs.

The only real exception that comes to mind is last year’s Giants, but that required two special circumstances. First, they had to underperform for a couple of seasons in order to lower our expectations. But more than that, they were playing the hated New England Patriots, representing a town that is doing everything in its power to take our place as the dominant sports city in the country, the city everyone’s cheering against. (And succeeding at it.)

I say all this by way of a confession: Having grown up an hour and a half from St. Louis, I cheer for the Arizona Cardinals. For decades, this has been the source of a rather high percentage of personal misery; before this season, the Cardinals had notched a winning record once in the last 24 years. I’ve been the guy in the back of the sports bar, watching the game no one wants to watch on the tiny black-and-white television while Giants fans screamed in joy all around me. I always dreamed of the season where the pointless time-waster that was watching the Arizona Cardinals would pay off, but I knew better than to consider it anything other than a dream.

Until now: Out of nowhere, the Cardinals have blitzed through the NFC and are now headed to the Super Bowl. It’s difficult to overstate the amount of joy this has provided me. More to the point: I’m pretty much guaranteed that I’ll never enjoy the Arizona Cardinals this much again, no matter what happens on February 1 against the Steelers. (For the record, I think we’re getting killed.) The joy is in the deliverance, the release that comes with watching a team that was terrible for three decades suddenly start beating everybody. The Arizona Cardinals are in the Super Bowl: Few more ridiculous sentences have been written.

Fans of sad-sack teams like the Cardinals have no demands. We just want a chance. I’m pretty envious of you New York fans. The experience of watching a team that has never mattered reach unprecedented heights is very different from watching a team you’re constantly getting your hopes up for consistently meet them. Your fandom is healthier, and definitely saner. But as far as immediate gratification goes, mine might be more fun.

The problem is that it will never be this much fun again. Now the Arizona Cardinals are just another team trying to reach a Super Bowl. If they reach another Super Bowl, fans will enjoy it … but it’ll never be like the first time. I’d better enjoy this while I can; both the Giants and the Jets are more likely to get back here before we do. They’re New York teams. It’s what they do. Being an underdog is fun once. Being a favorite … that’s the way to live.