‘My first NFL experience: The birth of an obsession’ by Joe Sparshatt

‘My first NFL experience: The birth of an obsession’ by Joe Sparshatt

The new season of NFL won’t start until September. The offseason is long. Very long. You get by on snippets of news like “Eddie Lacy has lost 5lbs doing p90x”, or “DeMarco Murray is feeling better than ever”. To borrow a phrase from the Around the NFL crew, it’s the season of the #tropealert. If I see another article comparing NFL players to the X-Men or an all-star draft of Premier League players to NFL Franchises I might scream.

Though, in saying that, I know content has to be produced year round for the NFL. I myself have been guilty of plotting who to keep in my Fantasy Football keeper league. We don’t draft until into August, so when asking a fellow GM about whom he intends to keep I received the answer “its bloody June”. So, what kick started this passion? The thirst for year round content and some might say unhealthy obsession with Fantasy Football? At the risk of being terribly self-unaware with regards to my earlier gripes, here’s my memory of how I fell in love with the game called (American?) Football.

It was in the early months of 2009, and the stage was set; the cold North East of Scotland and the warm Gulf Coast of Tampa in Florida. I was a student at the time, and had the choice of being a responsible young adult, getting an early night and feeling fresh for the week of lectures ahead. Or, I could stay up until silly o’clock and accompany my flatmates to watch the Super Bowl. Easy decision really.

I’d been aware of the NFL for a while, but never more than a passing interest. Growing up the only American sport that took my interest was Basketball and the NBA. This night promised to involve an abundance of snacks, Bruce Springsteen at half time, and of course some high octane action. Not knowing any of the rules, I joined in the gang playing a few hours of Madden, which provided the best crash course available in the hours leading up to the big game.

So, Super Bowl XLIII, or 43 to the non-Roman among us, was set to be Pittsburgh Steelers vs the Arizona Cardinals. The Steelers were 7-point favourites for the game, the Cardinals being the clear underdogs. The Cards’ only just sneaked in to the playoffs with a 9-7 record, one of the reasons was the previous season’s re-emergence of 37 year old Kurt Warner, who was thrust into the starting line up to replace the injured Matt Leinart. The following year, he went on to post one of his best seasons, with the NFC’s best passer rating of 96.9. Kurt was able to sustain three 1000+ yard receivers in 2009 with Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston all posting over the 1000 yard mark.

The Steelers on the other hand finished with the 2nd best record in the AFC at 12-4, and excelled on defense leading the NFL in fewest points and yards allowed per game. Two of the top ten sack leaders in the NFL anchored the Steelers linebacker corps, with LaMarr Woodley posting 11.5 sacks and Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison posting 16 sacks respectively. Their secondary was led by pro bowl safety, and future hall of famer Troy Polamalu, who ranked second in the NFL with a career-high of seven interceptions that year; the classic cliché of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.

Interestingly, cast your mind back to this year and the world was in the midst of a recession, the game was even dubbed “The Recession Bowl” by the media. Restaurants in the area were slow in business and many famous parties like the Sports Illustrated hosted Super Bowl bash, were cancelled. There were also 200 fewer sports journalists covering the game than at the previous year, and perhaps most telling – tickets with a face value of $500 were changing hands on StubHub for an average of $2,500, a 40% drop from the previous year.

But of course, this was a new experience for me and it was hard not to be taken in by the spectacle of it all. Jennifer Hudson on national anthem duty bringing tears to what seemed like every man, woman and child in attendance. Kurt Warner was presented with “Man of the Year” award, which given my limited knowledge of what the award was actually presented for, simply sounded like the coolest accolade possible. I marvelled at the spectacle of it all, and the game hadn’t even kicked off. This truly was most American stereotypes good and bad, all rolled in to one huge sporting event.

It probably helped that the game itself was one to remember. Knowing little about the players on the field, I remember being struck by how varied the “athletes” were. Wide Receivers and linebackers in peak physical condition contrasted with the linemen who’d look more at home on the other side of the TV. Every one of these players had to be doing their part for the machine to work; no one player could have an off day. Sure enough the Quarterback was the lynchpin, but if one of his linemen let him down? Catastrophe.

The game started off with a strong Steelers drive resulting in a field goal, and they quickly got the ball back this time resulting in a 1 yard TD run to Gary Russell, 10-0 in the 2nd quarter. A few strong defensive holds ensued before the Cardinals eventually got on the board, with Kurt Warner operating from the 1 yard line, this time to his tight end Ben Patrick. The Cardinals similarly regained the ball and drove again to the 1-yard line. Warner’s pass was intercepted by James Harrison, who took off down the sideline for the then longest play in Super Bowl history, a 100-yard interception for TD, taking the Steelers into halftime with a 17-7 lead. To watch this live was truly special, witnessing two Steelers fans amongst my group go from despair to sheer joy, jumping around the room, willing James Harrison to complete those final few yards with their screams without even realising they were out of their seats. If you haven’t seen this play, go and check it out on YouTube. Wow. Here was me thinking that it would probably be the sole highlight of the game. How wrong I was.

Bruce Springsteen performed a rousing halftime show, which for me hasn’t been bested in the following years since (sorry left shark). The boss even performing a knee slide straight in to the camera reminiscent of an under 10s disco.

After the break, Steelers started a long scoring drive again, moving the ball 79 yards in 14 plays taking 8 minutes 39 off the clock, but they had to settle for another field goal giving them a 13 point lead. Arizona responded in the best possible way, with an 87 yard drive, capped off by a Kurt Warner fade to Fitzgerald, making the score 20-14.

So, despite trailing in the first half by 10, the Cards had got it back to a 6-point deficit. A great punt put the Steelers on their own 1 yard line, and on 3rd down and ten, Center Justin Hartwig was called for holding in the end zone resulting in a Cardinals safety, cutting the Steelers lead to just 4 points. The Cardinals carried on with the momentum and with just 2:37 left in the game, took their first lead of the night. Kurt Warner found Fitzgerald over the middle who didn’t break stride, and took off down the middle out running the Steelers secondary for a 64-yard touchdown reception, 23-20 to the Cardinals. The underdogs had almost done it.

But it wasn’t to be. Ben Roethlisberger and his receiver Santonio Holmes stepped up when it mattered on the biggest stage of them all. Starting from their own 22-yard line, they were first pushed back 10 yards through a holding penalty. Big Ben showed why he’s in the discussion for greatest QB in the NFL, drove down the field, the first key play being a 40-yard completion to Holmes at the 6 yard line. Two plays later, Roethlisberger threw a pass high into the corner of the endzone, where only his receiver could attempt a catch. Santonio Holmes secured the pass, somehow managing to land inbounds, the deftest of toe taps that looked more like something a ballerina would pull off after years training, let alone an NFL player. Everyone watching was astounded, the catch not only securing Santonio Holmes MVP status, but ultimately securing the Super Bowl victory, with the Steelers winning 27-24, their 6th Super Bowl victory. Surpassing the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers to set a new NFL record for most Super Bowl wins by a team. What. A. Night.

So I woke up on Monday very groggy, confused, and generally loathing my day of lectures ahead, but when is that different from any Monday, really? Super Bowl XLIII was a classic, containing highlight plays on both offense and defense; I was ultimately won over by the sport.

The amount of narrative you could construct around one game was phenomenal, and really, isn’t that why most of us watch sport? To escape from our routine? To be told a story? To believe in the underdog or the unlikely hero? Thinking about it now, it’s probably why I’ve become such an obsessive of Fantasy Football, where I construct narratives about my own teams, building a run to the playoffs or looking forward to a high draft pick next season. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to conduct a press conference to explain my expectations for Marqise Lee in the upcoming season for my “Night’s Watch Football” dynasty team.

Joe Sparshatt is an avid New York Jets fan and still to this day has a man crush on Mark Sanchez. When not watching the NFL, he follows respective Liverpool & Aberdeen football clubs, and keeps an eye out for the Aberdeen Roughnecks results. He’ll happily chat to you about fantasy football all day – even if you don’t care. Find him on Twitter at @spoejarshatt.

Joe Sparshatt

Joe has been following the NFL since 2009, and after being lucky enough to work in New York twice he gained the affliction of being a Jets fan. Joe enjoys consuming as much NFL content as he can get away with, and is also a fantasy addict. He makes an annual pilgrimage to London for the International Series, and contributes to NFLGirlUK with whatever hot takes or musings he can get away with. Find him on twitter @spoejarshatt.

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