“Today is Red Friday, which means I wear my Nigerian Nightmare t-shirt because, you know, I have a routine that I have to follow. A routine for the week. And I’ve got this new Alex Smith jersey that I’m really proud of — I always try to get the newest Chiefs’ jersey — and I’ve been wearing that on game days, but that’s not entirely the whole routine. I have to wear a white shirt under the red jersey. I wear the same pair of jeans. I wear red shoes and a white watch. And a red-and-white Kansas City Royals hat with a pink ribbon. And I know how crazy it sounds but I feel like they win because of me. Because of that routine.”
Shawn Larson is talking about a relationship he has had all his life — one that psychologists will tell you is as real as a best friend, wife or girlfriend.
He is talking about the Kansas City Chiefs. And about a game he went to 23 years ago at Arrowhead Stadium with his father, Dean, and several of his uncles.
“I was there in 1990 when Derrick Thomas got the seven sacks and set the NFL record against Seattle, remember it just like it was yesterday,” Larson said. “I was only 12 years old, and we lose and I’m on the verge of tears. I’ve been a fan my whole life.”
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He is talking about the good and the bad times. About the rush of hustling for tickets that you don’t think you can get one year and about getting them given to you because the team “sucks like you wouldn’t believe” in another.
He is talking about waking up before dawn on Sundays at his home in Overland Park and wild tailgate parties with humongous RVs and (off-duty) strippers and beer and barbecue and about dancing his way out of Arrowhead Stadium on a crisp fall evening because there wasn’t anything left in his heart except for happiness because for the first time in he didn’t know how long he has that something he’s wanted for his entire life … something that fills him up from the inside out and takes him through the muck and the mire and leaves him someplace else. Somewhere good.
He has this moment because he has his Chiefs. And he has 7-0.
And he has hope.
In sports, sometimes that’s the greatest thing you can have.
• • •
“I suppose how you define normal is where we should begin. Because are we talking about a rare event or are we talking about something, statistically, that happens all the time? Because it strikes me as not being an uncommon occurrence. I’m more concerned as a psychologist about what the impact is on one’s quality of life and day-to-day functioning.”
Dr. Robert Zettle is trying to qualify the impact of sports in day-to-day life and if fandom can be taken too far. And just a few minutes in, the pyschology professor at Wichita State stops cold. Pyschology, if anything, is about coming clean. So there’s something about him you should know before you go any further.
“I understand the agony that (fans) go through,” Zettle said. “I’ve been a Pirates fan my whole life. A long-suffering Pirates fan, mind you. My stomach still hurts when I think about a game from over 20 years ago, bottom of the ninth inning against the Atlanta Braves … agony, like I said. I understand this way of thinking. So if we’re talking about this type of suffering among rabid sports fans I’m sure you’ll see it. I’m not sure if you look at the larger population you’ll see this, but just think of the diehard fans you know. Think about your own experience with anything you’ve been passionate about. It’s there.”
For fans like Larson, that agony comes with an upside. Just like any relationship, there are peaks and valleys. And the Chiefs are at one of those peaks right now after a long valley.
Since 2007, they’ve had two two-win seasons and two four-win seasons. They’re on their fifth coach in the last decade.
But now, with a new quarterback in Smith and a new coach in Andy Reid, they’re the NFL’s lone unbeaten team headed into Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns at Arrowhead Stadium.
There is hope.
“It’s not always gonna be good,” Zettle said. “But that doesn’t matter right now. Because your team is good this year and that means, as a fan, that I’m on top of the world for however many months that the season lasts. And it might end tomorrow. It might end today. But right now, in this moment, you’ve got this wonderful thing, this wonderful feeling. And that’s probably good enough.”
• • •
“When I was a kid there were these deals at Albertsons where you walked in and they had a display set up that said ‘Sign up here for a drawing to win two Chiefs tickets and $100 in groceries’ so I signed up for it and a couple of days later this guy calls my house, at night, and asks for me, because I’d won … and my mom had to explain to them I was only 12 years old. He wasn’t very happy about it but she explained to them how much the tickets would mean to me and the guy was nice and put them in my mom’s name. So we went that Sunday, two days after Christmas 1992 and watched the Chiefs beat the Broncos in Kansas City. Snow on the ground that had turned to ice and I remember Christian Okoye running through like eight Denver players and one of them just bounced off and skidded on the ice for like eight yards … it was just an amazing day. I was hooked.”
Eric Granell is 33 now and has spent a lifetime loving this team. By day, he is a supervisor at Cox Communications in Wichita. In his other life, he is one of the men who put together last year’s grass roots “Save Our Chiefs” campaign. The group, which had more than 21,000 likes on Facebook, sprung from a commenting thread on ChiefsPlanet.com.
“We’d been down in the dumps for a couple of years when the Chiefs brought in (former general manager) Scott Pioli and I remember commenting on a thread and saying ‘I guess I’m OK with Pioli as long as he doesn’t bring in (Matt) Cassel,” Granell said. “And the first thing he did was bring in Cassel and pay him a ridiculous amount of money.”
It was an early-season loss last year to the San Diego Chargers that got the ball rolling toward change — Granell started off the thread by saying his initial idea for revolt was to rent a plane and fly a banner across the sky at Arrowhead Stadium. And Granell put his money down as collateral — $100 to begin with. And then the money came flowing in.
The group became so popular that they were able to rent out planes for all of the Chiefs’ remaining home games — save for the game following outside linebacker Jovan Belcher’s suicide — with a clear message.
“WE DESERVE BETTER”
They even had enough money left over after the season to cut a check for $1,047 to the Boys and Girls Club. Eventually, Pioli was fired. Cassel was benched.
“It wasn’t just the losses, it was the feeling that we were losing our team,” Granell said. “There was always a sense of family in the community, of the players reaching out … that was gone. (Pioli) tore up that sense of family and what we did was really kind of our way of, you know, looking at the establishment, at the guy in charge, and flipping them the finger. This is our team.”
The group struck a nerve with men like Larson, 36, who grew up in Topeka, went to Pittsburg State and lived in Wichita for seven years before moving to the Kansas City area. He’s the owner of a company called Sticky Stacks that manufactures what he calls “oddball” flavors of pancake syrup — a s’mores flavor, a caramel macchiato flavor. Their best-seller is peanut-butter flavored syrup.
He also works in the restaurant business at Sol Cantina, a popular restaurant in downtown Kansas City, Mo.
Every week, like an average American, he grinds it out to get by.
“(The Chiefs) were breaking my damn heart,” Larson said. “So I did something that was really hard for me. I turned my back on them. They needed to make changes. To see something you cared about so much being run into the ground … what else could I do?”
On Thursday, “Save Our Chiefs” officially went dark. They renamed themselves “The Chiefs Kingdom,” their revolt solidly behind them.
“This season has been the neatest, most amazing thing,” Granell said. “It’s selective amnesia, everything’s like it was … like we never left. It wasn’t us saying we hated the Chiefs, it was tough love … it was like putting your kid in the corner. What’s happening now is amazing.”
• • •
“When people take their teams as part of their identity, in social psychology that’s called BIRGing, which means ‘basking in reflective glory.’ Where they get that hope from becomes part of them. They’re hoping that things work out for their team and they’re hoping it reflects well on them. The flipside to that is called CORFing, which means ‘cutting off reflective failure.’That’s where (fans) can kind of lose touch.”
Dr. Charles Merrifield is the director of psychology at Newman University. He is expounding on what it means to be a fan and whether or not it could be detrimental to have so much invested in a team.
Aside from extreme cases of BIRGing and CORFing, he is hesitant to say that it would be.
Because of hope.
“I’d say overall it’s better to be hopeful, it’s better to have optimism in your life even when things aren’t going great,” Merrifield said. “People that are hopeful tend to be healthier, they tend to live longer and be more socially adjusted.”
• • •
Sunday morning, sometime around 4 a..m., Larson will get home from work and try to sleep for a few hours before it’s time to get up and make the trip to Arrowhead.
It’s in this time that he will do anything but sleep. He will think about that day, 23 years ago with his dad and his uncles and Derrick Thomas, who died in 2000 and is his favorite Chief of all time. He will think about the tailgate party they’re about to throw that has become so epic that the Chiefs even asked them to tone it down a little bit as a favor to the people around them.
He will think about the Cleveland Browns. And about 8-0.
But he won’t sleep.
“I was at the airport a couple of weeks ago and waiting at the gate to get on my plane and I could hear the next gate announcing over and over again ‘departing for Denver’ and all I could think to myself, every time they said it, was ‘Man, I really hate the Broncos,’” Larson said, laughing. “Which is ridiculous because those people are just trying to get home, you know?”
By 7:30 he is headed to the stadium. By 8:30 he is cracking a beer, firing up a grill and surrounded by his friends.
And if the Chiefs win, he will dance.
He has hope this will happen.
In life, sometimes that’s the greatest thing you can have.