As is often the case, I was driving home from work recently listening sports talk on WLW Radio when the show host asked his listeners if they had ever found themselves rooting for a team that the vast majority of those in a stadium or arena were not rooting for.
The question caught my attention because I have found myself in that situation before, and because I almost always root for the underdog if my interests in a contest are somewhat neutral.
So as I was driving down the road a couple instances when I have definitely been rooting for the team most people were not rooting for came to mind.
I suppose I have been in that situation numerous times in smaller venues. But the first big one that came to mind was when I was a high school senior in 1979 and was offered a free ticket to see Indiana State and the heralded Larry Bird play Arkansas in an NCAA Tournament Regional Semifinal game at what was then known as Riverfront Coliseum.
Had I known that I would root for Larry Bird the rest of the tournament and that he would become my favorite NBA player of all time, things might have been different. But I had been somewhat of an Arkansas Razorback football fan from those 1970s rivalries with Texas, and just a few years before took a memorable vacation to Arkansas with my parents.
On top of that Arkansas had a couple players named Sidney Moncrief and U.S. Reed, plus a big center named Scott Hastings, that I had taken a liking to. So there I was at Riverfront, with about a 10-seat wide section of Arkansas fans running from the top to the bottom of the seating area, and everyone else rooting for Indiana State.
I got some strange looks as I rooted the Razorbacks on, but I was young, pretty much oblivious to it all, and thrilled to be at an NCAA regional semifinal game. So I watched the game and didn’t worry much about what was going on around me.
Less than a handful of years later I found myself in Ann Arbor, Michigan for an Ohio State football game — with one of my buddies from Indiana State/Arkansas game. Since I was well-versed in the rivalry, and my buddy and I were dressed head to toe in scarlet and gray, I pretty much knew what to expect on that occasion. Of course, it did not help that our seats were located dead in the middle of the Michigan alumni section.
At the time, the game’s attendance set a record for Michigan Stadium, and when we found where our seats were supposed to be, there was no space on the bleachers. As the Wolverine fans moaned and groaned, we literally had wiggle our backsides between people to squeeze into our seats.
Since I have told this story before I will not go into great detail, but you can be sure we took our share of razzing throughout the game.
From a personal safety perspective, it probably helped that Michigan jumped out to an early and held it throughout the game. But when Ohio State scored late and then recovered an onside kick, I leapt from my seat and thrust an arm into the air so hard that I came within the smallest of margins of falling on the Michigan fans in front of us. If that had happened, it probably would not have been good. But it didn’t, Michigan won the game, and we made our way home unscathed.
Just a few years ago I visited Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois for an Ohio State football game. We even tailgated in a special Illinois section very near the stadium before the game decked out in our scarlet and gray. That was much different than the Michigan trip — almost like a bunch of Buckeye nuts were expected to be there. It also helped that my daughter-in-law worked for the Illinois athletic department.
Other than some distasteful stares at the colors we were wearing, that turned out to be an easy OSU win with no hassles.
But the one time I was in the minority rooting section that bothers me the most came in 1982, in a small dorm room, when I was student at Morehead State University. The Dallas Cowboys, my favorite NFL team since I as far back as I can remember, were playing the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.
I was the only one in the room rooting for the Cowboys.
It was a close game with a lot of trash talk directed my way. Dallas held a late lead, but San Francisco was driving, and the room was getting really loud. On a 3rd-and-3 with just over one minute left 49er quarterback Joe Montana took a snap, rolled right and he was in trouble. He was looking at a large loss, Dallas defenders were on his heels, and the sidelines were closing in.
“They’ve got him, they’ve got him,” I screamed as I jumped from my seat and everyone else fell silent. Then Montana unleashed a tall pass that seemed destined for nowhere, Dwight Clark jumped like he never jumped before in the back of the end zone, and “The Catch” was made.
The room erupted. I fell silent. Sports losses hurt a lot more in those days.
Had Dallas won that game the Cowboys would have played the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl. What fun that would have been. Because once again I would have been in the minority, rooting for the Cowboys.
But there was “The Catch.” I’ve watched it too many times. Each time I see it I’m taken back to that little dorm room in Morehead, Kentucky. I can see the wood chair I was seated on with the TV an arm’s length away, and hear my friends’ laughter and taunts. Sometimes it’s not much fun to be in the minority.
Jeff Gilliland is the editor of The Times-Gazette. He can be reached at [email protected] or 937-402-2522.