FAMILY SUNDAY “Did you hear what happened to the kids at the Jets-Patriots game?” my dad asked me over the phone on New Year’s Day.
Long-time Patriots fans, my sister-in-law and my brother took their kids ages 8, 9 and 13 to see the Jets-Patriots game two days after Christmas. It was their biggest and most expensive Christmas gift.
“The same thing that happened when we took you kids to Pete’s games,” my dad said.
Our cousin Pete Holohan played for mostly west coast teams in the NFL for 12 years. Whenever our family did a road trip to the stadium of a northeast opponent, we were tortured by fans who turned rabid towards anyone who wore the opposing team’s colors. We were constantly harassed. My female cousins, Pete’s sisters in particular, often refused to stand down when opposing fans got in their face and based them, Pete or his team. Add alcohol to the mix and we were always covering each other.
At the start of Pete’s career, I was ten years old. My older brother, Kevin, was 12; younger brother Ryan, 7; and my sister, Meghan, 5. Even as we grew up, being an opposing team’s fan never got easy, but at least it wasn’t as shocking as the first few experiences.
In Pittsburg, on a freezing cold day, I remember a guy in a trench coat whipped it off and exposed himself directly at us. I remember beer being poured on us from the upper deck that game and beer being thrown at us at other stadiums.
“When the Chargers scored a last second touchdown at Pittsburg,” my dad recalled, “I remember huddling all you kids together because they were throwing stuff at us.”
Pete, our cousin, admitted to getting his worst concussion (out of his estimated 10) when a fan threw a Jack Daniels bottle at him. From that incident further, he almost always wore his helmet everywhere in stadiums.
Unfortunately this type of behavior isn’t always limited to NFL fans.
“Remember when we took you to Yankee Stadium and you were so upset by how mean they were to Dave Winfield?” my dad asked me.
Again, it was a big deal for our family to take on an expensive road trip back in the early 80s. I remember three things about the trip.
First, my mother, who rarely drank, was drunk and puking on the way to the game. I was furious with her and how much she was embarrassing us, which is exactly what a mother in that situation wants to see in her eldest daughter.
Second, I remember seeing Dave Winfield, my favorite baseball player, for the first time. I was thrilled. He was in the field warming up well before the game. I moved as close as I could to him. Within seconds, I looked to my left, and was shocked by two fat, miserable fans who were hurling insults that involved the N word and other names that I can’t even write. I was devastated. What really threw me off is that I think this animal was a Yankees fan. It looked as if he decided to come in hours before the game and berate Dave Winfield. Dave, who always appeared amiable and happy, either didn’t hear it, or, at least I hoped he didn’t.
I was a total mess. I’d been crying about my mother’s situation on the way down, and I started crying again over what they were doing to Dave. I remember my dad moved us away from the fans, and my uncle told me to straighten up and enjoy the game.
I noticed another player on the field. Another happy soul named Anthony Johnson. (My uncle would know everything about this former player.) In a surreal moment Anthony Johnson made eye contact with me. I smiled and made a funny face back at him. He walked up to me with a ball in his hand, signed it, reached up through the small crowd of people reaching down at him and gave the ball directly to me.
I don’t know what my brother and sister-in-law said to their kids, who according to my dad, learned several more curse words at their first NFL game. Looking back, I can’t remember my dad shielding me or delivering a great pearl of wisdom. I think by seeing the ugly side of people, we as kids learned how never to act. None of my siblings or I would ever permit each other to imitate what was done to us.
But for the kids with memory so raw? What was the silver lining as they walked out of the stadium with adults rubbing their nose in the dramatic loss?
I wished an Anthony Johnson came out of nowhere and gave them a ball that said, “Don’t worry. Some folks don’t get it, but we do.”
Be sure to listen to my interview with my cousin, Pete Holohan, on the Mo’ Motion podcast Episode 1.