In search of Arizona Cardinals nation   

Updated: January 29, 2009, 6:27 PM ET

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Look, they know what you think, all right? That they're a bunch of transplants from other cities who have no real emotional tie to the local team (if you think they exist at all, that is). That they would be just as happy to spend a Sunday afternoon on the golf course or sipping a prickly pear margarita or Circle K slushy by the pool. That they jumped on the bandwagon in the third quarter of the Atlanta game and still have the tags attached to their replica jerseys.

But Arizona Cardinals fans don't care what you think. Because the hardiest of them know what they've been through over the years. And they know they deserve this Super Bowl as much as any group of fans. Probably more than most.

Arizona Cardinals Fan

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Dustin Holmes, software engineer by weekday, crazy Cardinals fan by weekend.

You try rooting for a team that was the league's official punchline ever since it moved to your city, had exactly one winning season in its previous 20 years there and had played its last previous home playoff game six decades and two cities ago. You try watching a team lose game after game, year after year, while you brand your rear end on hot metal bleachers in searing 110-degree heat while surrounded by thousands of other fans heckling you and wearing the opposing team's jerseys.

You try rooting for a team owned by the Bidwills.

"When people hear you're a Cardinal fan," Heather Kohlstedt says, "you get them saying, 'Ohhhhhhhh, I'm sorry.' Or, 'Aren't you originally from Chicago? What about the Bears?"

"It's been rough. I don't know why we do it," says Demetri Harris, 35, a season-ticket holder since 1994. "By midseason, we'd always say, 'This is terrible, we're not doing this again.' But then you get that renewal form and you start thinking it over, and get excited about the draft and they do just enough for you to renew."

It's easy to root for a team that has won five Super Bowls and has been playing in the same city for more than 70 years. When you've been in a city for just 20 years and had only one winning season in the first 19, it doesn't exactly generate a nation of fans.

Or, for that matter, even a city of fans.

"You can go to any city in the country and find a Steeler bar. It's hard to even find one [Cardinals bar] in the Phoenix area," says Harris, who lives in northeast Phoenix but grew up in Pittsburgh. "Everyone who lives here is a transplant from somewhere else, so there will be Browns bars, Packers bars, but only three or four Cardinals bars."

It takes time for a team to develop a legacy in a city (how many hardcore Steelers fans were there in 1953?). But that doesn't mean there isn't a solid core of devout Arizona fans who have been living and dying (mostly dying) with their team for years.

"I have a lot of Cardinals gear, and people always say, 'Did you just buy that?'" complains Kohlstedt, a graphic designer in Mesa. "Why does everyone think that?"

Well, maybe they're just not used to seeing fans proud enough of the Cardinals to wear their colors.

"In Chicago, being a Bear fan was like your birthright," says Kohlstedt, 38. "When you were born, that was it -- you were a Bears fan. It was like, 'Congratulations, we know you're here, but the first thing you have to understand is that you have to root for the Bears.' Here, it's more of a choice. So it's a love-hate relationship. It's because people are choosing to root for them, not like in other cities, where rooting for a team is a heritage thing. And when you choose to love a team, and they let you down, it's a lot harder."

"It is a transient area, though people don't just pass through here, they flock here," says Jesse White, who grew up near Youngstown, Ohio, rooting for the Browns but now lives in north Phoenix and heads up the swelling Cardinals fan group, the Birdcage Brigade. "But it's been tough. There were times where there were literally, 25,000 to 35,000 fans in a stadium that holds 70,000, and 30 to 40 percent are wearing the other team's jersey. I'm not sure if that will ever completely go away, but I'm starting to see a turn."

Games against the Cowboys are especially notorious for swelling the stadium with opposing fans.

"Some of the worst times I've ever had were against Dallas and Oakland," says Dustin Holmes, a 37-year-old software engineer who converted from a Broncos fan to a Cardinals fan when he moved to Tucson. "Their fans seemed to be a lot more criminal than other fans, to put it nicely. Maybe it's just an Arizona thing where they allow them to come out for work release or something. But you would look up and there would be fights everywhere. Sometimes it was them against Cardinals fans. Sometimes it was them against themselves."

But those days of being outnumbered are on the decline. And the Super Bowl should help establish a strong fan base.

"It's not so much jumping on the bandwagon I care about -- it's jumping off," Kohlstedt says. "There is always room on the bandwagon. So if somehow the earth stops revolving and we lose Sunday, you don't have to jump off. The more the merrier."

So think what you will. The Cardinals fans, that solid core who remember every miserable season, don't care. After all, they're going to the Super Bowl and you're not.

White says he and his wife were at a restaurant recently when they saw a Steelers fan across the lobby. He says he could hear the fan talking about them under his breath. Yeah, they've been fans for two weeks. "I just bit my tongue," White says. "We were out there sitting on the metal seats in the hot sun [at Arizona State's stadium]. This has been a long time coming."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.


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