It's damn near impossible for me to watch football through the eyes of a fan. It's especially difficult when I'm watching alone. Left to my own devices, details like the final score are often superseded by formations, personnel and coverage schemes. And my favorite team? Don't have one. For me, the NFL is one large corporation with 31 offices.
But the NCAA tournament is a different story. I root for Stanford because that's where I grew up, where I made lifelong friends, and where I witnessed, in '87, the Cardinal upset top-ranked Arizona, 82-74, in what is still the most electric atmosphere I've ever been part of -- in or out of uniform.
Stanford is also the place where I met my wife, who was easily the most spirited fan I have ever known. Because of her, watching a Stanford tournament game is like navigating an emotional gauntlet. And the Final Four? Well, that's pretty much a sacred thing.
In March of '97, my wife and I had a party for two while we watched the Stanford women's team take on Old Dominion in the national semifinal. After the Cardinal lost 83-82, a liberal dose of sadness and margaritas left us depleted and silent on the couch.
"Oh well," she finally said.
"Yep," I replied.
The following year forever defined the Final Four as a time of bittersweet fandom for me. The Stanford men, in their first national semi since '42, lost in overtime to Kentucky, 86-85. But the victory that put them there, over Rhode Island in the Midwest Regional, left a memory that is slow to fade.
That game took place only six months after my wife's death. Desperate to escape certain grief, I fled from The Magazine's office to the gym. Of course I couldn't escape March Madness there either, as I found myself facing the TV screen above the stationary bikes while I ran. With barely 30 seconds left, after a Mark Madsen dunk, Stanford took a 75-74 lead. Madsen, with arms raised and teeth bared, stood under the hoop and screamed.
And I cried right there on the treadmill.
When the Cardinal takes the floor this weekend, I'll be in front of the set and I'll be cheering. It's easy to see these games through the cloudy eyes of a fan.
Even if I'm watching alone.
Alan Grant, a former NFL defensive back, writes football for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Final Four in the Cards?
ESPN.com's Men's NCAA Tourney page
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