August 1990, I learned what it meant to be a Bronco fan. My fifth-grade classroom suddenly looked like the aftermath of a bloody battle between the Smurfs and the Oompa Loompas. Blue and orange banners, pom-poms, little plastic helmets, flags and jerseys were everywhere. The other kids nodded, some of them smiling, others grinding their teeth in silent protest. Having moved to Boise only a few months before, I had no idea what all the fuss was about, and when the other kids weren't looking, I begged my teacher to explain.
That day, I learned about epic rivalry. But more importantly, I learned that athletic passion is just as intense (if not more) in the stands as it is on the field. By the time I was a senior at Capital High, I was going to games in puke yellow track warm-ups from the seventies, a Viking hat and gold paint on my cheeks (above the waist, thank you). There is nothing like the energy that collects in a stadium, feeling a part of something big and powerful and proving it with as much ridiculous decoration as possible. The players compete for points, and fans go head-to-head to see who is the loudest, craziest, most committed supporter of each and every one of those points. Ancient peoples rallied around war heroes, and in this modern, broken age, we look to athletes to restore some sense of good and evil in the universe (and give us a reason to be obnoxious in public). Football gives America something to talk about, and for many individuals, it gives them identity.
Such is life for Riley Mahaffey, a businessman, mountain bike enthusiast and diehard fan of the Tennessee Titans. His house is filled with Titans paraphernalia, and on game days, his dogs sometimes wear their own jerseys and fetch mail from a Titans mailbox under billowing Titans flags. There's a Titans-inspired Harley in the garage, and during football season, Mahaffey sports a wardrobe of Titans clothing.
"It's pathetic, I know, but the attitude on Mondays is dictated by Sundays," Mahaffey said. He has been a fan for over 30 years and has seen the team through a myriad of changes. He laments free agency, saying that anymore you cheer for flags instead of players, but that won't stop him from showing his support. "I'll always be a fan," he said, "but you have to draw the line somewhere."
That line is the difference between Mahaffey wearing a logo sweatshirt and crazed Boise State fans painting themselves like the Blue Man Group on crystal meth. These folks push the boundaries of stupidity and hypothermia, usually to get their faces on television. Some of them are that into the sport, but most of them figure if they wear pumpkins on their heads, they can share in the glory of the coordinating team (go Pumpkins?) When the Broncos played Louisiana Tech in November, the crowd was reasonably subdued. A lot of people sported Boise State sweats, jackets and hats with a few pom-pom ponytails, wigs and painted faces, and they showed their spirit with cowbells, air horns and obscene gestures. Then there were "those guys," the ones in the nosebleed section with no shirts and something to prove.
"We're all about BSU," slurred "Hippy," a very drunk, very cold man with dreadlocks and a giant "B" painted on his chest. His nipples looked like they were about to shatter, and goose bumps covered his naked upper body like fire ants on a carcass. He explained that his posse had attended every game "like this" and planned to hit the Fiesta Bowl to provide "inspiration." "We loved the hail at the Fresno State game," he said. "The hail was money." But not, perhaps, as money as the penguin suit Hippy has sported in the past. His friend Tim Murray (the "U") was actually a lovely shade of purple. His teeth chattered as he told me how much fun it was to get naked for righteousness.
"It's windy, it's cold, we drink a lot," he chuckled. Then he looked out over the rows of fans warm in their jackets and frowned. "BSU needs more fans ... more real fans."
But "real" fans come in all shapes, sizes and degrees of insanity. My friend Brett sometimes drinks too much whiskey and paints his face green and yellow when the Packers play. He has his own Green Bay versus Minnesota checkerboard and can spout off stats if you rile him. Deep in his heart, he truly believes Brett Favre is a hero, honorable and true, but he doesn't make his cat wear a cheesehead, and his interests extend into the off-season. He is a Packers fan win or lose, because somewhere along the way they became like family (Bretts stick together).
Family is a big part of the origins of sports fanaticism. Kids are born with loyalties already in place, learning to idolize logos and numbers like they learn to walk. Sarah Harris was not born into such vigorous worship, but after marrying her husband, Sean (a Boise State alum from 1997-2002), she grew to revere Bronco game days almost as much as he does.
"Back then, all Sean had to do was walk up to the stadium five minutes before the game to get a ticket and a good seat. Now we have to find students, borrow their IDs, stand in line and then figure out a way to get into the game with valid identification," Harris said. She and her husband are that committed to the Broncos and are hoping to get a tailgating pass next season. But the team is so in demand that the Harrises are now on a waiting list for a waiting list. "I think it's about the whole atmosphere of the football game--the social aspects, planning with friends, drinking, eating--and the Broncos are doing so well this year. When you understand how hard they've worked to get here, you want them to win, and my husband is such a huge fan, it rubs off on me," Harris said.
Suddenly I saw the point of wearing spray paint and prosthetics. It demonstrates devotion beyond recreation, because the wigs and craziness are a brand of sorts. People who go the extra mile, who cheer and cry and read every word Chad Cripe writes, do so because they feel genuine affection for Boise State. A Bronco win is like a personal victory, and a loss hits just as close to home. As far as Hippy and the boys go, their methods may be extreme, but the point is solidarity. By showing the entire world that they will stand naked and freezing in any weather, in any stadium, they convey the heart of the game itself. Sports are like trees falling in forests without fans--they need that spirit to live. And in turn, the fans are given the satisfaction of adopting a cause and taking a morsel of the glory as payment for their ... enthusiasm.