It’s part of being a fan of any sports team, that inevitable period where the team will have to break down and rebuild. Their former stars are aging and ineffective, their young players haven’t quite lived up to their potential, and in professional sports, even the slightest bit of slippage can be the difference between a good team and a cellar dweller.
For some fans, this stretch can last a year or two, and for others, it’s decades. That’s part of the luck of the draw. As an Oakland Raiders fan, I know exactly how long has passed since I’ve been able to root for a fully competent and competitive football team: 13 long years.
Yes, there was some brief flirtation with mediocrity in the beginning of this decade, but those two 8-8 seasons came with Jason Campbell at the helm and ultimately were fools’ gold. Beyond that, it’s been years of the Andrew Walters and (sigh) JaMarcus Russells of the world. But it’s those dark days that make this sudden and unexpected success even that much sweeter.
Such is life as a fan of sports, a foolish fascination that we sign up for each year. As fans, we have no control over the outcome of each game, but are so invested into those outcomes that it’s borderline unhealthy. Sustained dominance that franchises like the Patriots or Spurs have enjoyed is an outlier. Their disappointment is not winning a championship, while other fans would be elated with simply being competitive.
With that kind of success, a fan can get spoiled, jaded even and not fully appreciate their team’s successes. For those who have dealt with what is the standard cycle of professional sports teams, any reign of dominance is appreciated for the gift that it is.
There’s a sense of accomplishment in being along for the entire ride. It’s staying with the team during the bleak times that allows Raider fans to cheer a tad louder when Taiwan Jones juked his way to a 59-yard touchdown on Sunday. Because they were there, talking themselves into Jones when the Raiders picked him in the fourth round of the 2011 draft out of Eastern Washington. Those fans who convinced themselves that Jones and his 4.2 speed would be a difference maker, and a part of the Raiders’ future saw the fruits of their devotion when he scored that touchdown, the first of his career. They groaned when the previous regime decided Jones would be better off as a cornerback, and screamed when he crossed the goal line finally, after a four-year odyssey in Oakland.
That journey makes the taste of success that much sweeter, especially when you’ve tasted the bitterness that is yearly and weekly failure. It’s that minutiae that enhances the ride, for better or for worse. I know Andre Holmes led a terrible three-win team in receiving last year, so when he caught two touchdowns on Sunday, I knew Holmes. I knew how incredible it must have felt for him to not only play in a meaningful game with real meaningful playoff implications, but to thrive in that game. I know because I felt that same feeling. I had to suffer through 13 long years just to get there, but here I was, finally there.
When I bought season tickets this January, it was because of the chance that this could potentially happen. The Raiders could finally turn the corner, Derek Carr might really be the franchise quarterback we’ve been searching for since Rich Gannon made the foolish decision to dip his head into a Derrick Brooks tackle, a decision that resulted in several fractured vertebra and ended his career. With the No. 4 pick in the draft, we just might add a game-changer to the team, maybe even Amari Cooper who looked like a surefire All-Pro wideout for the next decade. Maybe they’d hire a head coach who could right the ship in Oakland, maximize their shallow talent pool and make something of the Raiders.
It was just as likely they’d be the same old Raiders that they’ve been for the past 13 years, but it was the potential that sold me. There was also the chance that this is the last season my beloved Raiders ever play in Oakland, the last season they’re within driving distance. But that was secondary, the selling point was that this might be the year that the journey finally pays off. Four home games in, it was money well spent.
The Kansas City Royals were laughingstocks of baseball for a few decades. From 1995 to 2012, the Royals finished above .500 just once. They won the World Series in 1985 and didn’t make the playoffs again until last year. Growing up, the Royals were nothing more than that team with the cool stadium with the fountains on Triple Play Baseball for me. A team destined to lose 90 games a year, and whenever they did, against all odds, develop a player into something resembling a star, he’d be destined to leave to greener pastures.
Now? They’re the cream of the crop. With a flock of homegrown stars who helped them get there. They clinched their World Series victory when the 24th man on their 25-man bench, Christian Colón, knocked in a run in the 12th inning of Game 5. It was his first at-bat in more than a month. His name was foreign to those who don’t follow the Royals on a day-to-day basis, but much like Jones and Holmes were for me, he was a known commodity for those who have been along for the decades-long journey for the Royals. Those fans knew he was the fourth overall pick in 2010, another homegrown player paying dividends at the tail end of a marathon. They were privy to Colón, and while the world said “Who?” they cheered at the familiar face winning them the World Series.
After a tough Cowboys loss on Sunday, a friend of mine described his relationship with the franchise as “the longest relationship I’ve ever had in my life outside of family.” He was right. Being a fan of a team is a long-term relationship, life-long even. So long that some are born into their allegiances. My father and uncle are Raiders fans, so there was never really any choice for me. I was going to be a Raiders fan. Just like any other relationship, there are going to be ups and downs. That’s just the way it goes. It’s fighting through those downs that make the ups so enjoyable and so memorable.
So, Raiders fans, Royals fans, and fans of every other team that has worked their way out of the slog of mediocrity into some form of success, enjoy this. It doesn’t last forever, as you know all too well.