I’m not someone who likes to talk about his feelings. I’m not an emotional person and it typically takes a lot to rile me up. I’m good at staying calm under stressful circumstances and rarely freak out if things don’t go my way. Even as a kid, I wasn’t the type to throw tantrums. And I absolutely never cried.
But all of my cool-headed stoicism flies right out the window when it comes to watching the San Diego Chargers. I was born and raised in America’s finest city, and the team is embedded in my DNA. As such, I have an emotional attachment to the team that can only be described as equal parts intense and embarrassing.
If the Chargers lose a tough game, it can turn me into a monster for days afterward. I get irrationally angry, unbearably whiny, and will spend hours thinking of ways that my beloved Bolts could and should have won the game. Too much devotion to a team can create a whole lot of misery. I know this and I accept it. And few teams create misery for their fans more than the Chargers. This is a franchise that believed Ryan Leaf was as good of a quarterback as Peyton Manning and are second only to the Browns in finding creative ways to lose winnable games.
It was 2004 and, for the first time in more than a decade, the Chargers were pretty damn good. Thanks to the potent combination of Drew Brees and LaDainian Tomlinson, my home city team boasted one of the best offenses in the league and earned their first playoff berth since 1995. They were slated to play the New York Jets, a formidable but beatable team that rode into the playoffs with a two-game losing streak. And for Christmas, my dad surprised me with tickets to the game. I was pumped.
My dad was not much of football fan but he knew how much the Chargers meant to me so he pretended to enjoy it more than he did in order to share the sacred bond of fanhood. As we walked into Qualcomm, I remember talking to him with cautious optimism, wondering if this was the mark of a new era for the Chargers. Of course, it wasn’t. The Chargers didn’t just lose the game. That would be too simple. After being down, they mounted a 10-point comeback in the fourth quarter, tying the game with 11 seconds left and sending the game into overtime. In overtime, the Chargers reached the Jets’ 22-yard line before Nate Fucking Kaeding missed what could have been the game-winner. The Jets went on to win the game 20-17.
This would be the first of many heartbreaking playoff losses by the Chargers over the next few years but none hurt quite as much. It was the first time I had experienced true sports heartbreak because it was the first time the Chargers had given me a real reason to believe in them. And watching Kaeding miss that field goal made me realize I had chosen to have a lifelong love affair with a team that was destined to bring me nothing but heartache.
Over the past decade, society has made a lot of progress in terms of ridding ourselves of the idiotic, dangerous influence toxic masculinity has in shaping men. Yet when it comes to men crying, we still tend to look at it, at best, as a punchline and, at worst, a sign of weakness. Even though we now know crying is a perfectly normal and healthy thing to do, many still ostracize boys and men when they have the audacity to shed a tear anywhere other than funerals.
In fact, the only place we seem to let men cry is during sports. For whatever reason, playing and watching sports is the rare area where men are allowed to feel comfortable freely expressing the wide spectrum of human emotions, especially sadness. And for most of my life, I only felt comfortable crying about the San Diego (now Los Angeles, which is its own thing) Chargers.
Walking back to the car after the game, I was absolutely miserable and could barely muster out more than a word at a time whenever my dad tried to start a conversation. Things only got worse as we got to the car, as I started to feel my sadness building. After about 10 minutes of driving in complete silence, I felt tears starting to well up in my eyes. I couldn’t remember the last time I had cried, so I did everything I could to hold them in. I couldn’t cry in front of my dad because a football team I like lost. But there was no stopping it and suddenly I was weeping in front him. I was humiliated, knowing that my dad would never see me the same again.
After that moment, I no longer kept my struggles from him to seem strong. I now talked to him about my weaknesses. Over the years, he’s supported me in whatever way he could.
My dad is not an overly masculine, macho guy. In fact, he has a pretty healthy relationship with his emotions. But still, the natural societal expectations of performative masculinity had been ingrained into me to the point where I felt like crying in front of my dad was letting him down. I was mortified and wished I could just stop. I kept trying to get a hold of myself and that only made it worse. I was trapped in this shame-filled, tear-stained existence. Then, out of nowhere, I felt my dad’s hand on my shoulder and I’ll never forget what he said.
“It might feel silly but sometimes you just gotta cry.”
That was it. That one sentence. He didn’t try to offer some deep insight or teach some profound lesson. Instead, he just made me feel like my outburst didn’t mean I was a total freak. We both began to laugh and I was even able to make a joke about Nate Kaeding’s missed field goal that eased what little tension was left.
The rest of the drive was quiet and I was still bummed about the loss. But that night was a turning point in my relationship with my dad. I had bawled in front of the man I had spent my life looking up to and it did not cause him to value me any less. Instead, he offered simple, honest advice that allowed a level of vulnerability between me and my dad that we had never had before.
Now, of course, that game did not magically turn me into a completely different person. I’m still not particularly emotional and have only cried a few times since that night (mostly while watching movies on planes, which I’ve realized is a common affliction when you’re in high-altitude) but it did make me more okay with opening up to my dad. After that moment, I no longer kept my struggles from him to seem strong. I now talk to him about my weaknesses. Over the years, he’s supported me in whatever way he could.
So maybe the Chargers will never move back to San Diego or win a Super Bowl in my lifetime. But in a way, I’m thankful for their constant ability to disappoint. And I’m even glad that Nate Fucking Kaeding missed that field goal. Without moments of disappointment, we’d all lack those moments to make real connections.