Daniel and I turned from the bar, pint glasses in hand, and looked for a place to sit. The local brewery packed them in on Superbowl Sunday. With big screen TVs, a taco truck, and endless cold beverages, it was the place to be in Fort Myers.
Red-shirted Atlanta Falcons fans occupied every table except one. While the crowd watched the official coin tossed in the air, I considered my own fifty/fifty quandary.
The young couple with two open seats didn’t wear any specific team colors or logo’d gear. Neither did we. So, would the four of us be cheering for the same franchise or rooting against one another? Whose side were they on? Falcons or Patriots fans? Red or Blue?
I took my chances during a break in the pre-game action and approached the table to see if we could join them. Before the words left my mouth, the gentleman moved over and said, “Of course you can sit here.” I spat out a quick thank you and then the all-important question: Is there a particular team you’re hoping wins?
“Well, I’m from Massachusetts, so….” That’s all she had to say. She smiled. I did, too, but my mind raced with how in the world we’d landed on the island of Proud Patriots in the middle of a crimson sea of Falcons folks.
Growing up in Indianapolis, loyal Colts fans not only learned to Believe in Blue and Defend the Shoe, but also despise New England, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady. For Hoosiers, nothing good came from Foxborough with the exception of Adam Vinatieri.
Those thoughts ricocheted around my brain when I realized she’d asked me something.
“Can I assume you’re cheering for the Falcons? Everyone else seems to be.” She wasn’t wrong.
“Well, I am from Indianapolis where we cheer for the Colts, Peyton Manning, and whoever plays New England.” Whoa, did I say that out loud? Yep.
The young couple who’d so graciously extended an invitation to sit at their table now stared at me in awkward silence. I had a choice to make.
Would I insist on clinging to long-held football rivalry beliefs? Was I going to exude Red-ness in the face of their Blue-ness? Or, could I get over myself and spend the next few hours getting to know an East Coast (a la New England Patriots) story?
Daniel plopped down at the table after an extended dog-petting session with several nearby pooches and, as the Falcons fans roared, he said, “Hey, we’re surrounded by our people.” More awkward silence.
“She’s from Massachusetts,” I said with a look that meant be nice. “They’re Patriots fans,” I added for clarity. Daniel cocked his head a bit, smiled big, and thanked them for everything Bill Belichick taught Nick Saban.
But, the question of which team to support hung there like a thought bubble. Technically, we weren’t really Falcons fans. We did, however, consider ourselves huge anti-Patriots fans. I wondered if sacrificing a potential friendship or fun evening out (by acting like a jerk) was true to sportsmanship. I didn’t think so.
“You know, we don’t really care who wins,” I said and I decided to mean it. “Daniel and I just love football. We are fans of the game.” The clock struck kick-off time and Superbowl LI began.
The Patriots struggled unexpectedly and the Southern surround sound cheered and jeered. Normally, Daniel and I would be whooping it up, too, delighting in every dropped pass, loss behind scrimmage, and Tom Brady sack. However, watching with Norah and Al added new perspective and modified our behavior.
While the room celebrated every negative New England play, we couldn’t help but empathize with the couple. Colts fans had certainly experienced the same anxiousness and dismay evident now on Norah’s face. Daniel, always the encourager, offered, “You know what? I’d never bet against Tom Brady.”
Over commercial breaks and timeouts, the four of us had lively conversations about family and Florida, Disney and dogs, work and play. The longer we talked, the more we learned about our many shared interests, likes, and challenges. Sure, the differences remained, but we had newfound common ground. And, the relationship we’d built allowed us to more gently discuss difficult things like…Deflategate.
Each side spoke honestly, but respectfully. Back and forth we went. Finally, Norah said, “And, of course, Tom Brady knew something about it. Who purposely destroys a cell phone for no reason?”
Wait, what? She wasn’t defending him. I assumed a die-hard New England fan would never criticize the home team. Her willingness to bend softened my view and I found myself admitting obvious things, too.
“As much as I hate to admit it,” and I did hate to admit it, “there’s no denying Belichick knows how to win regardless of who’s on the field.” I also added a few nice (and sincere) comments about Brady. He is, after all, still an amazingly disciplined and elite athlete at the age of 39. He even wore a turkey costume for his kids. Like him or not, that was adorable.
Monday morning it occurred to me what had happened Superbowl Sunday. For several weeks now I’ve been praying for understanding when confronted with people who think differently than I do. As God tends to do, He gave me an opportunity to be understanding. I’d prefer it gift-wrapped, but He makes me work for it.
Thank goodness we set aside our dislike of all-things-Patriots and simply became lovers of the sport. If we hadn’t, our time on Proud Patriots Island would have been contentious and uncomfortable. Instead Daniel and I let go of our football ideology and hung out with two of God’s other kids, Norah and Al, fellow Disney and craft beer enthusiasts, who happened to love New England.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s this: Lessons in gaining understanding are far from over. Just Monday afternoon, a mobile RV tech stopped by to survey the work we’d called about and as he stood in our kitchen he asked if we’d watched the Superbowl. “Yes, Anthony, we absolutely did. Great game.” With a huge smile on his face, Anthony said, “As a life-long Patriots fan, I couldn’t agree more.”
Yes, another opportunity to grow and it was only Monday.