I received my preseason ballot in the mail this week. As a longtime supporter of the establishment, as a reverent believer that the American—Patriotic—should stand above merely National, I look to the past as an inflection point for how I judge the present and plan for the future. Winning wins, even if the last time it really happened was decades ago. Historical perfection remains a nostalgic point of reference.
Just ask the 1972 Dolphins.
Those ballots, and the accompanying deluge of emails have been sitting, unopened, on my desk for a few days. I’m torn, especially in the race for the state’s top spot, between what feels right and what I know is right: between the institutions I grew up with and the new reality. Do I vote with my heart or do I support the most viable team in the general season? Does it matter who actually has the best chance of delivering in the November stretch?
This visceral struggle is nothing new for ideological purists like me. I understand that the consequences of this pre-season will set the stage for a showdown come January. Maybe choosing one isn’t a rejection of the other. Perhaps it’s a false dichotomy: a false choice that I’m being asked to make.
My formative years were spent on Florida’s east coast in the 1980s; there was no question about which NFL team had my support. Dan Marino, the Killer B’s, and Coach Shula—Orange and Aqua—were as native in our living room on Sundays as high-piled rugs and Swanson’s aluminum-trayed TV dinners. Cheering for our Dolphins was as much a family tradition as standing for the Star Spangled banner, turkey on Thanksgiving and voting Republican. Though we on the Atlantic side of the state were aware that Tampa had a team as well, it went largely unnoticed —especially in the pre-Dungy, pre-Gruden era—except for jokes about colorblind quarterbacks, winless seasons, and red-zone chokes.
Because the Fins rarely played the Bucs in a pre-Internet era where “preseason” (then called “scrimmage”) was untelevised, there was little exposure to that team as a viable source for my fandom. The Jacksonville team wasn’t even an option to reject until I was a mostly formed adult in 1995. Through the eighties, I knew only single party rule. When asked to back an NFC team, I looked to Washington in a full rejection of what a reasonable Floridian should have considered.
This all came into question a few years ago when I moved as far left as I possibly could along the I4 corridor. Since becoming a Tampan, I’ve been challenged to consider the new reality of living near enough to Raymond James to hear Sunday cannon fire, to see coaches and players at the same South Tampa restaurants where I dine, and to understand what a rabid local fan base does to support a team that supports community.
Those hideous orange uniforms—now throwback classics—have become a fierce red. While I was willfully ignorant to the Bucs of my childhood—with its own local stars like LeeRoy Selmon, Doug Williams, and Jimmie Giles— I have educated myself about the Tampa team in the new millennium which has created superstars like Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, and Jameis Winston. By scratching the field just a little, my indifference toward the team that seemed, when I was innocent yet, a world away, has evolved into a respected source of affection.
This Thursday, I’m truly torn.
While I have a couple more weeks to sit on my mail-in primary ballot where I must choose between what feels right—the candidate slate that represents the Floridian values I grew up with—versus winning— the new, anti-establishment, populist-leaning insurgency— I am forced on this Thursday to put my support behind either my Dolphins or my Bucs. Fortunately, this is a matchup that will only occur in the preseason: while one of these may make it through November, neither of these teams will make it to January, certainly not against each other. At that point, my choice will be easier—at least more narrowed down. It’s one thing to cheer for also-rans, but when the Super Bowl arrives, we often have to swallow our pride and cheer the winners and for an exciting game—an institution that survives our parochial allegiances— in which the most resilient and talented have earned their chance to make us reconsider our worldview all over again.
Read more of my poetry, essays, and stories at Momentitiousness.com