"Don't fucking talk to me about expectations!"
Roughly a year and a half ago, I was belligerently lecturing two of my former college roommates — both New England Patriots fans — in a Cleveland sports bar. I had just watched the Bills turn a 21-point lead into a 34-point loss. I had already been reprimanded for my language by the bar staff, and my girlfriend had been ashamed to be sitting next to me for quite some time.
I had really high hopes for the Buffalo Bills in 2012 — delusional hopes. We had just signed one of the best defensive players in the NFL and had the pieces to have one of the most explosive offenses in the league — at least that's what I told myself. That August I had flooded the unfortunate ears of friends and strangers with my theory that "THIS IS THE YEAR."
It wasn't even close to being The Year. And on that day, fueled by Miller Light, spiced rum, orange soda, and the residue of the night before, my expectations coming apart in front of me, I was gradually losing my sanity. It was the last weekend of September, and we were nearing the end of a 72-hour celebratory bender. I had been in town since Thursday night, which I now know is far too long to spend in Cleveland. One of our college roommates had gotten married the day before. He was first of our formerly tight-knit group to dive into this adulthood thing everyone seems to be talking about.
Growing up, the trademarks of autumn were going back to school, losing your awesome new pens in about two weeks, and football season. It didn't matter whether or not you played; hell, it didn't even matter if you cared. It's what people watched and talked about. For many, fall football develops into a dependence that can be as comforting as that warm bourbon on a cold night — and as hard to shake.
But once you enter your mid-twenties, a new autumn staple comes into play. Those strangers you met over the years in class, on the athletic fields, in the dorm, or near the keg start getting married. Pretty soon weekend plans in September, October, and November start revolving around nuptials, not football.
The last couple of years I've been lucky enough to combine these autumn obsessions: two Saturday weddings and two Sunday Bills-Patriots games. These scheduling miracles have resulted in my favorite weekends since college. I've been able to watch my friends smile on Saturday, and they've been able to see me pout on Sunday. Sometimes the fourth quarter is forgotten in a whiskey-coated malaise. Sometimes a friend skips a flight home to spend the night with our spider-tattooed waitress. Sometimes we just eat a lot of nachos.
But life is rarely this convenient, and I realize that, soon, the schedule will change. Bills v. Pats is a debaucherous rest stop on our divergent paths toward maturity. We used to be a bunch of middling high school athletes who took intramurals way too seriously. We bonded over sports. Now we're scattered across the country and the workforce settling into lives we're uncertain of. One friend is a successful trader at a hedge fund, unhappy about being forced to work nights for three years, yet is hesitant to leave his job. Another is a career academic who has dedicated his life to the classics, but now that he's on the verge of pursuing his doctorate at an elite university, he's unsure if he wants to commit his life to studying. The wildcard of the group is on a five-year bar crawl up the west coast, yet is arguably the most financially successful among us. Meanwhile, I've stood by and watched friends get engaged and buy houses while sleeping in a twin bed in my childhood home and watching sports.
Professional sports are pure entertainment — a distraction. By definition, professional sports do not matter. Fans and athletes don't even have a college experience in common: It's just our money for their performance. And rational humans don't scream at the television, lose sleep over losses, or cry over championships won by people with whom they have a business relationship.
When it comes to football season, I'm not always known for making rational decisions. At times I've put watching Buffalo Bills games ahead of family, work, my financial well-being, and, most regrettably, my relationship with my girlfriend. Sundays that I should have spent getting ahead on work I've watched the Bills lose to the Browns. I've wasted money I should have been saving to move out into an apartment on buffalo wings and Bud Light. When I recently watched a game with my mom and brother — who I don't see often — I spent more time with my teeth clenched, tweeting obscenities, than I did enjoying their company. I always said, "All I ask is for four hours on 16 Sundays between September and December," without exceptions. I always thought this was reasonable. I've always been wrong.
The Buffalo Bills haven't been to the playoffs in 14 seasons — I was 12 the last time they were. As the losses pile up every Sunday, I've started to notice that my girlfriend genuinely cares if they win or lose because she wants to see me happy. She's supported me like a fan.
There are good reasons to watch sports, and one is that sometimes we need a hopeful distraction to keep us from overdosing on stress or drowning in misery. Sports can uplift the human spirit. Sports can be transcendent, and it's easy (and not necessarily a bad thing) to get hooked on the hoping for transcendence. Meanwhile, being in love and getting married is society's most acceptable form of long-term insanity. You put the wants and needs of someone else ahead of yourself, hoping it will work. You give things up. You do it all knowing that it might not work. A lot of people do it knowing that it didn't even work for their own parents. But it might work for you. You might be that couple 30 years down the line holding hands and watching your kid graduate from college. You might win the championship.
I've seen my friends cannonball into a pool without looking down. Their trust is unwavering even if their eyes are slightly watery.
All these weddings have forced me to take a crash course in being an adult. In the past few months I've purchased my first suit, rented my first car, dry-cleaned my first suit, and had to call my first locksmith. And I've been forced to confront my own uncertain future and continually arrested development. Next month is going to be the first time I move out of my childhood bedroom since I returned from college — I'm 26 years old. I graduated high school ready to conquer the world. I graduated college having no idea how I was going to conquer anything. So I made excuses: the recession, the economy, loans, no car, no internships, my job was below me, "I don't know what I want to do."
But now, after dragging my feet like a kid whose parents are carrying him to the bathtub, I committed to something more than a team that lets me down: spending every day with someone who doesn't. I'm moving in with my girlfriend and taking a very large step — it's nowhere near marriage — but it's something.
We've been programmed to be cautiously optimistic about autumn since the first time we shoulder a backpack. We worry about whether we'll have class with our friends. We worry about how we'll do in those classes. These days, in the fall I hope the Bills finally turn it around. I hope to not fear what's coming. And I hope I finally grow up.
Recently, while I was writing this, another one of my closest friends from college got engaged. And wouldn't you know, the wedding is tentatively planned for September 2015. Another Bills vs. Pats game, maybe. By then I hope my friends ask me about expectations, because I'm finally tired of running away from them.