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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Zen & the Art of Being a Dolfan: The 2007 Miami Dolphins

Teach us to care and not to care.
Teach us to sit still.
–T. S. Eliot

When the way comes to an end, then change—
having changed, you pass through.
–I Ching


DECEMBER 16, 2007—Sunday’s home game for the winless Miami Dolphins is a sellout—and I’ll be watching from California. Nearly ten years after leaving Miami in 1998 to write novels full-time and begin married life, this year I finally made the switch to DirecTV so I would never miss a Miami Dolphins game.

This year. The worst year in franchise history.

Our beloved Dolphins haven’t won all season. They just lost their twelfth straight game, and the unlucky thirteenth may be today. They’re in danger, in fact, of becoming the first 0-16 team in NFL historythe team that carved the only undefeated season in 1972. A dazzling array of injuries has only added acid to the wounds. Week by week, I’m watching history unravel in a surreal tunnel of mirrors.

Yet, I can’t stop tuning in.

The heartbreak of the experience has redefined my idea of what it means to be a fan. While the Dolphins are crashing, I have turned a bend: I’ve rediscovered how to enjoy watching my hometown team.

Up until this year, I’d been in recovery. And denial. And in pain.

Dan Marino’s final playoff game—that ghastly 62-7 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2000 that was the worst loss in franchise history—nearly knocked the Dolfan out of me.

I was too young to remember the legendary 1972 Miami Dolphins, but I remember golden days in the 1980s and 1990s: Unflappable Coach Don Shula and his disciplined army. Receivers Mark Clayton and Mark Duper. The Bruise Brothers, Lyle and Glenn Blackwood. Quarterback Don Strock, who could lob bombs into the end zone when all hope was lost.

And Dan Marino, of course: the leader on the field who threw laser-beams and routinely called forced opponents to scurry with confusion and dread. The score never mattered as long as Marino was there, not until the clock read 00:00.

For a lot of us, I guess, Dan Marino was the Miami Dolphins.

Then came That Game in Jacksonville. With Fate and age against him, a retirement-bound Dan Marino was gone from us forever.

It hurt. It still does.

But we had no idea how bad it was going to get. That Game was only an omen of days to come, as if a santero in a bad mood had sprinkled powder on us.

A curse. Just as we suspected.


By 2000, I had moved away from Miami.

Soon after That Game, my husband and I had a pitch meeting in Hollywood with a television executive who happened to be a Miami Dolphins fan. It’s the kind of rapport you beg for when you’re trying to sell a TV series idea—but as soon as the exec brought up the Dolphins, my lips clamped shut. I was blinking away tears. Couldn’t even talk about it. So much for rapport. (We didn’t sell the show; I blamed the Dolphins.)

Since games were only aired once in a blue moon to those of us on the west coast anyway, my heart wandered. When we lived in Washington state, I tried to fall in love with the Seattle Seahawks. (At the time, they were losing too; no thanks.) My former Northwestern University coach Dennis Greene was with the Minneapolis Vikings, so I tried that too. And Indianapolis. I love head coach Tony Dungy, Peyton Manning reminds me of a young Marino, and I have roots in Indianapolis, so...

So, nothing.

Year after year, I searched for a new reason to be excited about football season. I could take satisfaction rooting against Dolphin arch-rivals, but it wasn’t the same. I found myself forgetting that it was Sunday afternoon or Monday night. As a fan, I was homeless.

I could admire other teams’ skills and artistry, but no other team could make me scream with joy, catch my heart in my throat or cramp my stomach. I realized that watching football wasn’t just about winning, or good players. What, then?

History, that’s what.

As a child, the only reason I started watching football was to try to spend time with my father, as he patiently—or impatiently—explained the rules of the game while I sat on the sofa beside him, mostly enjoying the feeling of being there. Dad took me and my sisters to see the Dolphins at the Orange Bowl stadium, and later at Joe Robbie Stadium. Those games are some of my most thrilling childhood memories.

What other team could inspire the memory of Thanksgiving and Christmas games on the widescreen TV at my Aunt Eva’s house, with my late grandmother sitting in the kitchen nearby, sneaking herself another plate?

I loved the Miami Dolphins more than the game itself.

If I wanted to care about football again, I would have to go back home.


Like most people recovering from a traumatic episode, I took baby steps. And trust me, the Dolphins haven’t made it easy.

Sports is all about familiarity. Players are celebrities on the field the way Will Smith and Denzel draw patrons to movie theaters. You’re a family, or at least you pretend to be. You learn players’ personalities and quirks, their weaknesses and strengths. Even if you don’t always like them, you know them.

Not in Miami.

Every year, there were so many new faces. New coaches. More quarterbacks than I can name—thereby poisoning other games for me, since so many quarterbacks who could not perform in Miami seem to be doing just fine elsewhere. At one point, even the Dolphins jersey changed color; I couldn’t recognize them on sight.

Baby steps. Before I had DirecTV, I listened to radio broadcasts on my computer. Since the offense never found its Dan Marino, I learned to love the defense. Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor embody the spirit of the Dolphins I remembered from olden times; some years, they seemed to be the only thing about the Dolphins that felt right.

I discovered preseason games, which had never interested me even when the Dolphins were winning—but for a while, the preseason games were the only ones I could count on seeing every week on cable. So, I found a way to care.

I checked out the new talent, especially the quarterbacks, to see if any cream would rise. I was thrilled to see a running back emerge, Ronnie Brown. I had the breathless exhilaration of seeing Wes Welker’s first spurts in a Miami Dolphins uniform. (I ain’t mad at ya, Wes, although did you have to go to the Patriots?)

During preseason, I thought Cleo Lemon was the most promising quarterback on the field—but the coaches never cared what I thought. Still, though, at least I had an opinion. I was on my way home again.

The sight of Pro Bowl quarterback Daunte Culpepper in a Miami Dolphins jersey on the cover of a sports magazine was the very portrait of Hope, as if the thrill-ride of the Marino days might be back on track at last.

Naive hopes, it turned out. So naive.

But two moments made all the difference: Last year, the Dolphins’ undefeated 1972 season was challenged by the as-yet unbeaten Chicago Bears. The Dolphins had been playing poorly, but their record was at stake.

Something close to miraculous happened: The Miami Dolphins won.

Later in the season, we shut out the powerhouse New England Patriots, sacking quarterback Tom Brady four times. The Patriots might be bound for the stratosphere in 2007 while we ere bound for humiliation, but for precious moments we remembered what it felt like to be a better team again.

I shrieked and shouted and celebrated.

I’m the only football fan in my household, unless you count my four-year-old son Jason’s insistence on rooting against whatever team I’m rooting for. But as the Dolphins pulled off their Patriots shutout, I gave spiritual high-fives to my father in upstate Florida and my sisters in Atlanta and Dallas.

We don’t watch games as a family together anymore—my sisters don’t even want to hear team updates since Marino left—but on that night, I knew I had made it. Finally.
If I could help it, I wouldn’t miss another game.


What fresh hell is this?

I was literally open-mouthed, watching the catastrophic game in horror, when Dorothy Parker’s words were the only ones that fit: What fresh hell is this?

There’s an aptly-named Internet forum called The Dolphins Make Me Cry, a place where Dolfans gather to commiserate, but I don’t cry over football games. I may rant and feel my mood dimming, but tears and sobs are for real-life tragedies.

That day, though, was the closest to tears I had been since 2000.

It was Week 5.

Our new quarterback Trent Green went down with his season-ending injury. When he was injured, removed from the field on a backboard, the players prayed on the field in a mass huddle that felt like a funeral. My husband, who has been very supportive, gave me a hug.

We’ve lost star running back Ronnie Brown to injury too. And star defensive lineman Zach Thomas. Chris Chambers, our most promising receiver, got traded. Pro Bowl running back Ricky Williams, whom we had lost to his demons in years past, returned to Miami only to be injured after only six carries. Gone. We’ve lost almost everyone this year.

What fresh hell is this?

Something snapped in me the day I saw that huddle of prayer on the field, with yet another quarterback gone and the prospects for our season disintegrating.

Either stop watching, I told myself, or stop needing to win. Let go.

I couldn’t stop. But I had to care in a different way. About different things.

Do I hope the Dolphins will break their losing streak Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens? Of course I do. I’m not surprised there’s a sellout crowd. At the very least, one way or another, fans will be watching history.

There’s a point in a game when fans know that winning isn’t probable; you can see your team is overmatched. But the Dolphins have almost won a lot of games. Often, that delicious feeling of not knowing lingers until the very end. The fighting spirit is there.

I missed the last Dolphins game against the Buffalo Bills, but I’m watching it piece by piece on my DVR. I’d read the breakdown of the score quarter by quarter on the Internet before I started, so I knew the first quarter was going to be painful. I knew the stats.

But stats and highlights aren’t the game.

It was only by watching the game that I could see for myself how Cleo Lemon rallied his team’s spirit by completing a 54-yard pass right after John Beck was pulled from the quarterback’s spot in the first quarter; the kind of pass we Dolfans don’t often see.

The Dolphins still give me reasons to smile.

Sure, it’s hard. I have to wallow through the pain and muck to find a single flower and savor every precious petal. It’s like a meditation, almost. For me, a fan who was spoiled rotten in my youth, it’s a wholly different way to watch football.

And who knows? Soon, we’re playing the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football. How sweet would it be to see the Miami Dolphins derail the Patriots’ undefeated season to defend the Miami Dolphins legacy?

Words couldn’t describe it.

I have accepted the possibilities. The Dolphins might go winless.

And next year, I’ll learn a new Dolphins team. Probably a new coach, I would think. Maybe a new quarterback, too, although Cleo Lemon is my favorite since Marino.

I really hope Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor will stick around. Too often, a strong defense to keep us from being humiliated was the best we could hope for, and they have come through year after year. But I feel guilty for wanting them to stay: They’re not rookies anymore, and rebuilding from the ground up takes time. I don’t want them to miss their chance at their Super Bowl rings. They’re true-life brothers-in-law now, so maybe they’ll end up somewhere together. (Just not the Patriots—please?)

If we lost them both, or one of them, I might even shed a tear.

But next summer, I’ll keep up with the preseason. Assessing the talent, especially the quarterbacks. Next fall will be hard. Maybe fall will be a hard for years to come.

But as long as my team is in Miami—and as long as they’re called the Miami Dolphins—I’ll be watching. Just like the pigtailed girl with the dog named Toto says as she’s clicking her heels together with hope and longing, there’s no place like it.

© Copyright 2007 by Tananarive Due

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