Story by Madi Wahlen
“Pass is… CAUGHT!
My jaw dropped, and a screech-gasp hybrid escaped from my throat. I leapt up from the floor where I had resigned myself to finish the doomed game and instantly cleared the distance between my cousin, who had been keeping a safe distance, and myself and threw my arms around her. Our faces buried into each other, we howled with glee and jumped up and down in utter disbelief and pure bliss. When I pulled away there were tears on my face and I could feel my heart racing in my chest. I collapsed onto the bed while I listened to roars from the 66,000 other fans at US Bank Stadium and the fireworks confirming the victory, the emotional turmoil of the last forty minutes fading quickly from memory. I closed my eyes as Joe Buck and Troy Aikman tried to make sense of what we’d all just seen, and I thought to myself, “this is the best day of my life.”
It was girls’ weekend, and my cousin Taylor and I were in Indianapolis to see John Mulaney. Lucky for me, the show didn’t start until 9:30pm, so there was plenty of time to watch the Vikings take on the Saints in the NFC Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs at 3:30. As we drove from Chicago to Indianapolis belting songs from the early 2000s, I found myself completely lost in anticipation for the afternoon’s match-up. I was excited for John Mulaney of course, and eager to spend some time with my cousin, but I had been thinking about nothing else but this game for two weeks.
I was born to be a Vikings fan. As a kid, my dad dressed up as a Viking every year for Halloween. My mom grew up joining my grandpa in loyally cursing at the television every Sunday. I have vivid memories of quietly shuffling out of church during Communion so that we wouldn’t miss kickoff at noon. On one occasion, my willful little sister actually got sent to time out because she wouldn’t stop chanting “Go Packers!” Needless to say, I felt like I never really had a choice in the matter.
It turns out, there may be a lot of truth to that. Watching sports is a social experience, and many sports fans are introduced to their team because watching affords an opportunity to spend time and bond with their families. Research suggests that children are incapable of developing a cognitive allegiance to a sports team before around age eight (and I’d been watching the Vikings long before then), but they learn to mimic fandom behaviors as a means of developing social ties to their parents, usually their dads. So yeah, I was quite literally trained to be a Vikings fan.
Taylor on the other hand didn’t care so much for football, or sports in general, but she was used to fanatical Vikings fans– she grew up with another daughter of the aforementioned wordsmith grandpa. When we arrived at our hotel, she joined me on the couch in front of the TV in the living space of the suite. As I fished through my overnight bag searching for my customary exclusive game day sweatshirt, I began raving to her about how sweet the payback was going to feel when we beat the Saints and went on to win the Super Bowl (Spoiler Alert: we didn’t).
Although being a Vikings fan has been a part of my identity for as long as I can remember, my first real memory as a truly independent sports fan (that is, watching because I wanted to and not because my parents were monopolizing the TV and I was being actively socialized) is the 2009 NFC Championship game against, you guessed it, the New Orleans Saints. It is one of the single most disappointing memories of my formative years. I’ll spare you the gory details and just say the Saints cheated, we lost, and they went on to win the Super Bowl. No, I’m not bitter about it.
I think it’s important now to address the collective “we.” I say “we” because being a Vikings fan is a fundamental piece of my personal identity. Social identity theory posits that sense of self is based on the groups to which we belong. Group membership contributes to individual pride and self-esteem. Applying these principles to sports fandom, my team’s success is my success, and their failure is my failure.
My cousin entertained my optimism as I recounted the miserable 2009 affair and projected an upcoming sweet revenge-win nearly a decade in the making. My enthusiastic “this really is our year!” was met with amiable nods and a smile. I know she couldn’t have cared less about the outcome, but she knew how crabby I would be if we lost. With more than just the season and redemption on the line, the Vikings were capable of ruining girls’ weekend. This was a high-stakes game.
At half-time, I am buzzing. Dancing around the room, Taylor and I sing along to the Jonas Brothers while I field texts from my dad and roommates basking in the glory of a perfect first half. It looked like girls’ weekend was going to be spared— we were up 17-0. Future Hall of Famer Drew Brees was held to zero points. We were running away with the game and Taylor and I were primed to enjoy some John Mulaney in a few hours.
Except. The Saints score a touchdown in the third quarter and our offense is stifled. It’s okay, still a two-score game.
Except. Case Keenum throws an interception. Momentum is with New Orleans going into the fourth quarter, and they’re poised to strike again for their second touchdown. If they score a third, that’ll put them ahead. But it’s fine! We kick a field goal, up by 6 with the best defense this franchise has seen since the famed Purple People Eaters.
Except. They block our punt and recover the ball at their own 40. You read it right, they blocked a punt. How often does that happen, once a season? Maybe? This sets them up for another touchdown, and for the first time all game, we’re trailing 20-21. This is starting to feel familiar… a classic Vikings meltdown. But there’s only 3 minutes left. If we manage the clock right, march down and score, we can wrap this game up and be on our way to Philly. We score a field goal and with a minute and a half left in the game, give the ball back to Drew Brees, who only needs a field goal to win it. That’s too much time, but again, we have an elite defence.
Except. Will Lutz sends the ball right down the middle of the uprights and the Saints are up 23-24. We have 25 seconds to cover 51 yards so that we can even attempt a field goal. If you aren’t familiar with the Vikings’ tragic past, last second walk-off field goals aren’t really our thing. (Queue the haunting memories of Gary Anderson and Blair Walsh swirling around in the heads of every Vikings fan in the country).
It’s third down from the Saints’ 39-yard line. We need to get to at least our own 39 and then hop out of bounds to even try for an uncomfortably long field goal. There are 10 seconds on the clock, and we’re out of timeouts. I’m sitting in a heap on the floor, hunched over with my head in my hands. I’ve been fuming for the last half-hour, resembling my grandpa as I hurl expletives at the TV. Taylor sits across the room on the bed, watching me instead of the screen. “It’s gonna be okay Madi, they can still win!” she attempts to reassure me from her perch.
“Taylor, you don’t even know,” I mansplain. My voice is raised and my face is hot with rage as I think about all of the times my team has let me down. “It’s over. There is no way in hell that we are winning this game. First, we have to make it to field goal range. Then we have to get out of bounds. Then we have to actually kick a field goal. And we have to do it in 10 seconds. Against the Saints. This is a Minnesota team, that doesn’t happen”.
The melodrama of my experience is not unearned, nor is it unique. Vikings sportswriter Jon Krawczynski describes the woes of Vikings fans as “a bitterness and cynicism that festers in the subconscious of Vikings fans young and old… a sludge that stains the spirit of even the most optimistic of the team’s supporters.” In the midst of the epic meltdown, he tweeted “Do you believe in miracles?”. The replies are flooded with a resounding “No. This is Minnesota.”
Neuroscience provides some concrete explanations about why we Minnesotans are so cynical. When we watch our teams play, mirror neurons fire in our brains the same way they would if we were actually playing the game. When the Vikings perform well, we’re rewarded with a healthy dose of dopamine, but when they lose, we’re punished with bursts of the stress hormone cortisol and the withdrawal of serotonin. Let’s just say we’re quite often starved for dopamine, and in this moment we’re all drowning in cortisol.
I watch Taylor’s face fall and I can see the reality setting in. I know she’s thinking about how what promised to be a really fun night of laughter was shaping up to be a pathetic distraction for the pity party I was about to throw myself. I know she’s thinking about how ridiculous it is that I was going to let the outcome of this dumb game ruin a night that was supposed to be fun for the both of us.
I want to return one more time to the “we.” It’s hard to understand why we care so much about our teams, why it has such a hold over our lives, our moods, our interactions with other people. I think reddit user chattymcgee sums it up perfectly:
“Sports in a vacuum don’t mean anything. In a vacuum they are no different than a spelling bee or watching somebody do math. It’s a bunch of people doing arbitrary things following arbitrary rules. We care because we choose to care. We choose to invest emotional energy. The whole point is to feel emotions. This is what people who say “it’s just a game” miss. If it was just a game I wouldn’t waste my time. It makes me feel. It’s like music and movies and literature. I’m here for the feels.”
So where does the “we” come from? It’s because I choose to make the team part of my self identity. They become surrogates for me, I feel through them. We become so engaged because emotionally they represent us out on that field, and if they didn’t, we wouldn’t waste our time watching.”
I know the game is over. I can hardly bring myself to watch as the seconds on the clock wind down. I try to prepare myself for a miserable night of trying to forget the trainwreck I’ve just witnessed, the latest in a long list of tragedies for Vikings fans across the nation.
“Pass is… CAUGHT!
About the Author
Madi Wahlen is a second year medical student. Madi is from Rochester, MN and is a lifelong sports fan. She loves watching football and hockey with her family whenever she can, no matter how painful it may occasionally be. Since beginning med school, she has relied on writing and hand embroidery as a way to reflect, channel her creativity, and procrastinate studying for MOHD.