I've pretty much decided that my fandom will fluctuate until the day I die. "Fandom" meaning "percentage of time I spend on each of my teams". In college, it was all Illini. After college, I went through a professional phase. Now, it's almost all college again but my love for a certain soccer team from Birmingham, England grows by the year.
Let's start with my childhood. I'll just lay out my entire fandom history.
My mom tells the story that I learned to read by reading St. Louis Blues boxscores (from the old St. Louis Globe-Democrat) to my dad at the breakfast table. I'd get the paper each morning, flip to the scoreboard page, and read the Blues statistics with my dad. Not sure if the first name I learned to read out loud was "Federko", but it was probably close.
Then my obsession was the St. Louis Steamers indoor soccer club. For my birthday party in second grade, I got to bring seven friends to a Steamers game. The Steamers were everything back then - the Blues would draw 9,000 fans to the old Checkerdome; the Steamers would draw 15,000. My first sports heroes were all Steamers from those early 80's teams - Carl Rose! Steve Pecher! Slobo Ilijevski! Jeff Cacciatore!
Then came the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals. Nine year-old me kept a scrapbook (which I still have), cutting out photos and articles from the Globe Democrat. When they lost game 5 of the World Series, I cried (and cried and cried). When they won game 7, I felt my first ever sports high. This is the greatest thing ever. My teams will always win.
Then I began my Illini obsession. My first memories are 1983/1984 - the Rose Bowl football team and the Elite Eight basketball team. I've covered those stories here before - my dad's bet with a UCLA friend in LA, my dad screaming about Dickie Beal traveling - and after that season, I was hooked. I was only 10/11 at the time, but I had made my decision on where I was going to go to college.
After 1989 (Final Four + 10 win football season), I was convinced that I had made the greatest decision ever. I would go to Illinois, I would join Block I and Orange Crush (yes, with a "C" back then), and I would see us win the Big Ten in everything. When I arrived on campus in the fall of 1991, it... didn't happen.
Those are stories I've covered here before as well - the Bruce Pearl disaster, Mackovic leaving for Texas, etc - so I'll just say that this was the phase where my professional teams (the football Cardinals had moved to Arizona, the Steamers had disbanded, so I was down to the baseball Cardinals and the Blues) fell way behind. I followed Illinois basketball and Illinois football.
Then, when I graduated, I felt like I was supposed to switch back. The Rams moved to St. Louis and I got Rams season tickets. I paid way more attention to Cardinals baseball than Illini basketball. The 1996 Stanley Cup playoffs were everything. I thought that's what you were supposed to do - you graduate, more students take your spot in Orange Krush, and you emphasize your professional teams.
It didn't take me long to see the error of my ways. The 1999 Illini football season and the 99/00 Illini basketball season brought me back. 2001 locked it up for good (Elite Eight, BCS Bowl). What was I thinking when I dropped my Illini football season tickets for Rams season tickets?
2006 was another important year in my fandom development. 2005 Illini basketball had just happened, so my "wait, I really only care about the Illini" was rewarded with a near national championship (in my city!). And then the Cardinals won the World Series in 2006 (and I lucked into tickets for the series clinching win). I've said this so many times since then - that title closed the book on professional sports for me. The little devastated kid after the 1985 and 1987 World Series finally got his title and he didn't need anything else. From 2006 forward, I was more or less 95% Illini, 5% my professional teams.
But in 2006 I also added a team. I got into the World Cup that year and decided that I needed to pick a kickball team. Bill Simmons had written a "how I'm choosing my EPL team" article, and that kind of pushed me to pick a Premier League team. I had a friend who had family in Birmingham, England, and they were all Aston Villa fans (I met a few of them at his wedding), and that was enough for me to pick Aston Villa. The next time that family visited, they had heard some guy in the States had picked Villa because of them, so I received some gifts (coasters, a scarf, a beer mug) with Aston Villa logos.
It's fairly amazing to me how quickly my fandom grew. At this point, Aston Villa is easily third behind Illini Football and Illini Basketball. I honestly have no idea why. The Cardinals won another World Series in 2011 and honestly, Aston Villa getting promoted back to the Premier League on Monday was a bigger sporting event for me. I have no explanation for that - it's just what it is.
I guess I kind of skipped over that part. If you're familiar with the Premier League, you know about relegation. The worst three clubs go down at the end of the year, the best three clubs in that second tier (called "Championship") get promoted up to the Premier League. And the way Championship works, the top two in the standings get automatic promotion while teams 3-6 have a four-team playoff to determine who goes up.
And this is why this season meant so much for Aston Villa. A year ago they made the playoff but lost to Fulham in this very same playoff final. Fulham went up to the Premier League, Villa stayed down. And then, last summer, there were major financial issues with the club (long story, but the rich new owner didn't have much, you know, money, so the club was teetering on the edge of financial disaster. Two new owners bought a majority stake in the club just before the season, saving it from disaster). After a very rough start to the season which saw the manager fired, Villa went on a roll after the first of March, winning ten straight to move from 13th in the standings to 5th.
Let me put that in Illini basketball terms. Villa started the season much like Illini basketball (remember how we were 5-14 in mid-January?). And then, much like Illini basketball, Villa went on a shocking run. But they kept the run going. So picture Illinois turning the season around with the Maryland win but then winning ten straight. Suddenly 5-14 becomes 15-14. The Illini use this surge to get a good seed in the Big Ten Tournament and then win the damn thing. Imagine your feeling on Selection Sunday if we went from 5-14 to making the Tournament. That's how Villa fans felt on Monday. From absolutely dead in early March (10-15-9) to getting promoted to the Premier League at the end of May.
I also need to mention the Jack Grealish thing. The only time you might have heard about Aston Villa this year was when Grealish was punched by a fan who ran onto the field. It was in a rivalry game (called a "derby" over there) against cross-town Birmingham City. Grealish got up from the punch, scored the winning goal, lead his team to eight more victories and a playoff berth, and now goes up to the Premier League while Birmingham City had no chance at the playoff after being docked 9 points in the standings for cheating (and were almost docked more points for the fan punch). I can't even come up with an "Eric Gordon misses nine consecutive free throws to send Illinois to the NCAA Tournament while Indiana goes home" comp for that. It's too perfect.
ANYWAY, my Monday and Tuesday were spent reading and listening to everything I possibly could about Aston Villa's win. I honestly fell asleep last night with my ear buds in watching fan celebration clips on Twitter. It's 48 hours later and I still cannot get enough. And this is for a team in England that I only picked 13 years ago. I have no idea why, but... I just go with it.
And I'll tell you - watching the final on my phone on Monday from the family lake weekend was so terrifying. I didn't have much of a cell signal at the lake, and there's no wifi, so that photo above is the picture quality I had to deal with. Right there the game is in stoppage time, and the clock turns red, and there's no way to read the numbers, so I'm watching with zero idea how much of the seven additional minutes have gone by.
Keep in mind that this was the playoff final. In the playoff semifinal, it went to penalty kicks. And with Villa up 3-2, just needing one more to go to the final, Tammy Abraham (yes, Villa's top goal scorer is named "Tammy" - fight me) goes for the "the goalkeeper is going to dive out of the way so I'm gonna go right down the middle", and the keeper responded with "I'm going to dive but kick my feet in case he goes right down the middle", and the keeper got a foot on it, but it still went in (while I was DYING watching online).
All of that to say this: sports! When Illini football and basketball return, man, it's going to be so satisfying. These three seasons for Aston Villa down in Championship were so awful, but there's something about sticking with a club at the bottom and then riding the promotion wave... it's exhilarating.
Again, it's so weird that I care so much, but I just go with what my heart tells me. This St. Louis Blues run right now? I'm enjoying it.. through other people's eyes. I haven't followed the Blues closely enough the last 15 years to really get into this run. I'd just be hopping on the bandwagon if I was obsessively following them when they're winning (even though the Blues taught me to read). So I'm enjoying following along with friends (and my boys), hoping they get the title they so desperately want. Many people I know have been obsessively following the Blues for FIFTY YEARS without even a Stanley Cup Final appearance. I really hope they get what they've always wanted.
My title? That's easy. I want a Rose Bowl win and a basketball national title before I die. And I'm going to hold out hope until I get it.
And then I'll watch the highlights for years.