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THE CELESTIAL HELL OF THE SUPERFAN
George Plimpton
September 13, 1965
When allegiance calls, the archaficionado of pro football sheds the trappings of normal life and, caped in the bliss of his daydreams, flies forth to worship Sunday's sweaty demigods. That is the author above, taking off with pigskin and firewater—a man far gone on the Detroit Lions (for whom he once had the terrible joy of playing quarterback) but a keen observer of his fellow acolytes
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September 13, 1965

The Celestial Hell Of The Superfan

When allegiance calls, the archaficionado of pro football sheds the trappings of normal life and, caped in the bliss of his daydreams, flies forth to worship Sunday's sweaty demigods. That is the author above, taking off with pigskin and firewater—a man far gone on the Detroit Lions (for whom he once had the terrible joy of playing quarterback) but a keen observer of his fellow acolytes

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The people in neighboring seats were craned in toward us, listening, with quizzical looks, as if they thought perhaps the heat had fetched me. I said in a low voice: "Well, never mind."

" 'S been in the bar," I heard one of my friends say to the girl. "Absolutely blotto."

My behavior is perhaps not as odd as I believe; obviously, many millions torment themselves supporting teams of their choice. But there are times when it strikes me as symptomatic of the conduct of—well, what would one call them?—archaficionados, or perhaps more simply, superfans, people absolutely enveloped by their passion. The range is infinite, from the very wealthy—Jerry Wolman, for example, who (it has often been said) bought the Philadelphia Eagles so he could shag footballs with his players on the sidelines—to the crowds in the long overcoats outside the locker-room corridors stamping their feet in the cold, waiting for the players so they can crowd forward to aim an affectionate swipe at their shoulder blades as they pass and call out, "Hey, great game, baby!"

Ever since my involvement with the Lions I have kept at a mild study of these superfans—searching, often worriedly since I have felt myself close to their fraternity, for reflections of my own conduct and finding them too often. The superfan has a primary need for identification with the football team: sitting on the bench, hanging around the locker room, calling the football stars by their first names—these are all wish-fulfillments. The position of the team water boy, for example, offers a fine opportunity for the superfan (if he can get the job) since it requires that he run out with his tray of paper cups and mingle with the players on the field. The Philadelphia Eagles have a 68-year-old ex-millionaire named Frank Keegan who has this happy chore. Keegan is now a construction inspector for the state highway commission, which leaves his Sundays free for the water-boy job. His water bucket is the object of more attention than one might think. The big defensive tackle, Eddie Khayat, has an odd fixation about the ladles (there are four of them) being crossed in the buckets, and he is forever looming over the bucket, getting in Keegan's way, to straighten them out.

The Green Bay Packers' water boy is also a superfan—Harvey Raatz, a night-shift worker in the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Company's bottle house. He and a friend, John Loh, a Milwaukee truck driver, have served since 1956, when they happened to overhear that G.E. (Dad) Braisher, the Packer equipment manager, needed volunteer labor. Assisting the equipment manager is not the most edifying or pleasant of jobs—no one but a superfan would apply—being essentially picking up after each player in the locker room, collecting and separating a dozen or so different items from a sweat-sodden heap and cleaning mud from football cleats and helmets. But the two are on a first-name basis with the players, which is important, and then eventually the game days roll around. While Raatz tends to his water bucket Loh works the sidelines, a new ball in hand to toss in en out-of-bounds pass plays. Both have a close view of the game, and they intend to keep at it, they say—adopting the athlete's aphorism—"as long as the legs hold out."

The Cleveland Browns have a number of auxiliaries, all superfans (last year they had a successful radio producer, John Wellman, working for their equipment manager), with perhaps the oddest of them being a Cleveland cigar-store operator named Abraham Abraham. A general handyman to the Browns, Abraham's specific duty during the game is to try to retrieve the football on field-goal and extra-point attempts. A familiar figure behind the end zone, he dresses in a garish brown-orange business suit which he believes lucky and has worn to games for 19 years. He stares into the sky for the ball, his arms stretched out as if waiting for a bundle of laundry to be tossed from an upstairs window. He usually retrieves successfully but he has been engulfed a number of times by mobs of spectators after the ball, and often of late, something of a showman, he has taken to capering around the periphery of the melee calling penalties on the spectators struggling for the ball, throwing his handerkerchief down and signaling the infraction with the appropriate arm signals to the crowd. The majority of the penalities are, as might be expected, personal fouls.

The most original of the opportunists that my research turned up was a Chicago Bear supporter, George Motyka, a window washer who works a five-foot-wide squeegee across the plate-glass windows of O'Hare International Airport. For some years he had suffered his Sundays at Wrigley Field in a miserable seat under the scoreboard, so poor a location that he finally wrote a plaintive letter to the Bears' office. To what must have been his surprise, he received a letter back offering him a better, if somewhat ambulatory, view of the game—cavorting up and down the sidelines outfitted in a bear costume as the team mascot. For seven years, thus costumed, in the vicinity of the 50-yard line, Motyka has been watching games through the eye apertures of a reinforced-cardboard bear head. His suit, heavily furred, is stifling hot in the early part of the season and exudes the odor of melting glue. In the winter the snowballs thud up against him (he is a favorite target of people in the stands), but Motyka pays little heed. He considers his move from under the scoreboard into the bear suit as "the greatest thing that ever happened to me." It gives him a fine view of the game, and furthermore he enjoys a certain rapport with the team. He has said: "I give 'em a whack on the butt with my paw when they come off the field from doing something good." A sense of disillusionment set in the year of the Bears' championship, when Motyka felt that for all his cavorting and boosting he should have been voted a piece of the team's winnings. "All they give me," he said, "was a lousy tiepin."

If the superfan can't get close to the field and the players, it appears (from my research) that he gets into a profession where the football players come to him—usually he runs a restaurant or a saloon. In Pittsburgh there is Dante Sartorio, a fervent Steeler supporter, who operates Dante's, which Bobby Layne, the Steeler ex-quarterback, refers to in his book Always on Sunday as a hangout for "suffering mothers, relaxing athletes and swinging losers."

In Philadelphia there is John Taxin, the impresario of the Old Original Bookbinders Restaurant, a notable establishment, who supports the Eagles with such ardor that he usually picks up the check for any player who eats in the place.

California has John Sproatt, a restaurateur famous for his fog-horn voice and his place, which he calls The Bat Rack. He is an oddity among superfans in that his frenzied admiration is for an individual rather than a team—Norm Van Brocklin, once with the Rams (where Sproatt got to know him), then the Eagles and now the Minnesota Vikings' head coach. When Van Brocklin was quarterbacking the Eagles, Sproatt was certainly the most far-traveled of the superfans, almost invariably having to make a transcontinental trip for each game to watch his idol play.

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