I thought this was it. I really did.
Forty-two years in the making. I thought this Jets team was going to the Super Bowl. Not because Rex Ryan told me so, or because every local columnist was waxing poetic about a “Rexorcism” for long-suffering Jets fans. I thought it was really going to happen because I made it home for kickoff.
Sunday morning I was 1,462 nautical miles from my New York City home on vacation with my family. Not expecting the Jets would beat the Colts or the Patriots on the road, I never changed my plans around to get home for the AFC championship. Now I needed American Airlines to come through for me in a big way.
I needed them to get me to my couch by 6:30 p.m., and it was looking impossible. The flight was delayed an hour. We weren’t due to land at JFK until 5:45. To make matters worse, my wife, my 17-month-old daughter and I were holding two seats in row 37. That’s 36 rows of people who were going to beat me to the immigration line, slowing me down by at least 20 minutes. I kept doing the math in my head. By the time I got through customs, got my bags, got in a cab and got home, I was looking at missing the first quarter, at least. Last year I went to Indianapolis for the AFC championship. This year I would be somewhere over North Carolina. I was mental.
Then I saw Troy Polamalu in the St. Maarten airport.
Not the actual No. 43, but some super-sized dude from Pittsburgh wearing his jersey. He was in the gift shop, buying a stuffed monkey for his kid. The black and gold of that jersey set me off. I felt tension in my neck, bile in my mouth. All week I’d obsessed about destroying the Steelers on Sunday, and knowing I might miss some or all of the game, I decided this was my chance. I walked up to the guy, ready to blow hard. I was going to lead with something about Ben Roethlisberger and underage girls, then hit him with how overrated his offensive line was and finish with details of the Jets 23-17 win over the Steelers five weeks ago. But my body betrayed me. I stuck my hand out and said “Good luck to you.” He shook my hand, smiled and went back to monkey shopping. I stood there shocked and my own civility, wondering if I’d betrayed my team, when the loudspeaker bellowed “Flight 660 to New York is ready for boarding.”
What happened next gave me great green hope. Seated in row 37, the cabin doors closed, the stewardess informed me three seats in row 9 were open. My wife was thrilled because it gave us a seat for our baby. I love my kid, but she never crossed my mind. Row 9 versus row 36 meant I could get through immigration much faster!
Then the captain comes on and tells us due to reduced headwinds, our flying time to New York will get us in FORTY-FIVE minutes early! Seriously?!? That NEVER happens. As we lifted off the tarmac, I began to wonder if this tremendous luck was because I was nice to Troy Polamalu in the gift shop, or if something much bigger
was at play? On the ground in New York, we made it through immigration in five minutes flat. Our bags came off right away, there was NO taxi line, NO traffic, and I swear to God, I was on my couch, IN my Jets jersey at 6:25. I even saw the national anthem.
It had to be fate. Forget all the awful, unspeakable drama I’ve endured as a Jets fan for the past 42 years. The forces of the universe thought I deserved to be home on my couch for what was about to be the greatest victory in franchise history. I am never sure what to believe in, but in that moment, I believed in my heart the Jets were going to win.
Ninety minutes later, they were down 24-0.
The X’s and O’s of the actual game no longer matter. I could complain endlessly about giving the ball to LT on 4th and goal at the 1-yard line, but the Steelers are still on their way to their eighth Super Bowl, and I’m left to question everything. Most of all, my own fandom.
Sports fans should not believe in fate. It’s a pretty word, but it’s really meant to be put on the cake after it’s baked. Last year’s Super Bowl champion Saints were a “team of destiny” only after they won the big game. If Peyton Manning doesn’t throw that fourth-quarter interception, but instead leads his team down the field for the winning score, the Saints and their fans go home with another bitter disappointment. Fandom, as it turns out, has its own unique belief system, headlined by the absurd notion that our involvement in the teams we root for actually matters. We don’t suit up on Sundays, I’m well aware of that. As a fan, I choose to invest emotionally and monetarily in my teams, a cocktail that breeds a level of irrationality, or fanaticism that, honestly, I enjoy. Did it really matter if I was on my couch for kickoff on Sunday? No. It only mattered to me.
I have an old friend who is a die-hard Steelers fan. At the start of the season, he was disgusted with Ben Roethlisberger’s off-field shenanigans and decided not to watch his beloved Steelers for the entire season. He didn’t watch a single minute of football this season, yet his team is in the Super Bowl. Is that fair? Of course not, and if I see him, or the dude with the Polamalu jersey, this time, I’m gonna open my fat mouth and tell them.
Either way, I’ll never, ever book a vacation in January again.
-- Stu Zicherman is a writer and producer for movies and TV shows including "Six Degrees" and "Lights Out."