The NFL Beast

I swear that Penn Station in Manhattan was designed by Daedalus himself. It’s an endless labyrinth of train tunnels, convenience stores, ticket machines and rushed New Yorkers with manners not at the forefront of their thoughts. I’m half expecting the Minotaur himself to walk past in a Mets hat trying to find the purple line Subway out to Flushing. I was trying to find the train that would take and many others across to the Meadowlands and Metlife Stadium for the big NFL game between the Giants and 49ers from san Francisco. This was a match up of NFC royalty with eight super bowls between them and dynasties well established. While my allegiances lay towards the Patriots of New England for the past 20 years thanks to a random Drew Bledsloe college football card I had in high school this would be the only game I could attend whilst in the US with the added bonus of perhaps seeing the Daily Telegraph poster boy Jarryd Hayne.

The day had been spent in glorious unseasonal sunshine getting lost in Central Park, accidently meeting Queenslanders in Harlem when buying a bagel and watching pick-up basketball near my apartment in Brooklyn that was just slightly more skilled than the standard at Morley Rec Centre back in Perth. Now seemingly running late I was just trying to find Giants fans to tail to find the right train without looking like too much of a tourist. The Geelong beanie and Central Crocs Masters Footy Club polo shirt didn’t help. Finally some Giants fans rushed past with urgency and I followed with beers in the plastic bag ready for consumption at the tailgate party. The tailgate party was something I had been told about and read about over the years of having an eye on the NFL and was perhaps looking forward to this more than the game. Friends had been but they couldn’t describe it. There were whispers of people mixing and talking football on a massive scale. Of a massive community bonded by sport, meat and alcohol. It seemed like an un-attainable fantasy even getting to the US let alone a game to experience this. Like something you read about in the forum section of your brother’s penthouse mag when in Year 9.

I finally found the train with only asking one person the way in the end. People crack cans, they mingle, they talk about the game. I hear some familiar antipodean accents.

“You guys Aussies?”

“New Zealand actually.”

“Oh..”

Bridges burned I turned around and notice Japanese tourists are onboard in all the Giants gear chatting excitedly and adopting unwavering obsession with a foreign sport and team like they tend to do. No 49ers fans just yet, will there be any? Will Hayne get a game? Is my ticket a fake? The next five hours or so would be an education. And then there was the tail gate party. Another changeover and then on the final train out to the stadium from Hoboken. As the train inched along more cans a cracked and I decided to give the Bud Light a nudge in a can almost the size of the premiership cup.

The train curved around and in the fading afternoon sunshine Metlife appeared through the window sticking out of the surrounding swampland like the Hall of Doom in the old ‘Superfriends’ cartoons. It is absolutely massive. Everyone is off the train and in to the carpark to find friends, find merch, find a pop up bar to watch the earlier games or loiter with intent can-in-hand in the carpark. Being here solo I wander around in wonder at some of the set ups in the car park that are part of the ritual. One group of lads had a 40” TV set up watching another game while they chowed down on burgers. A nuclear looking family had the full BBQ out complete with 10ft inflatable giants player tied to the people-mover. Another group have the WAGS on the salads while they finish up the meat on the cooker, men in what could be spread over three generations all with ‘NY’ shaven in to their heads like some cult ready to drink the kool-aid. Many others are playing what seems to be a game that is a cross between coits and bocce with big hacky sacks. ‘Manning 10’ features on most shirts.

I got talking to some NYU students originally from Arkansas who didn’t normally believe in the NFL compared to the supposed purity of College Football but took up the offer of tickets. They thought I was British and when corrected they asked if I was a Giants fan to which I said yes to avoid any grief from any locals in what was self defeatist numbnuttery. I asked them how they think Hayne would go. They had no idea who he was even when I dumb it down saying it’s ‘that Aussie guy’. Near us are some other students that define the college movie stereotype crushing empty cans, talking at 120 decibels and containing all the reserved subtly of revelers at Flemington around the start of Race 8. More and more people arrive on the trains, buses or in the carpark marching over the bridge to the party hollering and belting out ‘let’s go Giants!’ with the same gusto as Billy ‘Queenslander!’ Moore in the 95 State of Origin series. The atmosphere is electric. The anticipation is palpable. Photos were taken and social media statuses were updated for friends and family back home no doubt heading to work heavy with mondayitis.

Game time is approaching yet I don’t want it to arrive. The carpark is the site of the former Giants Stadium where Ireland defeated Italy in one of the great Football World Cup upsets, many a band played to tens of thousands and where, according to urban legend, union heavyweight Jimmy Hoffa was buried.  The carpark is now a throng of people socialising and hanging out with the smell of cooked meat from what seems like the world’s largest collective BBQ this side of Australia Day emanating through the now dark still sky. Errant footballs are being thrown hit car roofs and invade the personal spaces of little gatherings and hardly any police or security seen. Why is this? I could not fathom how in Australia football fans are kept under such a tight watch for anything public where this is so free and easy without any threat of violence. Is it us as Australian sports fans who have kicked off once too often over the years to get the babysitting we do? Was this a lucky night of not seeing any incidents or it’s just different cultures for different events? A lack of car parks and more suburban venues over the years? It’s a bit chicken or the egg when it comes to the overzealous security at Australian sporting events now. I’m sure the police weren’t far away if required.

I took one more quick walk around finishing off the last of the beers and holding on to the football the good ol’ boys from Arkansas had given me as a gift. One Winnebago had six beer taps sticking out the side featuring beers some fans brew themselves and give to others. Money isn’t asked for as per the unwritten rules of the tail gate party but no one scabs or begs. Out the front of the Winnebago kids kicked along a Boston Red Sox shirt that has been set on fire on the ground. The Giants were not even playing Boston. It’s wasn’t even the same Sport.

“We just hate Boston” is the simple answer from the man pouring the beers when I asked, his eyes fixed on pouring his beer properly. Apparently the ritualistic burning of something Boston happens before any Giants game.

Going through the massive security set up to get in to ground I now see the security and the police. I didn’t want to leave the gathering behind, many seem happy just to stay out there and watch on the big screen without tickets. It’s social interaction involving sport on a level I’d never seen before. Some 49ers fans are in the line with me, they struggle to answer and shrug their shoulders when asked about Jarryd Hayne until I add he’s the token Australian. I guess no one does hype like the Murdoch sporting press in Australia at times. Lining up I can see thousands of people walking up thoroughfares and stairwells inside the ground behind glass like ants in an ant farm.

Inside the stadium is a mass of people, of one giant American flag that stretches the pitch and marching band always with a military undertone. Fireworks laud the entrance of the Giants on to the ground. Fireworks also mark the national anthem and start of the game too. Karl Langdon in a gold lame’ jacket at Subiaco Oval as entertainment for an Eagles game this is not. The game is a seesawing affair initially although it is slow to get going on the scoreboard. After a field goal each in the first quarter the star quarterback (and probable future Republican Senator) Eli Manning broke the game open passing short for a touchdown before another field goal to make it 13-3 to the Giants. At half time it’s 13-6 after the 49ers get a late field goal.

The people watching is immense. Some people are roaring drunk giving finding their voice, some give off the impression of coming from area of the five boroughs you just don’t visit after dark. Pockets of 49ers fans were around me and dots in the massive sea of blue and the flags, band and loud music came out again for the half time show. Everything was sponsored during the game. EVERYTHING.

In the second half the 49ers come out with some gusto and that includes Hayne who up until that point had been as useful as a guestbook at a brothel. Up at the end of the field where I’m up in the nosebleeds surrounded by low flying aircraft looking for Newark Airport the 49ers inch closer. Hayne received the ball and made a great run to get them within yards of the touchdown line and a first down. The 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick passed off to Hayne again and the Australian was tackled inches short of the line denying him and his side a touchdown which would’ve resulted in a 10 page wrap around in Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph and an OA in the post. The 49ers did tie things up though with the following play and it was 13-13.

The third quarter was tight as both sides were forced to punt but again Manning drove his side up the field with shot gun passing to finally find Beckham Jr and make it 20-13. The massive screens implored the locals to ‘Get Loud’ and they do with interest up to three quarter time. The 49ers had the ball and drove forward as Hayne looked like an insignificant bench warming speck from my seat. Kaepernick’s passing is good and has it back to 20-20 after a touchdown and the extra point. Both teams have a lot to lose. The Giants have dropped games they shouldn’t and the 49ers have lost three in a row and every time a team has the ball they have to do something with it, anything, as the clock ticks down.

The Giants inched up the ground getting first downs even with the offensive fouls and being penalized yards. After coming to within mere inches of getting a touchdown the Giants go for the field goal and make it 23-20 but there is a lot of time left, too much for them. The 49ers make every chance count with the ball with Kaepernick throwing gold twice to gain 50 yards. Rushing (running with the ball) gets the ball within striking distance for a field goal to tie it up but the away team kept going and run over the line for the touchdown to put them in the lead for the first time all game 27-23. They hadn’t led all game.

Things are getting a little hostile in the crowd as the massive stadium seem to deflate like a giant bouncy castle. The tension was thick in the air down below the ‘tourist’ seats I was in and the Giants would need one hell of a drive to get the touchdown with 1 minute 45 on the clock. All seemed lost but there was a Manning at quarterback for the Giants so anything could happen. Manning’s passes were crisp and accurate scoring first downs as they marched up the field around timeouts. With some 40 seconds left Manning did a neat little pass on the half way line over the top over the massive 49ers linebackers to the running back Vereeen who went on a magnificent run that put the Giants in a winnable position with a first down some 20 yeards out. Metlife was been inflated once again as the home side called its last time out in a final couple of minutes that had dragged out over 15.

With 26 seconds left on the clock this was THE play, the whole game has come down to this as the some 80,000 Giants fans yelled in 80,000 different octaves. The snap back to Manning was good and the superstar found Donnell was running in to the end zone with two defenders trying to cover and through in a hopeful pass. Donnell was hit by the two defenders but somehow managed to catch the ball with a mark Cyril would win a Norm Smith for. Despite the two markers he held the ball and crashed down for a game winning and  ear defeaning touchdown. The extra point was good and it was 30-27. The Giants fans are a mess through a swill of alcohol, stress and adulation all deliriously happy and looking for the 49ers fans in the crowd to give a serve too in true New York fashion. The 49ers fans look like they have been hosed with stale milk and with season turning very Port Adelaide 2015.

The 49ers have 21 seconds to get the ball up the other end but no hail mary is going to save them now and the Giants win the kind of game you want to show people who dismiss American Football as slow, hard to understand and weak because of the pads and helmets. I have always found it easier to explain this sport to people compared to AFL to people from a foreign land. An amazing game to see in the flesh.

The train back over to New York is boisterous. Some college girls pass around a vodka bottle to other young Giants fans like it’s spring break while others are back believing the Giants can do something this season after their third win in a row in the hellish division that is the NFC East. Overhearing the banter these fans are like any from where we all come from around Australia. They celebrate, the commiserate, they hope, they get ahead of themselves and they show some irrational passion testing theories on their team and others.

I was just glad to experience such a rare occasion. Whilst it was the hated Giants and the Mannings this was a monstrous event to be part of almost as good as the Sopranos tour through New Jersey….almost.

About Dennis Gedling

RTR FM Presenter. Glory Guerrillas Producer and Co-Host. Contributer to Football Nation Radio and Football West. Worships at the feet of the mighty Cats, Socceroos, Matildas, West Perth, Glory and Glasgow's Green and White most of the time.

Comments

  1. Dennis- as a Denver Broncos fan who’s not been to a NFL game I enjoyed this immensely. Thanks for the local colour of the commute and the pre-game fun too.

    Years ago I caught a glimpse of Candlestick Park as our tour bus sped past and felt a shiver thinking about the Montana heroics of that stadium.

    Would love to read more of your stateside adventures. Well played.

    PS- even as a now Paddy-less Crows fan I liked the Cats photo.

  2. Wayne Ball says:

    I went to see the Packers take on the 49ers at Candlestick in week 1 of the 2013 season. Not the result I wanted, but an experience I will never forget.

  3. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says:

    Wow Dennis, Was that a Bud Light can or an anti-aircraft shell? Sounds almost as good as the pre-game barbies at Football Park.

    A great colour piece. Thanks

  4. Dennis Gedling says:

    Mickey, it’s the only game I could get to of anything in the three weeks I was there unfortunately without taking a trip up to Buffalo. NBA hadn’t quite kicked off yet and the Baseball was in to post season. Missed out on a Bruins back at the Garden by a day and was offered a ticket to a Mets play off game against the Dodgers but it was some $140 US so declined which may have been a dumb thing to do as it was a hell of a series. I just wanted an NFL game more than anything though as it is seemingly what the AFL has wanted to be for quite some time. Toured plenty of empty ballparks though.

    Swish, the Almanac stubby holder was given its first major test and passed with flying colours.

    Wayne, it’s definitely an experience. It seemed so free and passionate compared with the over zealous security and general drabness of most games I see at the AFL level in recent times. When people are let off the leash they can actually behave themselves before, during and even after the game.

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