I’m probably seven or eight, and I’m attending my first Texas Christian University football game.
My dad wants to take my picture with the school mascot. There is one problem: The TCU mascot is the Horned Frog, represented at the time by an enormous, purple-gray anthropomorphic toad with googly eyes the size of dinner plates and a plush-upholstered foam head that sprouts a half dozen spikes the length of my arm. Having been beckoned by my dad, the toad is coming toward us; tears are leaking from my eyes and my chest begins to hitch in silent sobs. My dad finally notices, whereupon he swoops me into his arms and ushers us back to our seats.
And that is the last TCU football game I attend—or even pay attention to—for 30 years.
About six years ago, something changed. Well, a lot changed, but we’ll get to that later. The point is that things have changed for me with respect to TCU football, which I have come to love with a passion that both confuses and humbles me.
I am a 45-year-old professional political commenter with a progressive bent—a modern feminist who wants universal health care, free college tuition and an end to America’s violent overseas adventures. I also want a resounding victory in the Alamo Bowl and the head of Art Briles on a stick.
When the Frogs play Stanford in San Antonio on Dec. 28, I’ll be sitting on the edge of my couch, having already nagged my husband into donning his TCU hat. I’ll have a cup of coffee on hand that’s destined to grow cold, and the cats will already be hiding. My dad and I will be five or six text exchanges deep into a newfound animus against Bryce Love (who’s not as easy to hate as Baker Mayfield, but we’ll find a way). And no matter who wins, during the game there will be glimpses of bliss: the transcendence of total absorption, of forgetting everything but the next 10 yards.
I spent part of the bachelorette weekend for my second marriage watching TCU while my bridesmaids went shopping. I have exploded into obscenities in front of children because of a last-minute end zone interception. I have scoured message boards looking for information on Texas high school quarterbacks. I own enough purple-and-white swag to wear something different every college football weekend—but I don’t, because I have a lucky hoodie too. In October, when the Frogs rose to No. 4 in the AP poll, I went in on Sugar Bowl tickets and daydreamed about a gritty defensive battle ending in an Alabama defeat. A few weeks later, in Fort Worth for the Texas game, I had my picture taken with a life-sized bronze replica of the TCU mascot. The photographer was my dad.
My dad’s name is Sam, and that is generally what I call him when I am talking to people who aren’t also his children—and that is everyone, since I am an only child. He also identifies himself to me as “Sam” when he calls or leaves a voicemail. “Hello, Ana,” he’ll say. “This is your father, Sam.” (Sometimes: “This is Sam, your father.”)
He is a mathematician by training and a Texan by birth, which may explain why his emotional range is bounded by both logic and stoicism. As an adolescent, the somewhat formal nature of our relationship was a relief; I moved in with him when I was 15, while my mother swerved in and out of functional alcoholism. They had divorced when I was 10, and things under my mother’s roof were fine for a while, but my teen years coincided with a brief but steep downward spin on her part.
Sam was a professor in the business school at the University of Texas for most of my childhood, but by the time my living arrangement with my mom became unsustainable, he’d moved to the University of Nebraska. I arrived in Lincoln for my sophomore year of high school ready to push against boundaries, almost immediately breaking the 11 p.m. curfew he’d set. I remember walking into our house on a crisp fall night, ready to argue that my tardiness was itself proof that the curfew was too early. He appeared on the stairs in his robe and pajamas, unsmiling. I started into my spiel, and he interrupted: “Ana,” he said. “If you can’t make it home by 11, that’s fine. But if I can’t count on you to be where you’ll say you’ll be, that makes you a bad roommate.”
He turned back to go to bed and left me gaping on the landing. I don’t think I ever broke curfew again.
There is an entire canon of anecdotes that rely on Sam’s analytical, pragmatic and almost unfailingly literal worldview as a mostly affectionate punch line. Sam is also an atheist, which I used to think of as a bold choice, given that he did go to Texas Christian University and spent his childhood on military bases or under the toughest leather of the Bible Belt. I long assumed there was a story there. But when at some point during my own years of religious questing I decided to engage him about his lack of faith, it went like this: “Dad, why don’t you believe in God?”
“Because He doesn’t exist.”
And then he went back to reading the paper.
It’s not that Sam lacks the capacity for faith: He has been loyal to TCU football for more than six decades. Even before he enrolled as an undergrad, he went to games with my grandfather, who was a Ph.D. student there. I have heard more than once the story of Sam’s attending the 1959 Cotton Bowl, in which TCU fought Air Force to an ugly 0–0 tie. This stretch of devotion suggests that he is not immune to irrational convictions, as being a fan of the Frogs has only recently become something resembling a rational choice. That game with the hideous mascot would have been in 1980, one of their 27 losing seasons between ’65 and ’97. In fact, the Lovecraftian “SuperFrog”—described by the campus paper at the time as “a cross between a TCU linebacker and the monster in the movie Alien”—had been introduced only a year earlier in a desperate attempt to gin up interest in a team that was an embarrassment to the mighty Southwest Conference, finishing last or second-to-last (Thanks, Rice!) every year since 1971. “Oh, they were terrible,” Sam says now. “It was sometimes embarrassing to be at a bar and admit you were a fan. And the people I worked with, they were a lot of times from other Southwest Conference or big-time football schools; I got razzed a bit.
“But I could never give up on them. I had so many good feelings about being there as a student—which were mostly crappy [football] years, too . . . with some good times. We upset Texas, remember.”
They did. In 1961, Texas was ranked first in the nation, and Sam’s fellow ROTC cadet, QB Sonny Gibbs, threw a 50-yard bomb off a flea-flicker to win 6–0. Between that game and 1995, the Frogs beat UT just three more times before the dissolution of the SWC ended the rivalry for nearly two decades.
I understand now that, as a fan, you hold on to what you can. For most of my life, though, I had little understanding or curiosity about the sentimental ties that bind fans to teams. By the time my dad and I were roommates in Lincoln, I, as a budding hipster, embraced that the car we shared bore a purple-and-white FEAR THE FROG bumper sticker; it was delightfully inscrutable, especially in the midst of Husker Nation. I doubted if other drivers could even identify it as something related to sports—another reason I thought it was cool.
Aside from that, I somehow got through 18 years split between Texas and Nebraska without ever really caring much about college football. It wasn’t that I hated football, it was that sports in general seemed to be an insane way to spend time and money and emotional energy. Why develop a connection that’s based on something as arbitrary as location? These were tribal rituals, not a choice that reflected personal discernment. I could admire feats of athleticism on the field without tying my well-being to an outcome.
Because I live in America, I could hardly avoid football. When social engagements dictated that I pay some attention, I thought it was clever to make a show out of my detachment. I picked teams to root for based on obvious artifice or irony: In the 2001 Super Bowl, I cheered for the Ravens because they’re the only team with a mascot related to literature. If my friends were sitting down to an SEC game, I’d pick the team that integrated earlier or whose state sent fewer troops to fight in the Confederate army. (These were often close calls.) Off-the-field bad behavior could give me a team to root against. In the absence of any other deciding factors, I relied on mascots. In retrospect, I was kind of a d--- about it.
But as I spent my 20s and 30s advertising my intellectual and emotional independence—while building a career as a television pundit and sardonic political observer—my outward shell of snark was protecting a precarious inner self. Like my mother, I had become a more-or-less functional alcoholic and was getting “less” every year. At 38, I was self-medicating a bipolar disorder with copious amounts of alcohol and a smattering of choice prescription drugs, sloshing through an increasingly unhappy marriage and slowly but surely sabotaging my career and my life through blown deadlines, erratic behavior and the elaborate lies I cooked up to hide it all.
One of the people I lied to the most was Sam. His default mode of respectful distance and his assumption that I continued in his tradition of transparent frankness made it easy. I told him things were fine, things were good, things were great. And when I couldn’t stomach lying to him, I just didn’t get in touch. I sent cheery emails and late but extravagant presents. I acted like a good former roommate.
Then, in 2011, Sam got a call in the middle of the night. The way we put it together, he made it from his home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to a hospital in Austin, in something like 12 hours. Sam does remember calling the airline and saying it was a “family emergency” and that “my daughter might die.”
He had received a call that I’d taken an intentional overdose of Xanax on top of a prodigious head start of booze.
By the time I arrived in the psych ward, literally shaking off alcohol and benzodiazepine withdrawal, I didn’t have a whole lot of people in my corner besides Sam. My marriage was whimpering to a close. My mother was caught up in her own battle with addiction—she died a little over a year later. Most of my friends wished me well but had learned my bright promises were empty underneath the shine.
I trudged off to rehab lonely and in utter defeat, which turns out to be a great state of mind for starting to get better. I had met the enemy and it was me—so I surrendered. Studies show that extended intensive, in-patient treatment is one of the few methods with any success in treating addiction. But it’s prohibitively expensive—around $20,000 a month—and it wasn’t covered by my soon-to-be-ex-husband’s insurance. I had next to no money. So Sam cashed out some of his retirement funds and paid for all of it. I once tried to thank him for stepping in the way he did.
“Well, statistically, that’s what works,” he said. “Of course I paid for it.”
The foundational truths of my life today are these: I am sober. I am, finally, a fully functioning member of society. And my dad was there for me when I had given up on myself.
By now, you may have put together that I became a TCU fan not long after I got sober. I can’t pin down the exact moment that Frogs football moved from something to chat about on Saturday to something to fight about with strangers online, but I do remember being smitten in the 2012 season. That was when freshman Trevone Boykin filled in at QB after starter Casey Pachall was suspended, and Boykin’s still-immature performance was punctuated by moments of sheer magic—the kind of fourth-down saves and last-minute heroics he’d polish and repeat over the next three years.
TCU went only 7–6 that season, but as I reckoned with early sobriety, toiling forward in zealous imperfection had immediate appeal. The Frogs weren’t a great team, but they were exciting. They had two heart-stopping multiple-overtime finishes and two other games that went down to the wire. It was a perfectly legal high—and one Sam and I could share.
I was hooked. I arranged my Saturdays around football and developed opinions on the read option. I roasted opponents and made friends on Twitter. My then boyfriend marveled that my appetite for football had grown larger than his. (“Come on, it’s time for Dateline.”) After we were engaged early in 2014, I informed him we’d be getting married on New Year’s Day—it was symbolic of a new start, sure, but it also meant I knew exactly what we’d be doing for our anniversary every year. Sure enough, we spent the downhill side of our honeymoon night watching the Buckeyes beat the Tide in the Sugar Bowl. The years since have been just as romantic; all-day football for the two of us, with nachos and wings and a tub of popcorn we only occasionally share with the cats.
I am fully aware that by traditional standards of college football fandom, where anything less than generations is jumping on the bandwagon, six years is a shamefully insignificant show of loyalty. The fact that my obsession with the game is relatively new isn’t even the most suspect thing about it for a lot of my peers. They’re befuddled that I would choose this sport at this moment in American history—amid scandals about sexual assault and concussions, as national interest wanes and the President himself seems intent on ruining football as an escape from what used to seem like a separate set of struggles.
The easy way to explain it is, of course, that I became a TCU fan to become closer to my dad. But Sam also really likes playing bridge. Why didn’t I pick up that?
I have a whole suite of answers. I love that college football is both essentially meritocratic but also full of wild upsets. I love that most college athletes won’t ever set foot on an NFL field, that this is their moment and they will wring all they can from it. Perhaps predictably, I love the redemptive metaphor embedded in downs, that all mistakes can be forgiven—even erased—with one brilliant play.
I love the unexpected camaraderie I’ve found, not just with other TCU fans but also with a whole insane subculture of people that I used to silently mock. I love people who recognize something truly special, and even spiritual, in fall Saturdays. Surely, this gorgeous spectacle of desire and reconciliation means there’s hope for us all.
And TCU? Well, I do still love the strident perversity of having the Horned Frog as mascot. (It helps that as of 1999, he was redesigned to be an order of magnitude less terrifying.) I love that it has the smallest student body in the Big 12 but are often playing at the top. I love Gary Patterson’s truculent waddle and half-time adjustments. But like any time we find love, the stories we tell about why it happened only make sense in retrospect. I started watching TCU games because my dad was watching them, sure—but then I started to care. I started to care a lot.
Some research suggests I was in fact just trading one addiction for another; it turns out that you don’t even have to be betting on a game for your brain to latch onto its outcome as a reward. Fans will experience a release of dopamine with their team’s victory through the same neurotransmitters that reward us for anything. Once that cycle starts, once you become attached to a team, the reward system is self-perpetuating. Says Eric Simons, author of The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession, “You feel good, and your brain remembers how it is you got to feel good, and so you do it again.”
My dad stopped drinking around me after I put down the bottle; I wouldn’t mind if he still drank, but it touches me that he chooses not to. My mom once said that Sam being buzzed was “the only time he’s any fun,” but I guess it’s possible she never watched football with him. He’s now in Atlanta and I’m in Minneapolis, and our banter is almost entirely by text, his enthusiasm captured in uncharacteristic exclamation points and ALL CAPS. Sometimes his natural reticence still speaks volumes; in the emotional code of in-game fan commentary, you don’t need much more than a well-timed “S---.” We engage in trash talk both petty and profound, from mocking Mayfield to opining that Baylor doesn’t just deserve the NCAA death penalty but should probably be tortured, too. We linger over specific plays and commiserate over boneheaded penalties or commentators who do not seem to be giving TCU its proper due.
Geography also means we’ve been to just a handful of games together. This year we met up in Fort Worth to see TCU grind down Texas—that’s when I made my peace with the mascot frog. We spent a goofy couple of hours in the campus store buying Frog paraphernalia for my toddler nieces and nephew. We talked about going to the playoffs. For all the disappointment that came with seeing TCU eventually sink out of the New Year’s Day bowl picture, I’m a little relieved that I won’t have to explain to my husband why we’d be spending this anniversary apart.
I remember when I realized that TCU football unlocked something strange and beautiful in Sam.
We were texting during the Oklahoma game in 2012—the Sooners had come on strong, but the Frogs surged in the fourth quarter. With two minutes left and the ball in their possession, a march to the end zone could tie it up.
Sam: I think they can do it.
Me: I hope so. I don’t know. I’m wearing my jersey—are you?
Sam: I am not. Let me go get it.
In that moment, I was surprised by my favorite atheist counting on a lucky charm. TCU wound up losing, too.
But I realize now I only thought his behavior was inconsistent because I hadn’t been paying attention. Of course Sam puts faith in things that logic would have you steer clear of, but love draws you to anyway. He always had faith in me.