(This story originally appeared in Jon Hamm’s newsletter. Subscribe here)
I used to be That Sports Fan.
You know the kind. The one that can occasionally let fandom go to toxic places. Sub in the word “frequently” or “constantly” or “eternally” as appropriate.
Heck, you may be reading this and nodding along in acknowledgment. It’s a phase pretty much every sports fan goes through.
I grew up as a fan of the OU Sooners. I was the kind of fanatic I now roll my eyes at, the kind that wanted coaches fired after every loss, if not after every touchdown surrendered. The one that hated rivals because… I was supposed to? Because it’s what my friends did? I’m not even sure how it started or where it came from.
The likes of Oklahoma State and the University of Texas never did anything to me, yet they were the worst because of reasons. Thank everything good and green that I did not have access to a social media platform like Facebook or Twitter in the late 1990s.
A Bedlam loss by OU in Gallagher Iba Arena or Lloyd Noble would wreck the rest of my day. An OU loss on Saturday to anyone — football or basketball — irked me until at least Tuesday. It would burn me up when Eddie Sutton’s troops had the gall to have a better season than Kelvin Sampson’s crew.
This is a safe space, so I can admit that I used to do that silly thing where I would type “OUr team” on message boards.
(I was not a face painter, though. I had some standards.)
My fan behavior and attitude changed in an instant one evening.
I can’t recall exactly what I was doing at home on the evening of Saturday, January 27, 2001. But I do remember getting an AOL Instant Message from my friend Brad that night.
(Before smartphones and phone apps, this is how people messaged each other. If you don’t know what America Online is or was, consider yourself fortunate.)
Brad told me to turn on the news. One of the OSU team planes was missing on its trip back from Boulder, Colorado. The Cowboys had lost a basketball game to the Buffaloes earlier that evening.
I spent the rest of my night glued to KWTV’s breaking news coverage and messaging Brad and others. I kept thinking — hoping, innocently — that this was all some big mixup and that everything was fine. I was naive about so much in the world at the age of 25. I didn’t understand that major news outlets like CNN were covering this because the outcome was likely grave.
I remember the News 9 crew breaking into regular programming and providing updates knowing that their colleague Bill Teegins was on the missing plane. With each passing moment, reality began to set in and it was incredibly somber.
I was stunned by how stoic the anchors were at that moment. I also felt it squarely in my chest when they could not be.
Soon we would learn the horrible fate of those on board the plane. Teegins. Kendall Durfey. Bjorn Fahlstrom. Nate Fleming. Will Hancock. Daniel Lawson. Brian Luinstra. Denver Mills. Pat Noyes. Jared Weiberg.
All Oklahomans. All human beings. All part of a college program that I had been conditioned to dislike because toxic fandom said I had to.
But I couldn’t do it anymore.
That moment hit me hard; the aftermath even more so. I could not and still cannot imagine having to do what Sutton did that night: making at least 10 phone calls to tell people that their loved ones were suddenly gone. I could only imagine the hell their friends and family went through, and the reality was probably a million times worse. To this day — 23 years later — when I hear Victor Williams recount the events of that night to Jenni Carlson, it’s incredibly heavy.
The Cowboys soldiered on and finished the season. On Valentine’s Day in 2001, just weeks after the tragedy, Bedlam was held in Stillwater. The Crimson and Cream Sooners, ranked 13th in the nation at the time, warmed up wearing orange and black shirts commemorating the 10 OSU victims.
If I hadn’t gotten the memo weeks earlier it was loud and clear now: some things in life are more important than the color of laundry someone wears.
The Cowboys not only ran the Sooners out of the building that night, they ran them west on Highway 51 and south on I-35 back to Norman, winning 72-44. And perhaps for the first time, I wasn’t even the slightest bit upset about an OU loss.
I escaped from the pit of fanatic toxicity before I became as mad as The Joker. It never should have taken something so tragic to make me more reasonable.
Years later, I am far from perfect when it comes to my rooting interests but I’m much better. I can still get triggered from time to time, sometimes in unexpected ways. For instance, I got quite mad online when Oklahoma State was robbed of a chance to compete in the 2012 BCS National Championship game. That was unexpected.
I also think the refs should have called pass interference on Dylan Smith a few months ago but hey, that’s life sometimes.
(Also Justin Gilbert intercepted Blake Bell in 2013, if I’m being completely honest.)
Sports sparks passion and sometimes that passion is blinding. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and behave in ways that would cause embarrassment down the road, if not seconds later. We can all do a little bit better, even if social media platforms encourage us not to be.
We can all take a moment and contemplate where the line is between cheering for a team and being just the worst about it. I say this no matter what team color occupies your closet, your home office walls, your car, or whatever inanimate object.
On another January day when we Remember The Ten, I hope we all take a moment to check our fandom. Reconsider tweeting that joke about a rival that could go viral for all the wrong reasons. Think about how your behavior might influence the young soon-to-be-fan nearby you. Be just a smidge better about how you let wins and losses affect your day-to-day.
Oklahoma State fans visit a memorial to Remember the Ten victims of a plane crash on January 27, 2001, before the start of a January 2015 game. (Alonzo Adams/USA Today Sports)