Four years ago, when I had the opportunity to write a book commemorating fifty years of Super Bowls, I interviewed former New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi about the unique pain of losing the Super Bowl. I have tremendous respect for Accorsi, and his perspective on that particular sports tribulation has stayed with me.
It’s Accorsi’s view that it’s better not to make it to the Super Bowl at all then to get there and leave without the Lombardi Trophy in tow.
“I’d rather not make it at all if I was going to lose,” said Accorsi, who also worked for the Colts and the Browns throughout his long career as an NFL executive.
Every sport has its own unique angle on hardship, of course, but Accorsi reminded me that the pain of losing is deep, and different types of losing hurt in different ways.
I’ve been pondering that reality since Saturday, when the bright hope represented by East Carolina’s regional victory in Clark-LeClair Stadium was snuffed out dramatically by two painful afternoons in Louisville. I know many fans who made the trip, and I can imagine that the trip up there, when the car must have felt like it was carried along by promise, stood in dramatic contrast to the somber drive home.
The closer a team gets to the mountaintop, the more desperate the hope becomes, and the harder the fall when it all comes crashing down. This particular blow hurt differently than the 2016 experience in Lubbock, where the Pirates came so close it stung, and it represented a different type of wound again from the 2018 regional where so many outside forces seemed to conspire against ECU.
Which is to say, every script that has ended without a trip to Omaha has represented a movie that Pirate fans would just as soon never see again. But even though the ending is hard to watch, I don’t think they regret buying the ticket and showing up. Fandom (fanaticism?) is like that — true fans wince at the pain, but they come right back around and subject themselves to it when the next season rolls around.
Professor Edward Hirt, who studies the psychology of sports fans, among other areas, at the University of Indiana, says that every fan has an “apparent masochist” hidden deep inside. The members of the Pirate Nation, like the loyalists that follow countless other college and pro teams, start on a journey each season with the deep unspoken knowledge that the road might end with a fall off a precipitous cliff. But even the fall is part of the adventure, and it’s a heartache made easier to bear by the fact that this community experiences it together.
“A large part of shared fan experiences is suffering through years, sometimes decades, without tasting victory,” Hirt said for an article on SportsNetworker.com. “One of the things I find in sports fans, which people don’t have in too many other things, is this idea that you earn the benefits of fandom through loyalty.”
One of those earned benefits is the right to suffer together, but through the ache to still love a team deeply. It was heartening to see the Pirate Nation laud the departing players and head coach Cliff Godwin for their accomplishments on and off the field this season. The community’s warm response to the Pirates, even just hours after the Kentucky Calamity, proved the strength of the bonds between fans and their team.
Of course, the players and coaches need that encouragement, because their pain is harder to move past.
Keith LeClair planted a seed of hope in the late ‘90s that has grown into something to behold, but Godwin expressed well how it feels when that big dream doesn’t come true.
“When you have goals that are as high as ours, to win a national championship, you make yourself vulnerable,” he told Hoist The Colours/247Sports on Tuesday. “When you don’t win a national championship, it feels like you’ve been hit by a car and your insides have been ripped out.”
With that kind of honesty from a skipper, Pirate fans can wallow in their own suffering a bit, fully aware that even the doldrums are better than never experiencing that shared anticipation at all.