Born Fanatic: My Life in the Grip of the NFL

My high school buddies called him Big Mike. One of them said after meeting him, That was like shaking hands with a package of iron hot dogs. In his heyday, he was a 6'4", 260-pound World Champion, All-Pro offensive tackle, destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He had a big meaty head that had to be shoe-horned into his helmet, an upper body like a kitchen appliance, and thighs as big as oaks.

But time makes losers of us all.

When I saw my father at his surprise 80th birthday party in 2010, it was unmistakable that five decades in the NFL had taken their toll. Mike McCormack had held almost every job imaginable in the League: He played. He coached Pro-Bowlers, MVPs, and in the Super Bowl. He was the general manager of one expansion team’s first trip to the play-offs, and a big part of starting another team from scratch. He retired from the NFL in ’97, almost fifty years from start to finish. His bronze bust sits permanently in Canton, Ohio at the NFL Hall of Fame. His larger-than-life statue is fixed forever outside the Carolina Panther’s stadium in Charlotte. The 12th Man jersey he retired in 1984 as Seahawks general manager is raised like religious ritual before every Seattle home game.

But on his 80th birthday, it was clear the man was on borrowed time. His mind was still sharp; concussions were never a problem. But the physical decline was obvious. His once powerful frame was a shell, his white hair wispy thin, his skin pale to the point of translucence. The largess he carried all his life was now loose flesh on bone. He was lighter than me and had shrunk to a few inches shorter. His knuckles were still large, swollen by arthritis. But the meat was gone. His handshake had become a package of uncooked ramen.

Like so many others, his body paid a price to pro football. He would say it was worth it. As for me, his oldest, and namesake, who rode his coattails for fifty years, I’m not so sure. His connection with pro football wore me out more than it did him. The average fan doesn’t know much about my father, but the game dominated my life. When I was born, he’d already won two world championships with the Browns. His teammates, household names in my childhood, included Jim Brown, Otto Graham, Bobby Mitchell, and Len Dawson, Hall of Famers all.

All my memories have roots in pro football. As a kid, spying on my dad’s golf game from an out-of-bounds tree on a course outside of Cleveland, I was nearly drilled in the head by a stray drive. It was legendary coach Paul Brown’s tee shot. I learned to ride a bike as a Redskin. In high school, I chased kicking tees off the field in front of capacity crowds in Philadelphia. My father’s work with the Bengals, Colts, Seahawks, and Panthers framed my life from young adult into middle age. I’ve had pregame meals of crab legs and Bloody Marys in stadium luxury boxes and flown on team Lear jets. I met players from ex-congressman Steve Largent to ex-convict O.J. Simpson.

And those name-drops are side notes to football’s impact on my life. The NFL’s example of manhood was pounded into me, sometimes literally. I was a pinball to the consequences of winning and losing, considering the outcome of games made or broke more than six hundred Sundays in my life. Then came the mixed blessing of being almost-famous, from getting booed by high school classmates to basking in my father’s moderate celebrity every chance I got.

By the time Mike’s 80th birthday rolled around, my complicated allegiance to pro football was at risk. I was still living and dying from the results on the scoreboard, but the NFL had changed. Games were being overshadowed every week with a new round of off-field stories. But pro football was the only world I knew, so I hung on to a pretense of loyalty despite a gnawing belief that the NFL’s best days were over.

Before Mike arrived for his surprise party, my three younger siblings and I had slipped into the back room of an Irish pub in Seattle to set up and wait for my parents to arrive. The day before, they had flown to town from their retirement home in Southern California on the pretense of visiting a new grandkid. We arranged the party for Sunday brunch to make sure we were done before Mike’s afternoon nap. A score of old friends from Seahawks days joined us. Three generations of family showed up to celebrate.

Our room at the pub was windowless, paneled with dark wood. Thick mahogany tables, draped with white linen, circled the room. It felt like an evening Irish wake rather than a sunny Sunday morning birthday party. By the time Mike arrived, the tables were littered with beer steins and cocktail glasses more than bangers and mash.

We made a big fuss when he walked in with my mom. His grandkids ran up to greet him, dutifully following orders to love up Grandpa Mac. They nearly toppled him though, unsteady as he was on two titanium hips. He was more confused than surprised, typical for someone who spent decades uncomfortable when people made a fuss about him.

After some catching up, a little noshing, and a lot more drinking, the appointed time arrived for my salute to the old man. I bellowed for everyone’s attention. Mike and I stood in the middle of the others, who circled around us several feet away. I made a joke about his golf game, suggesting it was safer for everyone who lived along the Palm Desert fairways that he couldn’t get out on the course anymore. Then, I put on sentimental airs, playing the good son once more.

“Happy 80th, Dad. My memories are nothing but good and I feel nothing but grateful.”

It wasn’t true, but it was the right thing to say.

Then, as I turned back to my audience to raise a glass, his look caught my attention. He whispered to me. I’m certain no one else heard him. I’m just as certain about what he said. As quiet as his voice was, the sadness in his eyes made the words deafening.

“You must have done a lot of forgiving, Michael.”

He was wrong. I’d done nothing of the sort. Still, his words held promise for an opening. It’s a shame I never saw him again.

Prologue, Born Fanatic: My Life in the Grip of the NFL

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