A Cards Fan Checks In
Timeout for a guest blog. This comes from 1st Lt. Matt Freund, an Army Ranger who was born in Arizona and grew up in Potomac, Md. He is serving in Iraq and offered to write about watching the Arizona Cardinals advance to the Super Bowl.
Headed for Tampa in My Mind
Maintaining my allegiance to the Arizona Cardinals in a town full of Redskins fans was not easy. Though I grew up in the D.C. suburbs, I was born in Arizona and became a devout fan as soon as I understood football and discovered that the Cardinals were based in my birthplace. It wasn't until 1992 that I attended my first Cardinals game at RFK Stadium,where I watched the Redskins destroy my Cardinals 41-3. The game served as excellent fodder for taunting by my friends in this all-Redskins town, but I remained loyal to the "Cards."
For years, I watched fans of NFC East teams lick their chops before games against the Cardinals. Division wins came infrequently for the Cards, and losses, like the pummeling by the Skins I witnessed in 1992, were often humiliating. Before re-alignment and the 2008 Lions, no team mastered the ugly art of defeat like the Cardinals.
In the 1990s, Eagles v. Cardinals saw such lopsided matchups as Reggie White against Tootie Williams. If you remember Williams for anything other than his nickname, you might be a Cardinals diehard. Today's competitive matchup pitted Pro Bowl players like Asante Samuel and Larry Fitzgerald against each other.
As the Cardinals tore through their division to earn a playoff berth, I supported them from even farther away. Serving in Iraq this football season, it was a bit more challenging to follow the team's achievements, culminating in today's victory that sends the franchise to the Super Bowl for the first time ever. I stayed current during the season by reading game summaries and commentary, and, on some lucky weekends, I caught a quarter or two on tape-delay.
I watched the NFC Championship game in a chow hall with a group of about 20 football fans, the majority of whom stayed up into Iraq's early morning hours to see their team play. Given the time difference, taped games air on TVs during the daytime hours, but only live viewing was acceptable for Cardinals, Eagles, Steelers, and Ravens fans on this playoff Sunday. As seems to be the case throughout the U.S., the Steelers were well represented hours before their team took the field.
Watching the most significant Cardinals game in over 60 years on a TV in an ordinary cafeteria may seem like an unsatisfactory viewing experience, but it was quite the opposite. While I did miss deafening surround sound, a comfortable couch, and beer (only soda here!), the excitement in the chow hall was something to behold.
In the first half, touchdowns by Larry Fitzgerald elicited fist pumps and loud cheers from this Cardinals enthusiast. As Eagles fans buried their faces in their hands, I involuntarily scanned the room for any airborne objects headed in my direction, a habit resulting from countless games spent as the lone Cardinals supporter in the room. I started wishing the seats on the Cardinals' bandwagon would fill a little faster.
In the second half, the Eagles staged a comeback, and excited Philly fans, who outnumbered me six to one, high-fived after taking the lead on DeSean Jackson's juggling touchdown catch. In a refreshing surprise, their language after Tim Hightower's go-ahead touchdown took on a far less colorful tone than what I remember hearing at an Eagles/Redskins contest in Landover a few years ago.
Weak competition in the NFC West isn't the only reason for the Cardinals' stunning success this season. Since hiring Ken Whisenhunt and appointing Michael Bidwill president, the organization's culture has changed. Whisenhunt and his coaching staff brought to Glendale a leadership style that emphasized a "team first" mentality. He publicly emphasized the team's need for veteran leadership, and he held players accountable for their performance.
Whisenhunt set the tone, slashing playing time for poor performance on the field. He changed the course of the season by allowing Kurt Warner to compete for the starting quarterback job. The Cardinals organization placed leadership over celebrity. This focus, along with the coaching staff's experience and motivational ability, was what the team needed to buy into.
During the years of the "Hogs," I longed for a skilled and fearless offensive lineman like Russ Grimm. Sadly, the Cardinals' management had a talent allergy. Now an assistant coach for the Cardinals - and on several short lists for head coach - Grimm coaches a line that cleared the way for clock-eating runs against the Falcons and Panthers. His group also played a little noticed role in leading the team. Guard Reggie Wells was even elected offensive co-captain at the beginning of the season.
After enduring so many brutal seasons as a Cardinals fan, it is hard to believe the team is headed to the Super Bowl. The Cardinals' achievements this season have surpassed the expectations of even the most optimistic, diehard devotee.
Duty calls, so I won't make the Super Bowl this year, but I imagine many other lifetime Cardinals fans will do whatever it takes to attend. You can be sure I'll be watching from afar with the same excitement they'll bring to Tampa.
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