Two Sundays ago, bundled up in scarves of green, my chest emblazoned with roses, axes, and a corporate nod to Alaska Airlines, I joined a pilgrimage north, fueled by passion, hometown pride, and kegs of craft beer. One of hundreds packed into a caravan of 18 huge coach buses trundling along I-5, I became initiated into a hallowed ritual for any self-respecting member of the Timbers Army.
I was on my way to Seattle for an epic football showdown between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders for the rights to claim the coveted Cascadia Cup. We drove deep into the heart of enemy territory. Often the fiercest rivalries exist between siblings, a taunt relationship of endless comparison and competition.
I miss out on much of what it means to be Timbers Army. The early morning campouts on city sidewalks to claim tickets in the 107ist for every sold out home game at JELD-WEN Field. The Portlandia devotion to our city: planting trees, sponsoring youth athletes, and giving back to our hometown. The camaraderie of a shared language, chants and hymns, all while standing the entire game in one spirit to lend our team wings. I watch and listen from Wisconsin through Internet radio. The intensity of the Army’s voices and drums drowns out the match commentators, which thrills me from thousands of miles away.
So for me, this game was epic.
We lumbered onto buses in the shadow of the Convention Center’s translucent twin beacons on a crisp autumn morning. Local breweries sponsored each bus with a keg of craft beer to fuel us on our journey north. It doesn’t get more Portland than that.
Our bus captain, a sort of team mother distributing Capri Sun juice packs and candy orange slices, led us in team trivia highlighting the four decades of the Timber’s existence. It was a festive northbound party which invaded the Centralia, Washington highway rest stop in a sea of green and red, a surreal flash mob of pickup soccer, picnicking, and pub socializing.
By the time we reached Seattle, the golden afternoon sun cast blinding rays off the skyscraper groves of the central city and we buzzed with anticipation (and beer). To an outsider, our enthusiasm probably appears borderline crazy, a lot like the cheeseheads of Green Bay. Evan sported a flirty kilt and tartan sash. My mild-mannered brother joined in the jests “Smells like fish” and “Flounders” and other less tame taunts with robust energy. We swilled our beers, hoisted our forest of Portlandia flags, and marched into Seattle’s stadium in a thousand-strong surge of uplifted voices for 90 minutes of almost solid chanting and singing.
There’s nothing better than soaring and crashing on the notes of the game in the presence of a crowd of over 66,000 people. I drank in the sight of so many people enjoying soccer. Alas, the Timbers displayed only brief flashes of brilliance and near-misses in a long drought of sleepiness.
Yes, I hate to say it, but our team didn’t show up. They sleep-walked through the motions as the Sounders swept away our biggest hope for winning the Cascadia Cup with a 3-0 victory. In soccer terms, that’s a blowout.
But something beautiful happened. Amidst the humiliating defeat and sinking realization that our team let us down, we still marched out, chins high, voices strong, a “walk of shame”, maybe, in the words of my brother, but still united and proud in the face of taunts from Sounders fans.
It was a beautiful, if exhausting, experience.
And as I marched with the Timbers Army, I thought of the Green Bay Packers.
I live in Packer country. In this frozen and sweltering corner of the country (depending on the season), I am surrounded by a sea of green and gold, cheeseheads, and “breaking news” flashes about off-season team gossip and trade rumors. A year round cycle as predictable as the cycles of the moon.
There is something beautiful about the devotion with which Packer fans support their football team. After all, this is the only community-owned pro sports team in the country (at least to my knowledge), which creates a social compact between team and fans. Here, money is not the sole denominator in the equation of a winning team and how many tickets are sold. Every game is sold out, no matter how dazzlingly well or gut-wrenchingly bad the Packers do. No, here the team really plays for the fans. And the fans cheer in frigid temperatures in the depth of January in a temple called Lambeau Field.
I am not one of them. I wish the Packers well. After all, I live and work in Packer country. I am married to a lifelong member of the faith. I know Sundays and Monday nights are hallowed times in front of the TV once the leaves turn red.
Yet I too wear green and gold, in a fervor that astonishes and perplexes my neighbors and husband. I am a lone outpost for the Timbers Army, thousands of miles away. My devotion is also to football, just a different breed.
As we proudly trumpet, Rose City ‘Til I Die (RCTID).
Maybe Green Bay and Portland are kindred spirits in the language of sports, if we just get beyond the head-banging uselessness of arguing which sport is really football. Our fans are devoted in heartbreak and triumph. Our teams may frustrate us to no end until we want to rip out our hair, but we stay committed, wholeheartedly, for that sweet, rare moment of glorious celebration.
Often you only appreciate home once you leave it. But sometimes it takes going home to appreciate where you are.