How a Mother’s Love for the Game Became an Enduring Legacy for her Daughter
To say that my mother, Jo, was a fan of NFL football may be an understatement. She met the criteria for the long form of the word; she was a fanatic.
The two Super Bowls that are most memorable to me were the one played prior to her death, and the second game following it. Each was impactful for very different reasons.
Super Bowl XLVIII featured the Denver Broncos, Mom’s special team. When I say special, it probably isn’t superlative enough. We had brunch with my parents that morning; not only was she decked out in her team colors, but she also had on a huge straw cowgirl hat in brighter-than-Bronco blue, the cord secured under her chin, making her seem more like an enthusiastic six-year-old than the septuagenarian she was. The only thing bigger than the hat was her smile. She had boundless energy, and was entirely oblivious to the less-than-amused Bears fans that surrounded us in our neighborhood café in Arlington Heights, Illinois. It wasn’t her fault that her adult children had transplanted her from Colorado, and the only allowance she made for the Bears fans was that she was okay with their team since their blue and orange jerseys were essentially Broncos colors. When I think of Super Bowl XLVIII, my predominant memory is of Mom that morning, sporting that hat, full of joy.
As I was her only daughter, I was able to get away with merely wearing a Broncos t-shirt she had given me to show my support. My four brothers had all been gifted with giant white foam Bronco heads with the expectation that these would be worn proudly. I have it on good authority that they were, and are, to this day.
It had been fifteen years since the Broncos had been to the Super Bowl and won it in 1999 with quarterback John Elway under center; now the team was under the leadership of Peyton Manning, who was finishing up another MVP season. Not surprisingly, he was not her favorite player; she liked him fine, but her guy was Von Miller, a defensive wizard that she felt was sadly underappreciated. She would tell anyone who cared to listen about his accomplishments being overshadowed by the offense.
I shook my head in amusement as we parted ways; my mother steadfastly refused to watch any NFL game with anyone other than my dad, since we might distract her (and presumably Dad knew better than to interrupt), and she wanted to keep track of the game stats in her old Steno notebook. She was the uncontested champion of her fantasy league every year. I knew she couldn’t wait to call me after the game and then we could share the details, and, I hoped, celebrate a Broncos victory.
But it was not to be, and the blue hat was put away, and we moved on to other milestones, like the birth of my second child, and a move to Indiana that included all the grandparents, like a caravan. I remember she was in love with their new apartment when they moved in in April.
Preseason came, and with it much excitement, because the Broncos still had an amazing roster, and were much favored to go deep into the postseason once again.
But that August, she complained of indigestion, and a trip to the emergency room found cancer that was advanced beyond any treatment but palliation. Home hospice was arranged, and I was privileged to be her caregiver. She didn’t survive to see a single regular season game, living only twenty-eight days following the devastating diagnosis.
The Broncos 2014 season wasn’t nearly as awe-inspiring as the year before, but they did survive to the Divisional Round, where, ironically, they lost to the Indianapolis Colts, Manning’s former team. The family was in mourning, and this outcome was in step with our grief. The Broncos enjoyed a shaky resurgence in the 2015 season, with Peyton Manning injured and the analysts discussing his imminent decline, but in January, they won the AFC Championship Game, defeating the New England Patriots to return to the Super Bowl as presumptive underdogs.
I faced Super Bowl 50 alone, internally angry and aggrieved that Mom wouldn’t get to see it. We were traveling, visiting family, and when the game started, I was in a hotel room nearly two thousand miles from home, with our two young daughters. My husband was out, probably unsure how I was going to handle the game. He knew I was overwhelmed, and I understood that he didn’t know what to say to me. The Broncos were projected to lose this one to Cam Newton’s Carolina Panthers, who had been dominant throughout both the regular season and the playoffs.
The girls were essentially still infants, and they fell asleep before the game started. I paced through the pregame commentary, the kickoff, and the first quarter of the game, until the Broncos returned a fumble for a touchdown, and I had my first glimmer of hope. I stopped pacing, but couldn’t control my excitement, because I was feeling something else. I knew, I simply knew, for the first time since Mom had died, that she was with me. We were watching that game together.
I was never one to talk that way, as though someone who had gone on was with me, but then I had never had such a feeling before nor have I had such a feeling since. Perhaps it was simply the part of me that she had taught to love the game. I carried that bit of doubt and sadness with me only until they announced the Super Bowl MVP. Von Miller, of course. How better to let me know that she was truly with me as I witnessed that amazing game. I still get goosebumps when I think about it.
Every year I look forward to Super Bowl Sunday with different anticipation than before, irrespective of what teams are actually about to hit the field, because it is a time to reflect about all the ways that she made watching football a recurring gift for me. Her love for the game was like her love for us: genuinely intense, focused, and one hundred percent joyful.
This Super Bowl week may mean less to me than it could, if, say, the Broncos were playing. But Super Bowl Sunday will be special, sacred even. After all, it is my mother’s day.