You won't agree with any of this.
After all, you're a sentient human with an infallible list of your own -- a crowded mental filing cabinet stuffed with pro football moments that made your heart skip a beat.
These are mine: A five-pack of games, over the course of four decades, that flipped a switch internally, morphing me from a curious preteen observer into an obsessive NFL loyalist hellbent on mastering the art of fandom.
Here we go (in no particular order):
FYI: I'm not here to fling around Pro Football Focus tabulations and dense details of the quarter-by-quarter action. This is what I recall point blank about one of the more enjoyable playoff games I've watched, scrunched for three-plus hours into the corner of a fire-code-busting throng of fans at Q's Billiard Club on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. The room was soaked in Chargers supporters, many of them college students in powder blue clinging to the hope of an AFC title game berth for the star-crossed Bolts. The ragtag Jets had other ideas, rolling into Qualcomm Stadium as a Rex Ryan fever dream determined to punish on the ground.
Q's was lathered up and feeling pretty after New York opened the affair with six straight punts, but Darrelle Revis and the defense kept Gang Green afloat and Philip Rivers in a fix. Every so often, a hardworking server named Juliette would bring me a drink without my asking -- mental telepathy at its best -- so I was feeling fine, too. The Jets were attractive to me as something stark and pure out of the 1940s, churning for 300-plus rushing yards in back-to-back early season games and averaging 186 ground yards per tilt from Thanksgiving on. What I remember is the energy of the room dangerously shifting as New York sent rookie Shonn Greene and a late-career Thomas Jones into San Diego's front seven a whopping 37 times. The dam finally busted open with Greene's 53-yard barreling jolt to the house to give the Jets a 17-7 advantage with seven minutes left. As Rex's boys hung on for the win, I stood silent in the corner, nursing a wild mug of beer as the barroom became a chamber of ghosts.
To the casual observer, a formless rout tucked into a regular-season Sunday from eons ago. To this ninth-grade naïf, a voyage into the outer realms of human experience. As a birthday gift, my father surprised me with a trip to Cleveland to see the Browns, at that point operating as the white-hot epicenter of my sports universe. As a fan growing up in Connecticut, this was my first time witnessing the team live -- and it was happening in the frothed-up, near-mythical confines of the Dawg Pound.
I won't manufacture memories, but a few items stand out: 1) It was pouring rain and set to dump sheets all day. After a breakfast of eggs and bacon, we made our way to the Galleria Mall, where we picked up a pair of on-the-fly rain parkas. I walked the mall in a state of wonder, suddenly surrounded by Browns fans of every age, barking, hollering and high-fiving one another -- a polar shift from my high school lunchroom, which was populated exclusively by hot-and-bothered Jets and Giants fans. I was with my people. 2) Our march toward the rain-soaked stadium doubled as a holy pilgrimage. Once inside, my middle-school heart nearly gave out as I saw the following: Bernie Kosar, the team's demigod-status signal-caller perched on a section of drenched grass and tossing warm-up lobs in a white home jersey that glowed like an orb below the stadium lamps. 3) The game was a glorious romp topped by Kosar hitting Reggie Langhorne on a 77-yard scoring strike that sent Pittsburgh into a dreamless sleep. I spent much of the game watching my favorite player, running back Earnest Byner, through binoculars while my dad did the Lord's work by purchasing hot dogs and hot chocolate to fend off the drizzly weather. Seated beside me was a rough-and-tumble lady in her 40s, smoking cigarettes, drinking beers and singing along in the fourth quarter to a rock chant from the 1960s. She caught me watching her with curiosity and said with a wink: "Before your time, kid."
Fast-forward two seasons to one of the NFL's white-knuckle classics. Everyone remembers backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler guiding the Giants past the Bills in Super Bowl XXV. It's easy to forget how much more he did for the team that year, taking over for Phil Simms -- felled with an injured right foot -- in Week 15 and guiding New York to five straight wins, including the nail-biter over Buffalo.
The conference title tilt with San Francisco was everything we'd come to love about Bill Parcells wrapped into one magical, punishing package. I watched this game at home with my dad on a frigid Sunday night in the East, both teams smothering the other with defense, a violent tête-à-tête peaking with Leonard Marshall's knockout blow to Joe Montana in the fourth quarter. That wasn't even the biggest play in the game, though, as Parcells saved New York's season with an ultra-gutsy fourth-quarter fake-punt call that saw linebacker and special-teams ace Gary Reasons take the snap and barrel through a gaping void in San Francisco's lineup for a key first down. The G-Men punched in a field goal to cut New York's deficit to 13-12 before taking possession again after a killer fumble by Niners back Roger Craig. The turnover set up a game-sealing Matt Bahr kick to send Big Blue to the Super Bowl and crush San Francisco's shot at back-to-back-to-back titles.
Only rare showdowns touched the tension of this sun-splashed thriller at Candlestick. My sense of dread was doubled by the fact that, as a largely clueless high school junior, I had shipped a dozen roses without warning to a sophomore girl I was intrigued by -- but a girl who was also armed with a gigantic boyfriend. The flowers had arrived two days before on Friday and I hadn't heard a word. Monday morning loomed with an aura of fresh disaster, and this Niners-Giants tussle allowed me to momentarily forget one of the more idiotic romantic swing-and-misses of my youth. Total abyss.
By 1997, I found myself in awkward, uncharted territory as a football fan. My beloved Browns had moved to Baltimore, and their AWOL status seemed to mirror my own shaky career plans. After graduating college, I ventured to New York City to write a novel. It's as ponderous as it sounds, as I spent dumb hours on the Upper West Side attempting to bang out a heat-seeking crime tale on a Smith Corona typewriter. I failed at the pages but succeeded in drinking a devastating number of Ballantine Ale 40-ounce malt liquors with the bucks I earned in my illustrious post-college employment: shoving metal-detector strips into books and tomes in the lower bowels of Columbia University's Butler Library. Months into this anti-voyage, I further impressed my concerned parents by leaving the city to work at an outdoor nature center, Camp Jewell, on the Connecticut-Massachusetts border. We hosted schools during the week and staged overnight retreats for corporate and civic groups on the weekend. The visitors would clear out by noon on Sunday, leaving our small band of workers to scurry around the camp to clean cabin after cabin. A flock of us were massive NFL fans and would work in concert to sweep floors, shine toilets and declutter pine-paneled rooms with level-above-human speed. Once management cleared our handiwork, we'd barrel down the hill in the camp station wagon to Molly's Tavern -- a glorious roadside dive with three televisions -- to check out the game of the day.
Who knew John Elway -- BROWNS KILLER -- would be the one to stir my heart that season? The Broncos quarterback entered my childhood as a peak-level irritant by slaying Cleveland in a three-pack of AFC Championship Games, but he suffered problems of his own in a trio of Super Bowl disasters that soiled his legacy for eons. Those burying Jared Goff after L.A. fell to pieces against the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII should consider that Elway sat on the wrong side of a 39-20 defeat to the Giants in XXI, a 42-10 loss to Washington in XXII and a 55-10 romp at the hands of the Niners in XXIV. Imagine Goff, in the age of Twitter, being scattered in two moreSuper Bowls over the next three seasons before waiting another decade to finally win it all. By the time Elway stood under center against the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII, all my issues with the quarterback were in the past. I was hooked on the concept of him being crowned at last.
That late-January Sunday, my collection of football-loving, cabin-cleaning friends made special plans, bolting from hushed Camp Jewell to a local Motel 6. By kickoff, we were packed into a low-level room to witness a Super Bowl scuffle for the ages pitting Elway against roaming field-artist Brett Favre. Everyone armed with a pulse knows of Elway's iconic, chain-moving helicopter scramble that set the table for Denver to break a 17-17 third-quarter tie. I thought the tone-setting turning point came much earlier for Denver: After the high-octane Pack marched down the field for a quick opening score, memories of all those Elway collapses bubbled up. Would this one morph into another embarrassment, but cut so much deeper because the signal-caller was now 37 years old and unlikely to ever get back to the threshold? Instead of imploding, though, Elway and star back Terrell Davis authored a feisty 10-play, 58-yard march capped by TD's 1-yard scoring blast. You knew Denver was in for the fight, with Elway destined to carve out a redemptive late-career masterpiece that reminded us it's never too late to rewrite your story.
I'd apologize for including a second Browns game here, but, as explicitly noted, this is my list. Besides, no apologies necessary for a contest that featured Colt McCoy's Cleveland dream machine shocking Tom Brady and the boys. This result came out of nowhere, with Browns coach Eric Mangini besting friend-turned-foe Bill Belichick in a battle that featured a blistering ground attack led by one-year wonderboy Peyton Hillis, whose 184 rushing yards included a game-sealing 35-yard touchdown scamper that left New England beguiled for good. This stands as one of the more stunning regular-season upsets of the century, with the Browns using Josh Cribbs all over the field and unfurling a trick play to wideout Chansi Stuckey that triggered an 11-yard scoring sweep to put Cleveland up 17-7 before the half. McCoy, meanwhile, was simply too much for the Pats to handle, hitting ham-and-eggers like Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi for chain-moving gains and sticking a knife into New England with a weaving, 16-yard touchdown dash in the third quarter.
I watched this game at a since-closed dive named 14 Below -- Santa Monica's designated Browns Backers bar -- with a collection of stunned Cleveland supporters. As the final minutes ticked away, CBS cameras zeroed in on the visage of Tom Brady looking lost and confused on the visiting sideline. I remain convinced the Browns tainted New England's Gatorade jugs with trace amounts of Psilocybin. Still, the Patriots shrugged off the bedwetting to rip off eight consecutive wins to wrap the regular season. The Browns spiraled hard to finish 5-11, making this lost-in-time Sunday special all the more impossible to ponder.