Barring a three-hour rockathon/revival starring Bruce Springsteen, featuring all the bells, whistles, and saxophone solos that a hero-starved American public can handle, nothing currently dominates the nation’s popular psyche more than The National Football League. Each Sunday in Autumn, enormous piles of meat meet their match. And that’s only in our kitchens! On the field, teams establish the run and slash into the backfield as dull-headed analysts pine for their own playing days from the broadcast booth. And in the end, if the home team wins, sports bars nationwide fill with the kind of harmony and hugs not seen since the big man joined the band.
Face paint, puffy foam fingers, and footlong hotdog-induced heart failure aside, there’s a currency between E Street and the NFL. Bruce Springsteen – blue jeans, red baseball cap, and the stars n’ stripes – is widely accepted as America’s Blue Collar Everyman. Even if he himself doesn’t fully admit it, even if critics (sometimes rightfully) have panned his recordings, The Boss represents both sides of The American Dream. A roughneck kid from New Jersey who fell in love with rock and roll at a young age, Springsteen toiled in the twisting hallways of the 60s Greenwich Village folk scene, only to emerge in the 1970s as songwriter determined to imbue roots rock and roll with the storytelling spirit of a Broadway show. As a rookie upstart, Springsteen faithfully built his following through dogged tours and ambitious recordings (1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town, with its themes of depression and hardship, hardened the edges of the breakthrough Born To Run‘s colorful menagerie of characters). And with his “aw, shucks” good looks, easygoing demeanor, and a live show that didn’t quit, Springsteen surpassed longhairs like Seger and tree-huggers like Jackson Browne to take his place as the mayor of Simpleton. By 1984, Born To Run had become Born In The USA, with Springsteen’s character set of disenfranchised, yet hopeful streetcorner heroes realizing their duty to themselves, their families, and their country to toil on in the face of a collective hardship. Americans had accepted Bruce’s soul searching about the USA as a melodic mirror of their own problems. Born In The USA, Born To Run, even the harrowing ride of 1982’s Nebraska, had given the working for a living a reason to keep on living. On the heals of Born In The USA‘s international breakthrough, his hard- luck success, conflicted lyricism, and easy good looks had made The Boss a household hero in the USA. (Meanwhile, Bono lies awake on a cold night in Dublin, wishing he’d been born in Asbury Park, New Jersey.)
Brian Urlacher is not Bruce Springsteen. While the Chicago Bears’ leading tackler and unassuming team leader was a free safety, wide receiver, AND punt returner at New Mexico, Urlacher could not at press time sell out the United Center based on his strength as a songwriter, singer, and bandleader. Nevertheless, Urlacher’s weekly onfield heroics and meat and potatoes demeanor are a rallying point for many Chicagoland football fans. And while he’s never sold out the UC, Urlacher’s passion between the goalpoasts is a big reason why so many Chicagoans make the trip to downstate Champagne for Bears home games, played away while Soldier Field is on the DL. He gives them something to believe in, and please don’t make any Poison bits here. Because the NFL’s highly-paid heroes are, for many Americans, as singularly heroic as a rock and roller like Bruce Springsteen. The NFL team’s will to win is reflected in “My Hometown,” as the song’s narrator continues to see potential in the whitewashed windows of his town, despite impossible odds. In the case of franchises like the Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, or Detroit Lions, the teams’ fans have lived both the good, and the bad. Their allegiances have been strained over lackluster seasons (Human Touch and Lucky Town should have been one album) and bad personnel decisions (is the E Street Band too large?) But they endure. And just when it seems like their team is like a town full of losers, a guy like Urlacher comes along with the idea of pulling out of here to win.
Out there in Thunder Road, no one needs heroes. If you’re on that infamous highway, you’ve left behind anything you might have fleetingly believed in for a new, unsure life with the girl of your dreams. But for many people in America, Thunder Road is as mythical as the image of Mary dancing across that porch. And as beautiful as that sounds, it’ll never happen (most doublewides don’t feature porches). That’s the shitty truth. Conversely, the NFL is a weekly invitation to a nationwide community united in sport. With its Cortizone shot to the cortex, the NFL melds fans’ dreams of glory, hero worship, and misplaced despair over a team’s loss into something that everyone can believe in, as a symbol of America, The Rising. As another reason why They hate us.
The NFL season is a world tour by your favorite band each Sunday.