I once believed in greatness.
Last week, my beloved San Francisco 49ers lost the Super Bowl. Although there was a fierce and exciting comeback in the second half, the Baltimore Ravens became the champions.
Growing up in Las Vegas there are no local professional sports teams. One either inherits sports teams from family members, or chooses their own at a young age. I don’t know when it happened, but at a very early age I was a committed 49ers fan.
In elementary school and jr. high your favorite team played a huge role in the quality of your week-to-week life. If your team lost on Sunday, the subsequent week would be filled with ridicule and embarrassment: Your team lost.
Yet the 49er fan had something in his arsenal that no other fan could boast about: greatness. Not that the 49ers won every Sunday, but that they were uniquely great among all the franchises in the NFL for one special reason: they had never lost a Super Bowl. Sure, the Cowboy fans would taunt, We’ve been to 8 Super Bowls and have just as many Super Bowl wins as the 49ers. But this meant nothing. The Cowboys were 5-3 and the 49ers were 5-0. Nothing beats greatness.
In fact, this was unmatched in all of American sports. The Celtics had lost championships, so also the Lakers. Although the Yankees won several World Series championships, they also lost several. The Red Wings and Canadiens? The same fate fell upon them as well. As far as I was concerned, the 49ers were the best sports franchise ever, and did this while playing the greatest sport of all time.
At times I’ve been guilty of serious fan betrayal. In order to maintain our perfection, I’ve sometimes secretly wished that the 49ers would never play in a Super Bowl again. When the Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl, increasing their record to 6-2 all time, I wanted to reclaim the title of most Super Bowl wins, or at least being tied for most Super Bowl wins, but I would often think that 5-0 is better than compromising greatness. Last year the 49ers made it to the NFC Championship game, which is the penultimate match of the year, and secretly, although I was seriously bummed by Kyle Williams’ double-fumble-punt-trouble, I was glad that we didn’t enter the Super Bowl just to lose to the Patriots. I did not want to compromise greatness.
Then comes this year. As the previous year, the 49ers were one of the best teams in the NFL, lauded by many as ‘the most complete team’ in football. Yet, for some reason we couldn’t win the big game. Greatness was lost.
As a 49ers fan, I am also a San Francisco Giants fan for baseball. I am grateful that in the past three years I’ve had the opportunity to watch my favorite team win the World Series twice. These were exciting moments indeed. But the excitement soon slips away. There is no ‘end’ or ‘goal’ that is ultimately achieved or satisfied. Discussions quickly move from We are the Champions! to Who are we gonna cut? and How are we gonna win next year? This realization makes the thrill of victory disenchanting. I remember thinking to myself at one point, why am I not more excited about this?
Contrast this experience with last week’s Super Bowl game, admittedly I’m a bigger 49ers fan than Giants fan, but if there’s one thing I learned it’s this: the agony of defeat hurts worse than the thrill of victory feels good. Everything was bad from the beginning of the night. It all started when I accidentally ordered a lager at the pub: a truly terrible omen if you ask me. And it all got worse from there. I kept hoping that I was dreaming. But I wasn’t. Subsequently it’s been difficult to move the Super Bowl out of my thoughts, especially while lying in bed at night (I can only imagine how the players and coaches feel!). I keep replaying our last 4 plays over and over again: Why didn’t we run the ball and eat up the clock and put ourselves up by 3 and force the Ravens to beat our defense! It’s been a sad week. Everyone wants to remind me: Hey, there’s always next year! But the problem isn’t that we didn’t win the Super Bowl this year, that’s been true since the ’94 season. The problem is that we lost the Super Bowl, and with it greatness.
With all this reflection I’m reminded of Romans 8.18—’For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us’ (ESV). Now I’m not comparing the Super Bowl with suffering (though, at the same time, don’t underestimate my love for the 49ers!), but it strikes me that this passage declares the opposite regarding my experience of the contrast between defeat and victory. Ultimately, victory doesn’t satisfy, and cannot evoke stronger emotions than defeat because victory — like any accomplishment, and whatever else in life, since the application goes far beyond sports — is not ultimate. Only God can satisfy. And in God there is true greatness.