The first football player I ever liked was a quarterback who got sacked all the time. Every year, his New York Giant teams lost more than they won. Every game, he got battered, booed-at and berated, tossed-around, tackled and "turfed."
Every snap, he was there, ready to give it another try, preparing himself for another heap of abuse.
His name was Phil Simms, and guys with 300-pound Herculean bodies mauled his protectors and threw themselves on his blindslide. The QB would lift himself from the rock-hard artificial turf, his shoulder pad popped out of his sleeve, and his helmet slightly askew.
After each brutal pounding, all he'd do is tuck that pad back in, just behind the number 11 that was sewed to his sleeve, and get ready to call another play.
He just happened to be wearing the blue, red and white uniform of the New York Giants. That was his team, so it became my team. They were one of the three local teams, all of them within an hour drive from Point Pleasant Boro, where I grew up.
Who knows? If he had have been wearing green, the color that represents the other two local football franchises, the Philadelphia Eagles or the New York Jets, I might have rooted for one of them instead.
In the Jersey Shore, you could do that, just as easily as you could switch the channels (literally). You remembered that rooting for a sports team was not like watching the stock market collapse, or embroiling yourself in a brutal military battle. Labels of cities or nicknames or Giants or Eagles or Green Dragons or Panthers didn't matter as much as how the game was played.
Sure, I'm excited that the Giants won their fourth Super Bowl, led by Simms's prodigal legacy, Eli Manning, who is the only quarterback who looks dirty while playing on artificial turf.
But, in the end, it is, after all, only a game.
That may sound like blasphemy to the Giant fan of Passaic, N.J. or Manhattan, or the Eagle fan of South Street or Cherry Hill. Rooting for the Giants AND the Eagles? How unholy. How duplicitous. How dumb.
In those areas, the rivalry is an intense thing, the cause of drunken fights of the stands of each team's respective stadium, or testy email exchanges between coffee-addicted co-workers.
Yeah, I know. You've seen that MTV show. Drunken fights? Testy exchanges? Don't ALL people in the Jersey Shore do that? Doesn't everybody walk around, looking like those buff "Too Tall" specimens who brutalized Simms, slapping smaller-bodied people to the rock-hard street?
Ironically, if you want some sense of what it's like to live in a happy sports utopia, where three football cultures broken apart by bitter rivalries can break bread and live life in peace - and not in pieces - come to the Jersey Shore.
There are certainly exceptions to the rule. Indeed, the area has had it's share of Dallas Cowboy fans, something that a Giant or Eagle fan of any stripe never takes kindly. Wearing the Cowboy pom-pom hat was done at your own peril, particularly in the halls of the local high schools.
But in the Jersey Shore, who roots for whom never really mattered. All three - the Giants, the Jets and the Eagles - have had their games on our cable systems. All three have given out ticket coupons through the youth groups and Little Leagues.
The fans of all three are glued to the TVs at Leggetts Sandbar in Manasquan on Sundays in the fall, and the locals who inhabit the place will root and holler at their teams, holler at the players, with nary a fist nor expletive thrown at each other.
When I was young, all three teams sponsored Happy Meal toys at the McDonald's on Route 37 in Toms River, just off the Parkway exit, or Route 35 in Wall (until the mid-1970s, they were the only McDonald's we knew about).
They gave away those small plastic helmets at Gino's on Route 35 in Point Pleasant Beach, the same ones that cost a nickel at Spader's on Beaver Dam and Bridge in the Boro.
But, no matter how hard you tried, and no matter how hard you pushed down on their tops, they couldn't fit on the head of your GI Joe without cracking in half. If the sticker fell off my tiny Jets helmet, I'd yank the wings off the Eagles and slap them on the green headgear of the New York team.
Hey, I thought. Close enough.
Ultimately, we usually picked one team over the other. Usually, they were the teams our parents rooted for. But we always kept the other two teams close, and we still followed their plight - and it usually was a plight, because all three teams stunk - through the 14 or 16-game season just as much.
My father was funny, literally, about that. He liked teams from Ohio, so he used to rub the then-successful Cincinnati Bengals in our face. He was a principal in Brick Township, and he was friends with Warren Wolf, the 50-year football coach at Brick High School, who also didn't always root for the local teams that were within a 50-mile radius of where he grew up.
But they were like a lot of people who moved from Philly or North Jersey or New York to the Shore in the 1950s and 1960s. When they were young, they rooted hard for the big cities nearby. But when they grew up, they moved away, put off by the changes each city felt, and purposely keeping a distance from the places they once considered their own, the places they no longer considered "comfortable."
We, of the Philadelphia and New York melting pot, also shared another bond: Our teams always lost. In the post 1967 Super-Bowl era, only Joe Namath's Jets gave us a hiccup of excitement (I was way too young to remember), winning the 1969 Super Bowl.
Only two years later, they stunk again.
The Eagles went to the Super Bowl in 1981, but they were embarrassed by the Oakland Raiders. Within two years, they were horrible again, too.
With these three teams, the feeling was, hey, if a team extended their season into January, great. They were going to get their butts kicked by Dallas, Miami, Pittsburgh or the 49ers anyway. Winning was a novelty.
Then came Simms, and then a linebacker named Lawrence Taylor, and a cast of field generals named by some as the "Lunch-Pail Crew." They went to the Super Bowl in January 1987, and won it handily. They came back four years later, and won it again.
In 2008, led by Eli Manning, they won it a third time. Now they're back again. When I saw Manning get pummeled by the 49ers two weeks ago, but still win, I thought of Simms.
That day, I didn't see the color of his uniform. I only saw the jersey stained by the Candlestick Park grass. I saw that shoulder pad popping out. I saw that same toughness Phil had no matter whether they lost or won.
The Giants are playing in the Super Bowl on Sunday against the New England Patriots, and I'm very excited. And, yet, there is a part of me that feels a little hollow, because I wish the Jets could be there, too.
It is, after all, only a game.