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Being an NFL fan is a lot like being a wrestling fan when it comes to the “heels”

I don’t know if it’s because I’m 51 and just nostalgic about my youth, but I’m suddenly starting to find great comfort in reliving people and stuff from days gone by.

Take Deion Sanders and his national reboot as the head coach of the Colorado Buffaloes. I can’t get enough of his story and the attention he’s been receiving while trying to turn around a college football program that went 1-11 in 2022.

Two weeks ago, while watching the 2005 remake of The Longest Yard starring Adam Sandler, I shocked myself by marking out big-time whenever Michael Irvin, a Hall of Fame Cowboys receiver, appeared on screen. “The Playmaker!” I may have shouted a time or two.

That was Irvin’s rightful nickname as a star NFL receiver who won three Super Bowls during his storied career.

The funny thing about Sanders, a Hall of Fame NFL cornerback, and Irvin is that I couldn’t stand them when they were players. I didn’t like Neon Deion when he played for the Falcons, and I certainly didn’t care for him when he joined up with Irvin and the Cowboys in the mid-’90s and helped them defeat Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XXX.

Why do I suddenly go nuts for those guys now? I can’t get enough of Irvin as a studio and radio personality, and I love to sit and listen to him talk about the game of football. I find myself strutting around like an idiot when I make a play in co-ed recreational sports and often imitate Sanders’s iconic dance that he did after scoring a touchdown.

“They hate us so much, that they like us.” That’s what Bill Parcells, a Hall of Fame head coach, told his Giants’ players when they were getting ready to play at Washington’s hostile RFK Stadium one day in the 1980s.

Speaking of Parcells, I could never stand that guy when I was a kid. I always rooted for the Giants to lose back then. Then, when he moved up to New England to coach the Patriots, I rooted for him to lose. Then, when he went back to New York to coach the Jets, I rooted for him to lose. Then, when he moved down to Dallas to coach the Cowboys, I rooted for him to lose.

Why did I hate Parcells so much? I guess because he was always screaming and yelling, you know, like an NFL head coach? Also, Parcells didn’t lose that often. He won two Super Bowls with the Giants and made it to another one with the Patriots.

I looked at Parcells as a threat to my Steelers and their championship aspirations.

Today, I can’t get enough of interviews involving Parcells and the guys who played for him. I love hearing the funny stories of the many times he and Phil Simms, his longtime quarterback with the Giants, screamed at one another in the heat of battle. But there was more to Parcells than just a screaming and yelling maniac. He also cared about his men, as evidenced by the affection so many now have for him.

I can go on and on with examples of former athletes and players who I once couldn’t stand and now love, but the point is this: In a lot of ways, being a sports fan isn’t much different than being a pro wrestling fan. That’s especially the case when you’re younger.

You take sports far too personally when you’re a kid. Those guys over there, they’re the enemy, damn it. They’re bad people. They don’t deserve any happiness.

Then, you grow up and see those people in a different light. You have this great respect for them for what they accomplished and what they did for their sport, the sport you love as a fan, sure, but one that they gave their hearts and souls to as coaches and players.

They made a mark on their sport, and they made it better in the process.

I grew up loving the Cowboys, so for someone like Irvin, along with head coach Jimmy Johnson (who I also hated then but now admire), to come along in the early ’90s and make me despise America’s Team for a period of time, well, that spoke to their greatness.

When I see Sanders, Primetime, getting under the skin of so many people around the country today as the head coach in Colorado, I smile. That’s the guy I grew up hating. For him to find a way to reinvent his playing persona as a college head coach and elicit such a strong negative reaction from the public tells me he’s doing something right and will likely be successful in the end.

It’s simply a pastime when all is said and done. These are just human beings trying to entertain us and do something to make their sport a better product.

Who was one of the most despised heel wrestlers of the 1980s and 1990s? Ric Flair, the Nature Boy. Who is one of the most respected and revered retired wrestlers of today?

That’s my point.

We hate them so much, that we like them.

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