LOS ANGELES -- As you might have heard, we don't actually have an NFL franchise in Los Angeles. I know this seems unimaginable. After all, we live in a time where professional football owns the sports world like Tyson owned Spinks.
But don't feel too bad for us.
We have USC, and that squad is pretty good.
And we have Hollywood Billiards.
And Hollywood Billiards has 20 HD plasmas and another 20-odd screens tucked in corners, hanging over the bar, and sitting out on the patios. And it has couches and big cushy chairs. And a cheerful waitstaff cruising by with cold beers and hot wings. And, of course, a gaggle of pool tables and foosball tables should you need to burn off some nervous energy while watching your boys in high-def.
It's an NFL mecca. Nah, that's too monotheistic. Folks of all faiths and uniforms are welcome here. It's more like an open market, a bustling, colorful, bizarre Marrakech in the heart of Tinseltown. The screen designations are mapped out before the morning kickoff, and posted on a board as you walk in the door: Green Bay-Philadelphia on these four sets, Tennessee-Jacksonville on those, and so on. Fans of each team show up in jerseys and hats -- the Raiders' set favors the Howie Long and Bo Jackson throwbacks, the Cowboys' crew sports everything from Roy Williams to Emmitt Smith to Hollywood Henderson -- and, like participants in the Iowa caucuses, they vote with their feet, crowding around the screens featuring their favorite teams.
The conventional wisdom these days is that fantasy football has ruined old-fashioned fandom, muted its zeal, diffused its obsessively loyal intensity. That's not the story here. This joint is for flag-waving and color wearing. Like-minded fans gather in wishful little clutches all over the place, noisy living rooms everywhere you look.
"We've been meeting here every Sunday for nine years, some of us longer," says Troy, a 36-year-old Redskins die-hard who works for Los Angeles Water and Power (he wears Art Monk, by the way). "It's like a second home for us, we're like family here."
Troy and his brethren are the loudest in the room on the first Sunday of the new season, jumping up (some of them on chairs and tables) to sing "Hail to the Redskins" each and every time Washington manages a touchdown, turnover or big hit in its victory over Miami. And when the game is over, flush with confidence and fellowship, he's ready to call his boys, a 5-11 team in 2006, playoff bound, small sample size be damned.
"Look at the way we ran on that Miami defense today," he says. "There's no team in our division with a defense that strong, and we handled it. The division is ours for the taking. We're good for at least 10 wins, at least." He's reaching maybe, and he knows it -- even after the big victory in Philly on Monday night. If you press him, he'll admit to reading the win through the prism of his disgust for the way pundits dote on the Cowboys and Eagles -- "They always pick Dallas and Philadelphia. It's like they forget we're even in the division!" he says -- and he'll tell you he's got serious concerns about Jason Campbell at the helm in a big game. But this is his moment. "We lost a lot of games last year, and we were still here, every week," he says. "And this right now, this feels sooooo good!"
His heart-stomped doppelganger is Jackie, a 25-year-old lawyer and L.A. native, who has hitched herself to the reigning MVP and is wearing a powder blue LaDainian Tomlinson jersey as she sinks deeper and deeper into the couch cushions in front of the San Diego-New England game Sunday night. "This sucks!" she moans. "Rivers sucks! Turner sucks! Even LT sucks tonight!"
Despair at the depths she's feeling doesn't come with a thesaurus. It just sucks. But isn't this still a good football team? Isn't this a team that dominated last season, and is a legitimate contender for a title run this season? Doesn't she take heart in any of that? Isn't she optimistic? "Right now I just feel worried. And pissed," she says. "It sucks! We should have come out looking to prove something. We should have come out with an edge after the way they beat us last year in the playoffs. And we just looked terrible." True. But it's only one game. "I can't think of that right now. I'm too disgusted," she says. "I have to just feel this bad feeling. But yeah, tomorrow, I know. I know we're good. I know they're a good team, no matter what happened tonight."
Across the living room, clapping her hands and stomping her feet as if she's calling tunes at a square dance, is Michelle, a 35-year-old chef at a local wine bar, and a Patriots fan born and raised. She can't contain herself. Brady-to-Moss is too sweet. A 2-0 record and 38 points per game are too fine. She's blissed out. "This is pornographic!" she shouts. "This is better than porn!" Ask her if she's ready to print SB XLII tickets, though, and she comes back down off the high a bit. "I'm not a Maroney fan at all," she says. "He's running through big holes tonight, but I don't see the quickness to the corners that I like to see. I'm not sure we can count on running this well all season, and no matter what Brady and Moss do, if we can't run, we're in trouble."
Outside Hollywood Billiards, on talk radio, on message boards, in homes where fans of one team or another get together for chips and salsa, maybe the highs fly unchecked, and maybe the lows are bottomless. But the vibe in this place is different, looser somehow. Maybe it's the lack of a home team. Maybe it's the proliferation of screens and couches, the way you can move from one football family to another in half a dozen steps. Maybe it's the fact that the game that really matters, that really unifies this town, is played on Saturdays, by kids still living in dorms. Maybe it's just the prospect of another pitcher coming from the bar.
Whatever it is, there's something pure about it. Fans are reveling when they win, and dying a little when they lose, living the moment, not wasting too much energy on where it's headed or what it means, not assuming that it's the only truth, or all they feel, just enjoying it for what it is, a jolt of some irrational, beautiful, hideous feeling.
"Yeah, baby!" Troy shouts, high-fiving one of his Redskins buddies. "That's what I'm talking about!"
Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2. You can reach him here.
NFL OVERREACTION NATION
We've seen two weeks of football, and for most NFL fans, that's more than enough to either jump on the bandwagon ... or jump ship.
Overview• Jackson: Welcome to Overreaction Nation
• ESPN experts: Should you be overreacting?
• Vote: What do we know after two weeks?
In Chicago ...• Wojciechowski: Even a win is too much to Bear
In New York ...• Darcy: Apple of their eye is the backup QB
In Dallas ...• Pearlman: Cowboys fans letting it all hang out
In Cleveland ...• Gallo: Net gain or loss for roller-coaster Browns?
In San Diego ...• Buckheit: Pats pull the plug on Bolts fans
In Los Angeles ...• Neel: Who says no one in L.A. loves the NFL?