[Ed. Note: For some reason, this sports column talks about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If you are somehow still trying to avoid spoilers, you should probably skip it. Also, just go see the movie.]
I’ve been thinking a lot about nostalgia lately, even more than usual. I regularly dismiss it in sports—I think it’s used to manipulate fans, to hide the problems of the present, to excuse things that shouldn’t be excused, and basically to explain every unexplainable decision in sports.
But now I’m reconsidering. Thanks, J.J. Abrams.
In January of 1983, I was allowed to stay up extra late to watch Super Bowl XVII, late enough that I got to see John Riggins shake off Don McNeal on his way into history on fourth-and-1. It was a pretty big day for me as a kid.
About four months later, in late May of that year, I waited in a line that wrapped around a D.C. block to see Return of the Jedi, the first Star Wars movie I was allowed to see in the theater. Also a pretty big day for Kid Me—in fact, it’s probably safe to go ahead and call 1983 a formative year in my development as a human being.
In May of 1999, I would again watch the premiere of a new Star Wars film. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to convince myself that it in any way captured what I had felt back in the ’80s, when I memorized all of Episode IV from a grainy VHS bootleg that I watched until the tape snapped.
A little more than six months later, in January of 2000, I would be at the first home playoff game at FedExField, watching the home team trample the Lions and trying to convince myself that this was the start of new successful era of Pigskins football.
In retrospect, 1999–2000 wasn’t nearly as good as 1983… but because of 1983, we thought it might be.
Now it’s 2016. As you might be aware—unless you have been able to avoid both the Internet and television for six months—a new Star Wars movie came out a few weeks back. And, yes, I was there on opening night (although I didn’t have to wait in line, thanks to modern technology). And, yes, I loved it and wished I could be six all over again, watching it on endless repeat and memorizing all the lines. (“Do I talk first or you talk first?”)
There’s been a lot—like, a LOT—of discussion about if the new Star Wars is just a remake, or a remix, or a mash-up of the older films. If, basically, the only reason people like it is because it so clearly echoes the film they—we—all loved as kids.
But that ultimately misses the point. For me, at least, what was most enjoyable about this movie were the new elements: the new characters, the new depths of backstory for the villain, the places where the admittedly familiar gives way to the novel.
And that reframed my internal narrative on nostalgia, somehow.
Which brings us back to football. With the local football team in the playoffs, hosting another home game—somehow just the second at this stadium in the years since that Lions game back in 1999—I’ve become nostalgic. I’ve watched YouTube highlights of the 1999 game, and read articles about the Super Bowl years. I even dug out a few old, pre-Jedi pictures of myself in team gear.
This nostalgia, like the rekindled Star Wars enthusiasm, feels more about appreciating the new in light of the past, rather than using the past to replace or disguise the present.
It’s much more fun to see Kirk Cousins in a continuum with Joe Theismann and Mark Rypien—and, yes, Robert Griffin III—than it is to just admire the achievement in the abstract. I love to see my kids enjoy a non-disastrous football team and a non-awful Star Wars movie, as I’m sure my parents enjoyed seeing me enthused about something.
The hope, obviously, is that this playoff run is the start of something lasting—that is, something more 1983 and less 1999, for football, at least. (The metaphor breaks down here, as we’ll be getting Star Wars pictures more or less forever.) But I’ve finally come to better appreciate nostalgia, in small doses and in certain ways.
The prequels, like the Spurrier years they overlap, are even worse than you remember and should be scourged from the Earth with fire. Nostalgia for them is still evil and wrong.
Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @Matt_Terl.
Photo by Keith Allison / Flickr Creative Commons