Myths and Archetypes: More on Fan Perceptions

Baron Batch’s portrait of Troy Polamalu

In a comment on yesterday’s article elpalito said:

We want to like the people we root for. We like to dislike the people we root against. It just makes things ‘easier’.

I certainly agree with this. My admitted reluctance to consider any mitigating factors in Vontaze Burfict’s upbringing which might explain, if not excuse, the sort of person he appears to be would have made it clear, if it wasn’t before. But I think it goes deeper than likes and dislikes.

There is an element of myth to how we view football players—particularly in certain cases. The obvious example which comes to mind is Isaac Redman. For those of you who weren’t active on Behind the Steel Curtain during particularly the early years of his Steelers career, it actually became a joke—so much so that I wrote the following about his locker, which I had seen in my tour of the Southside facility:

Isaac Redman’s locker is—well, I don’t know quite how to describe it. It is as if he put everything in the locker with enormous precision, but the force of his personality disrupted the molecules in the various items a bit. Or perhaps the earth tilted very slightly when he walked away. In other words, it was tidy, almost.

What is it about certain players that catches our imagination? It could be because they have done things in their non-football lives that we admire, although this is fairly rare, given the young age they typically enter the NFL. But Alejandro Villanueva would typify this.

Naturally, a once-in-a-generation talent is going to garner our respect, whether he’s on our team or not. J.J. Watt may turn out to be one of those players. But whether he does or not, there are things you see him do that you can’t quite believe you just saw.

The first Steeler game I ever watched, with my two sons attempting to explain to me what was happening, featured one of those Troy Polamalu moments.

As far as I could tell he levitated over a pair of blockers to get to the quarterback, or the ball, or whatever it was he wanted. I asked my sons what had just happened, and they had no explanation, other than it was Troy. It was some time before I could have even told you whether Troy played offense or defense, but nonetheless he made a deep impression.

But those sorts of things are entirely understandable. The Isaac Redmans are not so obvious. What is it that elevates certain players who are otherwise not particularly distinguished to a mythic level? As I wrote about Baron Batch back in 2012:

This year Baron Batch becomes another in the line of late-round and UDFA signings by the Steelers to become a legend. Between his ability to walk on water and Isaac Redman’s superpowers, opposing teams are happy to let Ben throw the ball undisturbed, rather than meet with the two-headed Running Game of Doom the Steelers will field next season.

Baron Batch has all of the vital ingredients for this sort of elevation [to the next mythic Steeler]: he was just barely drafted (you have to have been rejected by the majority of the league before you qualify,) he created a sensation in camp, and he was then prevented from actually playing during the season, in his case by injury. The third factor is critical, as it means any deficiencies in his actual play were shielded from view for a year, thus allowing the legend to grow unchecked.

In some ways, it must be nice to be a low round pick or a UDFA. It reduces the burden of expectation. Steeler Nation expects her high ­round draft picks to produce, and gets fairly testy if they don’t do so in what she considers to be a timely fashion. But if a “camp body” pans out he is exceeding expectations, and so is already ahead of the curve in the hearts of the Steeler fan base. Besides, who doesn’t love an underdog?

And Batch is an interesting case, because I suspect a great deal of the attraction was that he had found a voice. While still in high school he began writing a column for the local paper, and this continued through college. The blog he began at some point had quite the following before the Steelers drafted him.

As he said, it seems strange for someone who failed English to be a writer. And I don’t know that it was the quality of his writing that was the attraction. I believe the popularity was because his writing was revelatory. He wasn’t afraid to show who he was and what he was thinking.

He was almost the antithesis of Rashard Mendenhall, the private, ambiguous figure Steeler Nation never really took to their hearts. Conversely, Batch’s openness was very appealing.

Every year in camp there are a number of what I would prefer to call “archetypes” than stereotypes. You have the highly drafted underachiever, at least in the eyes of Steeler Nation, who is under a lot of scrutiny. During the time I’ve been noticing such things, Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward, and others have been in this category, with varying results.

There are the perennial favorites, the ones that even the relatively ignorant fans can spot. HEEAATTHH, Troy, well, really, any of the one-name guys, or the acronyms, like AB. They are the ones people are hoping to get autographs from. I cynically wonder how many of these go on Ebay the next day.

And then there are the Camp Sensations. Baron Batch was one of those, as was Isaac Redman. A few years ago there was a young wide receiver whose name I’m sorry to say I can’t remember who wowed the crowd with crazily athletic catches. Perhaps I can’t remember the name because there seems to be at least one of those every year, and seldom does anything come of it.

At its heart football is a sort of morality play. In a sense, it’s almost an embodiment of the American Dream. Rags to Riches. Heart and Effort Will Carry the Day. Poor Boy Makes Good. It’s a tale ingrained into our national DNA, and we love to see it come to pass.

I have no idea who next summer’s camp darlings will be. But I know for sure there will be some, and many of us will be pulling for them to beat the odds. You never know—an obscure 6th round pick may transmogrify into Antonio Brown.

3 comments

  • I inspired a post!

    The training camp darlings also have a 4th factor, imo. ‘Customer buy-in’. When there is a player that a fan can say is ‘overlooked’, etc. and then that player shows flashes… a fan can feel like they were there from the beginning. I remember that the most vociferous Batch fans were those that had started pounding the drum early.

    Liked by 2 people

  • “The Golden Hammer”, Robert Golden, was my camp darling his rookie year and he may get the opportunity to start next season. If you have a camp darling, IMO, he needs a good nickname like Redzone Redman or the one I came up with above….at least I think it is a good one 🙂

    As always, Rebecca, your writing is superb and kudos to Elpalito for inspiring an article.

    Like

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