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Israeli fans cheer for Patriots in the middle of the night

NFL fans cheer at a Tel Aviv bar as they watch the Super Bowl.

Letter from Jerusalem

JANUARY 25, 2018 – January is the time when you tend to see some English speakers in Jerusalem ambling around the city like they’re sleepwalking. Dark rings around their eyes, listless, sometimes mumbling to themselves. But what’s troubling them isn’t the Iranian threat, the cost of living, or the criminal probes of their prime minister. It’s the lack of sleep from staying up all night to watch the NFL playoffs.

With last Sunday’s conference championship games at 10 p.m. (Jaguars vs. Patriots) and 1:30 a.m. (Vikings vs. Eagles) here, we dedicated NFL fans have a choice of ruining the next day and catching the games live; taping and watching them in the morning; or making do with those 10-minute highlight clips online.

For me, it doesn’t help that the New England Patriots are ALWAYS in the playoffs. It’s not like I grew up in the Midwest as a Cincinnati Bengals fan … in that case, I’d get plenty of sleep come post-season time.

No, as a tried and true New Englander, I latched onto the Pats as soon as I could understand the game. Of course, back then in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, being a Patriots fan was a labor of love. They were years of dismal teams and disappointments offset by elite talents like Gino Cappelletti, Jim Nance, Jim Plunkett, and Randy Vataha. It was also the era when the Boston Patriots evolved into the New England Patriots.

What I mostly remember about being a diehard Pats fan back then was not the losing records, but the frustration over being unable to watch the games. The hapless team had difficulty filling up Schaefer Stadium and before that, a plethora of temporary venues including Fenway Park. So their home games were invariably blacked out in New England.

The blackout was lifted at some point in the ‘70s, but my personal blank screen continued. It was a cruel twist of fate that 1985 – the same year the rewards of sticking with the team through the very thin years was paying off with their first trip to the Super Bowl against the Bears – was also my first year as a new immigrant in Israel. That was before the advent of cable TV in Israel, and well before online streaming. Only an early-morning phone call back home revealed the grim 46-10 rout in Super Bowl XX, followed a couple days later by the full report in the International Tribune.

By the early ‘90s and onward – just in time for the Tom Brady era – the situation improved incrementally. For a few years, hotels in Jerusalem would provide a feed from the US Armed Forces channel for soldiers overseas, and screen the Super Bowl in a banquet room with American refreshments such as hot dogs and fries for a considerable entry fee.

Finally, cable TV channels imported from the US and multiple Internet options offered a variety of platforms to view live coverage of the playoffs leading up to the Super Bowl.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft celebrates the Patriots’ conference championship victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Brian, a Jerusalem friend and Bengals fan growing up who gets lots of sleep in January, objects in principle to the whole American sports worship that many olim carry with them to Israel.

“We have our own great sports heritage here in Israel: a top quality basketball league with world-class Maccabi Tel Aviv and all the soccer you could want. Why get up in the middle of the morning to watch American football? We’re in Israel now,” he’s said on more than one occasion.

That makes sense, but sports allegiances aren’t always logical. They come from the heart. So, over the years, joining like-minded American expats despite the evil eye from wives and employers, I’ve watched the Patriots’ post-season drives in many unique settings.

In the 20-17 Super Bowl victory over the Rams following the 2001 season, I watched in bed through the night next to my sleeping wife with the sound off on the only working TV in the house. Raising my arms outright in silent cheer proved to be an exercise in ultimate restraint.

In 2012, instead of attending a house gathering of New York Giants fans in a suburb of Jerusalem (replete with catered deli), I watched the Pats heartbreakingly lose to the Big Blue, 21-17, with a friend who had recently lost his job and was going through a severe depression. The loss did not buoy either of our moods.

And on Feb. 1, 2015, I joined around 150 other football fans at a swanky Tel Aviv nightclub for a free screening hosted by Israeli politician and NFL fan Yair Lapid, who had launched his Yesh Atid party and was hoping to recruit some American-Israeli support. The collective roar when the Pats sealed the game with that immaculate interception in the end zone in the final seconds of the 28-24 victory over Seattle made the sleepless night and the soggy chicken wings all worth it.

Even for casual NFL fans, the Patriots are the natural team to align with because of owner Robert Kraft’s love of Israel, his frequent trips here with NFL Hall of Famers, and his considerable investment in developing American football in Israel at his Kraft Stadium compound in Jerusalem.

Now that the Patriots beat Jacksonville in the conference finals, I and the other Israeli NFL fans will be preparing for the Feb. 4 Super Bowl against Philadelphia beginning at 1:30 a.m. our time. We’ll be arranging work and family schedules (including taking our wives away for a weekend beforehand as compensation), and getting ready for some sleep deprivation.

And if for some improbable reason, Brady and company don’t hand us another Super Bowl trophy, there’s some consolation. Spring training starts in a month!

David Brinn grew up in Maine, and is a Jerusalem-based journalist.

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