Mike Alstott, for those of you who are unfamiliar with NFL fullbacks (and if this describes you, please fix this glaring personality flaw posthaste), played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for twelve seasons. The fullback is essentially a dying position in the NFL, with a backup running usually taking the same spot. The point of the fullback is to often serve as a miniature lineman on certain plays, providing another blocker for the quarterback or runningback. Other times (and far more rarely), the fullback serves as a ball carrier, using their superior mass and the unpredictability of their involvement to gain yardage in tough defensive situations.
Alstott was a fan favorite for the duration of his career in Tampa Bay, always drawing outsize cheers to what was, in the scope of football’s offensive positions, a relatively minor (but still key) role. There’s a certain breed of football fan who loves the tough guy, and between his position and his brutalizing style of play, he fit that to a tee.
I always wondered, though, how he became The Man in Tampa Bay, and how even outside of the team’s home market, he still drew cheers from fans who had no reason to particularly like a fullback who averaged 32 yards a game. Much of it was the tough guy aspect, a guy who hearkened back to an era when football players played in leather helmets and had to watch out for the goalpost every time they got near the endzone. For a small group of people, though, it was something else. I was sitting in a bar in Dublin, Ohio, after work one weekend. Sundays at bridal stores are a form of uncategorized torture, in case you’d ever wondered.
There was a late-season Buccaneers game on one TV, and an early-season Cavaliers game on another. There were a couple of guys there, both white and middle aged, camped out so long on the barstools that there was a small fear they’d permanently indented their asses into the padding. Alstott burst out of the line of scrimmage and managed a titanic three yards – not a score, not even enough for a first down, but enough to cause these guys to whoop and holler. Fine, they’re Bucs fans. I just need a beer.
I started watching the Cavs game, and it looked to be somewhere in the third quarter. Whatever team they were playing, a young white player, looked to be a guard or a small forward, came in off the bench, and again, the guys whooped it up for him. I went up and asked the bartender what the deal was, and with no small amount of embarrassment, she told me that the guys always cheered for the white players.
To this day, I’ve never been able to fully shake that encounter. There are plenty of “fan favorites” across our nation, a large number of whom happen to be white. The vast majority of people who cheer for them are cheering for them for a variety of reasons, from their personality to their specific skillset to a hometown affiliation. However, there’s going to be that rancid minority that just really, really likes white players, and views their success as a slap in the face to the black players who would otherwise take their spots.
To be honest, even in a Democratic primary, I expected Barack Obama to get buried under this phenomenon. It’s generally not the fault of the person who benefits from it (unless, of course, it’s encouraged), but it does happen, and it’s a factor all of us of color deal with: at some point, you’re going to run into a white person who views failure on your part as a moral success on theirs.
To be sure, there was some of that on display in the Democratic Primary. But, and this is the key, it wasn’t enough to stop a viable black candidate from getting the nomination. How the general plays out is anyone’s guess at this point, but at the very least, there’s cause for celebration in the ability of a black man to pierce a formerly impenetrable barrier – and, hopefully, that you can be a fan of Mike Alstott and the black running back he’s blocking for.