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Where does your fandom come from?

I am often asked, having been born and raised in Virginia, "Why are you a Cowboys fan?"

Well, there's a photo in an album at my house that shows my cousin, who was 13 at the time, placing a Dallas Cowboys balloon in my tiny less-than-1-year-old hand as I lay on a blanket at my great-aunt's house.

This, I believe, was the beginning of my love for the Dallas Cowboys.

You see, my mom and my cousin are both big Cowboys fans. My dad, however, is a Redskins fan, as is much of his side of the family. But when I was an impressionable young lad, I would spend time with my mom and cousin at my great aunt's house Sundays after church. At dinner time, my dad and other family members would come, and we would all eat together. During those afternoon hours, however, I suspect I was shaped and molded into believing certain things, such as that the Dallas Cowboys are "America's Team." I also did normal childhood things during that time, like take naps, but there's no doubt there was some intense football-watching when the NFL season started in the fall. I suspect I picked up on the Cowboys fever swirling around me and latched onto the team that my mom and cousin identified with.

It was not until I was older and not taking afternoon naps that I instead hung out with my dad Sundays. He is not as intense a Redskins fan as my mom and cousin are Cowboys fans, but he used to be. A couple decades of less-than-stellar play by the 'Skins has dampened his fandom somewhat. I still think, though, that if I had hung out with him Sunday afternoons instead, I likely would have ended up a Redskins fan.

Exploring how you became a fan of a certain team sometimes ends up being a study of your genealogy. For instance, why are my mom and cousin Cowboys fans? They are not from Texas. My mom says her brother was a football fan first, and he liked the Cowboys. So she started identifying with the team in high school, as did my cousin, although she was not born until later. So, why is my uncle a Cowboys fan? He told me he did not know why he decided to follow the Cowboys instead of the local Redskins, but he says he remembers that the first game he saw on television involved the Cowboys. No one in the family was interested in football then, so he chose his loyalties by himself. My uncle is kind of the founder of the Cowboys following in my family.

Strangely enough, it is even more of a mystery to me how I became a Virginia fan. My family members were Virginia fans but weren't intense until I became one. I had just turned 11, and the first game I remember watching was a close loss to Georgia in the Peach Bowl in 1998. I do not know why I cannot remember the game before that and really wish I did because it was Virginia's huge 36-32 comeback win against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. I suppose I became a Virginia fan because of my family, but why my fandom ended up being so intense, I do not know.

I have often thought that to be an intense fan - one who watches every game and deeply feels the pain of losing - you almost have to not understand where your fandom comes from. It has to come from something outside you rather than from somewhere inside you. Someone may have influenced you, but it is not a decision you consciously make. You do not choose a team like you choose a college to attend. Picking a team in high school because it is popular is not how it works. That is called band-wagoning, not true fandom. My mom is no bandwagon fan, but it seems as if she chose the Cowboys because her brother did. Perhaps only after years of truly identifying with a team and caring about every game does the team ingrain itself in your psyche and become a part of you. Most of the time, I find that people that bandwagon do it for the remainder of the season and then don't really follow the team until they are good again or it is popular to do so.

Despite the complexity of and confusion surrounding true fandom and its origins, one thing that seems to be a common thread in my stories is that family influenced the choice of favorite teams in all cases except for my uncle, who seemed to become attached to a team because it was improving and playing more games on television. Indeed, when I talked to people, a common theme that emerged was someone having a favorite team because a family member also likes that team. This seems to be even more common than having a favorite team because the team is based in the area a person lives in.

However you hold your allegiances, know that there is only one team per sport you can follow intensely. You can be pleased if another team wins, but you should not be able to care as much about a second team as your first team. If you can, you are not a true fan of your first team. Nothing beats that first love. A friend put it best when he said your favorite team is like a long-term relationship where cheating - band-wagoning - is allowed. It might be fun but will not live up to the one you love. And your favorite team might break your heart again and again by losing games, but it will always be faithful.