Normally when I tell people here in Los Angeles about my love of football, they respond with something between a blank stare and a flat smile.
I played on my local high school basketball team where I was the butt of quite a few jokes, and by the time I was seventeen I had formed a steely, hardened shell around myself when it came to conversing with anyone about my love of football.
I didn’t like it when I met other fans, either. They seemed shallow and less informed; more, well... American.
For the previous eight or nine years I had been waking up at 4:30 in the morning to watch early kick-offs and streaming from some hilariously sketchy websites - to watch games, of course.
This was all made more difficult by the reality that I had chosen, completely by chance (some would call it misfortune), to support Sunderland AFC.
So the awkward and painful encounters with fellow American sports fans became more irritating. “Oh, you’re a soccer fan? Let me guess what team...”
“Please dude, you won’t know...”
“No, don’t worry I have a friend at work, and he’s a huge Man United fan! I know my stuff!”
They would then go on to say: “The Arsenal”, “Liverpool FC” and “The Spurs”, all with plenty of confidence and plenty of ignorance. Even amongst those with the best intentions, it was hard to have a meaningful dialogue because I wasn’t able to put into words that my passion wasn’t just for football, but for Sunderland.
To escape the torture, I decided to hop on a 747 to Manchester. Now, attending University somewhere in the North of England as an American, and as a Sunderland fan, has put me in prime joke fodder position.
I thought it would get better, and to be perfectly honest, it has gotten easier to not walk straight into a punchline. It threw the people I met for a loop when I proved I could hold my own in a circle of knowledgeable football fans.
Yeah, my accent probably grates on them a little, but most seem to warm to it after a couple of interactions. It took me a couple months but eventually the trial-by-fire, joke slinging system made me re-think my first visit to the Stadium of Light about five years earlier.
It was the opening day against Fulham and the weather wasn’t spectacular (torrential downpour now that I think about it). With a summer of Paolo Di Canio’s antics under our collective belts, and a pie in my hand, I was ready to enjoy my first ever Sunderland match at the Stadium of Light.
The atmosphere was hard to explain. I imagine many of you will have participated in it before, but for some basketball kid from Los Angeles? Unbelievable.
Everybody was so excited, and, for the first time in a long time, I felt as though I fit right in. Everyone I came across was more than nice to me, the concession stand workers, stewards, fans, and even Sebastian Larsson (long story, maybe for another time).
In typical Sunderland style, we went on to lose the match 1-0, conceding on a poorly defended set-piece. Pajtim Kasami was left unmarked in the box, and an out-swinging corner glanced off his head and past Simon Mignolet. The stadium, fell silent - the kind of silence that you get when you turn off a loud hoover. Deafening silence.
Then, the noise started rumbling again in the singing end, and soon spread across the rest of the ground. The ocean of red and white was bouncing once more, despite the sheets of rain and increasingly depressing score line.
I had found out in that moment what it meant to be a true fan, and also what it felt like to be part of a tribe, a community that knew just how to make someone truly foreign, be a part of something magical.
Yeah, the score line could have been better, it could have stopped raining for a moment or two, the pie should probably have been tastier, but it didn’t really matter. Sunderland AFC had a hold on me, as did their unwavering, unbelievable fan base.