When Patrick Gill awoke from anesthesia on August 23, 2017, his first question wasn’t “How did the surgery go?” Or even, “Where’s my wife?” it was, “Am I going to be able to make it to the Notre Dame home opener next week?”
His family understood. Gill is a season-ticket holder and has missed only two home games in 63 years. In fact, everyone in his large Irish-American family are “Fighting Irish” fans, from his siblings and their offspring to his own children and grandchildren, even the ones who live in Ireland. For the Gills, like many American families, passing on a favorite team to your offspring is akin to passing on a surname or a religion. You don’t choose it. It’s given to you.
They say there’s nothing more American than baseball, but football is actually America’s most popular sport. Roughly half of Americans consider themselves NFL fans, according to an ESPN poll. It’s also not just pro football that has us tuned in. College football is huge as well, and let’s not forget the roughly 16,048 high school football teams spread across the country. That’s a lot of Friday, Saturday and Sunday night lights.
Talk with a Senior Living Advisor
Our advisors help 300,000 families each year find the right senior care for their loved ones.
What makes the sport particularly interesting, is how fandom spreads across the generations. The same percentage of millennials love college football as do Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, according to the National Football Foundation.
While those stats didn’t include the youngest “Generation Z” football fans, whose first onesies held the family’s favorite team logos, one can only guess they were first introduced to the game by their parents and grandparents.
“It all starts with my dad in the early 50s,” says Diane Ashorn, 60, of Brenham, Texas. Her dad, Glenwood Vierus, 82, played for the Brenham High School Cubs. Since then, four generations of Vieruses have worn the team’s signature green as band members, cheerleaders, drum majors, flag corp members and football players.
In fact, every family I interviewed for the story bonded over a specific team because of a father or grandfather.
For the Gills, love of Notre Dame started with Patrick’s father, who came to the U.S. in the 20s on a boat from Ireland. He discovered Notre Dame football on a whim. No one from the family has actually ever attended Notre Dame.
For the Gittlers of Chicago, their love of the Bears began with the patriarch of the family, Marvin Gittler, who held season tickets for 53 years before he died last year at age 77. The entire Gittler clan has remained rabid fans of the Bears even through decades of losing seasons.
“We sing the Bears fight song as Passover seder every year,” says Debra Gittler, Marvin’s daughter. “The Bears suck, but it’s what we did as a family. We’re masochists.”
The Butlers are a football family. They were fans before Kevin played, but the bond tightened during road trips in an uncle’s custom van to every single game in the Southeastern Conference.
“His grandparents, parents, friends – all of us traveled together, no matter the weather,” Cathy Butler says.
When Kevin was drafted by the Chicago Bears, the group graduated to planes. “Everyone flew up, flew down, flew around,” she said. Including to Super Bowl XX, which the Bears won. Kevin kicked three field goals that game.
The football bond only strengthened when the Butlers’ son, Drew, played for Georgia before going pro himself. Cathy Butler fondly remembers hanging out with her in-laws after her son’s games, waiting for her husband to finish radio interviews.
“We’d have a couple hours to kill, so we’d go back to the parking lot. We’d just sit in the car and talk about the game and we’d solve all the problems of the world while we went to the bottom of a bottle of wine,” she says.
It’s not just men who love football – 39% of college football fans are women and the Washington Post reports women make up a whopping 45% of NFL fans and are, in fact, the NFL’s most important demographic.
According to Debra Gittler, her father Marvin first attended games with his father-in-law, then he attended with his wife.
“It’s used to be their thing, but then it became more the thing he did with his daughters,” said Debra. Those season tickets have since been passed down to his daughters, who, with their children, are continuing the tradition of rooting for the Bears.
Football games can be highly emotional. Huge losses. Sudden, come-from-behind wins. The underdog finally making it to the playoffs. These are the storylines that tie families together.
“Football was a key talking point for us and it led to conversations about life, about girls and school. That’s how we bonded,” says Jackson, who lived with his grandfather his last two years of high school. Jackson said his grandfather attended every one of his football games, sometimes driving two hours each way to see a game.
“It’s through athletics that you learn so much about perseverance, courage, strength and the type of person you want to be,” Jackson says. “My grandfather represented those fundamentals he got from football. He truly was my hero.”
Patrick Gill once told his three daughters, “I’m telling you now, fall weddings, not good. If you want me to be in attendance, here’s the Notre Dame schedule for the next 7 years.”
So the entire family celebrated when Gill made it to that home opener he was afraid he’d miss. His daughters and his son watched the game from their hometowns, far from Ft. Bend, Indiana. His grandsons followed from Ireland.
“We are always watching the game, so you have that bond even if you’re far apart,” says Gill’s daughter, Kristen, 47, who lives in Seattle.
I asked Kristen if there’s anyone in the family who would admit to me that they aren’t a fan of Notre Dame. She thought it over for a couple seconds. “Not above ground.”
How do generations of your family bond over football? What team does your family root for? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.