You’re not alone: the reality of a grieving Winnipeg Blue Bombers fan

Photo: Michael Scraper/3DownNation. All rights reserved.

Shock. Outrage. Numbness. Devastation. Agony.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers fans are reeling with a multitude of difficult emotions as they try to come to grips with one of the most tragic defeats in the team’s Grey Cup history.

If you know the recent history of the club — think 1993, 2001, 2007, 2011 — you know what I’m talking about. This one, perhaps, is unique. The Blue Bombers were achingly close to not only winning a championship, but achieving something hadn’t happened in forty years: dynasty status.

One measly play: the difference between agony and the jubilation of accomplishing something historic, generational, and unprecedented in a CFL era of player and coaching salary caps and one-year contracts.

If the Bombers would’ve made one more play, there would’ve been statues outside of IG Field instead of heartbreak remembered for a lifetime. This highlights the harsh reality of diehard Bombers fans and any sports fan, for that matter. Yes, we may win next year or in 2025 and it’d still be a dynasty. But a lot has to go right for that to happen.

For some fans, the above, intense grief reactions may seem extreme or unhealthy. Indeed, some fans are able to shake off gridiron tragedy. They feel sad, then shrug their shoulders and appreciate the ride. For others, like me, we experience a roller coaster of shock, anger, disbelief, and grief for days. We may sob uncontrollably while driving to work or wonder how the sun came up Monday morning despite our fan world crashing down.

If this is you, you’re not alone. It’s okay to still be reeling. In fact, it’s human nature.

When I think about it logically, it seems ludicrous to be so profoundly affected by the ups and downs of a football team. After all, aside from causing procedure penalties by shouting and screaming at visiting teams — the Lions’ thwarted final drive in the West Final, for instance — we as fans have no control over the outcome of games. We don’t put our bodies on the line.

We do put our hearts on the line, though. We risk heartbreak at the possibility of pure joy. We can’t have one without the other.

Social psychologists have studied sports fans extensively. Fans not only identify with their team, their identity, to varying degrees, fuses with their beloved club. Ever catch yourself to your favourite team as “we” instead of “they”? The fact that many diehard CFL fans actually know their team’s players, coaches, and staff personally exacerbates this phenomenon.

Of course, not all is lost. Winnipeggers still have a dominant team that will surely contend for years to come. And let’s be real: nobody died.

“Zach, get some perspective,” is something I hear a lot. They remind me that billions of people in the world don’t have the luxury of watching football, as every day is a fight for survival. Some people have cancer. Others have to work three jobs and don’t have the time to watch football.

To this, I remind other that I can experience profound grief about my football team and still acknowledge that I have tremendous privilege. I can both feel like the world has ended and appreciate how lucky I am to have a warm house, car, great job, marriage, and healthy, happy children. One doesn’t discount the other.

Psychologists call this “both/and” thinking. Indeed, it can be crucial for mental health. Two truths can simultaneously exist. In fact, if we reflect honestly, they often do. Life is messy, confusing, complicated. If we don’t acknowledge this, our pain is greater. We beat ourselves up. We feel ashamed.

Take children, for example. I can both love my children unconditionally and be desperate for them to go to sleep so I can have precious time to myself. I can both dearly miss my father, who lived with a chronic illness for 35 years, and feel relief that I don’t have to be his daily caregiver.

When we negate these competing but simultaneous realities, we are much more prone to depression, anxiety and shame. For example, if the fact that I don’t have a horrific disease means I don’t allow myself to feel achingly sad over the Bombers’ loss, that pain persists. And when the emotional inevitable keeps coming up, I will beat myself up over it and think
I should be over it. This makes the pain persist and makes us feel ashamed and alone.

So, if you feel heartbroken, depressed, empty, angry, or lost, that’s okay. These are normal grief reactions. You’re not crazy. You just love the Bombers that much.

As one psychologist said, “Grief is the rent we pay for love.” For many of us, the Bombers are not a recreational activity but a way of life. Holidays, family gatherings, and commitments are only scheduled once the CFL calendar is released. Strangers in our section of IG Field become lifelong friends, as do many Bombers players, coaches, staff, and volunteers. These people are our family. When they lose, we lose.

I’ve been a therapist for over a decade, and, as someone with chronic mental health issues, I’ve been a client in therapy for a long time. Here are a couple things that help me with grief and loss, whether it’s the Bombers losing the Grey Cup, or the death of a family member.

1. Be patient and kind with yourself. Grief takes a toll on our bodies, minds, and hearts. It is exhausting and complex. What happens in an instant, takes a long time for our minds to unpack. One second we were sure the Bombers come through. The next, we felt agonizing shock as the joy of a dynastic, Grey Cup victory, with all the trimmings, was ripped away.

If you’re like me, you hungrily anticipated re-watching the Grey Cup a dozen times, greeting the team at the airport, the Grey Cup parade, the Blue Bombers Grey Cup Social, and commemorative Grey Cup book, not to mention the three-peat ring reveal and your very own replica ring. I fantasized about buying championship merchandise at the Bombers Store (one silver lining is that the loss saved me hundreds of dollars).

I imagined giving our manager of ticketing and fan services a huge hug (she’s every Bombers fan’s favourite person). The dynasty would’ve meant books written by sports historians, statues outside IG Field, and stories shared with our grandchildren, on par with what my dad told me about Bud Grant and Kenny Ploen’s four Cups in five years.

One part of my brain knows this won’t happen, the other part needs time to process it.

2. Feel your feelings. Emotions come in waves: if we resist, they will persist. They are present whether you like it or not. Your body experiences them even if you try to repress them. You can’t speed them up, but you can certainly slow them down. Let yourself cry. Tears are just water. Crying is your body’s way of healing.

Short-term pain is long-term gain. At first, it’ll be really painful. In time, though it may never disappear, the pain subsides.

3. Name your feelings. When we name our feelings, be it anger, sadness, loss, emptiness, or shock, we actually help our brain regulate them. Name it to tame it, as they say. By giving your emotions an accurate and recognizable label, your brain remembers that emotions, however painful, are not a threat. Thus, they can be regulated.

4. Make time for grief. Make a point of taking time for your grief every day, even if it’s just a few minutes. You can write in a journal, hop on a fan forum, or just sit quietly and note what you;re feeling. For me, this brackets and contains the grief so it doesn’t leak into my day. Since I’m someone who’s prone to suppressing my feelings, this practice also reminds me to feel my grief.

5. Reach out to other diehard fans like you. They get it. I avoid people who tell me just to “get over it.” When I see that others feel the way I do, I feel immense relief. I don’t feel so isolated or ashamed that I’m struggling over a football game. Trust me, I know the Grey Cup loss isn’t life and death, but if you are as attached to the team as I am, my brain, without conscious control, interprets it that way.

Psychologically, we see loss as a threat and thus we can go into fight, flight, or freeze. This prolongs grief. I remind myself that it’s okay to not be okay. Suffering means I’m human and care deeply about my team. There’s no shame in that and it will get better in time. But it gets better faster in community with like-minded fans.

6. Get perspective. Without discounting my feelings, I do my best to remember that, as much as I live and die with wins and losses, football is about family, community, and relationships. As much as my heart soars with each win and is crushed by each loss, what’s truly enduring for me about football is the people I with whom I watch, the fans with whom I connect.

In addition, I try to remember that however horrible I will feel for a few days, the players, coaches, staff and their families probably feel about a hundred times worse. They’re the ones who put their bodies on the line, who put in thousands of hours of training and film study.

Shock. Outrage. Numbness. Devastation. Agony.

I admit, as I finish this article, I feel embarrassment. To many of you, my intense reactions to a football game probably seem unhealthy at best and, at worst, unhinged. But that’s okay. I know I’m not the only one. I hope this article mitigates any shame or embarrassment you might be feeling if you’re a struggling diehard fan that “bleeds Blue
and Gold till you’re dead and cold.”

I also hope this article gives you pause before you tell a diehard Bombers fan or any fan of the team on the losing side of a championship game, “Oh well, there’s always next year,” or, “It’s just a game,” or, “Get over it.”

Finally, I want to acknowledge that there are many huge Blue Bombers fans, people who are as committed as me, who don’t feel my level of grief and loss. I certainly don’t mean to diminish you.

As I said, we all react differently to loss. As we say in these parts, diversity is strength. Thank you to the Winnipeg Football Club and its players, coaches, staff, and volunteers, for a wonderful year of fellowship and fun, and to 3DownNation for their excellent coverage.

Win or lose, I adore the CFL, even when the last three minutes last a lifetime.

Zach Schnitzer is a Winnipeg Blue Bombers' season ticket holder, podcaster, and mental health advocate.