It starts with the sandwiches.
During football season, my grandfather, Poppop as we know him, calls me every Tuesday or Wednesday to ask me what type of sandwich I want from Tommy’s Taste of Italy for Sunday’s game. While I switch up my order, my grandfather orders a tuna wrap and a Pellegrino. Every time.
On Sunday, my grandfather, dad, aunt and I attended the game. My cousin went with his friends for the Week 1 matchup but for most of my life, the four of us have gone. My grandfather has attended every home Giants game since the early ‘50s. My dad grew up going to every home game and my cousin and I have had the same experience. Some of my earliest memories include wearing a sundress and barely paying attention at games because I did not find the Giants as entertaining as my coloring books.
So Sunday’s game against the Broncos was one of many. And after the poor performance and eventual loss, it may disappear into memory and become indecipherable from the others.
Except it was different. The Giants’ Week 1 opener was a returning, a homecoming and a reminder.
While some stadiums across the NFL eventually opened their doors to varying capacities during the 2020 season, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the fan experience. There was no one to yell “De-fense” or scream during field goals or hush when the offense was working. MetLife Stadium was closed to fans all of last season. The last time anyone cheered inside of it was during a December 29th loss to the Philadelphia Eagles during the 2019 season, in which Daniel Jones threw for 301 yards and Saquon Barkley rushed for 92.
This is what it was like for me to be back at MetLife:
The energy is palpable from the parking lot. Once we settle into our spot in Lot K, it is time for the sandwiches. Normally, my grandfather opens the truck to pull out a 50-plus year old card table and folding chairs for us to sit. But the card table became his home desk in the last year, supporting the piles of yellow pads he uses to write notes to clients (Fun fact: he uses White Out on yellow paper when he makes a mistake). So the four of us stand, eating foot-long sandwiches in the Giants parking lot as families and friends grill and eat and sit around us.
We walk to the stadium slowly. At 80 years old, my grandfather sets the pace. He’s wearing his Super Bowl XLII Eli Manning jersey and a Giants hat. The tickets are mobile-only for the first time this season, so my aunt helps Poppop pull them up on his phone for the security guard at the entrance. My grandfather tries to buy a program so that he can look at the roster but they don’t sell them anymore.
We head up the escalator and walk to Section 149. The only thing we ever buy at games is hot chocolate and it is not cold enough for that yet. My dad and grandfather greet the security guard, who has manned this section for years, with a handshake and pat on the back. As we make our way down to row 14, we see familiar faces. The grandfather and grandson to our left. The father and son behind us and in front of us. The question “How are you?” and the platitude “It’s good to see you” take on new meaning as a global pandemic separates us all from the last time we saw each other. There is comfort and relief in knowing that everyone is at the Giants game; in knowing that everyone is healthy enough to be back at the stadium.
It’s only after exchanging greetings that we take in the green expanse of the field. The Giants defensive backs are warming up in our corner of the end zone. There are new names like “Golladay” and “Toney” running routes in the middle of the field and there are familiar names, too. It feels like we were just here but the masks on players and coaches remind us that we were not.
As always, my dad sits in seat 14, my grandfather takes 17 and my aunt and I take the middle. My grandfather listens to the game on radio as he watches, so my aunt helps him tune his new headphones to the correct station. When Poppop puts the head set on, the return to the stadium hits me.
My grandfather, with his three layers and long pants looks comfortable in the 80-degree weather. He has his legs crossed and takes in the pregame warmups with the eye of someone who had not missed a home game in 60-plus years until last season.
Team captains are walking to the center of the field, the coin is being flipped and the crowd stands as both teams prepare for kickoff.
As I stand and clap and root for a winning start to a hopefully strong season, I look down to see my grandfather still sitting, peering around the bodies of those in front of him.
I cheer for him.