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BILL PLASCHKE

The few, the proud, the Cardinals fans

Perhaps no team in pro sports has had a smaller, more indifferent fan base than the Arizona Cardinals. But for the few who kept the faith, like James Donnelly, Sunday's Super Bowl is their reward.

February 01, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE | from tampa, fla.

The world's greatest Arizona Cardinals fan is preparing to celebrate his team's appearance at this country's greatest sporting event.

From a Holiday Inn 85 miles away.

"Cheaper this way," said James Donnelly.

The world's greatest Arizona Cardinals fan is planning on attending today's Super Bowl between the Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Without a ticket.

"After all I've been through, I'll find one," said Donnelly, 42.

He wasn't picked in the Cardinals' Super Bowl season-ticket lottery even though he has missed only a handful of home games in 14 years.

"Don't know how that lottery works, never been through it before," he said.

He wasn't picked in a second lottery because, well, the Cardinals are so new at this, nobody told him about the second lottery.

"Big surprise there," he said.

He doesn't have any ticket contacts in the front office because the only involvement longtime Cardinals fans usually had with their front office involves the word "boo."

"We've kind of been alone for a lot of years," Donnelly said.

The world's greatest Arizona Cardinals fan has spent a huge chunk of his adult life cheering solo.

His license plate reads "1Cards1."

"Pretty easy to get, I guess nobody thought of it," he said.

His e-mail handle is "1cardsfan."

"Pretty easy to get that too," he said.

Like wildflowers in the desert, Cardinals fans are resilient, adaptive, isolated.

I have denoted Donnelly, a Phoenix investment consultant, as the world's greatest Arizona Cardinals fan for one simple reason.

I've never met another one.

In 28 years in this business, I have never had any contact with anyone claiming to be a Cardinals fan. Until I attended the NFC championship game two weeks ago in Glendale, Ariz., I had never even seen somebody who resembles a Cardinals fan.

Of course, after the game, a co-worker asked four of those jersey-wearing fans for directions out of the parking lot, and nobody could tell him.

And many of those fans still had price tags dangling from their caps.

But you get the point.

Dislike for aloof and eccentric owner Bill Bidwill, combined with frustration over more losses than any other franchise in NFL history, has left the team with what might be the smallest fan base in major professional sports.

Even with three seasons at cool and sleek University of Phoenix Stadium overshadowing the 18 years at wretchedly hot Sun Devil Stadium, recently the Cardinals still needed until the final moments to sell out their first home playoff game in 61 years.

"Sometimes it's sad," said Donnelly, who estimates there are only about 25,000 Cardinals die-hards. "Everywhere I would go, even in my own town, people would look at me like I was crazy."

It will truly be crazy today, when the weakest fan base in pro football will be sharing a stadium with one of the strongest.

Make no mistake, this will be a Pittsburgh Steelers home game, a fact that has affected everything from the betting lines to the players' mentality.

"I don't think we're under any illusion that there's going to be a number of Steeler fans here," said Cardinals Coach Ken Whisenhunt. "It's not going to be a lot different for us than going into Carolina" in the playoffs.

Sad, but true, and Donnelly, a Chicago native, knew it the moment he attended his first Cardinals game in 1995.

He was working on the Arizona State campus one Sunday morning, he heard some commotion at the football stadium, so he wandered over in his sweats.

Tickets were $15, the stands were empty, he figured what the heck, and thus enjoyed a Cardinals game that he now remembers in two words.

"Baking hot," he recalled.

Because the NFL required the Cardinals to play during the day, the games at Sun Devil Stadium were contested in brutal temperatures that sometimes reached triple digits.

"Every game, at least one fan would be carted out because of the heat," Donnelly said.

Once, he watched heavy makeup melt and drip off a female fan's face.

"She didn't make it through the first quarter," he said.

On another 100-degree day, the sideline misting machines pumped so furiously, he could barely see the players.

"Other teams had their Ice Bowls, their Fog Bowls," he said. "We had our Steam Bowl."

After every game, he would return home with one side of his face sunburned, and his red Cardinals jersey splotched white with dried sweat.

Then he would show up at work in the morning as the only Cardinals fan in the office.

"People look at you like you're a complete loser, so much that they don't even make fun of you," Donnelly said. "They're like, 'I can't laugh at you just because you love something that really [stinks]. So I'll just feel sorry for you.' "

He thought, if only people understood the benefits of being a Cardinals fan.

Pro football with none of that nasty traffic, none of that pesky tailgating, none of those suffocating crowds.

"They once had a fan fest, 100 players for only about 500 fans, it was great," he recalled.

Pro football with all souvenirs marked down as much as 90% off.

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