Recently, the Parramatta Eels NRL club proudly announced that their memberships had reached the 20,000 mark. With over a month to go before the season commences, this is a significant milestone.
As a proud Eels member, watching from the other side of the world, I’ve been asked to share my story.
Though new to NRL and the Eels, I now avidly follow both the code and my club.
Like most Americans, I grew up watching and playing baseball. The closest team to me as a kid in Central Florida was the Atlanta Braves, and I grew up watching them on TV during long, lazy summer days as my parents did whatever it was parents did. We’d go camping in North Carolina at the end of every summer, and on the way back stop in Atlanta for a game if the Braves were in town. I don’t remember them ever winning a game we went to, but we had fun all the same.
Like many Americans, I’m the child of immigrants. Well, AN immigrant, anyway. My dad was born outside of London and came to the USA about 15 years before I was born. I don’t think he ever got baseball, but he was mad for gridiron football, specifically the Houston Oilers.
There’s a story that right after I was born he had a vasectomy. It wasn’t a simple outpatient procedure back then and the doctor told him to take it easy, but the next day he was at an Oilers game. The only time I saw him cry was when the Bills came back to win 41-38 against the Oilers in that miserable 1993 playoff game.
For many years, the NFL and MLB were it for me. I started cheering for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the Oilers moved to Tennessee and became a Seattle Mariners fan after I moved to Montana.
Then I fell out of love with the NFL.
If players weren’t getting involved in acts of violence, they were scrambling their brains for the sake of billionaire owners who it seemed viewed the players as interchangeable cogs in their money-printing machines. I turned off the NFL and focused solely on baseball for a while.
Then in the summer of 2017, I read an article explaining the rules of rugby union on Deadspin. It had a brief section on the difference between it and rugby league, but kind of disparaged league.
A few weeks after reading the article I happened across a union match between Italy and maybe New Zealand while in a hotel room in Kalispell, Montana. I watched for a bit and enjoyed it enough that when I got home I set the DVR to record any instance of “rugby” over the weekend.
I wound up stumbling across something called the NRL with a matchup between the Raiders and Storm, the one where Iosia Soliola’s arm firmly acquainted itself with Billy Slater’s head. I’d recorded a few other NRL games and watched them intently, too.
I fell in love with the game – 80 minutes of almost nonstop action, quick passes, big hits, and close enough to gridiron football that my dumb American brain could grasp it immediately.
I went looking for a team to support.
In the States we have enough Broncos, Cowboys, Titans, Panthers, Raiders, Jets, Bears, and Eagles (be they Sea or other). I had no geographic ties to any suburb or state, so I chose one with a pleasantly goofy name: the Parramatta Eels. Blue and gold have coincidentally always been colours of the schools I’ve attended, to boot.
I watched some clips on YouTube of highlights, including the 2009 comeback season and highlights of a superhumanly fast Fijian named Semi Radradra scoring boatloads of tries. I loved hearing Ray Warren shouting “Radradraaa!”
Late one night I tweeted to my handful of followers that I’d discovered this thing called rugby league and that I was thinking of supporting @TheParraEels. Within a few minutes my phone dinged with an alert: the Parra Eels’ Twitter account had replied, welcoming me to the fold. It was a simple thing, but that little welcome cemented my fandom for me.
When I woke in the morning, I’d been retweeted and replied to and followed by what seemed like half of Sydney. There were lots of people saying “Welcome!” and “I’ll buy you a beer if you make it out here,” and that kind of thing.
There were also a handful of “Oh boo the Eels,” and warnings that the Eels were perennial losers and that misery lay in my future. Of course as a Bucs and Mariners fan, misery was in my blood. When you’re at the bottom of the standings, it makes those brief flirtations with success all the better.
Of course the Eels had a deep run in the playoffs that year and we were all excited for another shot at it in 2018, even if Semi was eating baguettes in Bordeaux. I now had my jersey and was a dues-paying member. The day I got my membership package I went on Twitter to post pictures and saw that Jarryd Hayne was facing what was to become the first of his legal issues.
Not a great start to 2018, and the on-field news didn’t get any better for the Blue and Gold either. As the season progressed, a lot of people chirped about wanting their membership dues back, but I never did. I was proud to have the member sticker on the back of my car, proud to wear my tie to work, proud to wear my jersey sitting at home watching the game on the Watch NRL app, 12 or more hours after the actual end of the game.
In fact, I’ve become a sort of league evangelist in the short time I’ve been a fan. I took my soon-to-be wife to Denver and met some friends there for the test match last year. I send my fantasy football league NRL highlights to my friends; they enjoyed Adam Reynolds’ three field goals in the playoffs over the Dragons.
And while this off-season has been brutal for the NRL, it’s not all bad news for league fans and especially Eels supporters.
For one, it’s literally impossible for us to finish any lower on the ladder than last year. And we’ve got some great guys on the team. We’ve got talented big boys like my favourite player, Tepai Moeroa, and Daniel Alvaro. Importantly, Clint Gutherson ought to be back to form with another year removed from his knee injury.
Dylan Brown is an exciting young prospect and on our veteran list there’s noted good guy Tim Mannah. He may have lost a step with age but his Wikipedia page doesn’t have a “Scandal” section and that deserves to be celebrated.
I’ve put 2018 behind me, and now look ahead to the coming season.
I’m ready to watch my team remind opponents how it feels to try to go toe to toe against the Parramatta Eels.