I’m in an NFL pool with people from Pittsburgh. As a man with no real rooting interest, I exploited my advantage over the years, picking winners without emotional bias. (Note: I’ve been in Chicago for 15 years, not long enough to make me a Bears believer. Talk to me in another 15 years.) Meanwhile, week after week, my opponents slavishly chose the Steelers to cover the spread, even if it was 17 1/2 points, the Steelers were playing in Green Bay, and Roethlisberger had advanced gangrene in both feet. Won a little money here and there.
For whatever reason, though, my luck in the Pittsburgh Pool died the past couple years. Certain teams stymied me, like the Redskins, who always seemed to lose by three when they were favored, and win by three when they were underdogs. Goddamn Redskins.
Eventually, my impartiality eroded; my judgment clouded. Then the Steelers started covering the spread, so I started picking them, at which point they stopped. Goddamn Steelers.
So this season I turned over the pool to my 4-year-old son, Max. The kid loves football in the way only a 4-year-old boy can, which is to say he knows zilch and repeats ad nauseum whatever little nuggets he picks up (“The 49ers defense is great”…“The Lions are dirty”…“Joe Flacco is a stiff.”) Beyond these bites, his knowledge is based mostly on a dollar-store 2009 NFL sticker book, which he sleeps with and studies and reads to the dog.
Max: Who’s got the ball?
Me: Patriots. First down.
Max: How about now?
Me: Still the Patriots.
Max: Wes Welker is going to catch, like, nine touchdowns on this play.
Hey, it’s a complicated game.
I find myself struggling to explain to Max why Ray Lewis could hit a guy so hard he knocked the dude’s helmet off and left him spasming on the ground—and people cheered—but a few minutes later the same Ray Lewis crashed into the quarterback a split second too late and drew a 15-yard penalty for roughing the passer.
No matter how fanatical Max might be (he woke me the other morning to announce that Jay Cutler’s fiancée was pregnant), he can still only watch a game for a few minutes. “Call me when someone flips over a defender like Jerome Simpson,” he says, before going off to make a flying pirate space motorcycle out of Legos.
So week after week, Max would make his picks. He’d pick every home team. Or he’d pick Aaron Rodgers to win but not the rest of the Packers, or he would burst into tears if I told him that the Cowboys were playing the Eagles again. At various points, he refused to admit that Tampa Bay was a real team. I didn’t bother to explain point spreads. Needless to say, we did not fare well in the pool. But he was having a good time. So was I. And the best part was that now, thanks to our collaboration, watching games counted as Time With the Kids.
When the playoffs came around, though, I forgot to ask Max for his picks in time. I was at work and he was at school when the deadline hit. With $112 of prize money at stake, I panicked and made my own choices. That night, Max came to me, excited. “Is it time to make our playoff picks?” “Oh. Yeah.” The truth—that it was too late, that I had picked for him—would have killed him.
So we went through the games, and he watched me pretend to e-mail his picks to Pittsburgh. My guilt lasted about 30 seconds. After the first weekend, I was 3-1 with my official picks. After the second weekend, the Niners won that crazy game over New Orleans and the Giants knocked off the Packers, which was absurd, and I was pretty much finished, leaving nothing but my annual melancholy at the prospect of watching a Super Bowl between two teams that don’t interest me. Then I found Max’s picks on my laptop.
If you can’t see where this is going, you have never bet on sports. It turns out he had picked nine of the 10 games right, including all four correct teams in the AFC and NFC championships. (No one else in the Pittsburgh pool had picked even two of the four right.) He had the Patriots and Giants in the Super Bowl.
When Max asked what place we were in, I told him: first.
He was so ecstatic he told all his friends at school, and his grandparents, and his stuffed animals, and the waiter at The Medici on 57th street. Fortunately, he’s not on Twitter.
The pool-keeper in Pittsburgh was charmed by my sad tale—nice people, these Pittsburghers—though not charmed enough to offer us the prize money if Max picked the right Super Bowl winner. But if it happens, she promises to send out an e-mail declaring Max the winner: a wonderful gesture that would thrill my son considerably if he knew how to read.
But my kid is no dummy. He’s going to want his dough. Which means if the Giants win on Sunday, I will have to pay my 4-year-old $112. In other words: Go Patriots.
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ABOUT JEFF RUBY: Jeff Ruby is Chicago magazine’s chief dining critic. Reach him on Twitter @dropkickjeffy.
STORY ART & MEDIA: Redskins image from the ; Boy geniuses graphic and playoff bracket done in-house; “Max on Football” video by the columnist himself, Jeff Ruby.