It could have been any high school cafeteria anywhere in America. It had the same familiar odor of reheated pizza wafting through the air, the same buzz of adolescents gossiping, bragging and arguing in equal measure. It had the same factions as any school cafeteria in the lower 48: tables pushed together to form a stage for battle rapping, football players (the American kind) wearing their jerseys before Friday night's game, band kids assembling and disassembling their instruments for some reason, that weird, small table in the corner reserved for Magic the Gathering, and always, always, always, stoned kids that had somehow managed to sneak off to Burger King in their beat up Chevy Celebrity.
There were the same elderly lunch monitors who held an open disdain for the job itself (and most of the kids) yet somehow still served as surrogate grandmas to everyone. It had the same beat-up garbage can on wheels overflowing with styrofoam trays, banana peels, Snapple bottles and the stray Coke can brought from home. There was always that one couple pushing the boundaries of PDA, and for some strange reason, the enormous kid with long hair who wore cargo shorts, a hoodie and basic-ass sneakers...all...year...long.
Only on this day, in this particular cafeteria, in this particular corner of America, and at that particular second, a fateful moment forever altered my relationship with expensive replica jerseys. But in order to understand the magnitude of this moment, you need to understand the adolescent version of me.
Comprised of equal parts apathy, arrogance and sarcasm, I was more concerned with making my classmates laugh than I was with mastering pre-calculus, understanding the nuances of American political structures or understanding how the past participle worked in Spanish. I knew enough to be dangerous but not nearly enough to recognize the damage I was doing to my future plans.
My grades may have been faltering, but there was one area in which I had achieved expertise: useless sports statistics. While I hadn't yet discovered the beautiful game, give me any New York Giants player and I could tell you where they went to college and when they were drafted. Corner me in the hallway and I could tell you why David Robinson was better than Shaq or Hakeem. Bet me a week's worth of Hostess Cupcakes and I could lay out a conceivable argument why Mario Lemieux was greater than the “Great One” Wayne Gretzky.
While I had my favorite teams, I was an unabashed sports junky. And even if I didn't have my own varsity jacket to sport, I showed my love and appreciation for the athletes of the late 90s by spending my parent's hard earned cash on all manner of sports paraphernalia: pennants, every EA sports game Sega had to offer, those Scottie Pippen shoes from the ‘96 Olympics (AIR running down the side), my Rickey Henderson-style neon green batting gloves, a Brendan Shanahan titanium hockey stick, my Ryne Sandberg infielder's glove, my Griffey Jr outfielder's glove, and jerseys of every sort: Deion Sanders, Chris Webber, Barry Bonds, Lawrence Taylor, Sammy Sosa, Jaromir Jagr, Dennis Rodman and for some strange reason a Derrick Coleman USA jersey.
But there was one shirt that, even though I didn't particularly like the team, was just so dope I couldn't help but wear it frequently, and it didn't hurt my rep once Tupac started wearing it.
I'm talking about this beauty:
Unfortunately, I couldn't coerce my dad to splurge for a Red Wings shirt with “Fedorov”or “Yzerman” stitched on the back, but the crisp red and white color scheme really stood out in that dimly lit, aqua-tiled cafeteria.
But then it happened...
I was so busy plowing through my stale pizza, my fruit punch-flavored Fruitopia and peeling the layers off my Nutty Bar—and all the while trading insults with my friends—that I didn't see it. I couldn't see it. There was no way I could have possibly seen it coming.
It didn't really jolt me, but I could feel it dripping down my arm immediately. I had been hit...by a fucking carton of chocolate milk. Hurled across the cafeteria for some unknown reason, I wasn't the intended target, but I bore the brunt just the same. And just as quickly as that carton of milk exploded, it's chocolately goodness seeped into the lily white bands on the sleeves of my brand new jersey.
Did I retaliate? Of course, but the damage was done and no amount of vengeful pudding flung through the air could reverse what just happened. My fragile teenage pride, not to mention my simultaneous ode to Tupac, Sergei Fedorov, and Stevie Y, was stained; literally and figuratively in this instance.
And this was lunch, so I had to walk around for the entire afternoon—through humanities, through business law and probably detention if I'm being honest—with chocolate moo juice staining my otherwise resplendent jersey.
And much like Lady Macbeth, I couldn't get that damned spot out, so that shirt—which probably ran at least $80 back then—became back of the closet cannon fodder. If I've learned one thing in all my years of doing laundry, it's this: blood, mustard and chocolate are the holy trinity of irremovable stains, immune to detergent and prayer.
After I laid that shirt to rest, my relationship with jerseys changed. I didn't immediately end the habit, but it had a dramatic effect on how I wore jerseys in the future; which is to say...with extreme caution.
Even as the locus my sports fandom shifted towards soccer/football/calcio, whose jerseys are perhaps the most wearable in public because they're essentially t-shirts (or at worst, polos), I couldn't shake the image of that chocolate milk carton sailing through the air. And every time I wore a Totti kit out to the store or to a family reunion, I was shaking like a dog walking over a rusty wrought iron bridge.
So, sure, I have some nice kits in my closet, but I can't bring myself—no matter how much or how little I paid for them—to wear them anywhere I might accidentally run into chocolate, or olive oil, or mustard, or even those fire packets from Taco Bell.
These jerseys are precious things, not only because of what they cost, but because of what they represent, doubly so when you live in a soccer/football/calcio desert, where people on the streets wouldn't know Kylian Mbappe from Mickey Mouse. Wearing them gives you a strange sense of authenticity that others seem to lack, or are at least missing out on.
While Roma has consistently put out some top notch shirts, I just can't bring myself to bear the expense anymore; not for something that I'm literally afraid to wear. Not to mention, the limits of what an XL shirt once was seems to have shrunk—or maybe I'm just getting bigger.
What I have done, however, is find a new vehicle to represent my love for sports, and particularly for Roma—training gear. At the moment, I have at least half a dozen Roma hoodies, track jackets and/or quarter zip pullovers. And not only are they free from the ads I detest so much, they have an actual utility. Pop a Roma hoodie on and throw yourself down on the couch on a rainy day and you're set. Going to walk the dog and there's a slight chill in the air, throw on the quarter-zip; it's insanely comfortable and it has those little holes for your thumbs, too.
Barring a once a lifetime sponsor-less Roma kit, this pattern will likely continue. It doesn't give you quite the same jolt as wearing your favorite player's kit, but it's a remarkably comfortable (and practical) way to show your Roma pride. I highly recommend it.