From Superman to the Legion of Boom: Exploring the Relationship between Football and Superheroes

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While baseball claims to be America's pastime, there's a wide consensus that football is the most popular sport in the United States. From watching a local high school team play under the Friday night lights, to the intense geographical loyalty associated with college football to watching a group of "lunch pail millionaires" succeed in the NFL, football permeates American culture on multiple levels. And as a quintessential part of Americana, football often plays a role in the development and personality of many of our most beloved superheroes.

Superman's ties to football date all the way back to the Golden Age comics Action Comics #4, when Superman took down a corrupt football manager by posing as one of his players. Football even played a role in his origin story. To a teenaged Clark Kent, football meant acceptance and a chance to fit in. While Clark's peers often ostracized him due to his awkward and distant nature (a side effect of the boy growing into his Kryptonian superpowers), the high school football team represented a surefire opportunity to win the love and admiration of a Kansas small town that loved its local team. But to Clark's adopted father, Jonathan, the gridiron represented a place where his son could inadvertently expose his powers to the world or, even worse, accidentally hurt a player. In John Byrne's Man of Steel continuity, Clark earned his father's trust, became a decorated football player and developed a more confident and outgoing personality as a result of the success he found on the field. In other continuities, Clark stayed off the field, leading a more subdued and introverted nature.

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For other heroes, football represented a part of an idealized past life, a life snatched from them without warning. Beast, Cyborg, Booster Gold, Flash Thompson, Commander Steel and the Thing all experienced glory on the gridiron, but then experienced some sort of tragedy or disfigurement that caused their lives to spiral downwards from that early life peak. Each of those heroes' journeys include finding the will to go on after losing the life that football represented and transitioning from a life filled with personal glory to a career serving the greater good.

Marvel even teamed up with the NFL to create a football-themed superhero. Marvel published a comic series around NFL SuperPro, a football super-fan turned indestructible hero. Fabian Nicieza agreed to write NFL SuperPro in exchange for Jets season tickets, although he had to live with the infamy of writing what's considered one of the worst series of all times. While NFL SuperPro bombed with readers, it's become something of a cult legend with fans.

Of course, football players have their own unique relationship with superheroes. There's probably no better example than Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who has picked up the nickname of "Superman" on his long and winding road to Super Bowl 50. Newton adopted the "Superman pose" as part of his touchdown celebration and the nickname stuck. The quarterback even showed up to a recent press conference in a special pair of sneakers designed with a hidden Superman logo.

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Other players have found their own way to pay homage their favorite superheroes. Richard Wood painted Batman logos on his gloves, Andre Rison shot fictional web-shooters whenever he scored a touchdown and Brian Dawkins earned the nickname of Weapon X because he reminded teammates of Wolverine. Some players have even taken cues from supervillains. The Seattle Seahawks' defense recently adopted the name "Legion of Boom" for their punishing tackles' effect on would be superheroes. Some football players even get to interact with superheroes in real life. Several members of the Pittsburgh Steelers appeared in The Dark Knight Rises during the scene when Bane blows up a football stadium mid-game and retired Green Bay Packer Ahman Green will get beat up by Batman in the upcoming movie Batman V. Superman.

Even football fandom shares some similarities to those of us who love superheroes. Sports radio is filled with arguments over "Who would win?" and many dedicated fans can recite a player's important stats the same way that a superhero fan can list a character's first appearances. And just as some fans cosplay as their favorite heroes, millions of football fans wear their favorite players' jerseys to show support during the big game.

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Escapism is at the root of both superhero and sports fandom. We watch a game to root for our favorite teams and escape life's worries and problems much in the same way we read a comic book or watch a superhero movie. Given their colorful uniforms and punishing hits, a football game can even be compared to watching a superhero battle play out in real life, although which team acts as the hero and which acts as the villain might change