Arizona Cardinals Fans, You'd Better Get Ferocious or Steeler Nation Will Eat You Alive

Even by Arizona Cardinals standards, 2004 was a gloomy year. That April, Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. The Cards were in the middle of a 10-year stretch without a winning season. Even though they'd broken ground on a new stadium in Glendale, some locals mumbled that the team should move to Los Angeles.

If you watched the Cardinals back then, chances are you saw an abnormally lanky guy covered head-to-toe in red paint, with feathered wings affixed to his arms. "The Birdman" appeared on the stadium's jumbotron about 10 times a game because there wasn't much else for local cameramen to focus on in the stands — most face-painted, sign-wielding fans at Cards games were wearing the other team's colors.

The Birdman says he was one of a handful of original Cardinals super-fans, an Arizona native who'd followed the team since they arrived in '88, a guy who took his cheering to the next level during those dim days back in Sun Devil Stadium. The team wasn't much to watch, he says, but he was happy to do his part to give the Cardinals fan base some credibility.

"If you watch other NFL games, they always have these hardcore guys who dressed up, and they're the super-fans for their cities," he says. "The opposing fans at Cardinals games would get dressed up and heckle our group about what bad fans we were. So we decided we wanted to get dressed up, too, and take our city back."

At least, The Birdman decided to dress up.

Now that the Cardinals are in the Super Bowl, you'd expect this self-proclaimed super-fan to be the happiest guy in the Valley. But he isn't. He may be the most notorious fixture ever in the Cardinals' stands, but he's given up the feathers and the makeup. Hell, he's given up watching Cardinals games at sports bars with his buddies, much less attending them. He even turned down a ticket to the biggest Cardinals game in history, this Sunday in Tampa.

Turns out all it took to kill off this former symbol of Cardinals fandom were a little extra security and a slightly longer drive to the West Valley. Sigh.

Forget standing shirtless in sub-zero temperatures, as super-fans from Rust Belt cities do, or flying thousands of miles to a game — The Birdman got sick of dealing with the minor inconveniences of the Cardinals' gorgeous, state-of-the-art stadium.

Apparently into self-loathing, he acknowledges that he's a stain upon super-fans everywhere. He says he lives with the intense shame of having given up on his team, on his Birdman persona. So much so that he would be interviewed for this only if New Times agreed not to publish his name.

The former Birdman jumped off the Cards' bandwagon this year, just before most everyone else in town jumped on.

He knows it's not much of an excuse, but he blames Glendale for his woes. The new stadium's security wouldn't let him run up and down the aisles flapping, he says, and the drive from his house in Scottsdale to the new stadium was way too far. He also got sick of painting his 6-foot-2, 150-pound body and spending his Saturdays shopping for tailgate supplies.

Poor, pitiful ex-Birdman.

He did try his hand at being a normal fan, only to be met with scorn.

"The first time I went to a game not as The Birdman, I was heckled by our own fans in my section! All these people were, like, 'Listen, don't come to the game if you're not The Birdman. You can't just stop being The Birdman.'"

The irony, of course, is that none of these fans was dressing up. No one offered to pick up The Birdman's wings and carry on the flight. They just shamed him for wanting to watch the game in street clothes.

But it's even more ironic that a guy who was almost a symbol of the Arizona Cardinals would let fellow fans shame him. Not much of a super-fan, and hardly the ferocious Red Bird that should symbolize a professional football team.

Now that the Cardinals are in the Super Bowl, perhaps a new Birdman will emerge. Somebody possessing the attitude of the model on our cover this week.

The grounded Birdman's story's pathetic, and he's fitting for what the Cardinals have been historically — the NFL's most dysfunctional franchise.

It's been pointed out before, but it never ceases to amaze: The Cardinals are the oldest continuously operated American professional football club, yet they had a total of two playoff wins before this year. So when a guy who considered himself the Cardinals' ultimate diehard fan just gives up — during a season that winds up with his team in the Super Bowl — should it surprise anybody?

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Martin Cizmar
Contact: Martin Cizmar