There are three things I remember about the summer of 1996.
The first thing I remember is the Summer Olympics taking place in Atlanta. I had just turned eight, so these were the first Olympic games I vividly remember watching, and in the way that the first time you experience something becomes your platonic ideal of that thing, the Olympics will for me always mean Muhammed Ali lighting the Olympic Cauldron, Kerri Strug’s one-footed vault, Michael Johnson’s gold shoes and gold medals, and a Grant Hill Team USA jersey that my Nana bought for me at Marshall’s.
The second thing I remember is that in June, my family brought home our first computer, inviting the internet into our lives. I understand that most people under 30 don’t remember a time without the internet in some form, and there are plenty of paeans written about its value that I won’t bother to rehash here, so I will simply offer perhaps the world’s coldest take: the internet was, and is, a big deal.
The third thing I remember is a box.
One day in August, I came home from day camp, newly adorned with cardboard medals strung on yarn around my neck, symbols of my domination of (read: participation in) some mock Olympic events at camp that day. On my bed was a cardboard box with foreign postage that my mom said had come from one of her cousins, one who I hadn’t met before. I opened the box and was met with so many alien objects: Flake bars, coins that seemed too thick and heavy to be used practically, and, at the bottom, a black and white striped shirt with a blue star on the front and the number nine on the back, just below the name “Shearer.”
My grandfather, my mom’s dad, moved to Malden, Massachusetts from Newcastle in 1929 with his mother and brother. His father had moved a year ahead of them. Both boys would later fight in World War II for their adopted home, Frank in Europe and Les, my grandfather, as a medic in the Philippines. Les would go on to marry and have three kids, spend a career as a mailman, and save like hell for trips back home to Newcastle, where he would take weekend trips to Loch Lomond and pass the nights in pubs with his cousin, also named Les. This Les spent his life in coal mines, and decades later would send his cousin’s grandchildren, whom he had never met, packages of sweets, British money, and a new United kit printed with the name and number of their new world record transfer signing.
For the first decade of my relationship with Newcastle United, Alan Shearer was at least joint-top goalscorer for the club in all competitions, providing a strong and stable presence at the center of the club as players and coaches around him shifted. It was good to have this presence, as for the first decade, my allegiance relied on cardboard boxes with foreign postage, filled with VHS tapes of games and highlights along with yearbooks and programs, including one from the 1999 FA Cup final.
Shearer’s 2006 retirement, for better or worse, coincided with an era of being able to follow Newcastle in real time via the internet, a phenomenon that entered my life around the same time as United, stealing streams from gambling websites with announcers usually speaking a different language. In the eleven seasons since, Newcastle has seen nine different players lead the club in scoring, 14 changes in management, and a new, highly controversial owner.
Bad times have seemed to outnumber good, frustration having a foot up on glory, but the easy way has rarely been the Newcastle way. Growing up in a time and place (Boston, early 2000s) where sporting glory was abundant and only ever one click of the television away, my preference has, for one reason or another, always been in choppy streams of frustrating football. Even today, as NBC’s contract with the Premier League has made watching from the US easier than ever, there’s nothing easy about waking up at 4:30 to watch Manchester City hang five goals on your club. There’s nothing easy about being a stranger in a strange land, fighting a war, delivering mail, or mining for coal. But joy, particularly amidst difficult circumstances, is a collection of moments - Jonás Gutiérrez, having recently recovered from testicular cancer, scoring his final Newcastle goal to clinch Premier League safety; weekends on Loch Lomond with family you rarely get to see; Muhammed Ali, his body ravaged by Parkinson’s Disease, kicking off the Olympics in a city and region historically ravaged by the violence and bigotry he spent his life fighting; and coming home from summer camp, cardboard medals in hand, to find a strange cardboard box with foreign postage.