Jennifer Johnson is a born fan, and despite her California address, her love for the Broncos has been unwavering. "I wasn't from Denver," she says, "so I don't know why I became such a fan. They weren't a dirty team, so I just liked them. I've been a Broncos fan since 1980. I just adopted them and started following them -- watching them get creamed in so many Super Bowls. I cried every time. I still have tapes of the games they won. I've got interviews, team videos, scrapbooks, cards -- you name it."
John Elway was always one of my favorite players," she adds. "But then Terrell Davis came along, and there was just something about him -- an attitude, maybe. He was always the underdog. He never quit. He always fought back. Never gave up on his dreams.
"I'm a person who likes a real person -- the ones who had to struggle, who seem real when they speak."
A self-taught computer junkie --"I've always had an artist-type background," she says -- Jennifer naturally thought a fan Web site would be a great way to show, and share, her support. "I was making a Broncos Web site at the time, just for fun," she recalls. "They'd just won the Super Bowl, and I had a free Geocities server. I built separate pages for Elway and Terrell Davis. They each had links to photos and news." Who knows how these things catch on, but at some point, somebody must have seen the site and submitted it to a search engine, because suddenly Jennifer found herself hosting 2,000 visitors a week.
As Jennifer's personal allegiances shifted more and more exclusively toward Terrell, so, too, did her Web site. In August 1998, it officially became a Terrell Davis site only.
Jennifer's admiration for the Broncos running back was apparently shared widely, and the Web site caught fire. One day, while scanning an NFL magazine, she saw an article listing the best fan Web sites. Jennifer quickly looked up Terrell Davis -- and saw her site listed as the best of the lot. "I freaked!" she says. "It was amazing! I wrote to the magazine to thank them."
As time passed, Jennifer's site got better, too. An illness kept her out of work -- mostly in fast-food and retail joints -- so she had plenty of time to put into the computer. The sheer number of hours she spent working with Terrell improved her skills. "I got better with graphics," she says. "I put in video clips and other things. It just kept growing as I went along."
Sometimes she'd work all night with him, starting at six in the evening and stopping only when the sun came up the following day.
If you are a professional football player, having your own Web site is a mixture of hubris and hope -- the Internet equivalent of seeing a jersey with your number sold at Gart Sports. Despite the name recognition universally enjoyed by any member of a professional sports team, not many players are big enough stars to merit their own Web addresses.
"There aren't that many players who are a brand in and of themselves, guys who could attract fans to their site," says Steve Harbula, director of marketing and communication for the Denver Broncos. Only a handful of Broncos players have qualified -- and even then, most found it to be a waste of time.
Ed McCaffrey used to have his own "official" Web site, but not anymore. Same with Howard Griffith. When he was still with the team, Bill Romanowski once contacted Harbula for assistance in setting up a site but then never got around to doing it. Today the only Bronco with his own official Web site is quarterback Brian Griese.
Although Harbula says he is happy to direct players to local companies that can help them build and maintain a site, he adds that the Broncos generally try to stay out of such self-promotional ventures. This is to avoid any unnecessary headaches. The team once contemplated adding a link off its official page to the best fan Web sites but then decided against it. "What if," Harbula muses, "the next day one of them linked to some porn site?"
Neither the NFL nor the Broncos endorse player Web sites -- whether they are official sites boasting the player's approval, or simply fan sites. But both organizations also take a practical, business-oriented view of the ventures. While it is technically against policy to permit unauthorized use of the NFL or team logos, "you don't want to suppress people talking about your product, either," points out Paul Kirk, a Broncos spokesman. The unwritten rule is that as long as a fan or player is not making any money off a Web site, the teams and the league will look the other way.
Terrell Davis was one of the few Broncos popular enough to host his own Web site. When she saw it, Jennifer was unimpressed. "It wasn't maintained properly," she says. "It'd have things like 'A chat with Terrell's fashion designer.' People don't care about that stuff. They want to talk to Terrell, or players he talked to."
As is the case with many players, Terrell apparently found that running his own Web site was a pain. "He felt it was a lot of maintenance to keep it current, fresh," says Davis's agent, Neil Schwartz. "It got boring, and it got stale for him. When he was rehabbing, he'd write, 'Went to rehab. Went to rehab. Went to rehab.' If you're playing, you can at least write about that."
In late 2001, with his career stalled due to nagging injuries anyway, Terrell Davis decided to shutter the official site, www.td30.com. Jennifer saw this as an opportunity. When she typed in the domain name, she discovered it was available. So she bought it.
It was practically perfect. She felt closer to Terrell. Internet-wise, it was as if Jennifer had moved into a tiny corner of her hero's own house. So wouldn't it be nice, she began to wonder, if Terrell himself might offer his personal support to Jennifer while she ran the site for him?
Stars are everywhere and nowhere. Their names appear daily in newspapers. But what do we really know about them? You reach out for understanding and come up with air. So you dive for scraps and tidbits, trying to knit together a personality from what lies between the lines -- the PsyOps of sports fandom.
What does he eat? Where does he get his hair cut? What does he love to do in unguarded moments? The more you know, the closer you feel. As a true fan, you are confident that the truth is available to those who want it badly enough. Like a faint outline in the mist, it will reveal itself if only you stare long enough.
"During his free time, Terrell likes to sleep," Jennifer reports on The Terrell Davis Web site. "Terrell is a kid at heart. He has some remote control cars that he plays with. He also likes to play video games. He likes listening to Tupac and lists the Shawshank Redemption as his favorite movie. Terrell says that Applebee's is his favorite place to eat."
"Terrell," inquires MissY, a fan, "I notice that your teeth are very clean and bright. What kind of toothpaste do you use? Do you get your teeth polished and if so how often? You truly have a great smile!!"
"I know he goes to an orthodontist over off of Smoky Hill/Orchard area," confides Aimie27. "He gets his nails done in that area too...No I'm not a stalker. My friend at work had to wait an extra hour for her appointment cuz TD broke a brace and came in as an emergency visit, which bumped her appt back."
The announcement this summer that Davis had been placed on injured reserve brought an outpouring of public grief among his Internet following. "I'm still in shock re: this tremendous loss of a great player incurred by the Broncos, the City of Denver, and the NFL," Jennifer posted in mid-August. "Thanks for everything, TD. You'll always be our original No Limit Soldier."
"When I finally read the newspaper in Walmart, I was moved to tears," MissY responded. "I had to complete my shopping, gather up my children and go home. When I finally got a moment alone, I cried for about 2 hours...I already miss him so much!"
"Every night when I pray for my enemies and myself, I also pray for Terrell and his knees and then I think about so many people that don't even have legs or feet," added defiant1620. "I'm pretty sure if there is a way for Terrell to play his docters will come up with something but until then I want to see Terrell on Celebrity Elimidate or Bachelor after all he is a single man."
Eventually, the True Fan is caught in a bind. Love without reciprocation is just obsession, and what you are offering is so much more than that. So the catch is that the harder you love, the more you need to be acknowledged. You think, If I care enough -- adore him hard enough -- how can he not notice?
After acquiring Davis's old official Web-site address, Jennifer called Harbula, who gave her Schwartz's number. She called the agent's New York office in February 2002. "I told him I was a fan and Terrell Davis had always been an inspiration to me, and I'd like his permission and approval to operate the Web site," she remembers.
"We spoke many times," Schwartz confirms. "It sounds like she's a big fan." But, he adds, he never gave Jennifer any encouragement and maintained that his client was not interested in working with her. "I told Terrell about it. He said, 'I can stop it, but is it really worth it?'"
Jennifer didn't see it that way at all. Schwartz told me, "Terrell liked the Web site, and I had his blessing to make it official," she remembers. "So I made a new layout and design and title and made it his official home page." Later -- with Terrell's blessing, she says -- Jennifer began selling shirts with the Web address and Terrell's picture printed on them. On her postings, she started signing off, "Webmaster of the official Terrell Davis Web site."
She also continued to fax Schwartz ideas for the site -- perhaps a question-and-answer session? A journal? An e-mail address fans could use to write to Terrell? "I am going to be calling TD's agent Monday to discuss the faxes that I have sent," Jennifer posted on June 20. "I am going to bring it to his attention that Terrell needs to get involved with the board, and the chatroom soon before football season begins."
A week later, she revealed that there were complications, though nothing alarming: "I contacted Terrell's agent this morning. He told me he had to mail the faxes to Terrell. He said Terrell was having problems with his fax machine so he had to snail mail the faxes to him. He said that Terrell has the faxes and has not read them yet...I will be calling back on Tuesday."
Yet July brought more delays -- and the first waver of Jennifer's support for her hero. "Terrell is out of the country right now on vacation for the Fourth of July weekend," she reported on the message board on July 5. She promised to call Schwartz the following week to discuss a possible board visit and chat session with Terrell.
"I am going to keep the site up," Jennifer added on July 29. "BUT, when I call two weeks into the season, and I get the same run around, that is it.... I cannot take too much more of this from him."
"When months and months and months would go by, the fans expected to see some kind of results," she remembers. "They wanted to know, 'When is Terrell Davis going to come on?' I'd tell people it was gonna happen; I just didn't know when."
Jennifer found herself caught in an uncomfortable position -- trying to explain the callous behavior of the man she admired above all others. "I started getting impatient," she says. "I had people attacking me and saying, 'Hey, doesn't Terrell care about his fans?' And I'd defend him, saying, 'I'm sure he cares. He's just busy rehabbing and stuff.'"
In early August, tired of the sniping over Terrell's commitment to his fans, Jennifer started restricting the message board to members only. Anticipating a common concern -- as well as a common hope -- she added: "He would be able to see the board because I set up a membership for him so when he decides to come to the board, he can log on and post with no problem.
"I am still waiting to hear from him."
The reason fans are so tolerant of their idols, of course, is because they see what they want to see. They paste their longing on the object of their adoration, then watch knowingly as he fulfills their best expectations. The true fan sees things that others do not because that is what he wants to see. It is what he needs to see.
On August 8, Jennifer reported an exciting development: "I heard from the man himself. He called me tonight. We spoke for about 30 minutes and discussed things. There were definitely misunderstandings, but we are working things out and are going to move forward. I will be hearing from him again early next week. He said he would fill out the questionnaire that I sent him. All in all, I was excited to hear from him and we are trying to figure out some form of involvement that he would have time for. I will keep people updated on what will be going on."
"Now if only Terrell would call me too," sighed neenee30 in a posted response.
"That would be cool if he could call everyone," Jennifer agreed in return. "But unfortunately that cannot happen. But I think it would be cool if he would come to the board and say hi to everyone. We are trying to work something out. It takes time."
"We had a nice talk," Jennifer remembers today. "He said, 'I think we got off on the wrong foot. I said, 'Terrell, I started to feel like I was getting taken advantage of. If you don't want any involvement, let me know now and we'll just move on, go back to our regular lives.' And he said, 'No.' He was okay with minimal involvement -- saying 'Hi' on a message board, answering a Q&A."
The voice contact sent a ripple of renewal and faith through Jennifer and Terrell Davis's staunchest Web fans. He was again the person they all knew him to be -- not that anyone had had genuine doubts. Under an August 21 posting, Jennifer related a story:
"Earlier this month on the 6th of August, a very dear friend of mine who is a member of this board, named Kim was in a horrible accident. She got hit by a semi on her way back home from training camp. She was in critical condition and flatlined a few times. Once they got her stable, and when she regained conciousness, the doctors discovered that she was paralized from the neck down. The accident resulted in two broken vertebrae in her neck. Which caused her chances to walk again very doubtful...Miraculously the swelling started to go down in her brain and she was able to remain concious but still had no signs of feeling or movement of her arms or legs. Then, on Thursday, August 10th, I received my phone call from Terrell Davis. I called her husband at the hospital the next morning, on Friday to relay the news to her that I heard from him. She very quickly as if she had a spasm was able to move her hand to give me a thumbs up. She moved. It was a miracle. Terrell's phone call to me gave her a chance to move again. Also her faith in God and unbelievable will to live played a part in it too. At this time, as of today, Kim is able to walk...I would just like to thank Terrell, and I am going to let him know about this story soon, for giving my friend a miracle. I believe his phone call to me is what helped her get her start on a full recovery. I will be forever greatful to him as will she, for being one of the forces that helped her to walk again."
The posting generated several emotional responses. "That is an amazing story!!!!" wrote kat1073x. "Im sitting here crying from reading it. It makes you think about the important things in life and how trivial things like TD not playing anymore because of a bad knee really are."
"This story litterally brought chills," added BroncoManiac69. "I have heard of similar situations that have occurred over the years. Thank God she is going to be OK and I think Terrell will love to hear this story."
The love was back. The following day, August 22, Jennifer posted another positive-sounding update. "His assistant called me and we are trying to work something out to get Terrell involved soon. He asked me for a personal profile of myself which is on its way to him, in the handy dandy fax machine. I told her to relay a message to him that this site is going crazy with love and support from his fans and that it would be great if he could come on here and spend some time with them. We are going to see what kind of involvement Terrell is going to contribute. I will be hearing from her later next week. Keep you posted."
An athlete craves -- even needs -- attention from his audience. Yet only to a point. The "best fans in the world" are best only if they keep their distance. The hard lesson of True Fandom is that, with stars, the love must always flow in one direction. (Gold Club dancers apparently are exceptions to this rule.) Inevitably, the final destination of True Fandom is almost always pain.
The following week, the carefully nurtured relationship between Terrell Davis and Jennifer came crashing down. "I remember the day because it was when he walked out of the tunnel with the team for the last time," Jennifer says. On August 28, she posted the brutal news:
"Terrell wants nothing to do with this site. I wish he would not have agreed to make the site official if he did not have the desires to get involved. I do not know if I am going to continue to support him or not. I am very hurt...I wish I had better news for everyone. But at least I know where I stand now, and where my future as a fan is going to stand possible. I will continue to wish him well, and will still respect his career, but, I cannot continue, at this time to stay a fan or show my support while he wants nothing to do with the tribute I have created for him."
Jennifer's readers rallied to her defense. "I AM IN TOTAL DISBELIEF!!" crystal10074 wrote the following morning. "I CANNOT BELIEVE THAT HE HAS RESPONDED IN THIS WAY ABOUT THE WEBSITE. I HAVE ALWAYS THOUGHT OF TERRELL AS BEING A VERY CARING PERSON. NOW I SEE THAT HE COULD REALLY CARE LESS. THAT HURTS ME SO MUCH...I GUESS HIS FANS' FEELING NEVER WAS AN ISSUE WITH HIM. DON'T GET ME WRONG, I WILL STILL CONTINUE TO BE A TERRELL DAVIS FAN. I JUST LOOK AT HIM COMPLETELY DIFFERENT THAN I HAVE IN THE PAST."
Jennifer, too, felt betrayed -- led on by the man she thought she knew so well. How could she have been so wrong about him? "I hear a lot what a nice caring, humble guy he is," she wrote. "I did not see that side. I wanted to, I tried to... My days of being a fan, and spending my hard earned money, what little that I have, on him are OVER!!!"
That day, Jennifer constructed a new section in her Web site. "I have added a guestbook like page to the site where fans can express their feelings about Terrell's recent decision regarding the Web site," she explained. "Do you feel that because he wants nothing to do with the Web site, he wants nothing to do with his fans?...I think Terrell needs to see how disappointed, and upset he has made his fans who visit this Web site that he has rejected."
Within a month, Jennifer announced that the Web site she'd spent five years building was for sale. Also put on the block was her collection of Terrell collectibles -- the 500 fan cards, the jersey, the Terrell Davis Super Bowl 32 MVP photo collage, the 23 copies of Terrell's autobiography.
Although many readers voiced their sympathy, other fans were reluctant to abandon the relationship they'd put so much time into. After all, they hadn't been jilted by Terrell. "JJ I wish you the best in the future," wrote dimpleswalker. "It's unfortunate you are choosing not to support TD but if you are going to attack him the way you have you should take down this being his official site since it is not."
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"Yes, it may seem that Terrell bailed out on you and if that's the case, then I understand your anger and dismay," MSJAY84 added. "But I do know that Terrell has been under a lot of pressure... It's not that he didn't want to come and chat but his mind was boggled with how well he would have to perform at training camp to keep his leading role and also if his knee would sustain the power and exertion that he would have to put on it... It would have been nice to hear from him too but we didn't so we must move on."
Recently, Jennifer, now 29 years old, has seen the wisdom in that advice. Last week, she announced that she will, after all, keep the Terrell Davis Web site up -- though not necessarily for herself. "Although I no longer support TD and I am not a fan of his like I used to be, I know he still has fans out there who love him," she wrote.
In the meantime, she has approached the agent for Rick Fox, the Los Angeles Laker forward, with an offer to manage an official fan site for him. She is also concentrating her energies on her own Paula Abdul fan Web site.
"This is totally different," she says. "I've been a fan of Paula Abdul's since 1988. Back in 1991, when she was going through some hard times in her career, I wrote her a card and put my phone number in it. And I did get a call from Paula, which is something I'll never forget. I'll always be a fan. So this is basically my thank-you and tribute to her."