Mickey Freedman and her son Robert at a Cardinals game

Mickey Freedman and her son Robert, named Cardinals Fan of the Year, at a Cardinals game.

It only took going to one Cardinals game to hook Robert Freedman for life.

“I was 9 years old when I went to my first Cardinals game with my dad,” said Freedman, 37. “It's a very special memory.”

He loved the energy at the stadium, cheering with fellow fans and seeing the sport play out on the field. He became a season ticket holder in 2007, and has been to every home game except one since.

The NFL announced in November that Freedman was named Cardinals Fan of the Year. Next month, Freedman, who is Jewish, will find out whether he beat out 31 others – one from each NFL team – to also be named 2021 NFL Fan of the Year. The league collected nearly 35,000 submissions from its 32 teams.

Freedman said it is a “special honor” to represent Arizona’s Jewish community. He’d love to be named NFL Fan of the Year, but he’s trying not to think about it too much.

“I’ve been there before when you think you landed a job or are getting an award. Disappointment is the last thing I want to think about, and I want to think about the positives,” he said.

An NFL spokesman did not return a request for comment about the award or what made Freedman stand out in Arizona. According to the NFL website, the league launched the contest to “celebrate extraordinary fans who inspire others through their love of football and bring an ‘original spice’ to what it means to be a fan.”

Submissions were judged based on a nominee’s passion, enthusiasm and fandom for their favorite team, inspirational story and community spirit. The application required two essay questions. 

Freedman received multiple nominations–including from himself, his friends and his mom.

In his submission, he talked about his passion and energy for the Cardinals and how he treats every game day like it’s a holiday, he said.

“I love football and it's once a week, so we have a whole week to get excited about one game,” he said.

Freedman created an Arizona Cardinals group on Facebook called AZ BirdGang Nation in February 2015. The group now has more than 11,500 members.

“Cardinals fans treat each other like family,” he said. “And we get each other going. We have our chants, our fans have a lot of passion, and we have a very fun game-day atmosphere.

Freedman and others who nominated him shared how he has both overcome great challenges and approaches life with an attitude of gratitude.

Born 11 weeks early, he weighed 1 pound 10 ounces. 

“They told me if he lived, he’d never walk or talk,” said Mickey Freedman, Robert’s mom. But he made it. He was in special education until third grade and continued to thrive. In January 1994, just over a year after Robert went to his first Cardinals game with his dad, his dad died in a car accident.

Being a Cardinals fan and going to games makes Robert feel closer to his dad, he said.

Robert has spent the last 12 years as a special education instructional assistant at Washington High School in Phoenix.

He is passionate about making kids feel empowered, he said.

“I want kids to feel that someone’s there for them, that they got their back, that they care for them–just like they did for me.”

Mickey said she is so proud of her son and how far he’s come.

“Here he is. He graduated from college with honors, he has a happy job, a good job, and now he’s been recognized by the Cardinals for his passion and inspiring and impacting people around him constantly,” she said.

Robert said his history is a constant reminder that life is fragile. “You got to enjoy every day of life and be grateful for everyone who has made a difference in your life,” he said.

Robert and the 31 other finalists will travel to Los Angeles to attend the NFL Honors event and Super Bowl LVI in mid-February.

“I've been dreaming about going to a Super Bowl since I was a little kid,” Robert said. “I get to cross that off my bucket list–I’m excited about doing that.” JN