Getting to the bottom of the most destructive experiences on earth.
Photo by grgbrwn.
There are few catalysts like losing. It does strange and awful things to people, bringing bouts of paranoia, doubt, infighting, anger, heartbreak, alcohol poisoning, and a bevy of general negativity. Why, just look at the presidential election polls: John McCain, well, he’s losing. Let’s ask Kathleen Parker or Christopher Buckley how they think their party is taking the loss. It is absolute chaos. That example could easily be replaced with the McCain campaign inner-turmoil. Each day the newspaper seems to have dozens of stories chronicling the turmoil of the Republican Party as it stares losing in the face.
Sometimes this makes sense. Losing can have disastrous consequences. To lose a war, an election, a fight, a trial—these can drastically change the landscape of countless lives. Yet, these are not our everyday losses. More commonly, we lose at Madden or beer pong or poker or rock, paper, scissors. What’s odd is that in my lifetime, it’s been those losses that have left the more painful, vivid memories.
You could argue that right now we’re losing the war in Afghanistan. My presidential candidates of choice have lost the last two elections. These are pretty serious matters, yet, my reaction to them has been much more subdued than other, much more frivolous events. I rarely think about Afghanistan. On election night in 2004, I ended up seeing Friday Night Lights rather than wait around for Kerry’s inevitable capitulation speech—and felt much more emotion watching that film than I did about anything election-related.
But I will never forget what happened last year in my final flag football playoffs as a college student. The images are seared into my brain, coupled with a visceral twinge every time they skip through my mind. After three years of failing to live up to our potential as a flag football powerhouse, our senior year was to be the culmination of all that time together, finally becoming what we could and should have been: winners.
Brutal playoff losses—including giving up a game-losing safety because of a little-known technicality—had followed inept regular seasons for our first three years. Players rotated in and out, showing up for one game, then disappearing for the other two. But last year we finally showed up and started to win. We won enough of our games to play in the upper division, the winner’s bracket, of the playoffs. We were firing on all cylinders, prepared to face a team we had already played well against in the regular season.
We jumped out to a glorious two-touchdown lead by halftime. We could taste victory, we were arriving in the promised land. But just before the half, our star wide receiver took a shot to the noggin and suffered a concussion. Instead of allowing ourselves to feel deflated, we told him that we would carry on without him, giving him an opportunity to play in next week’s semifinals. It all felt so close.
But then, as good things always seem to do, it slipped away. Our offense stalled. Our defense—stout in the early goings—seemingly gave up a score every time it was on the field. Bickering started, assigning blame where no blame was due. The offense yelled at the defense. The defense yelled at the offense. People’s feelings were hurt as they were yanked out of the positions they’d held for games. We fell behind. All seemed lost. It was happening again.
Miracles. If you’re not a sports fan, you may not believe in them, but if you are, you know they exist. In honor of tomorrow’s Michigan vs. Michigan State football game, you need look no further than that rivalry’s 2004 and 2007 games. There was 2004’s statistically improbable 17-point comeback, with less than seven minutes left in the game. Then last year’s insane finish on the road led by a banged-up quarterback, after falling behind double-digits. I was at both games as a Michigan fan, and I can tell you, God was there.
Tomorrow, Michigan will probably lose to Michigan State at home for the first time in 18 years. They haven’t lost to their in-state rival since 2001, what with all the miracles. This has not been a season for miracles. At 2-5, stained by blowout losses and a loss to the utterly terrible University of Toledo, the Michigan fan base doesn’t believe in miracles anymore. A nasty civil war has broken out, dividing fans in half. There are those who scream for the heads of the new coaches—ignoring the fact that injuries and departures left them with a very sparse roster. They boo their own players, their fellow students or their fellow future alumni. Then there are those who get it. They are waiting patiently, knowing that this year was always going to be hard, and it will pay off in the future. These are the sides, and they are beginning to resent each other.
College football produces an odd sort of family. First, you have the students and alumni, certainly a sizable part of the fan base, but not necessarily the majority if you’re dealing with a big-time program. With them, you get the local fans and get to see the way a university football team can represent an entire state. Ohio stands behind Ohio State. Texas stands behind the University of Texas. Then you get the worldwide fans. Fans that grow up watching Keith Jackson broadcast Michigan games.
They are all the same. I have only been a fan since I first became a student—five years. But that doesn’t make me any less of a fan than someone who spent their whole life in Michigan. Nor does it make me a better fan than someone who has no ties to the university but followed the team from California or Alabama or Australia. If you live and die with Michigan and the horrible pain that can result from it, you’re a fan.
That doesn’t mean I have to like you, however. Losing shows you who the frontrunners are. Last weekend, I went to State College, PA to watch the Wolverines get slaughtered by Penn State, a team Michigan hadn’t lost to in 12 years. The weekend was fun, but the game and the aftermath were not. Drunk, hysterical Penn State fans began harassing us as we got away from the stadium and closer to town. Years of losing—and from what I could tell, a general culture of macho, dumb anger—spawned a massive beast of sore winning. Even the next morning, fans were screaming obscenities and getting in my face. We get it. You won. You don’t have to yell to impress your girlfriend.
But the worst moment did not come from the Penn State faithful. Oh no, the worst came from the horrible Michigan fan standing two rows behind me. At the top of his lungs, he was yelling outlandish insults at our players and coaches during the entire game. He obviously knew nothing about football and even less about Michigan. He was giving us a bad name. He made us look like assholes. And he wouldn’t shut the fuck up until he inevitably left early, choosing not to stick it out and take the loss with some dignity. Michigan football is a game. Yes, getting heckled isn’t fun, but losing hurts. There is a special pain in my gut that only Michigan sports can trigger—not the election, not the war, only whether or not my favorite football team successfully executes the spread option.
It was unbelievable. It was miraculous. We stormed down the field. We scored. We stopped them on defense. We scored again. Suddenly, the narrative had changed. It was the almost-blown game turned into the most wonderful comeback. The demons had been placed in the guillotine, ready for their swift death. Momentum was ours. All we needed to do was score one point to tie the game. We knew we would win in overtime. We drew up the perfect play—a quarterback sneak to the right, with me blocking a path—it had worked all game. Our quarterback hiked the ball and I moved to the right with nothing but sweet, sweet open field in front of me. It was happening. I just waited for the quarterback to run past me, into an open end zone. I’m still waiting.
For whatever reason, he broke left instead of right. And for whatever reason, he thought it would be better to throw than run. And for whatever reason, that ball ended up at the feet of the nearest receiver. We lost. By one. That quarterback is one of my closest friends. This memory has not affected our relationship. But we lost. And I’ll be damned if there isn’t this little part of me that will never quite forgive him for going the other way.