Now that the euphoria of the Ohio State University’s victory in the inaugural College Football Championship Game has (essentially) worn off to the proper extent, I thought I’d share my thoughts on one of the greatest games of my life as a sports fan. I don’t say that last part with any whiff of hyperbole, because the only game I can really compare it to from a personal standpoint is the last time Ohio State won college football’s national championship back in 2002. That would be the game with the now infamous delayed pass interference call in overtime against a heavily favored Miami Hurricanes team. You might recall it? Miami was loaded with more NFL talent than the current roster of the Jacksonville Jaguars and were thought to be unstoppable. That is until we stopped them, and I threw a chair across my parents' living room, and then proceeded to join my friends and complete strangers alike in a night of pure and uninhibited celebration throughout the streets of Toledo, OH. It was a night when I remembered why I watch sports and root for teams––especially the Buckeyes––in the first place.
That’s because while the majority of a fan’s experience is usually pain and disappointment, more seasons where you don’t win it all then you do, on the rare nights at the culmination of the rare season, the feeling of coming out on top simply cannot be topped. After a 2014 season that began with the preseason loss of our Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Braxton Miller, featured an embarrassing loss to a (maybe not even) mediocre Virginia Tech team, and the loss of our second (!) Heisman Trophy candidate and replacement for Miller, JT Barrett, the fact that we were even in that game two weeks back didn’t even really make sense. It didn’t feel completely and entirely real. Not even after we trucked Wisconsin 59-0 to make it into the four-team playoff, or after we manhandled Alabama in the semifinal game. It still didn’t feel right. We weren’t actually playing Oregon for the National Championship with a third string quarterback who played out of his mind in those two preceding games. It couldn’t be real.
But it was, and then that third QB, Cardale Jones, lead the bucks to a third consecutive postseason win to beat Oregon, and then my head nearly came off my shoulders from a combination of screaming, yelling, uncontrollable smiling, and enough alcohol to subdue the Oregon nose guard that 12 Gauge overtook in the open field in one of the game’s signature moments. I was out of my mind with glee, an insane level of adrenaline coursing through my veins, and I’m sure that both the people that joined me to watch the game and passersby alike thought that I was some sort of raving lunatic and not the buttoned down scribe you know so well here at the Hip. And what I want to impart about all of this, about this amazing feeling, is what that feeling means, and why I think it's important.
You can’t tell me that sports don’t matter. I spent my whole life living out the proof that that’s not true. And you can’t tell me that that’s wrong, because I’ve spent my whole time writing this blog with points to the contrary. Sports are a part of my life, and they’re a part of all of our lives, whether we choose to be active fans that sometimes embarrass themselves like no other, casual fans who tune in for the big game, or people that don’t give one iota of a shit what athletes do with balls on fields and courts and rinks and pitches the world over. There isn’t a purer joy that I’ve come across than one of my favorite teams getting to the top of the mountain in their particular sporting metier. Nothing. Not the love of family or a beautiful woman, not in personal accomplishment or a good deed. And certainly not in the birth of a child, because I don’t have that one under my belt. I’m far too careful when my belt comes off for that. But anyways.
Yeah, there’s just a joy in this type of victory that cannot be duplicated. Not because it's any more important than the feelings associated with those other things I just threw out, but because it is entirely different. As a sports fan, you are at the absolute mercy of things completely out of your control. And while all of our lives certainly take on that feeling from time to time, we are always behind the wheel, through our sorrow and our jubilation. We’ve always got a varying level of control over the outcomes that produce a happy ending or a sad one in our day-to-day lives. With sports, you simply “root for the laundry” as they say, the jersey on an athlete’s back, at the end of it all. You have your favorite players and coaches and teams for a reason, you tell yourself, but that doesn’t mean that carries any weight whatsoever in what those coaches, athletes, and teams accomplish. You are along for the ride, whether it crests for long periods or reaches dizzying heights of success more often than you can believe. Either way, you’re gambling with your emotions, and the high you get when the big payoff comes through is a feeling unlike any other. Except, maybe, gambling itself. Let’s table that for another time though, because while I certainly have my opinions on that endeavor, today I endeavor to talk about that night and that game a couple weeks back.
After the game wrapped up and my friends left me to my own devices, I did what I always do after a big Buckeye win. I called my dad, the one who feigns an eroded attention to the game, even though I know better, I called my homies who were gathered around a screen back home, where I wish I could have joined them, and then I pumped my fist and exalted and smiled and almost broke into a boyish skip on my way to the neighborhood bar closer to my house. The liquor was beginning to speak to me, and I wanted to be a little nearer to my bed if my Columbus, OH bred victory high wasn’t through in peaking. I got to the bar, where there wasn’t a Buckeye fan in sight, and seemingly, anyone in sight that even knew that a football game had been played that night. I was asked what the hell I was so happy about. Then I opened my jacket to reveal my scarlet and gray beneath and wouldn’t you know it? I yelled and screamed and smiled and demanded champagne.
Like the sports fans the bar was so lacking in, it was also bereft of a sparkling white, but that did nothing to slow me down. I enjoyed myself a little bit more on bourbon at $3.50 a glass, looked in a mirror just to see my smile and tell myself that this feeling was real, and walked my drunk ass home, completely content. It wasn’t until the following evening though, that I really felt at home with my excitement. I ran into a friend of mine that next evening at the very same bar, and we started talking about the game and more specifically how happy I was. He, the Louisville Cardinal basketball die-hard, knew this very same feeling just two years ago when his squad trumped Michigan for a basketball national championship, so we decided to compare notes.
I told him that night two years back, when Louisville beat––yes, indeed, Ohio State’s hated rival––Michigan for the championship, I looked around the bar after the win. Everyone in Louisville was over the moon sure, but this guy, my man, he was fucking losing it. He was out of his mind happy. The kind of happy I vaguely recalled from back in 2002. When our crew came to the decision to find another bar where even more friends were hanging out following U of L’s big win, there was only one guy I wanted to ride with. I settled into shotgun in his Subaru, he made me download “One Shining Moment” onto his iPhone, we blared it with the windows down, and he honked, hollered, and high-fived total strangers on our way to the next watering hole. I was living vicariously, but it was still a small amount of glorious. So we talked about that night in his car and that game against Michigan, then we talked about my game, and then he took me back to a different championship in Louisville basketball history that made it all come together for the both of us.
My man laid out the following story:
The Cards were at the very front part of the Pitino era, and there was a new-found aura of urgency and hope surrounding the program. He and a friend were watching a game in the lead up to that year’s NCAA Tournament and the vibes were good at the bar in question. The scene at the bar was entirely positive, because the good folks of Louisville knew their team was on the upswing, if not contenders at the given moment. My man and his buddy fell into conversation with another fan at the bar, some 15 to 20 years their senior, who recalled vividly the last time Louisville won the basketball national championship, back in 1986. The guy was an aeronautical engineer or something of the like in my man’s memory, but he’s not exactly sure. He’s an airplane enthusiast at very least. Our Enthusiast told a tale of the night of that game in ’86, when my man and his buddy were only grade-schoolers, when Milt Wagner drained two free throws to seal the victory and a championship for the Cards. The Enthusiast was at this very same kind of bar he says, and he decided to step outside to have a look at the reaction. What he saw was a neighborhood and a city treading through a flood of good feeling…
It’s a main drag in Louisville, but there’s a fire engine driving up and down the street, horn at full blast, elated firemen whooping their way through the night. Strangers are embracing in the streets, smiles are pasted on faces like plastic surgeries gone awry, the sound of people yelling their heads off is damn near deafening. The Enthusiast looks to my man, then to his buddy and shakes his head for a beat. “Everyone was just so happy.” My man, retelling the retelling, drops the emphasis on the word “so”, because the Enthusiast did too. And yes, sports fans, that’s it exactly. So happy. My man goes on to say that he and his buddy, to this day, awash in the good feeling that comes with a big Cards win, still lock eyes, smile, and say it again. Everyone is just so happy. That’s why I watch kiddos, that’s why I root for my guys in Columbus, that’s why I stress and freak out, and let the Bucks take years off of my life and reequip my scalp with a set of new gray hairs. It’s all for that one night, at the end of the year, when everyone is just so happy.
It’s a feeling that when it grips you personally, is great-drugs kind of euphoric, but with none of the manufactured good time you know is lurking behind it. It’s the kind of feeling that when you see it in the eyes of the other fans around, becomes a kind of telepathic good vibe that you don’t want to let go of. It’s the kind of mass hysteria that can grip a city in the opposite way of riot and upheaval, but still lead to the burning of cars and couches and maniacal shouting and embracing and attempting to fly through the roof. It’s that amazing kind of happy that only sports can claim to impart. And man, let me tell you, there ain’t nothing like that feeling.