Sunday, September 23, 2007

Survival in the city

Thursday, September 20, 2007

merchant of dreams

Where were you three weeks ago when I finished my burger and handed the waitress a $20 as I left the bar? (Because when you realize your year’s over four months early, it doesn’t make much sense asking for change.) Where were you two weeks ago when I started to do my laundry during commercials and wished there wasn’t a game to watch when I came back?

Maybe you’re still gone. But 38-0 will keep me from looking for you for a couple more days.

For a few hours on Saturday, I forgot about everything else. Everything that went wrong, everything that might still be wrong, everything that we thought disappeared last year but still grins and wags its mangled finger at us. There is still no championship to speak of, nothing significant worth proclaiming. But for a day, for one afternoon, not a single thing went wrong. If they are to salvage anything, if they are to turn this apocalypse into a kingdom of rubble, they’ve certainly given us a worthy beginning.

I watched Brandon Graham destroy an offensive line like a bully smashing a kindergartner’s Lego castle to pieces. I watched as Shawn Crable taught us to never stop holding out hope for vindication, and listened to him talk about preserving shutouts afterwards. I watched Johnny Thompson tackle like a shopkeeper throwing the broom down in front of his deli and tackling a thief trying to make a run for it with an old lady’s purse. Both passion and desperation at the same time. I saw the coach we wished we still had any reasons left to defend stand at the podium with a movie star he’d smoke cigars with later that night. And for a third straight week, Mike had not only transcended the pantheon of great men, but he didn’t even acknowledge that he had. He still had work to do. It was simply his job to save us.

After he lost to Oregon he said this:

“I wouldn’t rather be a part of any other team right now. I wouldn’t want to be on a USC national championship team. I wouldn’t want to be on a West Virginia national championship team. I’d rather be on this team right now that’s 0-2.” WHY? “Because I’ve never been a part of something like this. In my life. It’s gonna test me, it’s gonna test the seniors on this team…it’s gonna make me a better person. And I know we can turn this around….I don’t regret anything at all. I’m glad I’m on this team. This is my team. I’m the leader of this team. It’s something …I’m honestly glad I’m here right now. It’s crazy to say, but deep down, the whole time at the end of that game, I was thinking to myself I wouldn’t rather be on any other team right now. I wouldn’t rather be getting paid. I wanna be here. HAS THE NFL THING CROSSED YOUR MIND? Not at all. It’s crazy, like, not at all. I’m glad to be here. This my team. I wanna lead team to victory. At the end of year when everyone says ‘wow, they really turned that around,’ it’s gonna be my team. Just like it’s my team now.”

And yet again we saw someone who didn’t just play for us, but someone who thought like us. This was his mess – our mess. And in some absurd, freakishly soothing way, we both held onto it tighter even as it gave us so many reasons to let go. Right now this team belongs to no one but those it matters most to. A hundred reasons to hate it, and yet we don’t. Sometimes, if you can manage to get beneath the pain, it feels pretty incredible to realize you love something that much.

Sometime during the game on Saturday they showed an interview with Mike that ABC filmed a couple days earlier. They asked him what his biggest flaw was, and he told them that maybe he talks too much. It was the first time I had ever heard him say that – at least, as if it were a shameful character flaw, rather than as a harmless, almost endearing act of self-aggrandizement. He looked sad and exhausted, and he had just questioned who he was, even though “who he is” has made us question for the last four years everything we know to be true about the game.

But after the game was over, he smiled the same way he always did. More restrained, no sweat on his forehead, a t-shirt instead of a suit and tie, but a smile all the same. I recognized that man.

“I was just telling the team, I lost the taste of winning for a while. We got that victory, I got that taste back in my mouth, and we wanna keep winning.”

There was focus, there was composure, there was relief. For the first time, there was a season.

Saturday, September 08, 2007


Friday, September 07, 2007

I don't want to say goodbye to you, so I'll just say goodnight

It was a while after my hands went numb, after Mario stumbled and caught that plummeting 46-yarder like it was clothing an angry girlfriend had dropped from a bedroom window eight stories up. After I drove home with the radio off and sat in the driveway for half an hour, I watched a bunch of people interview Mike.

When they turned the camera on he was leaning so far away from the podium they had to reposition the lens just to get him completely on screen. The same people he stood in front of now had asked him this question a few weeks earlier:

“When did you first meet Chad?”

Chad actually came to my hometown for a camp...we met briefly, it was like a hi/bye kind of thing. He was a big shot, I was a big shot.”

Now he was just a kid standing in the corner of a funeral parlor while his best friend lay in a casket across the room. It was Michigan that was dead. It didn’t seem to make sense talking to anyone, because not a soul in that room had an idea what he just lost. No one did. It wasn’t just a championship, or the nine months he spent waiting for this, or the next three months, which don’t mean much now. He lost his last chance to make something of a career he’s been begging us to pay attention to.

But he showed up anyway and he listened to a bunch of people pretend to care what he was going through. Never before had he spoken as if what happened on the field intimidated him, or revealed something that made him question himself. But he didn’t even try to argue this time. Not that anyone would have listened, or believed him even if he did. The story had already been written, and there was no place in it for sympathy. There was an underdog tale Mike was no longer the protagonist of.

He’d spent the last three years both motivated by the hope of vengeance and a culminating triumph, and confident that it one day he’d get both. Now he just stood awkwardly and stared around the room while intermittently wiping the sweat off of his forehead.

At times he was almost consciously somber; not that he wasn’t as devastated as he seemed, but that it was too much to grasp at that moment. He knew how bad it felt about an hour before he got to the podium and how bad it'd make the hours of his life that followed. But for now he still smiled every once in a while. It was as if inside him was the consciousness of what just happened, the impulse to fight back, and the frustration that for the first time in his life he didn’t know how to.

Jake kept grabbing at his collar and looked as if he could crush bricks into dust with his clenched fists. Chad never showed up to the post game, or the press conference on Monday. Lloyd, he stood there like a man lost on a lonely island – too tired to even grab a piece of driftwood and carve “save me” into the sand on the shore. As if all he could do now is wait for the natives to eat him alive.

You can blame Lloyd for retiring a year too late, or Ron English for being everything Jim Herrmann was and we swore Ron wasn’t; you could blame Chad for losing control and never figuring out how to get it back. But next year, when there’s a new head coach, new running back, new pair of wide receivers, new left side of the offensive line, two new defensive backs, and the only thing familiar to you is the feeling that you’ve been defeated before the game has even begun, just try to remember how much this season should have meant to us. It's gone, and that's what we'll remember. It doesn't matter whose fault it was.

A few seconds after Minor fumbled they showed Mike walking up the sideline with his helmet in his hand. Like he’d done it before and he almost wanted to laugh because he was about to do it again. Maybe he was hurt, maybe he wasn’t. But he ran for 115 yards in the fourth quarter and had the guts to talk to us after it was all over.

This is a kid who calls himself H20, because “he can run like water,” and in every one of his last 12 games he’ll be fighting for a consolation prize. So if you want to know what hurts me most about the game, what burns holes in my heart, it’s not that I watched Michigan lose. It’s that there are no more seasons left for Mike to save.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007