Thursday, November 19, 2009

She Might Be In Tangier

Rich Rodriguez: “Minor unfortunately, doggone it for Brandon, his ankle is better but his shoulder isn’t. He wasn’t able to do anything (Tuesday), don’t know how much he’s going to be able to do (Wednesday), so unfortunately for Brandon he’s doubtful.”

On Saturday he will be there. Not on Thursday or on Friday, but you don't prepare for the deranged violence. He doesn't need to, doesn't bother. It is Saturday. It is November. It is Ohio State. It would take a lobotomy and a coma and even then a hundred men to hold him down when he awakens on fourth and short and begs for the ball and for everyone to just step aside. If an asteroid smashed into the earth he would grab the ball and run through the smoldering crater.

Brandon Minor said these things after Iowa:

“I wanna come out and show that I’m real physical and tough, and I aint shying down from no defense.”

On pass blocking: “When I was a freshman I was going against Shawn Crable, Dave Harris, Prescott, LaMarr Woodley, Branch coming off the edge. I got beat up my share of days, you know, so it’s my turn to do the beating up.”

“I love contact. It really doesn’t hurt as much once you deliver the hit. If you sit there and take the contact it’ll hurt all day. I figure defensive players don’t like getting hit either, that’s why they not running the ball. So I might as well hit them.”

Mike used his cuts as a defense mechanism, out of desperation. But Minor commits to a destination immediately. He pivots once and purple storm clouds gather. Sometimes I have to pull myself from this carnage too but that’s ok because I can endure this. I have felt this before. He runs in a panic to find human contact, addicted to it, as if he’d lose his balance without it and stumble along lonely. It is a syndrome, a sacrifice. Lay me on an altar on the side of a mountain and cut out my organs and lift them to the sky.

It is a psychotic vendetta against every mind and body that play for the other team. There’s nothing about them in particular, just that they are in his way. The end zone is there and he’s not going to run around you. He only knows of one way to do this. There might be tougher men, ones who wore robes made out of bison hides or worked in the hull of a steam ship. But at this moment, among those playing football, he is unparalleled.

There is no such thing as moderation or restraint. He is designed to eventually collapse because he doesn’t know how to slow down. He runs until he can’t stand up anymore and then he tries to limp back to the huddle. He is just a series of prolonged explosions, until there is no more of him. In two seasons he has had bruised ribs, a wrist that needed surgery, a bad shoulder, a sprained ankle, a bad heel, and a bad shoulder again. “Injury prone” is a convenient explanation for coincidence, but for some it is merely fate. You don’t get mad at a bomb for blowing up. It’s a bomb, that’s what it was designed to do.

Maybe he runs like that because he’s spent three years watching Mike do it better with less. Or maybe he’s always been that way, pent up, behind a few mistakes. After touchdowns he seems more relieved than excited, grateful for the chance to stand in front of this train that screams along the tracks toward us season after season.

Each week they tell us he’s injured but it means nothing. Sometimes he barely runs at all and then he’s there on 3rd and 9 to pass block with the type of insane intensity that starts wars or Led Zeppelin concerts. It is routine. And afterward he shrugs his shoulders and can barely keep his eyes open. I’m 100%. Anything else? See you next weekend.

This isn’t a hobby; it is a way of life. It defines him. Mike was mischievous and slightly diabolical but it felt like a test to see what he could get away with. Minor’s frustrations have been too frequent, his conquests too scarce. He has no time for games or manipulation, just sheer brute force, calloused knuckles and someone twitching on the ground after. 

He said this after Notre Dame: “I’d rather just run somebody over you know, get them out they game, cuz they gonna be looking for that the whole game or they just gonna be…their whole scheme will be messed up. They just gonna be worried about me running them over rather than whether they gotta drop back or do whatever.”

When he speaks there is no angst or inflection. He sounds unmoved, bored, tired. This is a bank robber handing the teller a canvas bag and then asking if she knows a decent place to eat while she’s filling it with cash. He speaks in a monotone despite the fact that he’s literally describing how he wants to hurt someone so they will be afraid of them.

To Michigan this game changes almost nothing. If they go to a bowl it will be forgotten and Ohio State is going to the Rose Bowl anyway. And yet it still means something. It is for proof that they’re capable of more than begrudgingly accepting our excuses for why they’re no good. The endless rationalizations they wish they didn’t need. They’re walk-ons to us because we have an obsessive need to categorize, to dissect, to compare them to the players on other teams who we don't care about. But to them, they know just that they can’t do what they’re supposed to. The reasons don’t matter.

Brandon Graham: "I haven't broke down yet. I always wait till I get home...I wait till I get home and let it all out."

They committed to this for what now must seem like odd and foolish reasons. They gave away their mornings and nights for a physical torture that outsiders and even all of us are simply amused by. The conditioning coach who growls. The men who vomit. “Through these doors walk….” And yet we still only maintain a very basic understanding. They did it for themselves, for each other. But there has been mostly failure. They resent those who abandoned them because they were lazy or afraid. Brandon Graham said this: “I’ve got a lot of words for a lot of people. Whoever’s in my way every play, I let them know, don’t come my way. Some people talk back, some people don’t. (Boren) is just somebody who shouldn’t have been here in the first place. That’s over and done with. Justin, we will see on Saturday.”

These are family values: wagons circled, debris, numb to the great outrage, taped ankles and a fuck you if you're not with us; look me in the eye and know that eventually this will all pass. They'll remember this day when they're old and sit on dusty sofas dozing in and out of consciousness. You lost a lot but not your dignity. And you realize that it wasn't just about winning but about patience and faith that it would get better.

This season hasn’t been bad in fragments. It was good, and then it became a throbbing, consistent agony we accepted and then repressed. But they are still here. They will cry when it is over and cringe just to get there but they are not afraid. They have already felt that pain.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Fire Sermon

You could be somewhere else instead. Somewhere far away and detached from all of this, the disaster that continues to blend into last year and become everything we swore this wasn’t. You could have been drafted. An apartment with barren white walls in some city you’ve never been to; clean and empty aside from a plasma television, a sectional sofa, a stack of sneaker boxes in a corner and a wireless router sitting on the living room floor. It’s not much but it’s better than this. You could be there.

And so you lug this defense’s incompetence around like an anvil chained to your ankle. Your shoulders are scrunched. You don’t say much and you don’t take your mouth guard out. Leadership as an art form is mostly foreign to you; to you it is transmitted involuntarily. It is impulse and fury. It reaches critical mass, and then you fake a smile on Monday afternoon. There are sporadic bursts of rage and then you pace the sidelines by yourself with your helmet in hand.

“Brandon was just telling everyone, 'Remember this feeling.’ Just yelling it.” Mike Martin told us about that after you lost to Michigan State.

When you are calm, leadership is all procedure. I have been here a while and I will say uplifting things; that is my job. Beyond that, it is up to them. They recognize your pain but they do not feel it as thoroughly as you do. How could they? No one else’s talent is as immense, as glaringly squandered on this.

“We said so much before every game, now it’s just all about what’s inside your heart, and what you believe you should do.” You said that two days ago.

You block punts. When you did it Saturday you hardly needed to run through anyone because the blockers had already begun to flee. You are frighteningly good. When you’re playing your eyes are wide, you stare like you’re in search of something. But afterward you squint, you’re exhausted. You’re constantly compartmentalizing the frustration and the ferocious anger, constantly redefining what this all means to you. To be undefeated … to be conference champions … to salvage this, whatever it is. Until all that’s left is you and the man in front of you and the need to win something, anything. There are only moments left.

And when they ask you about it afterward, outside of the stadium when it’s dark and you just want to go home, you shake your head and stammer before you figure out what to say next. You close your eyes for a moment and then open them to stare at the ground in awe and disbelief, as if you’ve spent the past three hours climbing a mountain only to arrive at the top and realize that you are looking upon a sprawling canyon. There was a vast chunk of earth that once existed but doesn’t anymore. Something is gone and you don’t know how or why, just that there is nothing where something once was. It is colossal; it is beyond all reason or comprehension. What can I do? This is bigger than one man.

“It hurts…we’re just trying to get to a bowl. I’m gonna go in there and make sure that we don’t lose focus, you know…we just gotta make sure it don’t happen again. It just hurts to keep saying it.”

It has come to irrelevant bowls, places deserted and and ignored -- a reminder of all that you could have, but don't. It has come to this:

We want to believe that this will eventually give way to something better. That in two years we will accept that it happened and smile because of how far we came – a jagged scar on our knee from when we first learned to ride a bicycle on just two wheels. In the distance, where we came from, there is rubble and smoke, but here now things are clear, things are good. Look at all that we have endured. That is what we want. But now a fear, however slight, envelops our subconscious with every loss. Maybe things won’t get better. They probably will, but they might not. And in two years we will instead realize that the signs were there and we should have known all along. This was just a part of a thick, interminable haze. It can be that way.

Everything you wanted was right here. You didn't lose for an entire month. You held this season in your hands. But now it feels like every time you step on the field it continues to erode. We know there are others to blame. We know you know. But it haunts you anyway because this is your identity. You close your eyes. You’re surrounded. There are bright lights from cameras and people asking questions; they keep asking but you can’t answer. Are you disappointed, exactly? “It’s just … ,” and again you drift away. They want to know, but you don’t know. You’ve tried, you have. There is just this canyon.