Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Emotional Roller Coaster That is a Guy Watching the Game

Willis McGahee

The Date: Saturday – October 12, 2002

The Place: Hanover, NH

The Game: (9) Florida State Seminoles at (1) Miami Hurricanes (live on ABC)

Until I met my beautiful wife, I’ll readily admit that the game of football (American football, for our international readers) was my life’s primary passion. It’s a product of where I grew up. Beginning in 1970s, the state of Florida evolved into a (some would say “the”) hotbed of football talent. As the game moved from one of bulky players and slow, ball-control offenses to one of speed and athleticism and wide-open play, Florida high schools began producing the fastest, most talented and most sought-after players. As a result, the state’s three largest college football programs—Florida, Florida State, Miami—outgrew their regional status and stormed the national scene, becoming household names (the Big 3 have won 10 of the last 25 national championships). At the professional level, the game grew to a level where Florida now boasts three NFL franchises. In lockstep with this tremendous growth in the game itself, of course, has been the growth in the amount of football fans throughout the state. Sure, there’s plenty of golf, basketball, baseball, horse and auto racing, - even hockey - all across the state, but, make no mistake, Florida puts football first. Everything else is a distant second.

I was born in Florida in 1981 and lived there until I left for college in the fall of 1999. During my childhood, I became an avid fan of both the University of Miami Hurricanes and the Miami Dolphins of the National Football League (see, in Florida, all kids choose, usually at birth, a college and pro team to which they swear, often for life, their unwavering support). But I was more than just your average rabid fan. I was also a football player: a good one, too. After seven years at the youth-level, I played three solid years of high school football (the missing season coming during my tenth-grade year, when I suffered a torn ACL in my right knee; said injury occurring, you guessed it, during football practice). My success at the high school level prompted me to travel 1500 miles north to the state of New Hampshire to play two ill-fated seasons at Dartmouth College. A myriad of factors—most notably, mounting injuries and dissatisfactions with the team’s coaches and system—contributed to my decision to quit the team after only two years. The unfortunate end of my playing days, however, allowed me to spend my last two years in college purely as a fan. Together with my best friends (two of which also shared the same ‘this isn’t really how I planned it’ end to their lives as football players), I was able to enjoy football as I had when I was a precocious, stat-memorizing, favorite-player-emulating kid: emphatically. This involved lots reading, watching, arguing, the whole gamut. As fate would have it, my final two years of college also coincided with the resurgence of my beloved Miami Hurricanes.

This is where our story really begins…

By the time Florida State Seminoles traveled to the Orange Bowl in Miami in October 2002, the Hurricanes were in the midst of a 27-game winning streak. Winners of the 2001 national championship, the ’02 version of the Canes was nothing short of dominant. The team featured a roster full of future NFL stars like Andre Johnson, Vince Wilfork, D.J. Williams, Kellen Winslow, Jr., Jon Vilma and the late Sean Taylor. And they had swagger!

For a fan, it’s amazing how important a role things like attitude and demeanor play into one’s level of attachment to a team or a player. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, as the team grew into a national power, the Hurricanes became famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) for their brash, ‘I don’t give a fuck’ nature: wild celebrations after big plays, arriving at opposing stadiums dressed in army fatigues, t-shirts emblazoned with ‘Catholics versus Convicts’ the week leading up to a game against Notre Dame. Off the field, the team always seemed to match the larger than life presence they imposed on opponents on the field. For a white, middle-class aspiring football star growing up in one of the more redneck parts of the state, I found this type of attitude appealing at a young age because, for me, the Canes exhibited an outspoken confidence (an arrogance that didn’t take itself too seriously) that I just couldn’t recreate in myself on or off the field. I was a fairly quiet kid, and I was always very good at sports. I’d like to think I had room for a bit unserious arrogance. However, trash talking never came naturally to me. But being a Canes fan sure did. So, in a sense, the Canes became a proxy. I could wear my Canes shirt to school, talk shit to friends who followed Alabama or Florida State, talk up the Canes and their successes, run the ball like Edge James; just proclaiming my fandom for the Canes allowed me to co-opt some of their attitude, their swagger. The Canes really became a part of my personality and life in a very rational way.

So what’s with the seemingly irrational and unhealthy emotional investment in a single game?

The Miami-FSU showdown began with the great Willis McGahee scoring on the Canes first possession, capping off a 90+ yard drive. I was sitting on a couch in my buddy Bob’s dorm room. A group of five of us watched the Canes march down the field and score the way they had for almost two full seasons. It all seemed so easy and preordained. Another friend of mine, Joe, quickly proclaimed, “Well this game is over.” Then why did I have a knot in my stomach? In fact, why had the knot in my stomach grown larger with each passing game? I watched the Canes throttle teams each week with sweaty palms. After a half decade of attrition—for a variety of reasons, the Hurricanes had it rough in the late ’90s—my team was finally at the pinnacle, back on top. And I mean way on top. People were already calling the ’01 squad the best college football team ever. My team was back on top. But as the winning streak grew, I grew as a basket case.

The Canes, of course, stall. Before I know it, the score is 17-7 in favor of FSU in the second quarter. It’s an early game, a noon kickoff, but I’m already a couple beers deep—anything to calm my nerves. The Canes get their shit together, scoring a touchdown just before the half, but they were still down 17-14 and, for the first time all year, a truly ominous feeling overcame me. I couldn’t even be in the same room as the game.

Across the street from our dorm the Dartmouth Big Green, the team I had unceremoniously quit a season before, were taking on the Yale Bulldogs at Memorial Field. Nothing better to take your mind off of the annual UM-FSU showdown than watching a couple Ivy League cupcakes square off. At the time, I was pretty bitter towards Dartmouth football. As I mentioned earlier, things didn’t really go as planned between me and the team. And when a person is driven to hate something that they have participated in and dedicated themselves to and loved every year for thirteen years straight, one holds on to a bit of anger in the aftermath. Long story short, the absolute last place I ever wanted to be on an autumn Saturday in Hanover, New Hampshire was a fucking Dartmouth football game. But there we were. My friends indulged me enough to make the trek to the stadium and together we watched Dartmouth pull out a rare win.

This little sojourn was only temporary and offered little respite from the stresses that awaited back at the dorm. We returned to the room just as the Miami-FSU game entered the fourth quarter. The first play of the fourth quarter: an FSU touchdown. The Seminoles were now up 27-14. The Canes just didn’t look like they had it. Around this point, I began pacing endlessly, from couch to bed to desk chair to hallway and back. I’m not a loud screamer, not one of those assholes who rants and raves with each play. I know football. I know it well. So as a game progresses, my emotions and feelings slowly build to match what I feel the outcome of the game will be. It’s a unique elation when things go well. It’s a terrible torture when it goes bad. No amount of beer or consoling words from my friends (who had their own teams to think about—this was, after all, an early game) could stop me from turning my hairs gray. By the time Kevin Beard caught a Ken Dorsey touchdown pass about halfway through the fourth quarter, cutting the Seminoles lead to 27-21, I knew it was too little too late. I wasn’t hopeless—I didn’t proclaim the game lost (again, I’m not one of those assholes). But in my heart, I felt the weight of that 27-game win streak. Just as I know the Canes players did. It took so much effort to get those 21 points on the board. And now there was just over seven minutes left. I just didn’t think they had enough time or energy.

But the defense quickly stopped the Florida State offense. Suddenly, the Canes had the ball with plenty of time. Sure, they were 70+ yards away from the end zone, but at least they didn’t have to throw up junk passes or run a two-minute drill. What followed on the first play this Miami possession was something I’ll always remember. Dorsey drops back, lets the pass rush come at him; he drops a perfectly placed screen pass to Willis McGahee. McGahee turns up field and, in a flash, he’s gained 68 yards! (please see the photo above) I was leaping up and down and screaming so hard that even my friends, who were fully attuned to my emotional state, shot annoying glances in my direction. A play later, the Canes score and it’s all of a sudden Miami leading 28-27.

Then the Canes defense held again! And now the blood rushed to another part of my head. I felt dizzy. This team was not going to lose! All they needed to do was run out the clock by getting a couple first downs. But, as life sadistically loves to have it, the Canes could not manage a first down and had to punt, giving the Seminoles one last opportunity to take the game. No problem—Miami has one of the best punters in the country. The Canes would pin them deep, make a couple tackles and call it a day. But our punter, Freddie Capshaw, shanked the punt. “Are you fucking kidding me,” I screamed, absolutely dumbfounded. The guy who could nail 40+ yard punts in his sleep kicked the ball three yards, giving the Seminoles the ball practically in field goal range. This roller coaster ride was about the end with me getting sick. Four plays later, there’s one second left on the clock and the Seminoles were lining up for a 43-yard field goal.

For those of you unaware of the history of the Miami-FSU football rivalry and the unique place game-ending field goals play in the series, please take two minutes and watch the video here.

It sounds almost anticlimactic, but the field goal was no good. The Hurricanes won. I immediately jumped into the air and hugged my friends. They were smiling and laughing, happy (as funny as it sounds) for me.

The remaining part of that day and weekend are to this day a blur. No, this isn’t due to a drunken celebratory haze. I was hungover from the game. I was so involved, heart and soul, in each play that only a couple hours after that field goal sailed wide left I was back in my room, taking aspirin and trying to sleep. Ironically, at a time when I should have felt absolutely elated—the Canes had just beaten the Noles, their biggest rival!—I felt emotionally drained and physically like garbage.

Men’s propensity to place sports at the center of their lives, to read the up-and-downs of their team into the up-and-downs of their own day-to-day isn’t a recent phenomenon. It’s practically cliché. Nick Hornby managed a whole memoir out of the idea. What often gets lost in all this talk of men and their sports obsessions is how the roller coaster that is a guy watching his team play a big game mirrors the way women are often charged with reacting irrationally to situations that supposedly don’t merit such responses. You know, stuff like getting intensely angry because another woman wore the same dress. Guys like to stereotype women as too emotional because of things like this, label them drama queens. But, really, how different are a woman’s outbursts or internal angers at supposedly benign events from my incredibly tumultuous adventures watching football games? It’s a simple question—a real ‘no shit’ one—but still important.

As men continue to stereotype women and their supposed emotional irrationality, and some women choose to stereotype men and their overblown attachments to sports, it’s easy to forget that these emotions are both two sides of the same coin. In sharing a little bit of my own personal history, by showing the foundation of my attachment to a football team I care about dearly, I want to get your minds working. I want you to search for the rational basis in your “irrational” emotional roller coasters. And, more importantly, I want you to consider the rational bases in the seemingly “irrational” emotions of others.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like the overall point of your post (and your blog!) but it took a reeeeeeally long time to get there.