Win Win

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It’s a beautiful fall day as I sit down to type out a few words on my smartphone. Blogging gives me a chance to spend a few minutes getting thoughts down, before the moment changes and the feelings are lost. and this is a moment that I want to preserve in some manner.

The arrival of fall brings football season, and my alma mater, the Northwestern Wildcats, are playing well. They’re ranked number 17 in the polls, which is a validation of their play by those people who have accorded themselves the right to judge such things. Where this season will end up is a mystery, but I’m looking forward to tonight’s game against Ball State in a way that I wouldn’t normally do. As the philosopher Pete Rose puts it, the burgers taste better when you win.

The Chicago Cubs, that other great sporting interest of mine, have clinched a wild card spot, and there will be playoff baseball here for the first time in a while. I hope they will finally get to the World Series and win it, but that remains to be seen, as well.

But what’s really great is that these two sports teams that rarely win are doing so at the same time. Rarely do I get to enjoy one team or the other winning on a regular basis, and never have both been successful at the same time. It’s a vortex of success, and I’m not complaining about it one little bit. Well, maybe a younger and more handsome dude than I could be sporting the teams’ gear in the picture above. But I’ll take what’s come along and enjoy it while it lasts.

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A kick ass American weekend

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The first time that I ever felt any national pride over a sporting event was the Miracle on Ice hockey team at the 1980 Winter Olympics. I was 11 years old, and giddy at the prospect of beating the big, bad Soviets at what appeared to be their own game.

Flash forward 35 years, to Sunday’s triumph of the U.S. National Women’s Team at the World Cup. Again, soccer doesn’t seem to really be America’s game, particularly since the rest of the world calls it “football” instead. But when America’s best matched up against the rest of the world, the Red, White, and Blue came out on top. A better way to cap off the 4th of July weekend cannot be imagined, at least in the sporting realm.

The proceedings in Soldier Field were also a pretty good capper, in the artistic realm. It was a great weekend for America, all the way around.

It was a good day for omens

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Saturday morning, Evanston, Illinois

My daughters are both ice skaters, which makes practice ice a reality for me, several times a week. On Saturday morning, as the rest of the world is sleeping in, my older one gets to the rink at 5:30 AM. It seems like a cruel joke to play on the old man, but I go along with it by driving her to the rink.

I dropped her off this morning, and went to get some gas in the tank of my minivan. It’s not a terribly long way to South Bend, Indiana, but it’s better to gas up now before I head out later this morning.

As I’m filling up the tank, I noticed that the Starbucks in that neck of the woods wasn’t open yet. You know you’re early when Starbucks hasn’t yet come to life.

Since coffee needed to be procured, I considered my options. There was a Burger King I knew of a half-mile away, and while I’m not a fan of their coffee, it would be better than having a steaming cup of nada in my hand. So Burger King it was.

As I drove north toward the BK, something wonderful presented itself. A former KFC restaurant, which had been converted to a Starbucks, grabbed my attention instead. It was as if the mermaid or whatever it is on the Starbucks logo winked at me. It was a call that I couldn’t ignore.

I pulled into the parking lot, curious why this location was open as the other one remained closed. It was almost 6 AM by now, and my guess is the other one would be opening at that time, anyway. But fate had brought me to this location, instead.

I went inside and ordered my usual, a venti drip coffee. I’ve never gone for lattes or any of their pricier drinks; just plain old coffee works for me. The woman behind the counter was as friendly as could be, and she provided my morning cup of stimulation. Now it was time to add a splash of half-and-half and head back to the rink.

On the creamer station, I spied a single penny. I always make it a practice to pick up a penny and look at the year stamped on it. I’ve written about that penny, and the year associated with it, several times on this blog. And for every story I’ve told, there are several more that I haven’t had the time or the inclination to tell. But today’s was a story that had to be told.

The year stamped on the penny was 1995. I saw the date and blurted out “No fucking way!” without even thinking about it. The expletive had to be a part of what I said, too, because the irony was just too much to consider, especially so early in the morning.

1995 was the last time that Northwestern and Notre Dame have played each other in football. So much has changed in the 19 years since then: the internet, smartphones, social media, the cloud, so much of the things that we think have always been there but really have not. My two children were far off in the future back in 1995. I was still renting an apartment in those days. I weighed significantly less than I do today. And I never, ever said no to having a beer. In short, my life today in 2014 resembles 1995 in very few ways.

Northwestern won that football game back in 1995. For 19 years, I’ve been able to say that Northwestern had bragging rights when it came to Notre Dame. The Domers have the tradition and the aura about their program, but they haven’t had a chance to avenge their 17-15 loss to the school with perhaps the least college football tradition of all.

Notre Dame has a good football team this year, and Northwestern does not. The Fighting Irish lost by a wide margin in Arizona last week, and they may be wanting to take that frustration out on the Wildcats at home, in front of their fans. There’s still a matter of keeping themselves around for bowl consideration, after all.

There won’t be any bowl games for Northwestern this year. All that’s left to play for is pride, and that may not be enough to prevail. But the defensive captain of the 1995 team, Pat Fitzgerald, is the Wildcats’ head coach now, and will be for years–if not decades–to come. He understands what Notre Dame means, as an opponent. Nobody will be any better at getting his team ready for a game like this.

I believe in omens. Perhaps I’ve read too many books, and seen too many movies where a minor thing portends something more important down the line. That’s the essence of storytelling, after all. What seems unimportant at the time can turn out to be something greater. You never know in this world.

So if Northwestern can go into South Bend and pull off an upset–as they did back in 1995–a penny in a Starbucks won’t be the reason why. But it sure will be interesting if it turns out that way. I suppose we’ll find out in a few hours.

UPDATE: The Wildcats did indeed pull off the upset, winning the game 43-40 in overtime. I hope to put the game into words soon, but for now I’ll say that it was a roller coaster ride from start to finish, and Northwestern somehow prevailed. Go Cats!

Four years and a lifetime ago

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I remember it well, that New Year’s day in 2010, when Northwestern played the Auburn Tigers in the Outback Bowl. It was the first bowl game of the day, and I was ready for it with a mountain of alcohol. It was rare for me to start drinking before noon, but this was a big game and, well, football. That was all I needed, really.

By the time the game had ended, with Northwestern losing in overtime, I was already hammered, and the day was just getting started. By the time the last game ended late in the evening hours, I had watched a ton of football and consumed a ton of alcohol. The two had a symbiotic relationship with each other, to be honest about it.

I haven’t had a drink on New Year’s day since then. I’ve also just about cut television out of my life since then. New Year’s day this year consisted of two or three plays of the Wisconsin game (whichever bowl game it was) and–much more importantly–no alcohol whatsoever. It’s a decision that I’m comfortable with, because beer and television once had a long run in my life, and now I’m on to something else. Everything changes, after all.

Here’s to another year with little television, and even less liquor. And also to another year of wondering how I ever lived that way. I have no desire to go back to it, that’s for sure.

After the purple sunset

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October 5 seems like such a long time ago. On that date, I had high hopes for Northwestern’s football team, which was unbeaten and ranked in the national polls.

I had written an exuberant piece for Five Wide Sports a few days earlier, about how it wasn’t 1989 anymore for the two sports teams I truly care about. The Chicago Cubs were losing, but the Northwestern football team was winning. The latter helped to take my mind off of the former, and it was a tradeoff I was glad to make.

And then, just before Northwestern played Ohio State in a nationally-televised game in primetime, the skies opened up and it started to pour. I wasn’t tailgating at the time, but the thousands who were probably got soaked in the process.

I mention this because afternoon rain showers can lead to some interesting sunsets. I saw it when I was in Door County, Wisconsin last summer. An afternoon cloudburst led to a green and brown sunset that I hope I’ll never forget. And the rain before the football game on October 5 also led to a unique sunset. But this was a portentous Northwestern purple, or at least it seemed that way to me.

I was driving around in Evanston when I saw it, on my way to the game and trying to find a place to park. There was a buzz in the air, because the rains were gone and it was going to be time for football soon. There were lots of Ohio State fans dressed in scarlet red, but there was a lot of Northwestern purple on display, too. And nature had seemed to decide the matter in the Wildcats’ favor.

The picture above probably shouldn’t have been taken in the first place, as I was trying to drive in a crowded situation at the same time. And it doesn’t really doesn’t do the scene justice, either. You can see purple here if you want to see purple. But to me, the purple was impossible to miss.

After a parking snafu, I finally found a place to park the car, and my daughter and I went to the stadium to watch the game. Northwestern played Ohio State close right up to the end, and lost when they couldn’t flea-flicker their way to a miracle finish. Clearly, the purple sunset hadn’t meant what I thought it did.

Northwestern went into a tailspin after the Ohio State game, and they haven’t won a game since then. They have one get left, against Illinois on Saturday. I hope they win this game, at least, to avoid the indignity of a winless season in the Big Ten. It won’t be the first time that has happened, of course, but once upon a time such losing ways were expected. This year’s collapse was completely unforeseen.

The purple sunset turned out to have a far different meaning than I had imagined. And the postseason bowl scene won’t have Northwestern involved, for the first time in a while. I’ll miss that part of the holidays, for sure, but then again it’s only a football team.

There are more important things in the world, as this year’s tornadoes in central Illinois have made abundantly clear. There are more than false omens that can come from the skies. If disappointment with my alma mater’s football team is all I have to feel bad about, I’ve got a very good life, indeed.

The magic numbers are 63 and 19

Last summer, my daughters were in a summer camp where they put on a musical performance at the end. My younger daughter sang “3 is a magic number” from the Schoolhouse Rock videos. She was amazing, of course, and I’m thinking about her and that song as I’m typing out this post. The magic numbers that I have in mind are a bit more than three, though.

When Dan Persa takes the field in Houston for the Meineke Car Care bowl of Texas in a couple of days, he’ll have at least two things to think about. The first is winning the game, obviously, which would be Northwester’s first bowl victory in 63 years. That by itself would be huge, but there’s also something else to consider.

Persa also needs to throw 19 passes in the game to become the all-time college football leader in completion percentage. He doesn’t even need to complete a single one of these passes to set the record, either. Just putting the ball in the air enough times will get this done. And every completion would just add to his new record.

Football’s a team sport, so I would think the victory is the priority over the individual record. Getting both the record and the victory would be nice, too, so I’ll be watching with the hopes of seeing history made, one way and/or another.

Go Cats!

Hanging 70

I’m taking a break from baseball today because, well, it is the offseason and college football is trying to fill the gap. Nebraska last played against my Northwestern Wildcats in the 2000 Alamo Bowl. I was excited for the matchup, but Nebraska just put it to the Wildcats in every conceivable way, and the final score was 66-17. Not exactly compelling television.

Nebraska has always been something of a bully in college football. I think I’ve only ever heard the term “hang 70” when it comes to Nebraska beating up on other teams that were not up to the task of playing at their level. It’s not easy to score that many points in a football game, and there’s always the urge to step off the gas and keep the score at a reasonable level (scoring 45 or 50 points is usually more than enough to win). So to score 70 you need the ability to repeatedly score touchdowns, and the indifference about how it looks to score so many more points than you really need.

UPDATE: Neither team hung 70 on anybody, but the Wildcats pulled off the upset and may have kept themselves alive for bowl consideration. There are three games left, and they’re all at home. Go Cats!

The game that matters most

This post isn’t about baseball, but college football, instead (impressive depth I’m showing, isn’t it?) I wanted to get these thoughts out before the Northwestern-Illinois game coming up this Saturday, which will have offenses moving in both directions for the first time in an NU-Illini game since 2009. I’ll probably turn last year’s Wrigley Field game into a post at some point, but it won’t be before Saturday, at least.

I spent my first 3 and a half years of high school thinking that I would go to college at the U of I in Champaign-Urbana. I cheered for their sports teams, and didn’t have the money to go to a private school or another state’s university, and that was just fine with me. The Orange Crush, Chief Illiniwek, the orange and blue colors, all of it was just what I wanted. If tatoos were the thing for high school kids back then, I’d still have a blocky orange I on me somewhere.

But fate changes things. I wasn’t meant to go to school at the U of I, even though it seemed like the place for me. My acceptance letter got held up for a week or two, and in the meantime I had to think about other places to go to college. I had gathered a stack of college applications from Career Days at my school, but was daunted by the fact that they all required essays and an application fee.

I decided to focus on one school, to save myself the trouble of composing multiple essays (there were no computers to save things on in those days, or if there were, I didn’t have one available to me). I also thought that convincing my parents to spend the money for one application fee would be hard enough, and any more than that wouldn’t be worth wasting any breath over. It just wouldn’t happen.

One of the applications, to Northwestern University in Evanston, also had a letter that had come to my house. They must have received my home address from my high school, or possibly from the ACT people. Nope, there were no emails in those days, either. It was a primitive time back then. I read this two page letter, basically selling the school and saying something to the effect of “don’t let the sticker price scare you away.”

This was important for me to know, because the first time I became aware of Northwestern was through a little throwaway listing of the “most expensive colleges” that appeared in Parade Magazine one weekend. A place called “Northwestern” was at the bottom of the list, and I don’t remember what the other schools were, but I could probably guess them if I had to. But Northwestern’s yearly tuition back then was five digits, and to a kid who thought $50 was a lot of money, any five digits you could throw at me seemed like too much.

So I filled out the application, convinced my mom to write a check for the application fee, and applied for an early admission decision. It was sometime in December, so I figured this would get it over with sooner rather than later. And I needed a deadline to get just about anything done, then and now.

In a matter of days, the acceptance letter from U of I arrived, and I remember how relieved I felt. I frankly even forgot about the Northwestern application, and reverted to my senioritis-filled final days at the high school I was now officially killing time at.

At some point in the spring, perhaps in late January, a letter arrived at my house from Northwestern. By that time, a housing deposit check had been sent to Champaign-Urbana, which–as soon as money started changing hands–meant that I was an official member of the Illinois class of whatever it was (the year doesn’t really matter, does it?) I opened the letter, and remember an involuntary jump in the air when I read the word “Congratulations!” I truly wasn’t expecting it, and haven’t been that surprised by too many things since.

To make a long story short–if it’s not already too late for that–the decision to go to Northwestern meant that I had to completely and thoroughly repudiate the orange and blue. The Chief and I? Splitsville, baby. Otherwise, it would have been second guess city there in Champaign-Urbana. I would have changed the name to Champaign-Urbana-ShouldaGoneThereWhenIHadTheChance. But that’s no way to live, is it?

So the other schools in the Big Ten (and strangely enough, there are eleven of them now) are fine, but only one school gets my interest for football and basketball games. The NU football team was awful when I went to school there, winning just eight games in four years. But two of those games were against Illinois, and I could live with that.

The game coming up this week, which usually ended the regular season for both teams, will now be the start of Big Ten play instead. Illinois is unbeaten, ranked, and playing at home. And they won convincingly last year, too. Northwestern has lost a game, isn’t even in the “also receiving votes” category of the polls, and hasn’t played a down with Dan Persa at quarterback since last November. With all that said, it’s still the biggest game of the year, and I like our chances. I have no other choice. Go ‘Cats!

Hopefully he’ll sit today

At the start of this college football season, Northwestern put up billboards touting Dan Persa as a Heisman trophy candidate. The problem was that he was still rehabbing from an Achilles injury that ended his season–and Northwestern’s as well–against Iowa last year.

I was literally hanging on every play listening to that game in the car, and the joy that I felt when they came all the way back in the 4th quarter didn’t even last a minute, since Persa went down when the play was over. And the final games of the season, when he couldn’t play, were just an embarrassment. But that was last year.

For this season, Northwestern’s athletic department coined the word PersaStrong, and sent out packages to media figures with dumbells bearing Northwestern’s colors and Persa’s #7. Everything looked to be a go for his longshot candidacy to challenge Stanford’s Andrew Luck, who everyone has all but given the trophy to at this point.

But Persa’s rehab hadn’t gone as well as everyone would like, and he was scratched from both the Boston College and Eastern Illinois games in the first two weeks of the season. Kickoff for today’s game against Army is still at least an hour away, and I don’t know if Persa will be in the lineup today. I actually hope he isn’t, for two reasons:

First off, the team has seen Kain Coulter emerge as the kind of a credible backup QB that Northwestern did not have last year. His time will come next year after Persa’s time is up, but it certainly can’t hurt to let Persa continue to heal for one more week, with a bye week coming up next Saturday. This would give Persa two full weeks to heal before  the Big Ten season begins two weeks from today.

The second reason is that non-conference games just don’t mean the same as conference games do. Army doesn’t have a conference, so they have to get up for every game the best that they can. But Illinois, Michigan, Penn State, and others are the opponents I really care about, not Army. The Wildcats can win today’s game or lose it, but the season really begins with the Illinois game on October 1.

The Heisman isn’t going to Dan Persa this year, but I hope he didn’t choose Northwestern to boost his Heisman chances. He would be the first one to ever do this, if that’s the case. A week off is actually two weeks to continue healing, and I’m more than willing to wait that long to see him in the huddle. My hope is that coach Pat Fitzgerald feels the same way.

Go Cats!

Unbelievably stupid

If I had never driven through Indiana towards points east, I would probably be unaware that there even is a College Football Hall of Fame. But it does not surprise me at all that it can be found in South Bend, Indiana, since it is the the home of Notre Dame, Knute Rockne, the Four Horsemen, Touchdown Jesus, and all of that. Where else could such a place exist? (They’re moving it to Atlanta in two years’ time, but that’s beside the point here).

The story I came across today, four days after the fact, is that somebody over the weekend stole a sprinkler fitting from the Hall of Fame’s grounds. It was made of brass, which makes it worth something more than an everyday piece of metal. For what it’s worth, the downspout was stolen off the side of my house a few years back for that very reason.

The theft of this piece of brass set off a chain of events where water flowed back into the pipe, and the result was two inches of water in the basement, where many irreplaceable items were stored and presumably destroyed. When water meets paper, the paper always loses. And that goes for drywall, too.

No particular losses were mentioned, and I can only imagine what sort of artifacts and records must have been kept there. But that’s why the basement of my house–which was a Prohibition speakeasy and could be a really nice place–contains nothing of any value. Not only do thieves always come in through the basement widows, but water gets inside on a regular basis when it rains. It wasn’t rain in this case, but waterlogged drywall can’t really tell the difference, either.

The fool who committed this theft may have a hand in several other thefts in the South Bend area. It certainly stands to reason that if you know what you’re looking for, stealing one of these things isn’t terribly difficult. In the wake of these thefts, most likely, the insurance pays what they pay, the property owner pays the deductible, and everybody moves on as quickly as they can. But this is not so when irreplaceable artifacts are concerned.  Those are just gone forever.

Times are bad, but there has to be an honest way that  somebody can make the $5 that they would get by selling this piece for scrap. And whoever caused this will probably never be found, unless there is some surveillance camera or an eyewitness comes forward. There likely won’t be any closure in this sense, either, because the piece will probably be sold (if it hasn’t been already), and the perpetrators are moving on to locating the next thing they can steal. But several pieces of history are gone, and nothing can be done to bring them back.

Nobody died in this event, and I’m not suggesting that there aren’t more important things to get worked up over.  In Chicago earlier this year, a church deacon was pushed down a flight of stairs and killed when someone stole her iPhone. The thief in that case was caught, and will probably go away for a long time to eat and be sheltered on the taxpayers’ dime. But that won’t bring the deacon back, no more than fines or imprisonment will restore the materials lost in the Hall of Fame last weekend.

My point is simply that petty crimes like this can have major consequences, and we all have to bear the costs, either directly or indirectly. Human nature can be a real bummer sometimes.

Why college football is better than the NFL

I watched the Michigan/Notre Dame football game last night at a friend’s house, and I didn’t think it could possibly live up to the hype that preceded it. And boy, was I ever wrong! It was a roller coaster in the fourth quarter, the likes of which I can’t recall ever seeing before. Nothing the NFL has to offer, from today’s opening games until the Super Bowl next year, is going to top that.

Football itself did not originate with the NFL, but with elite colleges like Harvard and Yale. And it’s not hard to see why, either. The idea that a team is made up of students from the same school is where the sport first took root, and it grew and flourished for decades until one of college football’s greatest players, “Red” Grange, bucked tradition and began playing football for a living. So you could say that colleges had a jump of at least four decades or more on the pros, where football is concerned.

I watched last night’s game in Ann Arbor, with its announced crowd of almost 115,000 in the “‘Big House,” and wondered whether the NFL could ever attract a crowd of that size for a single game. I can’t imagine that many fans in one place without parking nightmares, fights breaking out, and all kinds of issues coming up. And I also can’t imagine any team in the NFL shelling out the kind of money it would take to build a stadium so large. It just wouldn’t happen.

So does the size of a crowd determine the relative merits of a sport? Of course not. But it does suggest that the fan base for a college spots team is different from that of a pro sports team. Students, obviously, make up a sizeable chunk of a college team’s fan base, along with the school’s alumi and, in the case of a large state school like Oklahoma or Nebraska, just about anyone who lives in that state, if they choose to identify with that school and its sports teams.

But the NFL is different. For starters, fans are generally those who live in or around the city where the team play its home games, but not always. The Dallas Cowboys wouldn’t really be able to call themselves “America’s Team” if all of their fans were from Dallas. It’s also quite possible that Peyton Manning’s legions of fans don’t all live in or near Indianapolis, but are willing to cheer for whatever team he happens to be the quarterback for.

But the biggest difference, that I can see, is that the players themselves have to know that their chances of playing professionally after college aren’t very good. For every guy like Michigan’s Denard Robinson, there are hundreds of other guys who know that, come next season, their football careers will be over. But they play anyway, risking long-term damage to their bodies, because they love the game and probably can’t remember a time when they didn’t play football.

There’s some talk of paying players in college athletics, so that they can share in the money they bring to their schools. But this won’t happen, since it would drastically change the landscape of sports as we know it. In the NFL, at least, players can’t go pro until four years after they finish high school. (We have none other than Red Grange to thank for that rule.) So where else are they going to go, if they love the sport and/or see it as their ticket out of wherever they came from? They may as well keep on playing the game until they can go pro, if that’s their intention.

There’s only two weeks of college games in the books, and one week of the NFL, but I can tell you that my interest in the college games is already peaking. There may not be another thrilling game like the one in Ann Arbor last night, but I’m willing to keep looking for one, all season long.