A year that stood out

On my way home from work today, I filled up the tank of my Prius at a gas station out in the suburbs. The Prius is one way to cope with the gas prices, since a fill-up runs about $25 at the most. With the minivan, it’s usually a lot more than that. A bigger tank is the culprit there. But saving an extra 10 cents a gallon by filling up in the suburbs, as opposed to doing it the city, is a smaller way to cope with high gas prices. Buying gas in Chicago is an extravagance that I usually avoid at all costs (no pun intended).

The gas station was empty when I pulled in, and there were 10 pumps available to meet my petroleum needs. I chose one of the pumps in the middle (number 6, I think it was), put the car in park, and stepped outside to get it over with. Laying on the ground was a penny, and I picked it up and looked at the date. 1995 was the date on the coin, and even though I’ve written about that year before, another memory came back to me and I wanted to get it out into this space. That way, I can comfort myself with knowing that I shared a story with whatever part of the internet might care to hear it.

In 1995, Northwestern’s football team suddenly became competitive. The 1970s and 1980s were not kind on the football field, and the winless season that coincided with my last year on campus was undoubtedly a low point. But the 1995 season started with a win over Notre Dame, followed by an inexplicable choke against Miami of Ohio which could have–and would have, in any previous year–set the death spiral in motion. But 1995 was different.

Gary Barnett’s team came back and won every game they played that year. They won all of their Big Ten games, and, as was the tradition in those days, they advanced to the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. Ah, the good old days before the BCS came along and mucked everything up.

When the Rose Bowl came around, Northwestern stood at 10-1 and was #3 in the national rankings. They were ahead in the fourth quarter of that game, too, and I had visions, if not of a national championship, then at least of a #2 finish in the polls. But it was not to be, since USC beat the Wildcats and they fell back in the final polls as a result. What a ride it was, though.

The leader of that team, Pat Fitzgerald, missed playing the Rose Bowl because he broke his leg in an earlier game. But he’s now the head coach of the football team at his alma mater and mine. I’ve often wondered if he’s thought about replicating that season as a coach. I suppose it would only be a surprise if he hadn’t thought about it.

The football team stands at 5-1 for the 2012 season, with some big games coming up in the weeks ahead. Hopefully they’ll finish well, and maybe even win a bowl game because the 1995 team, as good as it was, started a rather long bowl losing streak. Going to a bowl game doesn’t get old, but losing in the bowl game is getting a bit tiring.

Everything started to change in college football seventeen years ago, and the memory of that year still brings a smile to my face. May it be replaced by an even bigger smile in the years to come.

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The year that the world changed

There have been a couple of times where I have found a penny on the sidewalk, picked it up, and used the date¬†on that penny as a jumping off point for a post in this space. And so it was today, as I was visiting Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History. I hadn’t been there in many years, since the group of high schoolers that I taught throughout their four years graduated in that facility back in 2000. It was a turning point in their lives, and in mine as well, since I had decided to leave teaching and go try something else. So it was a graduation ceremony for me, as well.

Back in 2000, my older daughter was still a baby, and my younger daughter hadn’t yet been born. So going back to the DuSable Museum today with my wife and two daughters–none of whom had been there before–was a special experience for me. And as I was leaving, I saw a penny on the sidewalk. I picked it up, looked at the date, and saw a year that seems like another world ago.

It’s probably fair to say that every year brings some change in a person’s life. I’m not sure which year I learned how to read (probably 1973 or so), but my world was never again the same after that. So to single out any year as a pivotal moment, above any other year before or after it, isn’t the best way to use this space. But, having said all of this, I feel like something did change back in 1995, the year that was stamped on the penny I found on the sidewalk.

In that year, my long-suffering alma mater, Northwestern University, shocked the sporting world by going on a Rose Bowl run that’s still being talked about. The team started out the year by beating Notre Dame, and since the two schools haven’t played since, I still get to claim bragging rights on that front. But they lost the second game of the season, to Miami of Ohio, in stunning fashion, and it wasn’t until they beat Michigan in the “Big House” that the season really took flight. And I remember that game, and that weekend, well.

A friend of mine and my wife’s from college was living in Atlanta at the time, and over the Columbus Day weekend, we flew down there to visit him. We watched the Michigan-Northwestern game on ESPN, and after the game was over we went to a Braves’ playoff game at the old Fulton County Stadium. I could look up the Braves’ opponent that night if it mattered, but just going to a baseball game in October was a new experience for me.

I wore my Northwestern hat to the game that night, and heard some complimentary things from people who had watched the game that afternoon. Michigan was the team that everybody not affiliated with the school loved to hate, and apparently that feeling extended to Atlanta, too. But a football game in the afternoon, and a playoff baseball game at night, made it a special sports day for me.

But what happened after the game was even more lasting. Our Atlanta friend took us to his office, where he showed us this new thing called America Online. I hadn’t seen it before, but it was fascinating, and I’m pretty sure that my wife and I signed up for it shortly afterward. We had dial-up at the time (who didn’t back in 1995?), but being able to get on the computer and interact with others was a revolutionary thing back then. The cheesy AOL ad above was really what it was like for me, and probably for millions of others, as well.

Almost seventeen years have gone by since then, and today I can’t remember how long it’s been since I had AOL. But it was my gateway into the online world, and for that reason I’ll always remember that trip to Atlanta back in 1995.