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!

Football season ends today

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I haven’t cared about the NFL for a very long time, probably since Mike Ditka was coaching the Bears. So I take my football in smaller doses, usually at the college level. This year, it has also included my high school alma mater, for the first time since I graduated high school. Life can take some unexpected turns sometimes.

A few minutes from now, the Cyclones of Sacred Heart-Griffin High will play for the Illinois class 5A championship, and while that game is going on, the Northwestern Wildcats will play the University of Illinois for the title of best FBS school not named Northern Illinois. It’s a down year at the college level, that’s for sure.

By early this afternoon, football will join baseball as sports that are in their offseason to me. Basketball and hockey, by comparison, never make it to my radar screen to begin with. Sports as a whole won’t matter again until March at the earliest. But that will be just fine with me.

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.

You gotta have fun

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My writing output in this space has fallen off a bit lately. Some of that is because ideas are getting sent to other places, and some of it is that baseball seems to animate my writing somewhat.

I recently gave myself three months off from writing forThroughTheFenceBaseball, because I torture myself enough thinking about and writing about the Cubs when the baseball season is going on. But there’s no reason to keep doing that now that the season is officially over.

Until further notice, any Cubs-related thoughts will get put here or on FiveWideSports, which I started writing for to comment on Northwestern football. And that has turned unexpectedly painful too, over the past month or so. But I like the idea of sharing a thought with the wider world, and this site–like TTFB–lets me do that when an idea strikes me.

So the Cubs have a new manager named Rick Renteria. I’m not familiar with him, but don’t have any high expectations for him. So I wrote this piece and sent it to FiveWide. You might say I was on a roll when I did it.

We’ve known each other for so long….. (and yes, I did go there in the piece, as well).

Hoping for a rematch

Rocky II

Having been at last night’s game between the Northwestern Wildcats and the Ohio State Buckeyes, it was a great game but a difficult loss to swallow. And now I have to change my Rocky metaphors when thinking about the rest of Northwestern’s season.

I wrote something to the effect of Northwestern’s two-week period leading up to last night’s game as a training period comparable to Rocky Balboa getting ready to fight Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Rocky sawed logs and felled trees, and pulled the cart in the snow, and climbed to a mountaintop to show that he was finally ready to face Drago. It was Hollywood cheese, to be sure, but mighty good cheese, just the same.

But this time it’s more like the end of the first Rocky film. The two teams went toe-to-toe last night, and in the end the underdog barely lost. Apollo Creed’s declaration that “There ain’t gonna be no rematch!” seems fitting this morning, as Ohio State may not want to see Northwestern again on a football field this season.

Rocky II was all about setting up the inevitable rematch between Balboa and Creed. If Rocky had tanked at the box office, there never would have been a Rocky II. And without Rocky II, the rest of the series doesn’t get made, either. Which would have been a shame, in my view.

So the Wildcats, who are understandably stung by such a close loss, must fight their way through the rest of the Big Ten schedule this season. If they win the rest of their games–with the home game against Michigan seeming to be the biggest hurdle–they can earn a rematch against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis. I think anyone who watched last night’s game would be happy with that outcome.

So no longer is Ohio State Ivan Drago, in my mind. Now they are Apollo Creed, and that’s fine with me. Rocky needed to have Apollo, and the death of Apollo in Rocky IV was a mortal blow to the entire Rocky franchise, in some ways.

So let’s get to the rematch, and then win it, to ensure the lasting success of what Pat Fitzgerald is building at Northwestern.

Quarterly report #8

Wrigley and Pearl Jam--Awesome!

It’s now been over two years since I’ve been writing this blog. It’s been a time capsule of my life, and the more I do it, the more comfortable it becomes. As I sometimes do in this space, now’s a time to look back, and try to see what lies ahead, too.

I passed 1,000 posts here back in July, which I didn’t think would happen at one point. I had visions of going off and trying to work on a book of some sort, and maybe that will in the cards one day, but writing little posts like these and putting them online has an immediacy that writing a book wouldn’t have. So I keep devoting time and energy to this, because it does scratch some sort of an itch for me.

But I’ve also had writings appear in other places as well. I started writing a column at ThroughTheFenceBaseball, and I am very proud of the work I’ve done there over the past two seasons. The off-season hibernation will start soon, but I think there’s still a little bit more to say while the playoffs are going on.

I also started writing for FiveWideSports over the past couple of weeks, and I’m happy with the first few pieces I’ve sent them. As the college football season rolls on, I’ll keep writing about my Northwestern Wildcats. It will be nice to talk about a winner for a change.

I also had a piece appear on ChicagoSideSports, and saw my visions of a losing season on both sides of Chicago realized, in a way that I didn’t see coming. A run at the old record of 191 losses for both teams in a season would have been interesting, but breaking the record with 195 combined losses was more than I ever thought would happen. It was brutal.

I also wrote about the Pearl Jam concert at Wrigley Field back in July, including my first-ever appearance in Zisk magazine, which I really like a lot. I’m glad that they agreed to run my report on the concert.

I wrote lots of other pieces here, and I’m happy that I can take a small moment, or a trip to the ballpark, and put a few words about them here. And I plan to continue this into the future, as well. It’s too much fun to consider giving this up.

The next report will  be written during the bowl season, I hope. There will be lots of things to say between now and then, I’m sure.

A new outlet

5Wide

I’m happy that FiveWideSports will be carrying some of my thoughts and writings, beginning with this piece that appeared on their site today. I’m still writing for ThroughTheFenceBaseball, and I have a piece appearing there today, as well. The writing is all Cubs and baseball-related, and a week from now their season will be done. Thankfully.

FiveWide is going to give me a chance to write about Northwestern Football and other sports-related things that interest me. I went into a winter’s hibernation of sorts at TTFB last year, and this new site will give me a chance to wander off the baseball subject from time to time. I doubt I’ll ever stray too far from it, though.

And then, as always, there’s this blog. That’s going to remain as my go-to for anything else that pops into my head and inspires me to write a few words. After almost 1100 posts over the course of two years plus, I’m pretty sure that well will continue flowing into the foreseeable future.

Gonna wait now

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Northwestern now has two weeks to prepare for their game against Ohio State on October 5. While the Buckeyes have to deal with a should-be-undefeated Wisconsin team next weekend, Northwestern will have the week off to chop wood and climb mountaintops (metaphorically speaking). The planets are aligned for Northwestern on this one.

It looks to me that this is going to be the Big Ten’s game of the year. Has that ever been said of a game played in Evanston before? Not in my lifetime, at least.

And Northwestern has to win this game, if they want to take the next step forward in the world of college football. No moral victories, no coulda-woulda-shoulda, just putting more points on the board than the other team does. If that should happen, they’ll be no way of avoiding coach Fitzgerald and his team for the rest of this season, and for the forseeable future as well.

There’s no reason to think that this can’t happen. Yes, Ohio State put an unfathomable beatdown on an overmatched opponent today. But they can be beat, just like any other team can be. This is going to be Northwestern’s training montage over the next two weeks, a la Rocky Balboa in the Russian winter. If they can then hang with the Ivan Drago of the Big Ten, it will be a fascinating game to watch.

Go Cats!

The world has turned

Trust

Mine wasn’t the first undergraduate class to experience a winless football season at Northwestern, when they went 0-11 during my senior year of 1989. The team was also winless in 1978, 1980, and 1981, and just missed it in 1977 and 1979, as well. The late 1970s and early 1980s seem to be the true dark ages for Northwestern football.

In fact, the very first game I went to as a freshman, in the fall of 1986, was a victory over Army. This won’t be so bad, I thought to myself. But eventually, it did become that bad. The last game that I witnessed on campus was a 63-14 loss to Illinois in 1989, which put the finishing touches on the type of season that Northwestern will hopefully never see again.

So when the team starts out this year at 2-0, and has a ranking in the 16-17 range of the weekly polls, it feels pretty good. I always have been, and always will be, proud of my alma mater for reasons that have nothing to do with football. But having been on the other end of the spectrum before, I intend to enjoy this season–and all the other seasons that Pat Fitzgerald is around–as thoroughly as I can.

Go Cats!