Saturday, August 2, 2014

100k Words on Gopher Football: On Last Year

This is part of a series to attempt to write 100,000 words on Gopher football from the start of fall camp (I changed the rules - it was to begin a week before the first game, but I need all the time I can get) through the week after the conclusion of the regular season. In the event I fail, I will donate $500 to a charity chosen by my Twitter followers (nothing related to Wisconsin or Iowa athletics).

Starting word count: 940

Well, now that we got through that bit of bile, let's tack toward something more positive, yes?

I quit Twitter last year. This was the 17th consecutive Gopher football season in which that happened. It was after the Iowa game and I was fed up. We were 4-0 going into that contest and confidence was high. Notwithstanding a couple of typical early-season missteps, our defense was stout and we had begun to establish an offensive identity around the run, with some opportunistic passing sprinkled in. Despite being thoroughly beaten by Iowa in 2012, largely due to an inability to cope with their power running sets (and that god-forsaken flea flicker), this was a home game and all signs pointed to having made adjustments to the defensive personnel to better rein in Mark Weisman and company.

Well, that didn't happen. For the first time since fifty-five doughnut, I left early. I texted my wife and asked her to come and get me shortly before halftime and was on the road before the third quarter started. I raged the whole way home about how this dastardly team would always get my hopes up, only to curb stomp me in the worst possible way; how I had spent the last several decades supporting the program with no discernible benefit; that I was exhausted with my annual participation in an unrequited love. That was it, I said. I'm done.

I was a petulant little shit, something I'm not proud of now. But at the time, I meant it. I was ready to cancel my 247 and Rivals subscriptions and was prepared to skip the remaining games. My yard needed some work and I had nothing left to give to the Gopher football program. I started re-prioritizing my life, moving my beloved college team down the list of things I cared about. I was ready to move on.

That lasted until the following Saturday morning, when we learned Jerry Kill had a seizure and would miss the Michigan game.

*    *    *

There are basically three camps regarding Kill's epilepsy. The first camp maintains that the results on the field are all that matters, Kill's staff and the players are fine with his condition, so why should it matter to the fans and media? This group generally believes that Coach's condition has no bearing on the team and can get a little cantankerous when it's brought up by the media or other fans. 

The second camp's position is one of concern for both Kill and the program. With respect to Kill, they worry he is putting his health at risk by continuing coaching. As regards the program, they wonder if it's possible for a coach to lead a team when he may miss game days. 

The third camp, and I recognize I'm building a straw man here, are agenda-driven trolls looking for talkers. They suggest a seizure will adversely affect the fan experience, that the state of Minnesota pays Kill too much to miss games, or cite studies, either debunked or taken out of context, that indicate Coach is endangering his life by continuing to lead the team.

I'm firmly in the first camp, though I sympathize with those in the second. On the surface, it seems like a really complicated situation. Most of us haven't known or been around someone with epilepsy and it can be scary to watch someone have a seizure. It's easy to get the impression their life is in danger, so I understand the concerns raised by this camp, even if they are misguided. Concerning the risk to the program by having a coach miss game days, yes, game days are important; but the 353 non-game days of the year are important too. I'd rather have a coach who runs a hell of a program and misses an occasional game than a coach who can't lead his team out of a paper bag, but is faithfully there every Saturday. Again, I get the concern and don't hold anything against them for being worried or raising the issue, I just think it misses the point.

The third camp, though, hoo boy. They were loud and proud in the week after the Michigan game. Takes on takes on takes. If you've forgotten, this is the paragon of camp three. No person with a base level of empathy or common sense would say "No one who buys a ticket to TCF Bank Stadium should be rewarded with the sight of a middle-aged man writhing on the ground." Agenda-driven pap.

I didn't get back onto Twitter and re-engage with the team to fight against this camp, I came back because I realized I was being a bit of a pratt. I did, though, along with several other Gopher road dogs, spend a lot of time arguing with media members and ostensible fans who were questioning Kill's ability to continue as a coach. It wasn't so much the question in itself, it was the manner in which it was raised, the tone used and the lack of nuance. Raging against them was a bonding experience with other Gopher fans that I hope won't be required in the future.

*    *    *

I couldn't breathe and was being twisted into positions not conducive to continued life. Still, I couldn't have been happier. The Gophers were 8-2 after beating Penn State for their 4th consecutive Big Ten victory. JD Mill from The Daily Gopher had me in a Bloodsport-styled bear hug while we jumped up and down in the St. Paul tailgate lot, but I was coming off a good buzz and we still had an outside shot at the B1G championship game, so I was happy to die at that very moment. Never mind the failure to score an offensive touchdown for the next eight quarters or the wet fart of a bowl game performance; the program had begun the process of exorcising its demons. 

Forty years of losing to Nebraska, four conference victories in a row, fans believing in what was possible again. I talked about the swagger of that 2003 team in the last post. This team didn't have it, but for the first time in a decade, you could catch a glimpse out of the corner of your eye. It was fleeting, a mere shadow, but it was there. When the opposing team threw a pass, you looked and saw tight coverage instead of a wide open receiver. When Wisconsin ran inside zone, they didn't do it 26 times in a row at six yards a pop; our defense forced them to be a little more creative. Even offensively, there were signs of change. David Cobb passing the 100-yard mark against the vaunted Michigan State defense suggested that, with barely a semblance of a passing game, the line and backs were capable of producing.

Sometimes all we Gopher fans have is hope. Hope that we'll find a diamond-in-the-rough recruit who becomes an All American. Hope that progress we see in one year portends a better future. Hope that Jerry Kill and his long-tenured staff will bring an end to 60 years of hurt. Last year didn't end the way we all wanted it to, but for the first time in a long while, we saw the potential. The mauling of Nebraska (Nebraska!) in the trenches, the gritty, breathless wins over Northwestern and Indiana, the destruction of the Governor's Victory Bell. Last year wasn't the year, but we saw enough to think maybe, just maybe, this will be the year.

Ending word count: 2,196

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