Sunday, November 10, 2019

St. George and the Dragon



Have you ever found yourself burdened by the weight of past events and your mistakes? Not consequences necessarily, but the feelings associated with the memory weighing on your mind. Perpetually feeling the pressure to avoid the pitfalls of the past and judging yourself by a self-imposed standard that may not reflect reality, the caveman parts of your limbic system constantly engaged in a fight-or-flight tug of war that eventually leads to more mistakes, more failures, more regrets. Or maybe it’s just me; an anxiety disorder, predisposition to rumination, and an interest in history that goes beyond mere hobby will tend to do that. If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, congratulations! That’s awesome, I invite you to still play along.

Ideally, one would be able to remember these past lessons and apply them but operate without focusing on them. Unfortunately for some of us it’s not that easy, but we nonetheless hope for that moment of clarity where we can see the way forward and the ruminations fall to the background. A moment that allows you to move beyond, to learn the lessons but avoid the crushing guilt and disappointment associated with them. But that’s not how it works, or at least it hasn’t been for me. It takes time and effort to retrain deeply ingrained subconscious thoughts and behaviors. Before you can even start to address them you have to learn how to recognize when it’s occurring, which it turns out is a pretty tough level of self-awareness to attain. And even when that happens, you have to accept that it’s not going to be perfect and sometimes you’ll backslide; two steps forward, one step back.

I’ve heard these challenges referred to as our demons or dragons, with the clear implication then that they can be slayed. If we’re going to talk about them as mythical creatures I’ve come to view them more like the hydra, the serpent of Greek mythology with multiple heads, one of which is immortal. In some versions of the story, chopping off one head caused two new ones to grow. It might feel like you’re making progress but there’s always the threat that a new head has grown and it’s waiting to strike.

And yet sometimes you can trace progress to specific events. The first time you’re able to see the hydra coming and deflect one of the heads. The first time you realize you’ve not just deflected it but accepted it’s there without focusing on it. And then for the first time you actually slay one, then another, and another. Before long, you start lopping off the heads faster than they can grow back. It’s not easier and the struggle will never be over, but the knowledge you’ve been able to do it once makes the task more manageable.

Being a Gopher football fan (and a Gopher fan in general, frankly) often feels like you’re beset by the hydra, or maybe more than one. I’m in my 20th year of Gopher fanhood and I’ve wondered more than once if part of the reason I identify so closely with it despite the pain is that it can be like a physical manifestation of my subconscious battles. The heads of the hydra have taken many forms since 1960. We’ve all experienced some of them, so we don’t need to review them in detail. People deal with these things in different ways…eternal blind optimism, walking away and dedicating yourself to Vikings (yeah, that’s the ticket!), or just eating pizza on the floor. Some lucky folks have backgrounds with other more successful programs and the joy they’ve been able to experience from those programs has kept their tank sufficiently full to keep them going. Good on y’all.

But for those of us who don’t have that, a degree of jading seems inevitable. I dealt with it by building barriers and compartmentalizing in the same way I tried to deal with my more personal challenges. The hydra’s still there but at least you’re able to keep it outside the ramparts and sometimes you even lop off a head or two. It might even last for most of a season, and you start cautiously taking the walls down brick by brick. But in the end, new heads grow and you’re patching the walls again.

And then there was the issue of the immortal head in the form of Wisconsin. For 14 straight years it resisted all attacks. Until 2018 when we found finally found a way to kill it. In 2019, there would be real, true hope. Maybe we wouldn’t have to hide in the castle anymore and we could start taking our kingdom back.

Then the pre-conference season hit, and it was starting to look like maybe Wisconsin wasn’t the immortal head after all and more were growing in its place. SDSU was harder than expected. Fresno State and Georgia Southern were escapes that had as much the appearance of luck as that of skill. Yellow alert! Get the bricks out of storage! After Georgia Southern my walls were back to near-2018 Illinois game height.

Yet with each passing week it became more challenging to maintain the walls, though I struggled mightily to keep them up. I hoped for the best with everything I had, but surely the hydra would strike again. Gopher teams of the past lose the Nebraska game. They drop the gimme game to Rutgers (you know it’s true, you’ve seen it). They find a way to make Maryland look good. But this year they didn’t. The rational reaction would be excitement, that this time it’s different, and we’ve got a chance to do something amazing against Penn State. In my head, however, I thought I saw the hydra lurking in the shadows again.

It was a real challenge to maintain my defenses over the bye week, and they almost broke entirely on the Friday before gameday. But I recovered and by Saturday morning they were back at full force. I expected a loss. I didn’t BELIEVE we would lose, but I was primed to accept it if and when it came. Better to be able to sigh, shrug, and get on with my day. It won’t hurt so bad that way.

But sometimes there’s a moment of clarity.

My wall came down when Jordan Howden wrapped up the interception in the end zone today. Soul-crushing endzone interceptions happen TO us, we don’t do them to others! But this year is different, and it’s not just Antoine Winfield Jr. anymore either. Rashod Bateman catches tipped passes to keep drives alive. CRAB runs a slant and finds the seam for the touchdown. We can run more than one route. Rodney Smith finds the holes in the vaunted run defense. We can fumble without completely falling apart. We’ve got multiple receivers who can catch. Our O-line gets pushes, our linebackers stuff runs, we have a 200 yard receiver, we’re in a season for the first time overall since 1941-42 and in a season since 1904, we’ve won 11 in a row for the first time since 1940-42. We beat a top ten team for the first time since 1999, and a top ten team at home for the first time since 1977.

I hugged my wife, and some of my closest friends who have been there together through the long years. My sister and I cried, I sat in shock in my seat but got up to watch time expire. This time IS different. There will still be losses, still be disappointment, but the hydra is dead. It’s not “we can’t” anymore, it’s “we can”. We won’t always pull it off, but the doubt that it can happen here is gone. Put the bricks and mortar away.

For me, this means no more rehashing the disappointments of the past in excruciating detail every time a similar situation comes up. We can remember them without being defined by them. While we know this period won’t last forever, we will live in the moment and enjoy every minute of it. I’ve waited 20 years. Many people have waited much, much more. We’ll struggle to maintain our new perspective sometimes, but I can’t deny it anymore. The hydra is dead. Let’s enjoy our time in the sun.

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