It has been said that the cure for everything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea. I can only hope that this old adage holds true. I took care of the tears already, and I'm sure thousands of others did too. I woke up Sunday sweating $3.50-a-pint poison out of my system, not ready to admit exactly how many of those I bought Saturday night. And Monday I walked down to the Puget Sound, so far removed from the sadness of the Midwest, just to stare out across the water wondering what it all means.
I know, I know. It's just a game, and it is beyond immature of me to be so emotionally invested in dozens of young men that I've never met, and who I know very little about. And yet.
Sports were designed to be a release from the real world, a way to escape the mundane parts of our lives and get excited watching absurdly athletic people do what it seems like they were put on this earth to do. When your team is winning, all feels right with the world, and the little annoyances and stresses of everyday living get put on hold for a few hours. When your team loses, especially in slow, torturous fashion, the little things turn into big things and a hollow feeling reigns supreme inside of you.
Everything about this season, until the Big Ten Championship Game, felt that wonderful winning way. I can't have been the only one who felt that this team had a touch of destiny about it-- we had our share of stumbles, sure, but nothing ever felt insurmountable. We took other teams' best shots and punched back, right in the mouth (even before facing off against that team up north). The Ohio State Buckeyes were a positively fearsome team to play, and even the things out of their hands started falling their way when it really mattered. Oklahoma State wiped the floor with Baylor at home, putting a decisive end to the infuriating debate about the Bears deserving to jump the Buckeyes. Brady Hoke's gutsy 2-point call fell into the waiting arms of Tyvis Powell to keep an undefeated OSU season alive. And incredibly, impossibly, Auburn stunned the Alabama juggernaut to put Ohio State in control of their own destiny (PAWWWWL Finebaum be damned). We the fans started to feel as though we were living in a Howard Roark wet dream, architects of our own fate, conducting the cosmos from on high.
Until we weren't. There are a lot of reasons that could be argued as to why the Buckeyes came up so infuriatingly short against the Spartans. I will not address those here, as I am merely an armchair quarterback with neither the football pedigree necessary to criticize such a talented team and its coach, nor with the desire to ever think about this game again once the proverbial ink of this column has dried.
What I can and will say is that I have been ridiculously privileged to be a fan of this team all season long. Before this season began, the last Ohio State game I had been able to watch was the clumsy loss to Florida in the 2012 Gator Bowl, an unfortunately fitting end to the last season I would experience as a college student. I spent the year after college teaching abroad, getting updates on the games via radio on Monday afternoons. Halfway around the world, that team with no postseason to play for gave me immense joy as they beat opponent after opponent, alternately beating opponents to a pulp and squeaking out wins in dramatic fashion. I was overjoyed, but didn't think such a streak could continue for a second consecutive year.
I was proven wrong of course, and our privilege as fans continued for an impossibly long 12 more games.But I hate so much that this season took the turn it did. I know, deep down, that other people never get the chance, ever, to see their team "settle" for a berth in the Orange Bowl. What's that quote that wannabe-philosophers cite on Facebook all the time? How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard? Better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all? Some combination of those two, maybe. And yet it seems to ring so hollow. This thoroughly and objectively sucks.
So where do we go from here? Do we grow up and stop hitching our wagons to the 19-and-20-year-old stars who are living out our athletic dreams in person out on that hallowed field? Do we stop believing in our team, our coach, and in sports magic altogether? Do we start believing what the rest of the country has to say about us? Do we suck it up and take our medicine and know that we are still fortunate beyond belief to have come as far as we did?
I don't know what the answer should be, but I know that I will still watch the Orange Bowl with as much white-knuckled excitement as I can muster. I come from a long tradition of sporting disappointment--my uncle had the foil unwrapped and the wires lifted on his celebratory bottle of champagne in the last inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series (he's a lifelong Red Sox fan), and we know how that went down. But I also come from a more recent tradition of sporting redemption, from the 2003 Fiesta Bowl to the 2004 World Series that brought my tortured baseball family so much catharsis.
And so I will keep watching, keep rooting, and keep hoping. Saturday night came and went and still hurts, but the sharp pain has dulled its edge into numbness. "Tears in Heaven" is no longer playing on repeat on my laptop. By January 3rd I will find plenty of reasons to hate Clemson, but I also have faith that those reasons will be far outweighed by the love for this Buckeye team that I still have inside me. Keep watching with me. Keep hoping with me. These kids have played their hearts out for us, and we owe it to them to see this one through.