Aug. 31, 2013
I'll never forget the Buffalo game as long as I live. Not that the game itself was especially noteworthy, I guess. Ohio State was bossed around by Buffalo's Khalil Mack, who would become a first round draft pick, and after jumping to a 23-0 lead, Ohio State's defense let a weaker team stay in the game a little longer, and the Ohio State offense, after looking like a terrifying death star in the first half, took their feet off the gas. Ohio State won the game 40-20.
I remember feeling a little disappointed, but mostly upbeat. After years of watching Ohio State struggle to score points, it looked like they were finally going to be exciting. They had just beaten a bowl team by 20 points, and football season was finally back. I had an entire afternoon of exciting games to watch. The first football Saturday, after all, does feel a little bit like your birthday.
And then my phone rang.
It was my sister. My mom, who had just moved to Greenville, NC for her first academic job after finally getting her PhD, had been rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. It appeared that cancer, which had been in remission since 2010, had come back with a vengeance, and the prognosis was not good.
There is nothing like an immediate confrontation with mortality to put your excessive emotional attachment to a football game in perspective. That morning, my biggest concern was whether Ohio State would beat the spread enough to keep people from complaining about Luke Fickell on our website. Suddenly, I was a slip from a rural North Carolina surgeon away from having no living parents. I'm not sure I left that kitchen table the entire night, head in hands, while the LSU-TCU game flickered on in the background.
I didn't have a lot of fun in 2013. That Ohio State team was still awesome, but occasionally frustrating. I worried that they weren't beating teams by enough. I worried that they'd get jumped in the national title game chase, even if they went undefeated. I worried that the energy I was continuing to place in football, and watching football, was horribly misguided. I had a hard time even appreciating the spectacular successes, like the Penn State obliteration. While watching the Northwestern game, my mother-in-law watched me over the course of the second half and asked if I even liked football, a question that made me think more than I cared to admit. More than once, I considered quitting Land-Grant Holy Land.
I could be forgiven if I was distracted at the start of this season as well. On the day the football season officially started (Georgia State beats Abilene Christian, 38-37), my wife and I had a baby. I had originally planned on making the short trip to Baltimore to cover Ohio State's first game of the season, but instead, paced nervously around my apartment while Ohio State struggled with Navy, while a crying infant and nervous family crammed in the living room for good measure. With all my family crammed into the apartment to see this new baby, I actually felt kind of stupid getting worked up over a football game, especially one that wasn't even fun for large swathes.
Then the next week, a funny thing happened. Ohio State lost.
Not only did Ohio State lose, but they were outcoached, fairly outhustled, and out-and-out beaten by a Virginia Tech team that would prove to be aggressively mediocre. Virtually everybody, including many rational media members, declared Ohio State's playoff hopes to be dead, and after watching Ohio State's offense, chock-full of newcomers, it was hard to disagree. What began as a season full of promise now looked like one that could become one of the worst in recent memory.
I won't lie to you and pretend I was stoic throughout the game. Watching in the SB Nation DC offices, free from the impressionable ears of infants who might risk learning profanity far too early in their lives, I yelled, cussed and clapped like any other football fan. After the game, in our Stock Market Report post, I compared "investing" in Ohio State's offensive line to "Greek level debt or investing in Pokemon cards". Any expectations for Ohio State being a dominating team were promptly extinguished.
This should have bummed me out, but it didn't. It was actually a relief.
Freed from any postseason or fan expectations, I was free to enjoy the football games for what they were, rather than whether they were beating teams by "enough". Thanks to my persnickety baby, I watched a lot more late night Pac-12 football than I normally do, getting outside of my Ohio State bubble. I started to loosen up a little bit. When you're not worrying about how a game will be perceived, appreciating the fireworks for what they are becomes so much easier.
And when you're freed from those expectation, appreciating the proper place for football becomes easier as well. When watching and writing about sports becomes an exercise in frustration, maintained only by some sort of weird inertia: who the hell wants to do that? Real life is scary and depressing enough. When you spent your waking hours fretting over mortality and fatherhood, who wants to spend their limited free time feeling stressed and anxious and mad over something that's supposed to be fun? Football, after all, is supposed to be that distraction. With a more relaxed attitude about it, becoming emotionally invested doesn't feel quite as ridiculous in context.
And I am emotionally invested. I'm from Central Ohio. I have a degree from Ohio State. My mom, who moved to this country without speaking a lick of English, used two Ohio State degrees to climb into the white collar world. Of course the institution has an emotional pull beyond just that of liking their football team, and that's a weird tightrope to walk sometimes. Following and writing about college football, after all, is part of my full time job. I know that there are some in the media and with administrations who will take the above admission as proof positive that I am an irremediable amateur, one whose words are forever tainted by the scourge of the commoner, fanhood. I hope that being up front about this does not damage the bond that I have with you, the reader, and that I can continue to be as honest, fair, and accurate as possible. I think I've done that well.
It was easy to maintain that investment, since this was an easy Ohio State team to love. We got to see the maturation of not one, but two quarterbacks who performed at levels none of us could have credibly dreamed of. Their running back became one of the best in Ohio State's already storied tradition of running backs, but he did it with half a shirt. Their best defensive player threw up a Twitter emoticon when he sacked a QB. Their second best defensive player was an undersized high school quarterback, an afterthought to most fans in the most stacked recruiting class in school history. The team was littered with thoughtful, interesting, dynamic athletes. They took on every stupid, hack-y #narrative that surrounded Ohio State football over the last several seasons, and blew it up with dynamite.
How could you not love them?
How could you not love the transformation from "Ain't come to play school" to bonafide Buckeye cult hero, dumptrucking defensive lineman on national television? How could you not love Evan Spencer throwing touchdown passes? Having all of their meaningful wins of the season coming away from Columbus? The defeat of Nick Saban's Alabama, the benchmark Ohio State has been striving for, and Oregon, the spiritual evolution of the new era of college football? Hollywood couldn't write a better script.
Ohio State football didn't take any problems away. My mom is still sick, my kid keeps me up at night, and I still worry. But being able to throw myself into this season, writing, joking, analyzing, helped bring in some balance. It's all we ask of football. We pledge to throw ourselves in emotionally, to make a time commitment, sometimes our money too, and we don't necessarily ask for a championship, although we got one this time. We just ask for that commitment to eventually pay off. And this season, it paid off in spades.
Next year's team might be better on paper, but they'll be hard pressed to be more fun. And from my side of the desk, that's really the most important thing.