Bear Down and Get Some Runs, best-of: January 1, 2005

As college football continues to strive towards a system that produces one true national champion (yeah right), even the grand tradition of the Rose Bowl has been subverted. In 2002, the game abandoned its traditional Big Ten-Pac 10 matchup when it hosted Miami and Nebraska for the national championship…on January 3rd. In January ’03, the game featured Pac-10 champ Washington State against at-large bid Oklahoma. We got lucky last year with Michigan-USC, but today it’s back to the modern sports world with a Michigan-Texas matchup. Still, the Rose Bowl is the Rose Bowl, a game I do not miss.

We woke up at Ric’s this morning as we have the since the 2000/2001 New Year, as Ric’s parents go out of town every year and are kind enough to leave us the house. It used to be quite the raucous affair, but this year was toned down just a bit; the same levels of drunken silliness, though with significantly less vomiting. (Our vomiting peaked when we were around 22, as is usually the case.) Actually, this was a bit of an odd year, as my girlfriend Meghan was waitressing at her bar in Evanston, meaning that I took a cab from Ric’s to the bar in order to be with her At The Stroke.

Donuts in the morning, followed by lots of cleaning, and as soon as we enter the Stafford household, our New Year’s recovery is complete and the stage is set; a classic fan atmosphere. A big plate of shrimp is the center piece, surrounded by all of the essentials of chips, dip, pop, and since we’re at the Staffords we are treated to a diverse ensemble of beers, most notably Labatt Blue, Killians, Goose Island, Leinenkugal, Hacker Pschorr, Jever, Sam Adams, and Moosehead. But most importantly, there’s a big group of people, all brought together to watch sports. There’s nothing better.

Bill is in full fan-mode when we get upstairs, decked out in a blue Michigan sweatshirt and swigging a Leiney. He’s one of my all-time favorite people to watch sports with because he is all out. He once described Michigan Stadium as the greatest place to watch a football game, calling it beautiful due to its “100,000 screaming, educated fans.” I remember in ’01 when we watched Game 7 between the Red Wings and Avs at Sven’s. Bill was in rare form that day. The Wings scored like eight goals in the first period, and each one was accompanied by a Bill Stafford-verbal assault on Avs goaltender Patrick Roy. “Take that you French-Canadian ass!” After the third goal, the cable went out for no more than twenty seconds, leaving Bill screaming out in anger: “Somebody better lose their job over this. And I don’t care if he has kids!” It was a good time.

“Hey Jack, how’s it going?”

“Bill, what’s happening?”

“So Jack, how many Ohio State freshmen does it take to change a light bulb?”

“I don’t know. How many?”

“None. That’s a sophomore course.”

We shuffle around and get ourselves situated, saying hello to the other guests, many of whom seem vaguely familiar from past Stafford gatherings. I make the rounds, and then spot Sven’s brother Will, who is wearing a Santa-style Bears hat.

“Wiiiiiill.”

“Jaaaaaack.”

“Nice hat, man.”

“Yeah,” he says, taking it off and looking at it sadly. “I wanted the Sox, or Michigan, or the Wings, or Northwestern, but I couldn’t find any so I went with the Bears.”

“Looks good. Listen, do you think I could borrow that? Meg and I are going to the Green Bay game tomorrow, and I don’t want to wear this,” I say, motioning to my green Minnesota North Stars hat that I’ve been wearing since August.”

“Oh definitely. Love to have you represent in it.” He hands me the hat, and then thinks for a second. “Yeah…I was going to ask you. Where’s the Bears hat?”

He is referring to the Bears hat I purchased at the start of the summer of 2000. I had decided that I needed a new hat for college, and I settled on a fitted Bears hat, which I wore from the Summer of 2000 through the Summer of 2004. That streak ended at camp last summer, when I mentioned to my friend Dan Lichtenstein that I loved his green Minnesota North Stars hat, and being that he is one of the most thoughtful and generous people I know, he gave me the hat, no questions. Moved by his kindness, I gave my Bears hat to a camper of mine who had taken to taking it off my head and wearing it around throughout the summer. I love my North Stars hat, but it does leave me without a constant Bears representative, which is always a problem but is particularly noticeable in times of Bears-need, such as a Bears-Packers game at Soldier Field. While I do have a winter Bears stocking hat—I bought it the day before attending the Bears-Eagles playoff game in January of 2002—the Bears Santa hat seemed like too cool an option to pass up.

I throw the hat on to try it out, and it fits great and is awfully cuddly, and then Meg takes it off my head and puts it on hers, and everyone at Sven’s settles in to watch the Rose Bowl. While last year’s game was a disappointment, both in terms of Michigan’s performance and in the overall excitement, today’s game was awesome. The game featured big play after big play, with Mighigan wideout Braylon Edwards (10 catches, 118 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Texas quarterback Vince Young (193 yards rushing on 21 carries and 5 total touchdowns, four of them on the ground) leading the way. Michigan took a 31-21 lead into the fourth quarter, but Young took over for the Longhorns, running for scores of 10 and 23 yards, the latter giving Texas a 35-34 lead. After a Michigan field goal put the Wolverines up two, Texas took it back down the field and set up for a 37-yard field goal with two seconds remaining on the clock.

As is the case before most big end-of-game kicks, Michigan used both of its remaining time outs to “ice” the Texas kicker, who stood on the field waiting for his chance knowing full well that with only two seconds remaining, his kick would be the final play of the game. While we waited for five or six minutes—my friends and I, the Staffords and their friends, the kicker, both teams, both sidelines, all of the fans in Pasadena, and all the people watching on TV—the game paused at 37-35 Michigan, I began to wonder about the significance of a single kick.

For 59 minutes and 58 seconds, the game had been a brilliant match of strength, speed, and teamwork, highlighting all of the best elements of sport, and both teams felt good about their chances. A 37-yard field goal is no chip shot, but it’s also a kick that most kickers expect to make. Everyone felt good about how their team had played, and because of the medium field goal length, anyone with a vested interest in either Michigan or Texas had to feel good about their team’s chances to win. Yet within minutes the ball would be in the air, and the location of that kick would determine the moods of well over 100,000 people. All the good that took place before that kick would become instantly meaningless for half of the people interested, but for a little while it felt as if both teams had won.

And isn’t that what counts? I mean, isn’t that what really, really, really counts? Sure, some scores you’re bound to remember. 46-10 is one that always stands out. But overall, do final scores really matter that much? Should they determine how you feel about your team and the games they play? Should we really care as much as we do about winning and losing?

As soon as the ball leaves the kicker’s foot, everyone knows it’s good, and there’s a gurgling of shock and disappointment at Sven’s as the Texas team mobs their kicker. Longhorns 38, Wolverines 37.  “Geez o’Pete!” Bill exclaims in frustration, slamming the remote down on the couch. “Goddamn Longorns.”

Slowly, the crowd at Sven’s disperses. People stand up, shaking their heads in disbelief, thank Bill and Ingrid for the invite and go on their separate ways. It’s been a fun day, a good time had by all, until, of course, that kick. Man, does it hurt to lose.

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