Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Great Strange Dream

“I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted.”
-Jack Kerouac

It’s late September in the Midwest, the clouds look like nothing but big bright clouds against the shreds of evening sun, and Michigan still hasn’t lost a game. Everything seems possible, even if it’s really not. My dreams have filled once more with flashes of maize and blue through fields of green. For the moment, the page shimmers, blank on the writing table. Denard Robinson is approaching the line of scrimmage impossibly quickly. Anything could happen.

As you’ve doubtless read and heard in newspapers and on TV, we’ve seen this script before. I’ll not recount the failures of the last two Octobers. You know them well enough, I’m sure, and maybe, like me, you believe in your heart that this year will be different. We’re both worried just the same.

For another week at least, I’ll ignore my fears: that this is all illusion, that the weaknesses revealing themselves in the background of the beginning of this season will serve as some terrible postscript of what must come. Maybe I’m whistling through the black alley of my heart, but for another weak, at least, we are undefeated and invincible.

If one were so inclined, he could compare so much of football to a life: a career, a season, a game, a play. Each begins and ends in its own time, and most end up forgotten. Some seem important while they happen, but few stand out for long after the final call. But maybe that’s beside the point. Maybe we should avoid the grand comparisons because, after all, football isn’t much like life at all. And thank god for that.

I spent two years of my early 20s teaching creative writing as a graduate assistant at Michigan, and one of the common tropes that my student’s invariably wrote about was the uniqueness of snowflakes. This was a habit I tried very hard, sometimes successfully even, to break out of them. One of my most successful tactics was to point out to the student in question that while each snowflake might be slightly different, each is really about the same. And what’s so interesting about that?

It seems there’s something though, because I love football so. And while each game and play and season and career is unique in its own way, to the world at large, each really is almost identical, another score scrolling across the bottom of the screen, another fall in Ann Arbor, the last strains of The Victors disappearing into the night.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

On Being Wyatt Earp

The most famous gunfighters of the old west lived not by the draw, but by their reputations. While there were showdowns between fighters of high repute, for the most part, the best gunfighters avoided one another and stayed alive. Additionally, although many of these men had the reputation of killing dozens and sometimes hundreds of men, they often had only fought and killed 2 or 3 people. Some had never even been in a gunfight.

It scares me to think about how this season will end. Like a bandit fleeing an impossible horde of lawmen, I know there is probably no escape. After UMass gashed down the field over and over again this Saturday, it has become clear we will be in many shootouts this year. There are no invincible heroes on this defense. Sometimes Mike Martin is all that stands between us and total annihilation. The chaos is palpable and always seeking us and there are only so many times Denard Robinson or Roy Roundtree or Michael Shaw can cross the goal line and toss the ball to the referee. One of these weekends it won’t be enough.

For now it is. For now I’ll dream of 90 yard touchdown runs, of breaking a tackle on a little screen and taking it the distance, of offensive linemen blocking 20 yards down the field. This is the beginning of autumn in Michigan. Hope still reigns; they haven’t caught us yet.

But sometimes they chase you down and you find yourself outnumbered, behind a wall, clutching a gun to your heart. We weren’t there this weekend, but we will be. And as any smart gunslinger knows, each gunfight might be his last. But if we must go down, let it be in a haze. Let it be to a superior force. Let us take at least a few of them with us before we fall.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Denard Robinson: A Love Song

I didn’t know my childhood had come to an end that day in early January, 2000. I was 16 and despite this unfortunate fact, still believed in the Buffalo Bills. Rob Johnson, for all his faults, had just led a gutty drive for the go ahead field goal. He ran the last two plays with one shoe, his heavily taped foot coming undone in the grass of the Adelphia Coliseum. This was, I believed, a hero. I didn’t realize it at the time but when Frank Wycheck rumbled upfield, looked across and threw a lateral to Kevin Dyson running free down the sideline, and I sat on my couch, not able to speak or breath, I stopped believing.

Every so often, a moment happens that is so crisp and poignant that it seems cut from its place in time with an Exacto knife, and it comes to stand for the end or the beginning of something larger than itself. Of course, we almost never see things for what they are the precise moment they happen, never know what will cut through the shades and hazes of the past to stay with us, brighter than when the thing first occurred. No. Despite all this talk of beginnings and ends hastening into sharp focus, it takes time to find what will come to stand for something and what we’ll lose.

That is, despite everything, context is important. This Saturday, Denard Robinson ran through arm tackles and past defensive backs; he threw slants and hooks and screens with such velocity that the completion of these passes seemed preordained; finally, he marshaled the team 72 yards down the field, and when he scored took a knee, handed the ball to the referee and trotted off the field. But you knew all this already.

He was not perfect. But I think I’ll remember that he was. You see, I came to Michigan football late, during the last crescendo of the empire. When I saw my first game, M v Notre Dame in 2006, I thought that this was how it would always be: defenders imposing their will, green space to run through, adults masquerading as youth. By the time that year ended, I was in Columbus, my hands on my head, wanting my team to win a football game so badly it hurt for the first time since I was 16.

I was not yet in love with Michigan football. That would come later, with the arrival of the coach from West Virginia, the outsider who promised so much new for a program that seemed in desperate need of change. And even though they lost, that first team, the one that I hold in my mind at least, fought for everything they got. And even though what they won wasn’t much: self respect sometimes, the right to say, “I was there and I held as long as any man could be expected to hold”, I could tell that I would always root for the teams this coach put on the field. Gone were the men masquerading as youths. Gone were the last perfections of the dying empire.

And onto this field trots Denard Robinson who is not a god. All this feels new, and in weeks or months or years may not mean anything at all to the world. It certainly won’t mean much to most of them. I’m not sure what Saturday will become to me years from now. But for this particular moment Denard Robinson has resurrected something within me. He is, I believe, and I think not for the last time, a hero. I think it was grey in Tennessee that January afternoon. But that was a long time ago and I can’t quite be sure