Were a strange crew, those of us who count ourselves among the U of M football faithful. We show up in remarkably large numbers, year in and year out, to root on our heroes. We enter each and every season full of hope, only to watch those hopes get dashed to bits, like so many leftover Cinquo de Mayo piatas.
we do it? Over the years, I've been asked that question a hundred times, by dozens of family members and friends, people who genuinely care about my well being. They are always particularly concerned after heart-breaking losses like the one the Tigers suffered at the hands of Louisville, 38-32, in the Liberty Bowl last week.
Why, they ask, do you persist? Why, they say, don't you take up a pastime more satisfying? Something less painful, say, like ritual self-mutilation?
No, I quietly explain, every time I'm asked: Being a Tiger football fan is more than an avocation; it's a way of life. Better yet, it's a metaphor for life. For what we do is tough -- way more difficult, and way nobler, than anything any Big Orange supporter, for example, could possibly imagine.
Hey, it's easy to be a UT fan. You win eight times out of ten, ten years out of twelve, and plan your holidays around a bowl game, year in and year out. How hard is that? Lots of good times, lots of glory.
But, I ask you, is real life like that? Of course it isn't. Real life is about winning and losing, and, frankly, there's usually a bit more losing involved than winning, for nearly all of us. And keep in mind the bottom line, as an existentialist friend of mine likes to say, about life on Planet Earth: "Nobody's getting out of here alive."
See? What could be a more perfect way to train for real-life adversity than by supporting a college football team whose entire modern history has been an exercise in near-futility?
You've all heard the adage: "Almost" only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades? Well, it could be a U of M football mantra. So near yet so far, so many times that the faithful among us have long stopped counting.
Tuesday last week, for example, there we were, on the verge of victory, with a couple of minutes left, the Tigers having clawed their way back into a football game half of the 44,081 in attendance had already abandoned. All around us in Section Eight, folks were going berserk. We had the ball on the Louisville 26, down just six points, first and ten, and...
"Damn," I heard a voice next to me say, "it's starting to rain." Sure enough, out of nowhere on a brilliant autumn evening, a storm cloud had materialized, just in time, as it turned out, to dampen our hopes yet again. Alas, the Tigers went four and out, failing even to get a first down, and going down to defeat for the fourth time this season.
All around us, there were many long faces. We regulars, however, were altogether calm about the outcome. After all, the last time Louisville visited the Liberty Bowl (in 1999) the Cardinals administered a painful 32-31 coup de grace
with a TD completion in the end zone as time ran out. So for loyalists, this was a preferable death, the kind Dr. Kervorkian could appreciate. "Must've been that damned cloud," said a long-suffering colleague as we filed out silently, the rain stopping as suddenly as it had started.
But they say that every cloud has a silver lining, and this one, certainly, was no exception. Who knows what the future holds, but at least three things stand out as positives from an otherwise distasteful evening at the ballpark:
The Tigers showed up to play. In sharp contrast to the Sham in Birmingham, the U of M this time around played with grit, heart and intelligence, overcoming yet another special-teams goof in the first ninety seconds to take the lead at halftime, and roaring back from an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit to take control of its own destiny in the games final minutes. Two second-half turnovers were fatal, but the defense played an inspired game, led by Tony Brown, whose switch from defensive end inside to tackle reaped huge dividends.
ESPN2 got to showcase a big-time quarterback. No, not Louisvilles Dave Ragone, but our own Danny Wimprine, whos on course to break every modern U of M passing record if he doesnt get killed running the football first. Wimprine out-passed and out-led Ragone, and had Travis Anglin not mistakenly thought he was auditioning for a Butterfingers commercial, the Tiger quarterback may well have been all the rage on Sports Center Tuesday night.
C-USA is all shook up, as Elvis might say. Look at last Saturdays screwball results: Tulane beats Cincinnati? South Florida knocks off Southern Miss? Whos in charge here? Evidently, no one. Which means that even three conference defeats may not be the end of the world for the U of M.
Okay, so maybe thats a stretch. But thats what makes U of M football fans so, um, unusual. Well be back in droves at the Liberty Bowl Saturday evening, as the Tigers face off against Mississippi State, expecting the worst, but always hoping for the best. Hey, at least well never need a reality check.