Saturday, October 20, 2018


Northwestern's brilliant 99-yard drive down seven with two minutes to go and no timeouts to tie the game looked fantastic on the stilted play-by-play slowly loading onto my phone and on the anguished face of the Nebraska fan in my train car scowling his phone like it opened to the website that suggested he must try Malort.  I was on the train watching the ambiguous Clayton Thorson text updates because I had left the game when Nebraska was up by ten with less than ten minutes left.  The weather was perfect.  I did not have to change into a tuxedo for a Function with the Arch Duke.  I left because it looked like Northwestern was going to lose the game and I didn't want to listen to Nebraska fans celebrating, doing their creepy sing-song "Go Big Red" chant in the exact cadence as Sloth yelling "HEY YOU GUYS" in the Goonies all the way to the Howard stop, so I left and helplessly watched as Northwestern put up one of their greatest if not dumbest comebacks they've had in awhile on the way to yet another overtime victory because I'm an idiotic sports oaf.

I am very sorry for this

Leaving a game early because of Sports Anguish triggers bizarre conflicting emotions: of course I wanted the Wildcats to win in precisely the type of agonizing comeback and requisite Northwestern overtime that they specialize in so they have a chance to qualify for the Camouflage Pants and Ninja Knife Expo '97 Bowl.  But there's also a small part of me that was rooting for them to fall predictably short, to justify my ridiculous decision to rage-quit a live sporting event because evidently it is far more satisfying for me to be right than happy.

Almost every game Northwestern plays at home against a Big Ten team is a road game, and it is profoundly embarrassing to admit that this annoys me.  The other fans have done nothing wrong other than wear a different color shirt and yell different letters and the only thing I want is for them to go home vanquished and disappointed.  It is like when a professional wrestler gets so irritated and anguished by hearing his opponents' entrance music that he stares out of the ring in bug-eyed incredulity except it is real and I can't believe I actually do this.

The fact that I missed a ludicrous Northwestern comeback is annoying; the fact that it was against Nebraska is depressing.  Northwestern has never beaten Nebraska at home.  In fact, only two games have ever been won by the home team in this series and both under insane circumstances-- last week's insane Northwestern comeback in Evanston and the other a hail mary by a Nebraska backup backup backup quarterback in Lincoln.  Every year, Nebraska fans flood Ryan Field and even though this happens for every single major team that comes here, the Nebraska fans still find this novel and exciting and worthy of the same amount of discussion that one would find at a meeting of the Congressional Committee on Mileage.  This year, Nebraska had yet to win a single game and the fans still piled in ready to finally celebrate a win and figured not inaccurately that Evanston was a decent place to get it.

The Nebraska fans around me saw their team finally hire the messianic alumnus coach, the hottest lower-tier coach in the country who had played for the Huskers and knew about running the dang option and then the team just fucking cratered into an 0-5 oblivion.We can all admit that it is extremely funny. But given these circumstances, Nebraska fans, seeing their team finally winning, finally, maybe turning it around, were jubilant and over the moon and I sat there seething like that picture of Jack White at the Cubs game who looks like he been confused his whole life about what baseball was and finally saw it in action.
Jack White discovers he had been led to believe that the 
sport of baseball involved lathes and elaborate bat-crafting 
phases and about 84 percent less spitting

This is the darkness inherent in sports fandom.  It is an effect for me that is far more visceral in person than on television or on a flickering illegal stream that doubtlessly infected my old computer with thousands of undetectable viruses that have sent my number munchers high scores to the seediest corners of the Dark Web. It is the appalling and disgusting revelation that once again some sickos and deviants have come to my section with the perverse desire to root for the team they prefer against the Northwestern Wildcats who WON the GODDAMN MUSIC CITY BOWL WHAT ELSE DO THEY HAVE TO DO that triggers some horrifying dinosaur-brained impulse to say that I want them to be quiet, I want them to leave, I want them to go home utterly crushed and forced to look their loved ones in the eye and admit they are kind of sad their team didn't win the game.

The flip side to Ryan Field being filled at all times with opposing fans is that it rarely occurs to them that they could ever lose and on the occasions when they do it is incredibly satisfying.  Their teams only lose to the Wildcats for two reasons: one of the coordinators is incompetent and needs to be fired and Uncalled Holding Penalties. A small sample of the most unhinged Michigan State fans I can find on the internet demanded that their offensive coordinator should be fired after every loss to the Wildcats-- by the third one, I believe they demanded that they fire him, rehire him, and then fire him again while ordinary citizens jeered him with menacing karate poses.  One of the funniest things to see if you are a complete idiot and enjoy watching people be angry about football online is to read fans grouse about how wily ol' Fitz has fooled them again with an offensive gameplan while simultaneously reading Northwestern fans demanding that Wildcats' offensive coordinator be fired and then symbolically chopped in half by a distressingly incompetent magician.

This is why the most distressing thing I've read this week is that Northwestern is favored by 21 points going into today's game against Rutgers.  Rutgers, playing a brand of football so wretched that it appears they have somehow transported players from the mythical first football game to the twenty-first century completely unable to discern the rules of modern football and also distracted by television, indoor plumbing, Instagram, and the relative unpopularity of mustaches.  Rutgers fans have succumbed to the saddest fate in the Big Ten: a belief that their team could actually lose to Northwestern.  In fact, they seem resigned to a drubbing from the Wildcats.
Rutgers players practice for Northwestern by lining up in 
their signature formation The Nineteenth-Century Conflagration

There are myriad reasons why Northwestern should win comfortably.  But there are also the Iron Laws of Northwestern Football which clearly state that that the goal of any game above all is to enter that sacred realm of Overtime. 

Saturday, October 6, 2018


There was a point in the second quarter, just after Northwestern went up 17-0 against the fourteenth-ranked Wolverines when play stopped and Pat Fitzgerald ran on the the field in a one man fist bump bacchanalia, his face and neck as purple as the players' jerseys, when it seemed possible that Northwestern could actually win.  There, in a home game, against a sea of gold and a two-digit line and Harbaugh and Harbaugh's pants and his whole thing, the Wildcats came out and not only gained a quick lead but seemed to dominate the game at both ends. But when someone rubbed some smelling salts under the Wolverines' noses and they came back and Northwestern's offense went off to whatever bizarre dimension it goes to in the second half, it also was not surprising to see the whole thing fall apart and raise the familiar question of: so what.

Northwestern football fans face an existential question that hovers over the program every year that can best be summarized as: why?  I hope it does not seem too defeatist to suggest that the mighty Wildcats seem unlikely to play for a national championship.  It seems slightly less unlikely they will qualify for the playoff in its current form or even an expanded form.  Even a Big Ten Championship seems more out of reach than ever with the East Division heavyweights lurking in Indianapolis should Northwestern manage to finagle their way out of their bumbling West Division; I'm certain they will do it one of these years when Wisconsin comes down with the flu.  But, in more seasons than not, Northwestern's season success seems to be governed mostly by the relative prestige of the bowls they play in, a decision governed equally by their record and decisions made by bowl executives motivated entirely by the amount of exposure they can get for their Named Sponsor, a weed trimming backpack repair company.
Northwestern poses with a piece of dumpster cardboard fashioned 
into the Music City Bowl Trophy

No sane person watches Northwestern football hoping for championship glory-- no sane college football fan should, given that about a dozen teams share an iron grip on sustained success, and Alabama has rendered the concept of the football championship into a joyless inevitability.  Programs outside the Power 5 have almost no chance to compete for a championship.  It is college football's innate impossibility that gives it its joy because the single-minded RINGS focus that hovers over professional sports cannot exist and the entire apparatus governing college football fandom appears to be animated by animus and spite.

The saving grace to college football's impossible, top-heaviness is that the sport is insanely punitive; one loss is dangerous, two is catastrophic for any team with playoff implications, and the goofy subjective nature of the ranking process means that a loss to a crappy team can instantly destroy a contender.  Fans of the struggling, the down year, and the historically abysmal can enjoy their team's complete and utter ineptitude by knowing that they are so radioactive that they can infect a big brand team and drag them together straight to hell.  So while it was unpleasant to watch Michigan mount their inevitable comeback, to hear Ryan Field come alive when the Wolverines' Clay Matthews-looking guy sacked Thorson, to know that Northwestern did not manage to annihilate Michigan's playoff resume from the face of the Earth and their reassured fans were able to strut out of the stadium satisfied that their natural order had not been impugned, for three quarters they all wanted to barf and it was great.
Northwestern lost this game too

The funniest thing I've seen at a football game was a chorus of Michigan fans inveighing against The Refs in a grand collective harrumph.  There exists no universe where, if the referees had a conspiracy against a team in a Michigan-Northwestern game, it would be in favor of knocking the Michigan Brand out of the playoff hunt.  The explanation involves Michigan committing more penalties and college football referees being inconsistent and semi-competent.  If the calls did tend to unfairly favor Northwestern for whatever reason, that is incredibly funny to me and I would be happy if Northwestern players got away with throwing the Chong Li Bloodsport Shorts Powder at the Michigan lines while the referees were distracted by the scoreboard, desperately trying to see which Northwestern players could successfully name the most Disney films in ten seconds.

In the end, Northwestern lost, another scoreless second half, and an alarming blow to bowl contention.  On the other hand, a bunch of Michigan fans were temporarily inconvenienced.


The Cubs won 95 games, had the best record in the National League for most of the season, and watching them this season mirrored the soothing and relaxing feeling of being hunted for sport.  This is the burden of actually watching a good team.  For most of my life, the Cubs reliably sucked, trotted out players named Tiff Bungus who all spent September running into the ivy and then spontaneously combusting in the offseason, and no one cared.  Then, they started going to the playoffs every year and the whole thing became more serious. 

The Cubs brought in two starters this season: an ace who pitched several largely ineffective games and then vanished to the Mark Prior netherworld and a reclamation project whose inability to throw strikes went from maddening to almost openly antagonistic.

One of the ludicrous aspects of following multiple sports is the strange shifting identity.  I spent most of the Michigan game like I do most Big Ten games, mildly irritated at the visiting fans claiming the stadium and having the gall to root for their own teams.  But, at the same time, I root for the Cubs, whose fans now consistently invade other stadiums and annoy the absolute shit out of everyone.  At the end of the season, when an exhausted Cubs team stumbled towards the end of the season and a seemingly-unstoppable Brewers juggernaut fueled by Christian Yelich's transformation into a skinny youth pastor Barry Bonds collided in a game 163 at Wrigley, it seemed only fair that Brewers fans had taken over.  For years, Cubs fans had ridden in Mad Max caravans up I94 to take over Miller Park and engage in absurd, honking Midwestern shouting matches. 

The Wild Card game served as a fittingly operatic end to this Cubs season.  It featured inspired pitching, a Cubs team that appeared to try to hit the ball with a twin-sized mattress, Javier Baez getting away with an illegal hug because it was cute (in this exact situation in the NFL, Goodell would have spent the next day outlining a Legal Embracement Protocol where announcers could slow everything down and say "right there, Joe, that's when a collision turns into snuggling"), and everything but the stadium lights dimming and Tyler Chatwood appearing as the Phantom of the Ballpark aiming a candelabra at someone but missing by 15 inches.

The Cubs played in a cloud of controversy at the end of the season.  They had some heinous motherfuckers on the team that were not fun to root for.  Joe Maddon drove everyone completely insane.  A deranged set of Cubs fans became embroiled in a debate over the fucking hitting coach; I have spent a truly embarrassing amount of my life watching baseball and I could not for the life of me name a single Cubs hitting coach until this year because a bunch of maniacs have been screaming about Chili Davis on the internet-- they believe that he went into the locker room and told them in no certain terms to stop hitting home runs.  The whole thing would be exhausting except that it is sports and you can always turn it off.

This is one of the best things about sports.  Because you can spend hours invested in a team and watching with no control as it gets crushed, annihilated, and utterly owned, cheated, collapsing, and falling apart, and in the end you can turn it off and go about your day completely unaffected.  What a luxury.


Northwestern plays Michigan State, in amateur football: this weekend.