This week’s movie poster, “50/50”, for Saturday’s Purdue/Minnesota game. Even though the light at the end of the tunnel for this year’s Gopher football squad may have turned into another shade of darkness, here’s a column why we still care about the program. [FBT]
The Minnesota Redemption: Why we still care about Gopher football
“Let me tell you something about hope. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. Got no use on the inside. You better get used to the idea.” - Ellis “Red” Redding, The Shawshank Redemption.
When Andy Dufrene returns to general population from a two-week stint in the solitary confinement, aka “The Hole,” he extols the importance of hope, only for his friend Red to quickly dispel that idea. It has been a working script of a conversation I’ve had with my dad, my brother, a newspaper sports editor I worked with years ago, a few friends and other former co-workers from another newspaper.
“These problems with the Gophers go beyond one coach or a few players. They are institutional,” said one of my friends after Saturday, 59-0 loss at Michigan. Another friend said simply: “They’ll never win.”
It was like reading a Patrick Reusse column, that the program of years before is buried somewhere beneath the McNamara Alumni Center, hidden along with the other remnants of Memorial Stadium. The Shawshank Redemption, hope and how it relates to sport has been written about extensively by much more thoughtful and entertaining writers than I; people like Joe Posnanski and Bill Simmons. The movie isn’t perfect obviously – for one, it romanticizes prison life and, well, prisoners who committed violent crimes – but it’s not intended to be a documentary.
Likewise, sports are not the most important thing in the world. As much as I love watching Gopher football or debating why this year’s round of Gophers ineptitude is happening, I can walk away from watching a game without having my day or week destroyed. How can I?
Well, I’m not on the field playing; I’m not invested into the Gophers program other than the fact that I choose to spend hours of free time watching and talking about the college football team from my hometown. If it really makes me feel that dreadful, I would just turn it off and find something else to do. Outside of people like Steve Bartman, sports fans are not “tortured,” As fans, we choose this. We choose to watch the games, we choose to renew season tickets, we choose to buy jerseys and sweatshirts and collars for our dog with our favorite team’s logo. (That was just me? Sorry.)
So, we aren’t tortured. It’s just a lazy angle purported by fans of below-average intelligence and hack journalists. As fans, we’re cheering for laundry. If I stopped following the Gophers tomorrow, no one besides the three people who read my running blogs would notice. That said, I love watching sports; when I spent six months in rural Zimbabwe, I spent much of my time playing soccer with local children, eventually getting to the point of trying to teach them American football. I spent my spare time reading the “Baseball Prospectus,” and writing about why college recruiting rankings are misleading. I don’t watch much TV anymore, but when I do, I’m watching sports almost exclusively. (Well, sports or some episodes of Project Runway and Chopped with my wife. To be fair, those competition shows might as well be considered the female equivalent of watching Friday night college football.) Even though sports aren’t the most thing in the world, they can be a vehicle for amazing connections and shared experiences. That’s why I love sports and that’s why I tune in on Saturday.
But as much as I love to watch the Gophers, watching Michigan running back Vincent Smith cross the goal line like he was running laps at a track meet – he caught a TD, rushed for one and even passed for another —had me questioning my Saturday commitment.
I thought: Why am I even watching this? If those actually playing the game don’t care, why should I? As I wrestled with that in my head, Michigan mercifully piled up some field goals as the game continued. Seriously, the score was 58-0 and it wasn’t even that close; if the Wolverines wanted to score 80 points, they surely could have. We all watched the New Mexico State collapse, we witnessed the North Dakota State boondoggle. Those were two crushing losses already this year. Since I’m tired of reciting back-breaking losses and you’re no doubt tired of reading about them, I’ll just make this non-exclusive list off the top of my head: punter drops snap, 31 fourth quarter points, biggest lead surrendered in NCAA Division I bowl history, this guy in general.
So, why do we watch? Why do we care about teams that are boldly overmatched? Why do we care when all evidence suggests that maybe we shouldn’t? Why don’t we all just chant S-E-C on Saturdays? I’d blame my stubborn support of the Gophers on a small bit of Irish ancestry on my mother’s side, but that can’t be the reason for all of us. It really can’t be the reason for my idiocy, either, but it’s a nice excuse, I guess.
I think the reason we continue to follow the Gophs has more to do with having pride of our roots. I think it has something to do with America’s infatuation with an underdog. I think people feel committed to cheering for their local teams. Why else did people who spent the rest of the year railing about soccer and/or women’s athletics suddenly fall in love with the US Women’s World Cup team?
But after seeing loss after Minnesota loss, I kept getting the same question, but in different forms: “Why do you watch the Gophers?” During the Michigan debacle, it was getting harder to pull together an answer than, “because they are my team.” At least it was until I was reminded, by a person I’ve never met, why we love our teams.
After the game I remarked over Twitter that each loss feels like the bottoming-out period, the worst part of the storm, the last few inches of the 500 yards of shit-smelling foulness the likes of which Red couldn’t even imagine. But then another game starts and the light at the end of the tunnel turns into a different shade of darkness; we realize that we aren’t even close to the end of the Gophers’ septic tunnel shit show.
How many times have Gopher fans had someone sitting next them deeply sigh and utter, “Listen, no coach can win here. No one has in 40 years. It just isn’t going to happen?” Us rubes shoot back with the first year records of Barry Alvarez, Kirk Ferentz, Ron Zook and Gary Barnett, with stories of other Big Ten programs who were also rans that eventually made it to some level of success or even the Rose Bowl.
But you can only go on with those lines of thought as long as you believe them. Watching a 58-0 BEATEMDOWN will make that loyalty waiver a bit.
As the game went on, a friend called and we started going back and forth about the game. Our chat lasted 20 minutes and if you made a word cloud from it, the largest element would likely have been “hopeless.”
In my funk, I responded to another faithful fan on Twitter, saying that I was trying to see some sort of hope, but that it was hard to do.
He responded with a brilliantly understated message: “Keep the faith. It has got to be rewarded someday. The Iowa game last year is still keeping me going.”
He might as well of said, you either get busy living, or get busy dying.
The Iowa game was a high point for the last four years for Gopher fans; the lone rivalry game victory of Tim Brewster’s coaching career, a bit of retribution for players and fans who stood by during the most recent 55-0 and 12-0 contests. It was a fantastic game – one of the most fun sporting events I’ve ever attended. I dragged Dad to TCF Field: “Are you sure you want to go?” he kept asking. “Really? You sure?” Eventually, we both made it down on the field and slapped the backs of the Gophers celebrating with Floyd of Rosedale, the lone time many of them got in four years.
I thought moment of darkness had passed, that the program was ready to build upward, albeit slowly, but ready to advance past the days of losing to schools from North and South Dakota. We aren’t there yet, far from it, it seems.
So why do we cheer this team on? Why do we care about Gopher football? We do it for those moments last November. For me? It’s what the Iowa game represented. It was a great time with my dad and one I’ll always remember, for reasons that probably have little to do with nine-routes, blitz packages and surprise onside kicks.
Against another struggling Big Ten program this week, the Gophers have possibly a 50/50 shot, why I picked that for this week’s movie poster. Vegas actually has Minnesota has 10-point underdogs for a game that many fans probably figured was a gimme. If the Gophers lose this game, they might not win another all season.
It’s going to get worse, again, before we get another Iowa moment. Where I will I be on Saturday? I think I’ll probably take up my same spot in the living room. Even though many have stamped a small certificate around the toe of Gopher football, I’d like to think otherwise.
I’d like to think that no good thing ever dies, just like Andy told Red; I’d like to think that the Gophers will escape from their solitary confinement in the Big Ten’s celllar and escape to the promised land. And I’d like to think that I’ll get to witness the entire journey.
They can’t take that away from us.
“Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”