December 1, 2005 — Fan (n.) = someone who goes along for the ride.
There are eight minutes remaining in Iowa State’s football season, and I’m sweating holes in my tuxedo. The Cyclones are playing for the Big XII North Title today, and I’m stuck at a wedding. Not just any wedding — not a wedding to which I can show up at the nick of time, say some prayers, catch some vows, and skip back to the television before showing up late to the reception. I’m a groomsmen in this wedding, so there are pictures, duties, toasts, and according to the groom’s drill sergeant mother, a hell of a lot more pictures. Allan Webb’s toe went to the pigskin just after 11:30 am, and the wedding kicked off two hours later, at 1:30, so while the rest of the party was taking in the last round of pre-photo instructions, I scampered to my buddy Matt’s car to catch the our reliably winded play-by-play man, John Walters, gasping for air:
“Meyer to Blythe…he’s got him…touchdown Iowa State!” Its 14-3 Clones, just before half. I exert myself with a fist pump that costs me a cufflink. This is the year. Fortunately, I’m with Matt, the most neutral companion I’ll see all day. I’m back in my native Iowa, my native southeastern Iowa, smack dab in the profane stench of Hawkeye country. Inside that wedding, there are 200 born-and-bred Hawkeyes that know me and my propensity for throwing breakables when the Cyclones let me down. Not today.
In case you’re one of the 98.6% of the country that doesn’t get your thrills on the Cyclone roller coaster, here’s your primer: ISU has been a sometimes woefully weak program for about as long as anyone can remember. Like any program, we’ve had a few flowers bloom through the cracks in the cement; three straight 8-3 seasons in the mid seventies, a legendary “Dirty Thirty” bunch from the 50s that came tantalizingly close to a Big 8 title, a few upsets of our enemies on either side (the hated Nebraska Cornhuskers and the super-hated Iowa Hawkeyes). In the 90s, while hoopsters Fred Hoiberg, Justus Thigpen, Dedric Willoughby, Kelvin Cato and Marcus Fizer were keeping Ames winters warm, autumn was abysmal. Iowa State had the decade’s worst overall record of any BCS school. Ouch.
Then came Dan McCarney.
An Iowa graduate (everybody makes mistakes) and Wisconsin defensive coordinator, McCarney promised to bring back “respect and winning” to Iowa State’s football program. To which we said, “Um…sure.” But he just wouldn’t listen. After limping through five seasons with a record of 17-42, the fall of 2000 was a breakthrough. Led by current Miami Dolphins miracle worker Sage Rosenfels and defensive studs James Reed and Reggie Hayward, the team sailed to a 9-3 record that kicked off an unprecedented run of four bowl games in five years, the finest stretch in Iowa State history. In the final game of 2004, this run threatened to culminate in a division title and a first ever trip to the Big XII title game. Needing a win over Missouri to tear down this wall of futility, the Cyclones were tied with just over a minute to play when freshman walk-on kicker Bret Culbertson failed to convert on a 23 yard FG, sending the game to OT. An interception in the extra session ended our title hopes, and if you’ve ever heard the sound of a jet engine starting in reverse, you know what it felt like to be in Jack Trice Stadium that day. Now, a year later, we’ve got a second chance. I believe in second chances. I have to.
Apparently, while Coach McCarney is leading the troops back on the field, a wedding is taking place. Its hard to tell. The priest makes a tight cut around the altar on his way to bless the couple, and I picture Todd Blythe running a square in. Blythe’s routes are things of beauty, elegant slices and jabs through space, time and defenses. If you put a helmet and pads at the end of Renoir’s brush, it would look like Blythe. Todd is 6’5” and his legs come in at slightly under a mile long, so if at first glance you think he’s not that fast because his legs aren’t moving quickly, you wouldn’t be the first. But boy, he is. As the lovers say I do, Blythe is scoring a TD that will be overturned, somehow, on replay. I don’t know this, but when I see my mother enter the church lobby just as the ceremony is wrapping up, I know something is horribly wrong.
My mom is the patriarch of our Iowa State family. Shortly after my parents divorced, five year old me got therapy. The pill was the Cyclones, and the dosage was Often. For eleven years, I didn’t miss making the 180 mile drive from our home in Davenport for a single home football game. Not once, not ever. I’d amaze her by reciting the hometowns and high schools of the entire football roster. From never-used 5th string QB Ty Yohe to Punter/QB/”The Answer” Donnie Smith, I knew them all. Every snap, game and year would write the same scene in Section F, rows 32, seats 16-17. My optimistic “this is the year” attitude and Mom’s head-in-her-hands “try not to get your hopes up” protectiveness. She’d seen it all: the Giffords miss in ’82, the great bowl snub of the mid 70s. She’d seen the Utter fumble in ’92, the didIjustseethat? 50-47 Kansas defeat of the same era, the Seneca goal line stonewall vs. the Noles in ‘02. She never called me young. She just told me I hadn’t been a fan for long enough.
In the mid 90s, the misery had become too much to bear alone, and we slowly indoctrinated my cousins Brad and Brian in to the cult of perpetual disappointment. Four years younger than me, they’re brothers separated by a year and a lot of genetic makeup. Brad: taller, light curly hair, stellar athlete, laid back as a lawn chair. Brian: smaller, straight black hair, sarcastic and smart as a whip. One of the only genes they share is a sick-ridiculous knack for statistics and trivia recall, especially of the Iowa State variety. Once, Brian bet us over a pre-game meal at Cy’s Roost that he could name 80 players off that year’s roster in five minutes “hands down”. Considering only 55 players or so dress for road games, this would be an impressive feat. “Are you serious?” his brother asked him. Yeah, Brad. I’m a real fan. The boys were hard to win over at first. 24-17 wins over Baylor posing as highlights? Yeah, 1-10 seasons aren’t selling points on the level of BCS Bowls and Heisman Trophies. Well, Troy Davis knocked on Heisman’s door, and Seneca Wallace looked like he might pee on the BCS lawn, and they were hooked. Year by year, the frequency of their trips increased, and now, Brian gives the on campus report from his freshman dorm in Ames, and Brad follows the recruiting trail on Rivals.com from his apartment in South Bend.
It’s Brad giving me updates as I’m stuck at this miserable wedding. I bust up the aisle at ceremony’s end and hop on my cell phone. The phone rings. Hello. My fears are confirmed the second I hear his voice. What happened? He gives the bad news withthe bedside manner of trained physician. 14-14, start of the fourth quarter. It gets worse. We’ve had a TD (Blythe’s 2nd of the day, 17th of his young career) overturned by replay, and KU has had one put on the board by the same medium. This has to be some kind of NCAA record, a 14 point swing in one quarter courtesy of the zebra in the review box. That’s fine, I say, trying to breathe. This team has overcome adversity all year. The Gods are piling it on today. The Cyclones receive the kickoff, and with all the pluck they can muster, march right down the field for a lead-snatching score with eight minutes to go. Brad gives play by play as I pace the parking lot, cursing once again at the corn fields of my home state: heart too hopeful, memory too accurate, impatiently waiting to exhale.
This is the time where I know what I’m supposed to do is step away from the phone, think about my health, my beautiful girlfriend, all the starving children in Africa, and remember that its just a game. I should be telling myself that no matter what happens, the boys have battled their nether parts off all year, and I should be proud regardless of the outcome. I should be living in the realm of the positive, feeling warm about the resurgence from a 3-3 start to the brink, yet again, of another North title. But I can’t. I fantasize about the utter amazingness of getting the chance to redeem last year’s Thanksgiving Heimlich, and delivering. And then, my collar shrinks as I begin to ponder seriously, for the very first time, that we might actually do it again.
I’ve promised myself that I won’t distance myself from this team. I don’t want to be one of those fans that can shrug and say “who cares” after disappointments. And boy, are there disappointments. Cheering for Iowa State football is like hooking up with the smokin’ hot girl that only wants anything to do with you when she’s totally smashed. She’ll give you enough action when it doesn’t count to convince you to keep your hopes up that she’ll deliver when it does. There’s just three minutes left now, Kansas is on the move, the photograph drill sergeant is picking up steam, and I can’t get away from all these damn Hawkeyes.
Matt checks in with me. “How are they doing?” I can’t make words now. I furiously shake my head. “Bad? They choke?” I give him evil eyes. I hate that word. Choke. So what, we’ve never won an overtime game, and we’re 1-3 in games decided by 10 or less? So what, Culbertson has turned in to a very reliable kicker, except in games that go to overtime, where he’s missed 3 of the 5 in his career? So what, the team seems unstoppable in games where they have very little to lose, but oh-so-stoppable when a loss might have serious consequences? “They aren’t chokers,” I posted on our fan message boards after a gut-wrenching loss to Missouri in October. “If they’re competitive enough times, they won’t be able to help themselves but to win one at the wire.” If there were ever a time for that prediction to come true, this was it. Think positive. This is the one.
Brad’s monotone cuts in on my inner monologue. “Pass. Long pass. Missed a tackle. Almost a touchdown. Oh no.” Emotionless, but thorough. The dominoes are starting to fall. Brad and I debate. Will Mangino go for two if they score? A touchdown makes it 21-20, ISU. Will the half-ton offensive guru ride the momentum and roll the dice with third string QB Brian Luke? I say yes, Brad says no. “Why would he? He knows OT is an automatic win.” Touche. Our debate is going to get answered pretty soon, because the Jayhawks toss in another touchdown pass two plays later. The point-after team takes the field. The snap is good, the kick is true, the game is tied.
Matt yells from across the lobby. “Did they choke?” No, dammit. Not yet, anyway. I cling to my earlier thought: redemption. I think about our twenty seniors, how their legs must feel like jelly, the weight of five years coming down to these sixty eight seconds. I think of Pete Taylor, the now passed-on announcer, who might have never thought he’d see an Iowa State team this talented, and how he might be glad he didn’t. I think about Bret Culbertson, gamely jogging off the field after the Misery against Missouri. I wonder how many times he’s practiced that kick since. North Title on the line. Tied game. Field goal wins it. As the final seconds tick off the clock, and the game heads to an improbable, but inevitable overtime, I picture him begging the skies these last 365 days for another chance. I can’t decide if I think he’s lucky or not, because I know he’s about to get it.
Brad is opting for minimalism. “Coin toss. Leaders calls heads. It’s tails. We lose.” Great. Didn’t anybody ever tell the big fella tails never fails? On first down, tight end Walter Nickel drops a relatively wide open pass. Jesus. Barkema last year, Nickel this year. Second down is a failed option play left. Its third and nine now, and I’m not sure why they’re running the play. Its obvious now where this is headed. We’re going to drop all our expectations on the shoulders of Culbertson, whose teammates call Shaggy, and whose shoulders sometimes don’t look big enough to hold the shoulder pads, let alone the gravity of 94 years without a conference title. I clutch my fantasy by the fingertips. I picture Shaggy practicing the kick, in rain and snow, employing the neighbor boy to fetch balls for him long after sunset. I picture the kid walking around campus next week with a smile big enough to stretch to his hometown of Des Moines, too cool to tell his doubters “I told you so”, too modest to gloat over making the newest biggest kick of his life, but knowing, deep down, that most people would have quit after last year, most people wouldn’t be strong enough to keep going. And then, my reverie is interrupted.
“Wide right. He missed.”
I realize these are the first words I’ve heard Brad say in a minute and a half. I sit on an abandoned pew. Will there be a fumble? A freak bad snap? Maybe Kansas will miss their field goal attempt? Like a teenager walking in the house an hour after curfew and seeing my parents’ bedroom light on, I’m scrambling for anything that makes sense. But it’s one, two, three plays up the middle, and out comes Jayhawk kicker Adam Webb, cocking the rifle, ready to play Booth to our Lincoln. I remind Brad that we’ve got an excellent kick block unit. He agrees.
“Its perfect. Right down the middle.”
“The game’s over?”
“The game’s over.”
“I’ll talk to you later.”
I look at my phone. How far will it fly? I broke my last cell phone after our first overtime loss of the year. I put this one in my pocket. Matt looks, but he doesn’t have to ask. They choked. He announces the result to the sparse crowd of family and wedding party. I can’t feel my legs. The groomsmen are called to join the bridesmaids for a group picture. Instead of “cheese”, the groom decides we ought to say “Iowa State lost.” I say it, grinning, trying to be happy, trying to blend in to space, trying to remind myself that it’s just a game. The Hawkeye fans seem genuine in their condescension: “I’m sorry, Brian, but I told you so.” I can’t do this again.
The next morning, I’m still shaking off the effects of trying to replace my leaking soul with an awful lot of Jack and Coke. I flip through the Des Moines Register with slack-jawed horror. The pictures make me queasy. The stats induce vomit. I wonder how long it will be before I can care about a football game again. My mother will renew her season tickets, but will it be the same? Will I be able to get in the fray again, and hope, or will I observe from afar, too hurt by this disappointment to hit the front lines again? Will I care?
And then, to the blackness of my mind, a figure enters. It’s Todd Blythe. He’s running a perfect square in, leaving the unlucky defender five yards away, completely, blissfully open for another first down. It’s a thing of beauty. Then it’s Dan McCarney, pacing the sidelines like a Clapping Monkey, who really has done all the things he said he would in that opening press conference, and then some. And then, it’s Bret Culbertson, staying late after practice, kicking extra balls, promising himself that he won’t miss the Next Biggest Kick of his life. I travel, somehow, in to the future, and see that I will write six pages about the Kansas Collapse but only one paragraph will be about the actual result of the game. I see myself, my mother, my cousins, watching every Iowa State game for as long as we live, telling our children and their mothers and their cousins about Bret Culbertson, and Dan McCarney, and the great Todd Blythe running a square in. And I think about the feeling I had just before the Kansas game began. I hoped. And I went along for the ride. And I realize that, win or lose, the feeling we have before the game is why we’re fans. Not the ones we have after. I know that, at least in this case, neither joy or disappointment is half as important as hope.
And I fold the newspaper. And I finish my breakfast. And I turn on the computer, deciding to skip the venomous message boards, and look to a different source of inspiration. The 2006 schedule. Sept. 2 vs. Toledo. Hmm. I like the sounds of that. Who’s with me?