I have always thought that my greatest sports memory was watching Ohio State beat Miami in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl. It was a ridiculous game, with numerous lead changes and two overtimes. Ohio State was helped mightily by a pass interference call that I think was legit but sure took a long time to produce a flag. It was one of those razor-thin games that most people expected would be a Miami victory, which was a fair expectation at the time. The Buckeyes had squeaked by everyone that year, including a game-ending interception in the end zone to beat Michigan in the final bout. It really did feel like a “no one believes in us” moment.
But then came 2006 and 2007, where the Buckeyes were soundly drubbed in two consecutive championship games. The first one hurt the most, because that 2006 team was one of the best Buckeye teams I’ve seen in my life. But in the championship game against Florida they looked like they were running in sand, completely incapable of keeping up with the Gators in any facet of the game. The 2007 game seemed a little less disappointing, just because they backed into the game because everyone in front of them somehow lost in the last couple weeks of the season. They still got thumped, and then came several years of hearing how sluggish and mediocre not just Ohio State was, but the entire Big Ten conference.
This will sound stupid to every non sports fan, but I took those criticisms so personally. There isn’t a team in the world that I love more than the Ohio State Buckeyes, and every criticism felt like a personal attack. It didn’t help that Ohio State seemed incapable of helping me out. There was that 2008 road loss to USC, where we looked like a prep team. There was the 2009 Fiesta Bowl, where we also looked like we were a couple years behind Texas as well. We still had plenty of bragging rights against conference foes, and we were enjoying a ridiculous hot streak against Michigan. But the fact is that our conference wasn’t helping either, usually getting rocked in bowl and non-conference games.
It’s stupid to internalize those kinds of comments, because they have precisely nothing to do with who I am. They have more to do with some clothing that I have around the house, the hoodies and t-shirts that showed my allegiance. So in a strange way I’m kind of glad the Buckeyes had that patch where they couldn’t seem to win the big game. It forced me to not be so personally invested in the outcome of a sporting event that has nothing to do with me.
I thought of this Monday night as I watched Ohio State take on the Oregon Ducks, for the first ever College Football Playoff Championship. For those who have never watched it, American Football is a very random game. This is typified in the lemon-shaped ball, which bounces in highly unpredictable patterns. It’s not an easy ball to throw or catch because of its shape. And yet whenever a team wins, we assume it’s because they footballed better. Very often the truth is that there was a lot of luck involved. Maybe an punt took a good bounce. Maybe a pass was tipped into a defender’s hands. Maybe the ref made a call that favored one side over the other.
As I watched the game Monday night, I saw a lot of those random elements going Oregon’s way. That’s not to take anything away from how they played, but to say that they always seemed to get the breaks. On the first drive the Oregon rusher fumbled the ball forward, and it bounced right back into his arms. Later on, Buckeye QB Cardale Jones threw a pass that bounced out of his receivers hands, and landed directly in the arms of the Duck defender. It felt like the Ducks were given every opportunity to take control of the game.
Remarkably, they never did. They came within one point in the third quarter, but for the most part they were steamrolled. Cardale Jones and RB Ezekiel Elliot burst through the Oregon defense like the Kool-aid man through a brick wall. By the fourth quarter the Ducks were playing like they were utterly defeated, like they just didn’t want to play the game anymore. Even when the Buckeyes gave up the ball (they turned it over an obscene four times), their defense took the field and played like the last pass had been a touchdown instead of an interception. It’s here that we see coach Urban Meyer’s philosophy of “E+R=O.” In other words, “event plus reaction equals outcome.” You cannot control what the event was. You can only control your response, and that response will shape the outcome from the event.
It sure felt like that was the case for the Buckeyes all year. Much has been written about Cardale Jones being third on the depth chart, or about how the Buckeyes somehow lost to Virginia Tech in week two. In any sensible college football season these two factors would have been enough to keep them from winning a championship. But then they flattened Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and outpaced Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, in a game that felt far more like a championship to me than the actual championship.
All that to say, I find myself on the other side of another Buckeye mountaintop experience, and I find my response to be oddly muted. It’s not that I’m not happy, because I’m elated. After the loss to Virginia Tech I never dreamed I’d see this moment this year. But I still feel oddly serene about the win. Maybe it’s because my heart was more invested in the victory over Bama. That game was loaded with so much emotional baggage that it felt like the biggest game I would ever watch. The game against Oregon almost felt like an afterthought, even as the Buckeye offense kept trucking the Ducks for four quarters.
But I think it’s more because I’ve finally figured out how to enjoy sports like a grown-up. I listen less to talking heads and put more stock into what we actually know on the field. I am learning to tune out the people who are speaking as biased fans, and listen to the ones who are behaving more reasonably. And more than that, I’ve learned that whether it’s a win or a loss, it has nothing to do with me. It’s simply enough to enjoy the moment, to understand that it guarantees nothing in the future, and to keep saying, “Go Bucks!”