Near Yellow Mountain

Monday, November 26, 2012

Game Day

Once again Thanksgiving is upon us which can only mean the annual grudge match between USC and ND is only days away.  Unfortunately the game this year has no meaning in determining the best college football team in the land but given the global alumni reach of both schools, it will draw attention around the world on Saturday. My younger daughter maintains slightly more than tepid interest in the USC Trojans. Her mother and I, like moths to the flame, continue to stay up late on the east coast to watch the Trojans blow games in the last minute and teach us football fan perseverance.  Of course as a lifelong Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills fan, I have eaten the bitter bread of football futility since childhood. 

Goal line stand from the cheap seats

While we were living out of the US, I totally disconnected from American sports - except golf since it was on TV every week in Japan. Over the two years I have been back in the America, my interest in sports has slowly but steadily returned but generally has been focused on the college sports rather than watching the soporific events that pass as pro sports.

I grew up a dedicated fan of the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.  Two of my uncles attended ND.  One was kicked out.  After graduating from Georgetown and having a very successful business career, he became a catholic priest in his 40s. The other played golf for the Irish and managed to graduate. His time at ND seemingly inspired him to eschew work in favor of a lifetime of golf and watching sports on TV.  

I spent many a fall Saturday in the 1960s and 70s watching the Irish on a fuzzy 19 inch black and white TV. For big games, my mother would drive me to the next town where my aunt lived. She had a color TV and a better signal – cable hadn’t arrived in the area where I lived. I particularly enjoyed watching the annual Notre Dame  match-up with USC.  I watched many ND vs. USC games in my aunt’s living room while her ever present boxer scowled and drooled on me.
One of the Irish faithful with my elder daughter
Unfortunately, the Irish have been a disappointment to the “faithful” for most of the last quarter century. My wife and I saw them play in the Cotton Bowl, the last time they had a Heisman Trophy winner.  My father in law came up with tickets one row behind the Irish bench – a great view to see them get thrashed by Texas A&M.  To put the time in perspective, we didn’t have kids, I didn’t have any gray hair, the “Great Communicator” was President, and my 5K times were below 17 minutes. In short, a long time ago.

 My younger daughter attends USC.  She grew up in Asia, so in order to help facilitate her “Americanization”, her mother and I encouraged her to develop an interest in football. This turned out to be a long term project. It didn’t help that her team was on NCAA probation her first two years and the two most famous Heisman trophy winning alumni were OJ and the 2005 winner - the only person ever to have to give his Heisman back. Scant progress was made in our “Fan Project” during her freshman year but when the season was over, at least she knew the quarterback’s name.
OJ's Heisman 
Things began to look up when she got a job before her sophomore year that required her to give campus tours and know all the Heisman trophy winners and other football lore. We called her most game days -  she knew more players and asked questions. Progress.  Her mother and I attended the Stanford – USC game late in the year and saw her tears after the triple OT loss to the “evil empire” from the Bay Area. It appeared we had an emerging fan. We were hopeful.  

 Her conversion seemed complete while she was home last Christmas break. We were at a mall when she said she needed to get back to the house to see the USC quarterback’s announcement on ESPN as to whether he would turn pro or return for his senior year. Although I was happy to see her interest, I wondered if an outside force had inhabited her body.
My younger daughter - focus on the jersey, please ignore the Obama pin she wore to taunt me

Time passed, the USC Trojans were ranked number one in the pre-season polls. The “kiss of death”, I recall saying. The Fighting Irish were not ranked.  By mid-season, USC  had lost a couple close games and the Irish won week after week. Notre Dame rose in the rankings as the Trojans headed for the “also received votes” category.  My daughter called and questioned the capability of her team’s coach.  She theorized that his “play sheet” was really a take-out menu from a Mexican restaurant. After her team’s third loss of the year, she lamented on Facebook about how much it hurt to be emotionally invested in her team. After a 4th loss to their cross town rival UCLA, there was only one way for my daughter’s team to salvage the year – beat Notre Dame.

My wife, elder daughter (an ND fan of sorts living in NYC) and I decided to spend Thanksgiving in LA so we could celebrate Thanksgiving as a family and see the suddenly #1 ranked Irish play the flagging USC  Trojans. I was conflicted, my wife and I were committed to supporting the Trojans as least as long as our daughter is a student there and, more than likely, long after.  Yet, after waiting so long for ND to return to their glory days, even thinking about rooting against them brought on a healthy dose of catholic guilt.

On Saturday, we donned our Trojan gear and wandered the campus before the game, soaking in the atmosphere.  I particularly enjoyed one student standing next to me as the band played on campus before marching to the Coliseum. He was speaking Chinese into his IPhone while alternately stopping to scream cheers supporting the Trojans in accented English.   

The morning of the game I posted on Facebook that either outcome was acceptable to me but despite my long term love for the Irish, I was hoping for a Trojan upset. I didn’t get my wish but I am happy to see the Irish going to the national championship game. The Irish team may not be as good as their record but it seems to be their year - perhaps the long dormant "luck of the Irish" has returned.  The USC team they beat Saturday has proven that great talent can be overcome by poor coaching. We aren't bitter, just disappointed......

Despite the loss, after the game my daughter said she was looking forward to “next season”.  Despite the trials and tribulations of the USC football program, it seems  we may have another football fan in the family.