Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Winning, losing and being a fan

I root for losers, generally.

And I'm not saying that meaning I root for the underdog, like almost all of us do, at least a little. I'm saying the teams I support with such dedication just... kind of... lose.

The Royals... yeah. Each summer a slog toward 85 or 95 or 106 (!) losses, hope extinguished by May, losing and embarrassments and losing and bad "Royals suck" jokes I've heard a million times. And losing.

Then take my alma mater, Mizzou. Not fair to lump them in with Royals, but my friends know the two things that dig at me as much as about anything in sports: No Final Fours for the Missouri basketball team, ever, and no Missouri football conference titles since 1969. Twice in the last decade the Mizzou hoops team has stood one win away from the Final Four, once with me in attendance, in the Arizona desert; both times they lost. This year, as a No. 2 seed, Mizzou... never mind.

Mizzou has certainly given me some great moments, such as the 2007 football win over Kansas, Armageddon at Arrowhead. But it was followed by a Big 12 title game loss to Oklahoma, the same ending as the 2008 season. In 2010, Mizzou got past Oklahoma, finally, but then got smashed by Nebraska and didn't win the North. (Nebraska lost the Big 12 title game to... Oklahoma. See the pattern here? No Christmas card for you, Stoops.)

If the Royals are about relentless, mind-numbing, ever-creative ways to lose, Mizzou is about being good enough that the big losses really hurt.

But it wasn't always this way. As a kid growing up in Nebraska, the teams I most closely followed were the Nebraska Cornhuskers and San Francisco 49ers football teams. During the '90s, they won. A lot. From the year I was six to until two months before I turned 15, Nebraska went 102-10 in nearly 9 full seasons. But at the end of that run was a 2001 Friday after Thanksgiving in which Colorado stunned the Huskers. It was followed by a Nebraska loss to Miami in the national title game, and I jokingly say the two losses ended my childhood. Or maybe it was a Monday Night Football game in 1999, when my all-time favorite athlete of all time, ever, Steve Young, was knocked unconscious when running back Lawrence Phillips (a former Husker, the symmetry!) whiffed on a block. I vividly remember the close-up of Young's face, looking as if he was asleep for a few seconds on the turf.

But the point of this blog isn't to reverse-brag about how tough it is to be Ben Herrold the sports fan. I actually have a pretty well-adjusted view of sports, of how magical and rewarding they can be, but that they require the proper perspective. Yes, sports don't matter; congratulations on that scoop. But with an eternal lens, most stuff people devote their time to doesn't really matter. But for sports, the effort, the desire, the spending of one's self for a worthy cause (to borrow from Teddy Roosevelt), the contrast of victory and defeat, agony and ecstasy, of the big moments being so fleeting but lasting so long, makes sports so scintillating and fulfilling and captivating. And the stories; the humanity of the athletes. And a million other things.

So it's nice when your team or your athlete prevails, and it was brutal, agonizing, a metaphorical stab wound when Tom Watson faltered in the 2009 British Open playoff. For every Marcus Denmon scoring nine straight points to beat Kansas in Columbia, there seems to be a 19-point blown lead in Allen Fieldhouse with the fate of the universe apparently hanging in the balance. (Okay, not quite.) As fans, we share our athletes' and teams' joy of victory and agony of defeat; it just sometimes seems I get a bit much of the latter. I don't mean to sound pessimistic, it's just... well I'm at the unenviable crossroads of rooting for the Royals and against Kansas basketball.

But enter the Olympics, in which we're fortunate to root for Team USA, the Olympic juggernaut. We get to root for USA Basketball (men's and women's), Michael Phelps, Misty May & Kerri Walsh. For the Olympics, we're all Yankee fans.

So, emboldened by this, I'm rooting hard for Lolo Jones to get the medal (gold?!?) that eluded her after clipping the hurdle in Beijing. I want this one, people. I don't invest in being a fan to revel in Independence Bowl trophies, broken by Truman the Tiger or not, or how well Royals fans booed Robinson Cano. Given Lolo's story and how much I'm wanting her to win (and, yes, given my massive crush on her), a Lolo gold would be one of my great fan experiences. Yes, others are picked to take home the gold, but to be a fan is to hope.

One thing I do know about sports and being a fan, one glorious moment can outweigh plenty of bad ones.

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