Nov 13, 2022

This article won't be very long. I don't have much to say. I'm so incredibly broken right now that I'm not sure how I'm even going to get 750 words out. I've waited 15 years for games this meaningful, and to lose them, I'm not sure there's a more intense sports pain.

So I think I'll share From The Stands with you, and then I'll expound on that, and then I'll go to this birthday party/casino night thing and, ahem, let my wife drive me home after I numb the pain.

First, FTS. I hate this one. 20 minutes after recording I already didn't want to publish it. It's navel-gazing at its finest. My team lost so it's all about how much pain I'm in. I hate it hate it hate it, but I promised to be raw and record my immediate thoughts after every game so... here they are:

The part about "stakes" there - that's all I've thought about from then until now. It's the part that so many people don't seem to understand. The people responding to me on Twitter saying "we were never good to begin with" and the people responding saying "we're 7-3!! that's still awesome!" both miss the point of what I'm saying. This will be my attempt to explain that.

This was the biggest home game in at least 15 years. We had a chance to more-or-less wrap up the Big Ten West and our first ever berth in the Big Ten Championship game. It's the stuff of dreams. Honestly, I expected to die without ever reaching the Big Ten Championship game. Sure, there are Nebraska basketball fans who think they'll win the Big Ten some day, but come on, that's never happening. It's Nebraska basketball.

And we're Illinois football. We know our place. We're one of the three worst Power Five programs the last two decades. The mountain to climb? It's simply too big.

I've accepted this fact perhaps more than any other human on earth has accepted this fact. I've poured my heart and soul into this team for 35 years. I now follow it around the country like the Grateful Dead. I've missed two home games the last decade. Because of all that, I've fully accepted how bad we are. I stay to the end. I watch other teams celebrate with their fans on our field. No human is more acclimated to "it's never going to happen for Illinois football" than me.

So when we're 7-1? We (The Seventeen) are over the moon. Nothing could bring us down. I told someone after the Nebraska game that the only way a Los Angeles Dodgers fan could experience what I was experiencing was if they won 145 games. Given the money they spend, there's a greater than 75% chance the Dodgers win their division every year. I don't think there's ever been a greater than 5% chance that Illinois football wins its division. So 7-1 Illinois football is like the Sacramento Kings entering March at 61-4. As a diehard, you can hardly believe it. Your brain never stops spinning.

But you know what comes with that record? Higher stakes.

I've written about this topic before. And when writing about it, I used the David Wilcox song Farther To Fall. It's a song about relationships and how they get harder the longer they continue. And he relates that to walking across a railroad bridge. Walk along a railroad rail along the ground? Easy. Walk on the rail on a bridge 100 feet in the air? Much harder. Why?

We're still holding hands
Past the place I quit before
On this high trestle span
The distance down is what we must ignore

Balance is no harder after all
Out across this bridge so tall
Balance is no harder
Its just that you've got farther
Now you've just got farther to fall

Stakes. The stakes are higher. You walk the rails on the ground, no stakes. You balance on the rail 100 feet in the air? Life or death situation.

For me, that's why this loss is so incredibly devastating. This is probably the worst I've felt after a loss in... 15 years? 20? I hated the lost to Northwestern at Soldier Field in 2015, but that's because there was a bowl on the line and we lost. I hated the loss to Minnesota in 2010 for the same reason. But "bowl on the line" is a 30-foot railroad bridge and "Big Ten Championship Game" is a 100-foot railroad bridge. And we just lost our balance.

Two home games, favored by 17 in one game and favored by 6 in the other, and we lost them both. It's just so hard to stomach. Right there for the taking and we didn't take it.

Why didn't we? I honestly don't care. I've never sports'd like that. It's quite easy for me to dismiss all of those thoughts with "I love these players and I trust these coaches" (which I do). I watch games from the stands, not my armchair.

All I ever do is grieve alongside. Sydney Brown in tears kneeling next to his brother whose injury (please no) might end his season? I don't see how anyone on earth could be aware of that and then immediately share the coaching things they would have done differently.

So when I say I break, I break. I'm generally an empathy guy when I watch a movie, and I'm definitely an empathy guy when I watch sports. And I can't stop thinking about the pain in that locker room. They tried to pull it off FOR ME and they came up short. I need to hug-cry everyone.

I need to stop writing because my heart is breaking so I'll just say this and then stop. There's a big question that comes with any discussion of "stakes":

Would you trade?

If we were 5-5 instead of 7-3, I'm less devastated. In fact, I'd probably be screaming "a bowl is still possible!" So would I trade 7-3 for 5-5? I would not. Yes, this hurts more. Yes, my first thought is "at least when we're 4-8 I don't have to face devastation like this". But then I think about 4-8 me. And how much he'd scream at me if I took that trade.

So I simply have to lean into the pain. The bridge was high and we fell. It might be my last and only chance at a Big Ten Championship game. Would have been a dream, but now it's gone, and all I can do is grieve the loss.

And head to Ann Arbor, once again hoping against hope.


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