Maybe I Need Another Break
I'm not going to be writing about the game. That sentence, hopefully, stops 90% of you from continuing. I'm sure there are plenty of articles analyzing the game - go read those. This one is the next chapter in my personal journey with the Braggin' Rights game.
And even typing that sends my brain into this "don't do it - don't write about that again" place. Not because I don't want to, but because so many of you have to be sick of reading about it. But I am beholden to this promise I made to write about my specific emotions without holding anything back, and these are my emotions.
First, the background. Many of you know this already, but none of this will make sense if you don't know the story, so here are some links back to when I've written about this.
Let's start with this article from 2011:
I attended the Braggin' Rights game in 1991 and 1992 with my dad. We had tickets for the 1993 game as well, but my father passed away suddenly of a heart attack over Thanksgiving (warned you). I decided I was not going to use my tickets, but as the game approached, I was convinced that I needed to go. My mom agreed to go and take his seat.
Yes, for that game. A 9 point lead with a minute left that vanished. Kiwane missing two free throws with no time left on the clock, all while Norm Stewart screamed and stomped at half court. A triple-OT defeat after nearly all of Missouri's starters had fouled out. The most exhausted I'd ever been at a sporting event.
And, in the stairwell walking out, I lost it. Cried like a baby. The emotions of the month were too difficult to overcome. I was supposed to be at game with Dad. Kiwane was supposed to hit one of those free throws. Jason Sutherland was supposed to follow normal rules of human decorum.
But none of that happened, so I lost it. And some Missouri fans took notice:
"Are you CRYING? Hey fellas, come check out this Illini fan who is CRYING! Ha! You lost! LOST! Cry away on mommy's shoulder, little Illini baby."
Sports are great. College sports, especially. MY school, MY team, I-have-class-with-Kiwane-and-now-he's-on-the-free-throw-line. I'd never felt more attached to a team. And I'm an emotional guy, too. I've always worn my orange & blue-pumping heart on my sleeve.
That night, I wore my orange & blue tears on my sleeve. I don't really hate the Missouri fans that mocked me that night - they had no idea why I broke down. They were just drunken morons. But in that moment, I resolved that I would never not root for Missouri to lose. I had identified my White Whale. Cubs fans hate the Cards, my UNC buddy can't hear the word "Duke" without cringing, and I will always - ALWAYS - hate Missouri.
A few years later, in this article, I explained why I did not attend (nor watch) the Braggin' Rights game:
Anyone who has lost a parent knows that the worst day doesn't come around the time of the funeral. The funeral, the days before and after... everything is numb (thankfully). There's always a moment later one where everything bottoms out. For me, it was the stairwell at the Braggin' Rights game 20 years ago today. It was our thing, and it was gone, forever.
The focal point of that game was Kiwane Garris' two free throws. He was fouled right at the buzzer of the first overtime, so he went to the line by himself (no one on either side of the lane). Kiwane was an 85% free throw shooter, but he missed both.
As I've shared before, Kiwane was my guy in college. My minor was his major, so I had maybe 10 classes with him. So as the years have passed, those two free throws were somewhat the defining moment of my five years at UIUC. That's the game I'll always remember, and those are the missed free throws from my guy that I'll never forget. I felt so bad for him.
Because of all of that, I only attended two more Braggin' Rights games: 1994 and 1999. I went back the next year to see if I could go without dad, and I couldn't. I took five years off, and thought I'd try one more time, and I just couldn't do it. So that was that. Since 1999 I haven't attended (nor watched) a Braggin' Rights game. My yearly fast from Illini sports.
Later in that article I explain why I might be ready to go back. I had started to cover games from press row at that point, and I thought that maybe it was time.
I did just that in 2014. And I was seated right there (nearly exactly where I was sitting tonight) when Rayvonte Rice hit the buzzer beater. I tweeted this...
...and put my head down on the table and cried. Wrote about it in this article that night:
The one connection point, for me, has been the Braggin' Rights game. My dad made me an Illini fan. And because we grew up in the St. Louis metro area, beating Missouri was everything for us. Our thing. Each year since he passed away - more than his birthday, more than the day he died - I thought of my dad on Braggin' Rights day. Both the good memories (the eight game streak in the 80's while I was growing up) and the bad memories (the game in 1993, forcing myself to go without him, and then the full force of his death hitting me in the stairwell on the way out while Missouri fans pointed and laughed at my tears).
With that connection re-attached last year through Tracy's free throws, I decided to attend again. I figured he'd be proud of me for gaining a press pass to cover our team. I was pretty sure I would be able to handle the emotions again.
...and then Rayvonte's three pointer fell. I won't be able to describe the moment so I won't even try. I'll just say that it was a connection. 21 years, the guilt of "forgetting" him, and right there, after that three, on that sideline, I had a direct line. For a moment, we were sharing something again. I couldn't help but cry.
I've always treated this blog as mostly information and analysis but partly, I don't know, online journal. So forgive me, once again, for blogging from the feels. But I'm telling you, in my 42 years on earth, I'm not sure I've ever had a moment more pure. I've had much higher highs (wedding, kids) and much lower lows (losing loved ones) but I cannot recall an emotion like what I felt after that shot went in. My one great passion is Illini sports. I've had many great moments sharing that passion with my kids and my wife (the entire 2007 football season comes to mind). And so many times over the last 21 years I wanted to share those moments with my dad... but I couldn't. Today, for those few minutes after Rayvonte's shot went in, it truly, truly felt like I did.
So that's it. That's the end. I'm not going to write about my dad and the Braggin' Rights game again. It will affect me next year, I'm sure, but I'll keep it to myself. This is the last chapter of a story that's been playing out for half my life.
And man, what an ending.
I'm a liar. The story continues, apparently.
First I need to say this. I lived (just short of) 21 years with my dad and now I've lived 29 years without him. When you reach this point, you honestly get annoyed when you talk about him and people say "sorry for your loss." It's not even "loss" anymore. I've fully adapted to a world without him. The "dad would have loved this" thoughts when, say, Illini football goes 8-4, are sweet, not sad. What Bret Bielema is dealing with right now (losing his mom and his father-in-law weeks apart) is 250 times what I'm dealing with at a Braggin' Rights game 29 years after my dad's death. My issues are not grief related.
My issues are Missouri related. I guess I'm still not over that moment in the stairwell in 1993. It's the absolute worst thing about sports. We get caught up in rivalry and lose all sense of humanity. Those Missouri fans in the stairwell had no clue that my father had recently passed away. They were simply mocking a 20 year-old kid crying after his team lost. But fandom, unfortunately, allows us to push right past every "you never know what someone is dealing with" stop sign. All they saw was orange and blue. And crying after a game made me a wussy with a capital P.
So when I received this tweet tonight, my blood ran cold:
If you don't speak emoji (I don't, really), that's "cry", followed by the pointing emoji (you), followed by the crying cat emoji (wussy with a capital P). The same phrase said to me when I was in that stairwell (which I wrote about the very first time I told the story in 2009 but those early articles from ALE aren't findable or linkable anymore). I believe I also told the story on the 1993-1997 podcast episode this summer.
At that point I had what I'll call a Llewelyn Moss moment. Remember the scene in No Country For Old Men where Llewelyn is lying in bed and thinking about how Anton Chigurh seems to know where he's hiding and as he's processing "wow, this guy is so good at tracking someone" he realizes that there's just no way he's that good. So he says something like "ain't no way" and gets up and then finds the transponder in the suitcase. Remember that?
That's the moment I had with that tweet. No, I don't think it's one of those guys from 1993 who has tracked me all these years. But I've told the story online before (many times), and the worst-of-the-worst of Missouri's fanbase have mentioned me as the "crying guy" before (after reading one of those four articles and getting a big kick out of how much they can trigger me), and cry-point-cat (especially the cat part) is just too close to the story I've told to be a coincidence. This had to be one of those Missouri fans who knows the story and loves to stick the knife in.
So I tweeted about it. Best thing you can do with this stuff is expose it for all to see. That led to other Mizzou fans sending the same message (I'll get it 10 times in the next year, I'm sure) as well as this guy:
He soon deleted his Twitter account. The other guys will eventually delete their tweets as well. These are always hit-and-delete situations, where someone wants to get a shot in and then not have to deal with how others might view them. I've probably written "you guys have no idea what I see on social media" 50 times, and even using these screenshots here, I still don't feel like you fully understand. Sports can bring out the absolute worst in people.
Anyway, these tweets were my only thoughts in the second half. Maybe that was avoidance - maybe I wanted to focus on horrific Missouri fans because it made all of the "why do the Missouri players play so hard while the Illinois players not realize the game has started?" thoughts go away - but I was just stuck on "sports can make someone bring up the lowest moment of my life because I cheer for the other team?"
I don't even want this to be about Missouri. I'm sure there are Illinois fans who would do the same. Online anonymity allows the worst of the worst to push the boundaries of "worst." Everyone thinks their rival's fans are ranked #1 in the awfulness poll.
But I still felt so exposed. Even if this was just some crazy coincidence and this Missouri fan landed on the exact phrase from years ago, I'm still at risk of having the moment I've deemed the single lowest moment in my life to be thrown in my face. Attending this game still puts me up on that dart board. I'm willfully putting myself in the line of fire. Avoid this game and I can avoid having my blood run cold.
So as I sit here, at 2:00 am, depressed after our worst loss in Braggin' Rights history, I can't tell you if I'll return to this game. I had that incredible moment with Rayvonte's shot, and it's still the only Illini photo on my desk at home (I see it every single day), and I told you that his shot was the final chapter and I could now enjoy this game again, but tonight shook me to my core. Maybe it's just the loss and I'll feel differently in a few weeks, but right now I feel like it's too much of a risk. As much as I'd like to think that I've conquered the demons of 1993 Braggin' Rights, maybe I haven't.
I've always been a sports guy. I've told the stories before. My mom says I learned to read by reading box scores. When I'd read with a flashlight under my covers as a kid it was the 1979 NFL almanac. Ask close friends about my transition from my old career to doing this full time and they'll all say "this has always been who he is." I'm the guy who has always been way too into sports.
But this game, man - this game I cannot conquer. It's the intersection of everything in my life. St. Louis. My team. The one rivalry I care about. My breaking point after my dad's death. The massive redemptive moment when Rayvonte hit that shot.
And now, the worst of sports. The lack of humanity because someone cheers for a different team. I'm a sports guy, but when that happens, I hate sports. I'm willfully exposing myself to such incredible cruelty.
I don't really know how to end this. I haven't made any decisions. I just feel like I need to acknowledge that I might not be able to go back. I'd love to say that I can conquer this again, but right now I'm not so sure.
So maybe I need another break from Braggin' Rights.