Sunday, September 12, 2010


During the summer, the rest of the world came together to watch its favorite spectator sport. It is now time for Americans to enjoy that privilege. Oddly enough, though I am referring to two different sports, both go by the same name: football. Elsewhere, football refers to the so-called “Beautiful Game,” one that is generally marked by tremendous grace and finesse, punctuated by moments of frustration and occasional instants of sheer bliss. It is an aptly named sport, because for all the work that the players do with their heads or their arms, international football is almost invariably won or lost with the legs and feet. Take the ball away from the players, and you easily could see them competing on the track – or perhaps even running cross country. There are collisions in this sport, but for the most part, the only real violence takes place among the hooligans who watch it from the stands.

Then there’s my favorite sport, the sport of Jack Tatum, Dick Butkus and Lawrence Taylor. They call it football, or if you prefer, “Amurican Football,” but the feet sometimes seem to be a whole lot less important than the arms and torso. Those are the body parts that our gridiron heroes use to hit people – to turn themselves into weapons and launch themselves at their opponents, some of whom don’t even see what’s about to hit them. We cheer when our teams supply the hits. We wince when our teams absorb the hits. And when we’re not paying attention to the hitting or to the pushing and shoving that goes with it, we’re focusing on the rest of the action – the grace and finesse that is similar to what foreign football fans have come to appreciate. We Americans love that too; we love our quarterbacks, our wide receivers and our halfbacks. But we also recognize that none of them could accomplish anything without the big brutes up front called offensive linemen. And that the whole lot of them wouldn’t have a prayer to compete for a title were it not for the maniacs who play defense. They, too, must be able to run. But more than track stars, they resemble boxers and wrestlers.

Once, when a friend of mine tried out for his high school team at a traditional football power in California, he was immediately given an intelligence test. The next day, he asked for the results. “You did well,” said the coach. “That means you’re on offense.” Offense, they say, wins games. Defense, on the other hand, wins championships.

Late in the evening this past Labor Day, my daughter walked in the door not long before midnight. I could only shake my head in frustration – the next day was, after all, a school day, and she would be getting up at 6:10 a.m. and attending seven classes, followed by the customary excessive homework assignments. (This generation of schoolchildren definitely gets screwed with their workload, but coming home late at night doesn’t exactly help the equation.) Still, I wasn’t one to look incredulously. She, too, was wondering what the hell I was doing, lying on the couch watching Boise State and Virginia Tech play football. “Boise State?” she said, laughing. And I knew exactly what she was thinking. “Why not Bismarck Community College? Or Nome University? When this game is over, what are you going to watch next, the 12 and under league from the Maplewood Rec Center?”

If I weren’t a football addict, I would have thought the same thing. Boise State?

But the interesting thing is that in the sport known as Amurican Football, there is no greater story on ANY level this year than Boise State. In the NFL there’s nothing close – the Saints already won their Super Bowl; who cares if they can somehow manage to repeat? Brett Favre looks more like a guy who had to drag himself out of bed to get up in the morning rather than someone who’s ready to go to work. As for the perennial pre-season favorite and almost invariable post-season loser, the Indianapolis Colts, they may have the best player in the league but he hardly inspires any interest. In fact, last year, in the greatest stage of them all, Peyton Manning stood on the sidelines looking depressed even while the game was still in the balance. He might be a great television pitch man and an even better pocket passer, but as a gladiator he leaves a lot to be desired.

The NFL seems poised for an off-year. But in the college ranks, everyone is talking about the same team: the Broncos from Southern Idaho. They’ve gone undefeated before, but they never played a schedule tough enough to compete for a national title – the voters wouldn’t let them. Now, finally, America seems ready for the Broncos to get their shot. All they had to do was to beat Virginia Tech on the road (which they ultimately did – barely), Oregon State at home, and another ten patsies, and we would permit them the shot they’ve never had before: to play in the college football championship game. Mind you, to achieve that privilege, Boise State would have to vault over several other perennial powers that have played a MUCH tougher schedule and either went unbeaten or suffered but a single loss. No matter, the Boise State Broncos have paid their dues in the past few years and we fans are going to will their way to a title shot. That is, assuming that they go undefeated.

Last weekend, when they flew out to the D.C. area to play Virginia Tech, one of college football’s elite programs, Boise State wasn’t just “a” story, they were THE story. This year, for the first time, they were starting out the season in the top five of the rankings (number 3 to be exact), and Virginia Tech, at number 10, was the only top 20 team on their schedule. When the Broncos ended the first quarter with a 17-0 lead, the announcers were going apoplectic trying to find words of praise. Then something happened – the football game turned into a real competition. Virginia Tech stormed back and actually took the lead. Then they relinquished it. Then they took it back again. In fact, with two minutes left in the game, Virginia Tech was on top, and Boise State needed a touchdown to win – a field goal wouldn’t help.

When Virginia Tech punted, Boise State came up with an excellent return, and they appeared poised to start their drive near midfield – except for one thing. A yellow flag was dropped in the area, suggesting that Boise State would be penalized and would have to start in poor field position. The announcer, Brent Musburger, audibly groaned at the sight of the flag. Fortunately for Brent’s “story,” the flag was miraculously picked up – the refs said that there was no penalty after all – and when Boise State started its possession in excellent field position, Brent was readying himself for the finish.

I forget his precise words, but I won’t soon forget their gist. “No matter what happens the rest of the way,” he began, “you’ve got to give it up to _______ for the way they’ve competed this evening.” You hear announcers utter that type of cliché all the time when two top ranked teams go at it, in nip and tuck fashion, for more than three hours and the game is still very much up for grabs. But usually, the blank in the above sentence is filled in with the words “both teams” – as in both teams have played a whale of a game and it’s a shame either has to lose. In this case, Musburger uttered the words “Boise State” only. To him, they and they alone were the story. They were the Harlem Globetrotters, and Virginia Tech was the Washington Generals. Or if you prefer more traditional analogies, the Broncos were David and the Hokies were Goliath. It hardly mattered to Musburger that, in this case, “David” entered into the game higher ranked. It also hardly mattered that the Boise State squad was much more experienced than the Hokies, who apparently lost many of their starters from the year before to graduation or professional football. Boise State wasn’t really competing with Virginia Tech in the mind of Brent Musburger. It was competing with Alabama, Ohio State, University of Southern California, Miami, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oklahoma … and all the other well-known football factories that have won the championship over the years and have typically stomped all over schools like Boise State by scores like 48-3.

It is one thing for a school like Butler or Seton Hall to compete for a national championship in basketball, where only a handful of players can make a difference between an upper echelon team and a cellar dweller. It’s quite another for an obscure athletic department like Boise State’s to compete for a national title in football, where you need literally dozens of kids to shine every game of the year – a single loss being enough to forfeit any chance at the title. Now that we finally have a team with a chance, it is a great story. I sure wasn’t going to miss out on the toughest game in their schedule. And Brett Musburger wasn’t going to let the facts of the football game (i.e., that the inexperienced Virginia Tech team played their hearts out at least as much as the Boise State squad) get in the way of the overriding narrative.

So, I say, go Broncos! As long as you’re not competing with my Stanford Cardinal, I’ll pull for you to get your chance. It’s awfully boring seeing the same teams win the title every year. Indeed, it’s pretty darned cool to think that a few years ago, a bunch of kids were sitting in their living rooms, saying “Screw Alabama. Screw Miami. Screw USC. I’m going up to Boise Friggen Idaho and play on that crazy blue field [yes, they truly do play on a field with bright blue astro-turf] and we’re going to win ourselves a national championship.” It sounds insane. But it might actually happen this year. And that would be quite a story.

But as I contemplate the football narrative of the year, I can’t help but think of another narrative that is being told in America’s OTHER favorite spectator sport. And no, I’m not talking about stock car racing or even baseball. I’m referring to politics. This is a narrative that is getting to be almost as powerful as the story of the Boise State Broncos. Just as a seasoned announcer like Brent Musburger couldn’t bring himself to announce the Hokie game without talking non-stop about the Broncos, so too, are the political pundits finding it difficult to discuss the Mid-Terms of 2010 without talking about THE narrative of the year in politics.

Next weekend, I’ll do my best to discuss the narrative and explain what it means to me. As we all know, it can spell big trouble for the Democratic Party and for the progressive program that many of us wanted to see implemented when we voted for Barack Obama. And worse yet, unlike in football, when the Hokies didn’t have to worry about Brent Musburger and only had to compete against the Broncos (which is why the Hokies almost won), the Democratic Party won’t just have to fight against the Republicans, they’ll also have to fight against “the narrative.” Sometimes, that narrative can hit harder than Jack Tatum, Dick Butkus and Lawrence Taylor combined.

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