In less than a year, two of my hometown teams have suffered two of the most embarrassing, soul-crushing losses in recent sports history.
In last year’s Super Bowl, it was my beloved Atlanta Falcons running the hated New England Patriots out of the building for three quarters, only to allow a historic comeback in the 4th that led to an inevitable loss in overtime.
This time, it was my alma mater, the Georgia Bulldogs in the CFP championship, keeping the dynastic Alabama Crimson Tide at arm’s length for three quarters, only to allow (hmm, this feels familiar) a huge comeback in the 4th that led to an inevitable loss in overtime.
It’s one thing losing when your team is bad. You accept that they’re going to suck, you don’t get all invested in them, and you move on with your life. It’s another thing when your team makes it to some of the biggest stages in sports. You believe a little more, you buy in a little more — but it’s still possible to say such aphorisms as “win or lose, it’s nice to have made it to the big game.” I started both nights — last year’s Super Bowl and this year’s Championship Playoff — with the highest possible skepticism and grizzled resolve. I fully expected both teams to lose — that’s just how Atlanta sports go — but I was just happy to see them on the big stage.
But my teams have done something worse to me. My teams gave me hope. No, worse than that, they gave me assurance: The Falcons led by 25 points, and the Bulldogs led by 10 late in the game. That’s victory! Teams don’t lose with margins like that! In the space of a few hours, both games took me from “well, they probably lose, but it’s cool to see them in this game at all” to “hey it looks like they might have a chance” to “holy shnikes, they’re actually going to do it, they’re going to win!”
A loss without climbing the mountain would have been a lot less painful. A loss even halfway up the mountain would have been fine. But to scale the summit and be moments from planting your flag in the highest peak is the worst kind of disappointment.
So I’m bowl-shocked with the rest of the Bulldog fans out there. I’m proud of my team (well, my teams — the Falcons are in the hunt again) but I feel so hurt, and for me at least, a major part of the hurt is that I allowed the game to become more than a game. I allowed it to become a story.
Crazy, right? That the wannabe writer-guy sees story in everything? But I can’t help it. I was rooting for my teams, but even more than that, I was rooting for the story.
Take Atlanta: Consistently mediocre for years. Never won the big game, haven’t even been there in two decades. Occasionally they make the playoffs, but they go out with a whimper. Then: they’ve got a new head coach, young, hungry players, and a few veterans coming together at the right time. Who do they face off against? Only the most dynastic team in the NFL, whose current QB had four titles to his name already. Four! Most players are lucky to even have a chance at a single win.
Then, UGA: Again, some local success but never making a lot of noise outside the community. They won a title back in 1980 (the year I was born — coincidence? I THINK NOT) but haven’t even sniffed the big game since then, and it might as well be an entirely different sport these days. And all of a sudden: the team has great leadership under its seniors, who forego the NFL for one last season, one last shot; and like a bolt from the blue, new talent crawls out of the woodworks under the brand new coach. And hey fight and scrap and fight and scrap and face off again — who? Only the most dynastic team in college football, whose current coach has five championships in nine seasons. Saban wins the biggest game in the country more often than he loses it, and most teams — even great teams! — never even sniff the title bout.
Both situations are a little bit Star Wars, aren’t they?
Scrappy underdogs taking aim at the big, bad Empire? Going into a battle that you know in your heart doesn’t favor them? But you blink, and all of a sudden, they’re winning. And not only that, they have the Emperor on the ropes, lightning spraying from his arthritic fingers, cackling madly as he falls into the reactor. And in the final moments, the Empire is smashed, the Death Star explodes, and the Emperor is no more.
That’s how the story is supposed to end.
Unfortunately, real life is not fiction. In the real world, the Empire survives, the upstarts have certain victory snatched from their fingers, and those who have had more success than anybody has any right to take home more trophies. (Fighting, fighting, fighting the urge to go political here. HRRRGGGG okay I’m over it.)
It’s enough to make you give up on your teams.
But also unlike fiction, these “books” don’t have endings. There’s a next year, and a next, and a next, and in sports at least, there’s nothing to stop the little guys from taking shots at the Empire, no matter how long the odds.
So don’t give up on your teams, even if they lose the big game, or even if they lose a lot. Embrace the suck.
Unless you’re a Patriots or Bama fan. In which case you can GTFO.
(Image lifted from Starwars.com.)