Wednesday, December 28, 2011

One Logged Into The Cuckoo's Nest

January 7, 2010.

It’s a day that dawned with such hope for the Texas Longhorns. Having won 26 of their last 27 games, UT was set to play Alabama for the national title in the Rose Bowl, and a victory would give them their second championship in five years. Life was good.

But on the fifth offensive snap against the Crimson Tide, Colt McCoy, the Horns’ senior quarterback, took a hit to his right shoulder, sending him to the sidelines and effectively sealing the Horns’ fate. While the team never stopped fighting, and they even made it interesting late, the night ultimately ended in frustration, disappointment and the wonder of what might have been.

And that’s pretty much how it’s gone ever since.

As a devoted Longhorn since birth, these last 23 ½ months haven’t been much fun. With a cumulative record of 12-12, the team hasn’t been relevant on the national scene, and I’ve become all too familiar with the term “bowl eligible.” There have been blowout losses and player defections, and there was that dark day last winter when we got left at the altar by our designated Head-Coach-In-Waiting. While there have been some signs of life, and there was that sweet last-second sendoff to the folks in College Station, following the team has come to feel like a constant request to turn and cough.

And yet, I keep coming back for more.

While some people go to Facebook or Twitter or CNN when they have a free minute, I instinctively log onto, the premier fan site for everything UT sports. Team updates, recruiting videos, game breakdowns, practice reports…you name it, they’ve got it. It’s like Hamsterdam for the Longhorn addict.

The best feature, though, is the message board – the designated space where fans go to share their own opinions and thoughts. This is where the good stuff is, where the real barroom debates take place, where you can analyze what just happened on the field, and where you can get off-the-record information from people who claim to have some sort of source inside the program.

Sure, their “source” may be the third cousin of the next door neighbor of Mack Brown’s gardener, but whatever…if it’s on the internet, it has to be true, right?

That’s the beauty of an anonymous forum…pretty much anything goes, and it pretty much always does. Hiding behind a keyboard and a “To Catch a Predator” screen name, members say whatever and call out whomever they want, all basically without consequence. Nobody is safe – coaches, players, and especially anyone who dares to disagree with them.

And given the Longhorns’ extended struggles, the board has not surprisingly become a miserable place to be. Each thread is more depressing than the next. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve had to figure out supplemental ways to feed my college football obsession. Sure, watching the big games each week is nice, but it hasn’t been enough. I’ve needed something more, something I could invest in, something that could touch the fan inside me. And while it may go against everything my parents taught me about being a good human being, I have found one source of salvation that fits the bill:

Other teams’ misery.

Seeing other schools lose – particularly UT rivals Oklahoma and Texas A&M – has given me almost as much pleasure as seeing Texas win. It’s a validation of sorts, an opportunity to feel better about my own team, the same way millions get a self-esteem boost by reading celebrity gossip.

If the Longhorns couldn’t beat them, at least someone else could.

But the real payoff comes from seeing the meltdowns that occur on the message boards, so that’s where I head whenever another top program falters. And what I’ve found is that, for as much effort as fan bases put into showing how superior they are to their competitors, whether it’s “Saw ‘Em Off” bumper stickers or singing “Goodbye to A&M”, when it comes to how they view and react to their own team, they are all the same.

I mean, the exact same.

Fans lose their minds after a loss, and the message board captures it all. There are impulsive outbursts and sweeping snap judgments. There’s whining and arguing, irrationality and absurdity. There are absolute truths declared, “The sky is falling” proclamations made, and even the occasional picture of a scantily clad woman to lighten the mood.

What there isn’t much of, though, is logic or perspective.

Which really shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering it takes a special breed of nut job to be a true fan. Completely invested in something we have no hand in, we live and die with everything that happens with our program, and when things don’t go well, you would’ve thought a crime had been perpetrated against us. We spend bankrolls of cash on tickets and memorabilia and face paint, and even though we may be a 56-year-old father of two, we take pride in wearing the jersey of a 19-year-old wide receiver.

And despite not contributing a single thing to what transpires on the field, we sometimes refer to our team as the collective “we.”

So there’s a certain amount of delusion that goes into it, and because half the schools have to lose every week, that delusion is always just a click away. Go to any losing team’s message board, and like clockwork, you’ll find some variation of the following thread titles. The names will change from school to school, but the sentiments will always remain the same, because what fans lack in objectivity and common sense, they more than make up for in predictability…

“This is on the coaches.”

Despite the success he had, no coach has been more despised by a fan base than former UT Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis. Over his 13 years at Texas, he helped produce record-setting offenses, Heisman Trophy candidates and a national championship, but for many fans, facts like that just got in the way of their hatred. Instead, they enjoyed focusing on his perceived shortcomings – a simplistic scheme and his fondness for the wide receiver screen (even though nearly every other program in the country ran it) – and they blamed him for everything that went wrong in Austin, from every Longhorn punt to the ridiculous murder storyline in season two of Friday Night Lights.

Davis was by no means perfect, and it was probably time for a change when he left in late 2010, but he deserved more respect than he was ever given. Even when the Horns were putting up prolific point totals, and there was seemingly nothing to complain about, fans still dismissed his work, claiming that his ineptitude was simply being covered up by the brilliance of his players, guys like Vince Young and Colt McCoy.

So let me get this straight – Davis identified these guys as high schoolers (granted, Young was the number one recruit in the country, but McCoy was a mid-level prospect at best), recruited them, developed them, designed an offensive system for them and called plays for them, and yet he’s not responsible at all for anything they accomplished?

Welcome to message board logic.

Sunday morning quarterbacking is one of the great traditions of college sports, like fight songs and smuggled flasks of whiskey in the stands. To second-guess is to be human, and to second-guess a coach is to be a fan.

But no matter how knowledgeable we think we are, there’s only so much we can tell about what’s really going on during a game. I watch as much football as anyone, but I can’t definitively tell you why something did or didn’t happen, or what the team was trying to do in a certain situation, or what they should have done. I can make an educated guess, and I may be right, but I don’t know for sure. No fan does. Neither do the self-proclaimed experts in the media, regardless of how much they tell you that they do.

It’s not because we’re not smart enough…it’s because we simply don’t have enough information. All we have to go on is what plays out on Saturday. We haven’t been in the coaches’ meetings or practices all week. We haven’t spent hours studying tapes, identifying trends and tendencies to devise the game plan. We don’t even know what the game plan is, nor do we know the specific design, assignments and responsibilities of each play, so it’s impossible for us to know exactly what happened on any given snap. And we’re not on the sidelines, on the headsets or in the locker room during the game to know what’s being said or what subtle adjustments are being made.

But that doesn’t stop us from sitting in the stands and acting as if we know best. Because while we may only have a fraction of the information that the coaches do, we also have something that they do not:


And while you would think this would make geniuses of us all, what it really does is make us incredibly simple-minded. If a play was successful, it was a good call; if it failed, it was a bad call. That’s what it comes down to for us. We have no respect for the process – the thought, the patience, the strategy that goes into every decision – we only care about the outcome, and we only accept what works. But in doing so, as Texas Defensive Coordinator Manny Diaz explains, we often miss out on the real story:

“We always say this: there are results and there are performances, and sometimes results and performances match. Sometimes the results and performances don't match. A team can run the identical plays and have the same guy against the same coverage, and one week it's a great catch, and the next week the ball gets dropped or it gets batted away or the left guard false starts when they had it set up. The difference between winning and losing is such a fine line, and I know that's so cliché, but really, that's what you see week in and week out when you start to study. When you take the end away and just watch the middle, usually you don't see a whole lot of difference.”

Or, more succinctly, you’ve got this quote from Head Coach Mack Brown:

“It’s really an advantage when you don’t watch film, because then you can be stupid.”

“Do we have anybody who can throw, catch, block or tackle?”

Colt McCoy was one of the most productive college quarterbacks ever. When his eligibility expired, he had won more games as a starter than anyone, compiling a 45-8 record while making back-to-back trips to New York as a Heisman finalist his junior and senior years. His jersey number is now retired, and his name is etched into the wall of DKR Texas Memorial Stadium alongside a select group of Longhorn legends.

But in 2007, a number of Texas fans were ready to give up on him. Following a promising freshman campaign, McCoy suffered a sophomore slump of sorts, throwing nearly as many interceptions as he did touchdowns, as the Horns stumbled to a disappointing three-loss season.

This did not sit well with the message board crowd, who began questioning McCoy, claiming he was too small and lacked the strength and athleticism to succeed at the highest level. There were cries that a program like UT should never be reliant upon an undersized, three-star kid from the middle of nowhere, and some fans wanted to give John Chiles, the more highly-recruited backup QB, a shot at the starting job.

Then Colt went 25-2 his final two seasons – all while masking the idiocy of his Offensive Coordinator! – and he was everybody’s hero again.

For as often as fans profess to being one with their team, it doesn’t take much for them to start eating their own, and their appetite fluctuates on a bipolar, play-by-play basis. Catch a touchdown, and you’re a god. Drop a pass, and you should be benched for your backup (because…you know…the guy who you beat out is always the better option).

Sometimes it seems as if fans view players like they are electronic characters in a video game, and they expect them to perform as such. They forget that these guys are real, live 18 – 22-year-old kids with real, live 18 – 22-year-old kids’ problems. Insecurities, academics, girl troubles…players are battling all of these issues, all the while trying their absolute best to send 100,000 people home happy each week.

Granted, part of being a big-time athlete is being criticized and critiqued. It’s the price you pay for the combination to the chastity belt of every coed on campus.

But part of being a fan should be remembering what it was like to be a young, dumb college student, what it was that you were dealing with back then, and how you would have felt if a state full of lunatics was judging and cursing every mistake you made. That doesn’t mean you should never get upset, but if you can’t step away from your keyboard long enough to summon that compassion, then maybe you can ask yourself this question before you crack open that next Keystone Light:

How would you feel if it were your son out there?

“This would never happen at *insert name of whatever school happens to be winning at that exact moment*”

Earlier this season, after Texas was dismantled 55-17 by rival Oklahoma, Orangebloods was not surprisingly full of hate for UT coach Mack Brown. He wasn’t tough enough, he’d lost his touch, and it was probably time for him to move on.

He was no Bob Stoops, they said.

In the minds of many Longhorn fans, Stoops, the OU head man, was the embodiment of what a football coach should be. He was tough and hardnosed, and he did tough and hardnosed things like grabbing a player's facemask when they screwed up. Thread after thread proclaimed how he had built an absolute machine of a program, how his teams were always ready to play, and how he would never allow such an embarrassment to take place on his watch.

Two weeks later, Oklahoma lost to 28-point underdog Texas Tech. At home.

And what do you know? Suddenly, Oklahoma fans were saying the exact same things about Stoops that Longhorn fans had been saying about Brown. It was as if the Sooners’ message board had turned into “Orangebloods North.” Some people questioned if Stoops would ever get OU back on top, some wondered if it was time to clean house and start over, and some even demanded that he apologize for such an abominable display of football.

The general consensus was that this type of thing would never happen to Alabama and their coach, Nick Saban.

Winning at the highest level is monumentally difficult, especially given the cyclical nature of college football, where you lose your most experienced – and oftentimes, best – players at the end of every year. You can’t latch onto one Peyton Manning and let him carry you to 15 years of greatness (and even when you do hit the QB jackpot, it’s hard to recruit any top prospect to come sit behind him for three years). You have to reinvent your team season after season.

And it’s not enough to simply recruit the best players, nor is it enough to just hire the best coaches or design the best schemes. You have to do all of that, and you have to put it all together, so that a group of 85 kids will perform at a winning level 13 or 14 times a year without a single misstep.

“That’s why they get paid millions of dollars a year,” fans say. Fair enough. Coaches do make a lot of money, and they should be expected to produce results on a consistent basis. But the same way fans view players as those electronic characters in a video game, they also seem to look at coaches as the person holding the joystick. If their team doesn’t win, fans want the coach’s head on a platter, screaming things like, “How could he allow this to happen?” as if it’s as easy as hitting ‘A’ instead of ‘B’ on the controller.

But there’s only so much a coach can do, whether fans want to accept it or not. Coaches can sleep in their office, they can watch film all week, they can come up with motivational gimmicks, they can drill the game plan over and over and over, and they can put their team in the best possible position to succeed, but that is where their powers end. They can’t control if a player is where he needs to be and slips. They can’t control if the other team just makes a better play. They can’t control if their freshman defensive back drops a game-sealing interception. They can’t control if their star QB gets dumped the night before the game. They can’t control injuries, they can’t control the bounce of the ball, and they can’t control the inherently unpredictable nature of sports.

Yet they are expected to control all of it, and the way this stuff plays out often determines if they’re perceived as a genius or an idiot.

That’s why my only expectation of a coach is that he gives my team a chance – that he puts the program in a position where he’s got enough good assistants and enough good athletes that, if the team plays well, and they get the right breaks at the right time, they’ll have a chance to win it all every year.

I concede that even that may be a little unreasonable, but then again, I am a fan. I make up for it, though, by accepting that there’s going to be the occasional rough patch, that the team is going to go through some ups and downs, because no matter how smart or prepared or hard-working the guy is, everyone does at some point.

After all, Nick Saban has lost four times in the last year-and-a-half – all games in which his team was favored.

“Why should we have expected anything different?”

When Mack Brown took over as Longhorn coach in 1998, the program’s foundation was broken. Despite all of its resources, UT had receded from the national spotlight, reeling from a 4-7 season and searching for its swagger, all the while many of the top in-state prospects were fleeing Texas to play their college ball elsewhere.

It didn’t take long for Brown to make UT relevant again, though, steadily stockpiling top-notch recruiting classes while amassing a 70-19 record over his first seven years in Austin.

But despite the success he was having, there were still plenty of fans who were dissatisfied with him. They thought he was too soft, that he clapped too much on the sidelines, that he didn’t have the killer instinct that’s required to win at the highest level. They pointed to things like his five-game losing streak to Oklahoma and his lack of conference titles as proof.

Then 2005 happened, in which Brown went undefeated – including a rout of the Sooners – claiming his first conference and national championships in the process. It was as if he had taken all of his critics’ ammunition and turned it into a to-do list. Can’t beat OU? Done. Can’t win the conference? Done. Can’t win the big one? Done. By the end of the season, the entire list had been crossed off.

Or so you would’ve thought.

All it took was a little editing, and there was a whole new list to deal with. Instead of crying about how Brown didn’t have any conference titles, it was now that he only had one. And he’d only won that because he had a superhero in Vince Young at quarterback.

When Brown answered that with another conference championship a few years later, this time with Colt McCoy at QB, the line became that he only had two titles – both of which he’d won with two of the all-time greats under center.

Who knew the list had been written on an Etch-a-Sketch?

For some fans, nothing will ever be good enough. Not even winning will satisfy them, because you either won’t win enough, or you won’t win by enough. And if you manage to accomplish both, you will have done it with players who don’t suck enough.

Of course, if a coach were to lead a bunch of untalented intramural players from one of the campus fraternities to an undefeated season in which every offensive play resulted in a touchdown and every defensive snap ended in a sack or turnover, there’d still be people complaining, “Just think how good we would be if our coaches could actually recruit.”

That’s just how it is in big-time college sports. It’s part of the job, a simple case of supply and demand: you’re supplied with a multi-million dollar salary, and in turn, it’s demanded that you constantly feed the beast.

Mack Brown tells a funny story about the aftermath of that national championship victory in 2005. The game had just ended, and he was standing outside the locker room with legendary Texas coach Darrell Royal, when a delirious fan walked up to thank him for bringing the Horns their first title in 36 years. With this accomplishment, the fan said, Brown’s legacy was set in stone, and even if Brown were to never win another game at Texas, he would be forever revered by UT fans everywhere.

As the fan walked away, the ever-wise Coach Royal leaned into Mack’s ear and warned:

“Spring practice starts in six weeks, big boy.”

“Step back from the ledge.”

You only get so many chances to win it all. No matter how well you recruit, and no matter how many Reverse Oreos your players can pull off, it’s just so hard to get everything in the universe to consistently align. That’s what made the loss to Alabama in the national title game so painful – the Horns were this close and came up short. But as heartbreaking as that night was, there was one glimmer of hope that filtered through the disappointment:

Garrett Gilbert.

A true freshman at the time, Gilbert was Colt McCoy’s backup, having only played sparingly throughout the year. As a prep star, though, he had led his team to back-to-back state titles, he’d won national player of the year honors, and he was one of the most sought after recruits in the country. He was big and strong, the son of a former NFL quarterback, blessed with all of the tools to be the next great Texas hero. Think Lance Harbor in Varsity Blues. He was the future of Longhorn football.

But the moment McCoy went down, the future became the present.

Thrown into the deepest of deep ends, Gilbert struggled initially, but he eventually began to swim. Two second half touchdown passes brought the Longhorns back, and with just over three minutes to play, Gilbert had the ball in his hands with a chance to tie or win the game.

And while he ultimately came up short, as a fan, you couldn’t help walking away from the loss with an energized eye towards the future. Gilbert had shown everything you could ever want from a quarterback – toughness, leadership, resiliency – and he had done it on the biggest stage imaginable. It was one thing to hear the hype beforehand, but to see it in action like that was another. The Garrett Gilbert story had just begun, and it seemed destined to end in greatness.

But not all stories can be fairytales.

For whatever reason, whether he locked onto his receivers or had a crisis of confidence or squinted too much while looking downfield (a complaint among some Longhorn fans), Gilbert never turned into the player most thought he would. After getting booed off the field in just the 14th start of his career, he was benched and elected to transfer a couple of weeks later.

Gilbert was about as can’t-miss as you can get, but he’s now become the cautionary tale for why you should never draw a definitive conclusion based solely on the last thing you saw. After all, it’s just one instance, the smallest of sample sizes, and things are rarely as good or as bad as they initially seem. Why not give it a little time before rendering your final verdict?

Answer: so you have something to post on a message board!

Fans are among the most reactionary, most shortsighted people on the planet. They only believe what they see. They’re like children, their outlook and mood swinging violently depending on whatever they just witnessed, and they’re especially volatile when things go wrong. One bad game, one bad half, one bad play…that’s all it takes to incite an outright tantrum.

Amid all of the insanity, though, there’s always a voice or two of reason, trying to calm everyone down. They see the big picture. They understand that it can take time for a team to grow, that one mistake doesn’t make a coach a moron, that players can develop with experience. They preach patience to just let things play out before passing judgment.

They have perspective.

Of course, there’s no room for anything sensible like that on a message board. It’s much easier to pull out your Jump to Conclusions mat and aim for the most ridiculous, over-the-top target, because somewhere along the way, it was decided that being negative and derogatory was the same thing as being rational.

The team sucks, they’ve always sucked, and they will continue to suck, and if you can’t see that, then I don’t know what to tell you, because that’s just how it is.

At least until next week, anyway.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc

It’s been about 10 days since the Texas Longhorns’ regular season ended, and I still can’t believe it’s over. As a devoted, over-the-top, marginally insane fan, my whole year is based around those 12 fall Saturdays, and it all goes entirely too quickly. You look forward to it so much, from signing day in February to spring practice in March through offseason workouts in June, but there’s this sense that the first meaningful kickoff will never come. It eventually does, but then you get so caught up in the rollercoaster of wins and losses that you forget to slow down and savor the ride.

And before you know it, it’s over.

So while there may still be a bowl game to get excited about, most of the fun is already over, and all we can do is look back and reflect on the year that was. But whenever I try to do that, like a child who just learned the true story of how he was conceived, there’s a horrifying image I can’t seem to get out of my head:


That's what the scoreboard read at the final gun of Texas' regular season-ending loss to Baylor. It was an uneven performance that was a microcosm of an uneven year. There was a promising offensive outburst wiped away by a series of back-breaking turnovers. There was a solid defensive effort ruined by a handful of big plays. And encapsulating it all, there were the what-might-have-beens in the form of all of the injured players on the sidelines.

In a season of minimal expectations, this loss was as maddening as any. After falling behind 14-0, UT rallied with back-to-back scoring drives to even things up. And when Case McCoy hit Marquise Goodwin for an 80-yard touchdown, the Longhorns were out in front by seven. The offense was in a rhythm, the defense was settling in and all of the momentum was behind the boys in burnt orange.

And then the wheels came off.

Botched snaps. Missed assignments. Questionable decision-making. You name it, they did it. It was as if they went “Costanza” and started doing the opposite of what they thought they should, only to less favorable results. The train got going downhill, and they couldn’t figure out how to stop it.

It’s never fun seeing Texas lose – and this was their fifth loss of the season – but I cussed and yelled and spiked the remote more than I had all year. That’s what endless camera shots of Bear fans flashing the always classy upside down “Hook ‘Em Horns” sign will do to you.

But beyond the interceptions and the missed tackles, and beyond the reality that Baylor – BAYLOR!!! – has now had scoreboard on UT for two consecutive years, what made the whole scene so hard to digest was something far more personal:

It was my fault.

The whole fiasco started earlier in the week when I realized that the UT basketball game against UCLA was going to be played at the same time as the football game against Baylor. Being the obsessed fan of both teams that I am, I don’t like to miss a minute of any game, and I wanted to be able to watch each without knowing the outcome of the other.

What made things complicated, though, was that I’d been hoping to go to the bar where the local Texas alumni chapter holds football game-watching parties. This was possibly my last chance to go this season, and I didn’t want to miss out on the good food, the camaraderie, or – most importantly – the opportunity to high-five the dude in the cowboy hat who high-fives the entire bar after every Longhorn score.

So I had two choices:

Stay home, record the basketball game, watch the football game live, and watch the basketball game immediately afterwards.


Go to the bar, record the basketball game, watch the football game live, and hope to make it back home without finding out what happened in the basketball game.

Over the next couple of days, I wavered back and forth, but ultimately, I decided to take my chances and go to the bar. Maybe it was naïve, but given the fact that it was early in the basketball season, and that people would probably be more interested in watching the SEC Championship than the hoops team, I figured it was worth the risk.

Things got off to a great start, as I got there early (okay, I was the first one there…by a while), claimed my lucky seat, ate my pre-game meal, and settled in for kickoff. Not one TV set was tuned to the basketball game, nor did I hear anyone mention anything about it. And after the Horns reeled off consecutive touchdown drives, I even got to exchange a couple of high-fives with the high-fiver, who was wearing a burnt orange Santa cap – on top of his customary cowboy hat.

‘Tis the season.

But about the time Marquise Goodwin was crossing the goal line for the go-ahead score, giving Texas their 21-14 advantage, everything came crashing down.

That’s when one of the bartenders started walking around and changing some of the televisions to the basketball game – including the set right next to the one I was watching. Not ready to give up all of the hard work I’d put in, I immediately averted my eyes, as if the TV were the cleavage of Russell Dalrymple’s daughter. I had made it this far, and I still controlled my own destiny, but if I didn’t act quickly, I ran the risk of having my fate decided for me.

Once again, I had two choices:

Stay at the bar, continue watching the football game, and check in with the basketball during commercials and timeouts.


Head home, watch the rest of the football game live, then watch the recorded basketball game, just like I had originally contemplated.

Now, if you had told me beforehand that this was going to happen, that the basketball game was going to be on at the bar, it would’ve been a no brainer…I wouldn’t have even thought about going. Only in the rarest, most desperate of circumstances am I ever willing to forsake one of my teams’ games. And that sacrifice wouldn’t have been necessary in this case.

But as I sat there, in that moment, my choice was no longer quite as clear. It wasn’t just about me anymore. The Longhorn football team was rolling, having scored 21 straight points, and all of the good vibes, all of the good karma was perfectly aligning for a UT victory – and it was all happening with me at the bar.

If I were to leave, would I be screwing it all up?

Being superstitious is part of being a fan. Because we’re nothing more than observers, we battle the inherently helpless nature of the experience by convincing ourselves that there are ways that we can somehow contribute to our team’s success. We wear a certain shirt. We drink a certain beer. We don’t wash a certain pair of underwear. These things become part of our game day rituals, and the lack of logic behind them doesn’t make them any less powerful in our minds.

Me, I’ve been honing mine since the moment I fell in love with the Longhorns. For starters, I always have to shave on the day that UT plays. I’ve also noticed over the years that there appears to be a direct correlation between the team’s performance and the way my shoes rest on my feet. If they’re too loose, or if the tongue shifts off to the side, or if they just don’t feel right, bad things can happen on the field. That’s why I constantly tie and retie my laces throughout the game, with each retying serving as a sort of reset button, allowing the Horns to get back on track if needed.

The same goes for…brace yourself…my bladder. If Texas is on a good run, I’ll sit tight and hold onto those Cokes I drank until the run is over. Conversely, when the game isn’t going well, a trip to the bathroom can be a source of relief – for both me and the team – like a coach calling a timeout to regroup.

Beyond these specifics, I’m also a big believer in the tried-and-true superstitions, like the power of the spoken word. Don’t ever talk about how well your team is playing or how they haven’t made any mistakes – unless you want them to stop playing well and start making mistakes. If you’re dead-set on tempting fate, though, it’s imperative that you qualify statements like, “The quarterback is doing a good job of taking care of the ball” with phrases like, “so far.” Doing so is a nod to the Sporting G-ds, telling them that you’re aware of your place on the hierarchy, and that your analysis was not a provocation for them to prove who is actually in charge.

Of course, if you fail to make this clear, and nobody (rightfully) banishes you from the premises, an effective maneuver to counteract your mistake is to switch up everyone’s seating assignment. Few things shake up the karma as well as a quick round of musical chairs. There was one game a few years ago in which Texas was struggling – until one of my friends got up to get a snack out of the kitchen.

If it had been up to me, she would’ve sat in the pantry the rest of the way.

That’s just how it is. You do what you gotta do to support the team. I’ve been watching sports my entire life, and there have been so many instances – both good and bad – that it's hard for me to simply dismiss this stuff as coincidence, no matter how crazy it seems.

A couple more examples to consider:

*Heading into the 2005 season, UT was perceived as a team of underachievers. While the program had been on the rise for several years, they couldn’t quite get over the hump, continually falling short on the biggest stages. They hadn’t won a conference title in almost a decade, they were in the midst of a five game losing streak to archrival Oklahoma, and it seemed like they might not ever break through.

But then some friends and I took matters into our own hands – we started watching the games at one particular guy’s house every week. Each Saturday, I’d wake up, take a shower, shave (this is when that superstition was born) and head over, always arriving about 15 minutes prior to kickoff.

And before we knew it, the Longhorns were undefeated – including a blowout of the Sooners – and headed to the national title game against USC.

Our inevitable hysteria was muted, though, when a couple of days before the championship, we were notified of the news: our friend, our host each week, had gotten tickets to the game, meaning we were suddenly homeless. We were going to have to find someplace else to watch the game.

Or were we?

His house had been our sanctuary, our good luck charm all season, and in the immortal words of Crash Davis, you “never f*** with a winning streak” – especially in a moment like this. So there was really only one thing left to do:

Find a way into that townhome.

If that meant hiding in the closet before he caught his flight, fine. If that meant burrowing in through the air conditioning vents or rappelling in Mission Impossible- style, so be it. Somehow, someway, we had to get in.

Fortunately, there was a much easier – not to mention more obvious – solution available. By simply asking our friend if we could come over, he got his wife to graciously open their doors to us. We were all able to sit in our traditional spots, set the volume on the TV to the level that had brought the Horns the most success, and watch the game from exactly where we were meant to watch it.

And that night, Texas claimed their first national championship in 36 years.

*In the 2009 Big 12 title game, the Longhorns were on the verge of flushing their dreams of another national championship with a lackluster performance against Nebraska. The Cornhusker defense had pummeled QB Colt McCoy all night, surging to a 12-10 lead, while also successfully pushing me to the brink of an unfathomable meltdown.

But after a big completion and an even bigger – yet absolutely correct – timekeeping adjustment, Texas was set to attempt a game-winning field goal with one second left on the clock.

I was at the alumni bar, trembling as if I’d just stepped into the ring with Clubber Lang, unsure if I was prepared to handle whatever it was that was about to happen. I had changed seats three times throughout the night, and I was now standing in the same spot where I’d watched the Horns’ hard-fought win over Oklahoma earlier in the year. And even though Hunter Lawrence was one of the most accurate kickers in UT history, I couldn’t bear to watch. Figuring the bar’s reaction would tell me everything I needed to know, I closed my eyes, dropped my chin to my chest, and listened.

Looking back now, I’m not sure what was more incredible – that the kick held its line long enough to slide inside the left upright, or that my shaking hands were able to keep my car in one lane on the victorious drive home.

Fast forward two years to Thanksgiving night 2011. The Horns are playing rival Texas A&M in what is always a heated, throw-out-the-records matchup. But because the Aggies are set to move to the Southeastern Conference, the stakes are even higher this year, as this could be the last time the two schools will ever play each other. And nobody wants to be on the wrong end of a score that will be forever etched into Lone Star State lore.

The Longhorn defense stands strong most of the game, even scoring on an interception return, but the offense struggles to get in gear, and with just under two minutes to play, UT has the ball trailing by one, 25-24. Somehow, led by another McCoy – Colt’s younger brother, Case – the Horns move into field goal range at the A&M 23-yard line.

It’s all come down to this: one kick for eternal bragging rights.

Sitting on my parents’ couch, sporting my lucky burnt orange shirt, I was physically nauseous, fighting to keep down the turkey and potatoes I’d eaten just hours earlier. Then suddenly, from out of nowhere, a calm washed over me, as I felt the warmth of familiarity. I realized that this wasn’t uncharted waters. I had been here before, and I knew what to do: “Closed eyes” equaled “Made game-winning field goal.” So that’s exactly what I did.

And then I heard this.

Now, I readily concede how ridiculous all of this sounds, how absurd it is to think that anything I did had even the slightest effect on the outcomes of those games. I get that the players and coaches had no idea about where I was sitting, or how tightly my shoe laces were tied, or – thankfully – the state of my bladder. And even if they had, what difference would it have made?

After all, the 2005 Longhorns won the national title because they were abundantly talented, because they had (at least) 24 contributors who would go on to play in the NFL, because they got the right breaks at the right time, because Limas Sweed made a clutch catch in the Horseshoe, because they stuffed USC on 4th and 2, because they had an absolute alien at quarterback, and because of a million other reasons, none of which had anything to do with me. Same with the game-winning kick over the Aggies on Thanksgiving.

But it’s not like these “tactics” are unprecedented. There are plenty of things we do in our everyday lives – many of which are widely accepted as effective – to try to influence different outcomes that are seemingly out of our control. We do things like visualization. We write down affirmations and focus on thinking positively. We pray.

And when the situation does work out, who’s to say what it was that ultimately tipped things our way? Did we get the job because we were the most qualified, or because we spent time visualizing our new business card? Did our spouse land the big account because she made the best pitch, or because we thought happy thoughts for her? Did our loved one pull through surgery because the doctor did his job, or because we asked for a higher power to watch over him?

There will always be plenty of logical reasons explaining why something played out the way it did, and honestly, they are imminently more believable than the alternative. But what if there is something more at play? What if – give me a second to channel the voice of my spiritual-minded mother – the entire universe is nothing more than a collection of energy, and everything in it is connected, making it this living, breathing entity that is constantly in flux? Wouldn’t it stand to reason, then, that every little thing we do could potentially shift that energy, causing even the slightest of ripple effects, which in turn could affect what happens around us?

Obviously, these are difficult, far-reaching questions, and the answers will probably need to come from people who are a lot smarter than I am, like scientists or theologians or Dexter Morgan.

What I can say for sure, though, is that when I was sitting in that bar 10 days ago, the Texas football team was taking care of business against Baylor. But once it became apparent that, if I stayed, I’d find out what happened in the basketball game, I did what I thought was right:

I went home.

There was just no way I could give up the chance to watch one of my teams play. I couldn’t do it. Maybe it wasn’t the smartest of moves. Maybe it was selfish. Or maybe it was just my devotion as a fan taking control.

Whatever it was, from the moment I got out of my chair, everything flipped for the Horns. Six of their final eight offensive possessions ended in turnovers, six of their final eight defensive possessions ended in points for the Bears, and they were outscored by a margin of 34-3.

These are the facts, and they are indisputable.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

In His Shoes

One of my favorite things to watch on TV is the ABC series “What Would You Do?” With hired actors and hidden cameras, the show puts unsuspecting, ordinary people into real-life moral dilemmas and captures how they react. Think “Candid Camera” with an ethical exam twist. All types of scenarios are presented, from bullying to racial discrimination to physical and emotional abuse, and it’s fascinating to see who does – and who does not – answer the call to action.

As a viewer, you can’t help but inject yourself into each situation to figure out how you would’ve reacted. This exercise typically does not go well for me, though, as more times than not my inaction would get me prosecuted under the Latham, Massachusetts “Good Samaritan Law.” But in a way, it’s good, because it serves as a wakeup call, a reminder of sorts to be more assertive whenever I have the chance to right a wrong – not just because it’s what my mother raised me to do, but because there are few things more embarrassing than sitting on your hands, only to have host John Quinones emerge from the shadows and say, “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?”

And there’s probably not a person on the planet more familiar with that type of shame than Mike McQueary.

McQueary is the Penn State coach who, as a graduate assistant in 2002, walked into the Nittany Lions’ football complex and allegedly found Jerry Sandusky sexually abusing a young boy in the shower. Distressed and distraught, he retreated to his office and called his father.

Since the news broke about the Penn State atrocity, there has obviously been an enormous amount of outrage, and rightfully so. The whole thing goes so far beyond the typical scandals that it doesn’t really feel like it has anything to do with college athletics, because college athletics could never mean this much or impact people’s lives this deeply. With every new piece of information that is revealed, the more twisted and tragic the story becomes.

And in a case full of top-to-bottom negligence, the alleged negligence of McQueary is among the most maddening.

Forget for a second what he did – or, more accurately – didn’t do in the days, weeks, months and years after witnessing what he witnessed. Just focus on that March night almost a decade ago. In the moment of truth, face to face with one of the most horrific crimes that can be committed, he didn’t step in and try to stop it.

Instead of saving a little boy, he seemingly fled like one.

How could he have not done anything? That’s what everyone wants to know, and that was certainly what ran through my head as I read about “Victim 2” in the nauseating, mind-blowingly grotesque grand jury report on the investigation.

(While there are now rumblings from McQueary that he did step in, it’s a curious omission by the grand jury, and since their report is the lone piece of official evidence currently available, it’s the only thing we can go on at this point. That said, when it comes to this case, you never know what will come out next.)

The decision to intervene doesn’t seem like it should’ve been a decision at all. A 6’4” 220 lb. former college quarterback, McQueary was more than capable of physically breaking things up. And even if he didn’t want a physical confrontation, he could’ve done a million different things – scream, yell, flash the Bat Signal – to put an end to it.

And as a person, as a human being, don’t you have to find a way to help? When you come across a situation that is so wrong, when you know somebody – particularly a powerless child – is in need, don’t you have to do something about it? Isn’t that what anyone in their right mind would do?

Not necessarily. Just watch an episode of “What Would You Do?” and you’ll see that isn’t the case.

While there are some people who do get involved, the majority do not. They stay on the periphery, out of harm’s way, pretending to mind their own business. You can tell they’re aware of what’s going on by the way they constantly look over, and you can tell they’re conflicted by the expressions on their faces and the hushed conversations they’re having. But something is holding them back. Maybe they don’t feel it’s their place to intervene. Maybe they’re hoping someone else will take charge. Or maybe they’re afraid of getting punched in the face.

Whatever it is, they ultimately sit there and do nothing.

This lack of action shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, because – right or wrong – intervening in these types of scenarios is not our society’s standard operating procedure. If it were, as I heard one radio host say, there’d be nothing for ABC to make a show about.

Second-guessing, however, is part of our SOP. It’s become one of America’s greatest pastimes, right alongside baseball, apple pie and making celebrities out of people whose only accomplishment is having the same last name as O.J. Simpson’s lawyer.

When you’re removed from a situation, it’s easy to step back, assess all of the potential options, and rationally come to a conclusion about what should be done. You don’t have to deal with any shock or awe to your system. There are no threats to your physical or emotional wellbeing. There’s no fear of shame or embarrassment, and there’s no immediacy forced on your decision-making. More than anything, though, you aren’t restricted by your vantage point. You have perspective, a view of the big picture, that whole “seeing the forest through the trees” thing.

But things look a little differently when you’re down in it on the ground level.

A few months ago, I was on my way home after a long day, and I drove through McDonald’s to pick up something to eat. Pulling away from the second window, I noticed there were a couple of guys struggling to push their car up the driveway and into the parking lot. The car had clearly died on them, they were trying to get it out of the street, and it was obvious they needed help.

Immediately, I felt that surge of energy you get when you’re reflexively reacting, like a batter cocking his bat right before the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. These people were in need, and I was capable of assisting them. I started to brake as I prepared to jump out to help them push.

And then I kept driving.

Instead of continuing to fuel me, that surge of energy I experienced was washed over by a wave of fears and rationalizations. What if the stalled car was a ploy to rob me? Should I really be talking to strangers? Hadn’t I already done my good deed for the day by giving that homeless guy a few bucks? I’m exhausted and tired and worn out…can’t I just go home and eat my cheeseburger before it gets cold?

Two seconds…that’s all it took for me to go from Good Samaritan to George Costanza.

And I wasn’t even dealing with anything out of the ordinary. There was nothing traumatic or threatening about the situation, nor did I have to do a double-take to fully comprehend what was going on. And yet, my mind was still racing and my insides were still churning, so much so that I virtually froze up, unable to locate logic and do the right thing. Before I knew it, I was fleeing the scene, trying to convince myself that it was okay, but knowing deep down that it was not.

I’m no scientist, but it’s been my experience that, unless you're a trained professional, your behavior in these types of predicaments is typically anything but balanced. While there may never be a more crucial time for rational reasoning and sensible judgments, they often don’t stand a chance of being heard – the stress and chaos drowns them out. It’s irrelevant what a person in their right mind would do, because you’re not working from your right mind, and you can predict and proclaim all you want about how you’d respond, but it’s impossible to know until you’re actually in the situation.

And that’s why I refuse to judge Mike McQueary for the choice he allegedly made.

I know, I know…what he walked in on was infinitely more desperate than what I encountered or what was featured on some TV show, which in turn made the consequences of his (in)actions exponentially greater, which would’ve seemingly made the call to battle that much louder.

But, in a way, all of that made the exact opposite just as possible. One second, McQueary was thinking about putting a pair of shoes away in his locker; the next he was trying to process and make sense of someone he revered perpetrating a sick, unspeakable crime, as the safety of an innocent child hung in the balance. Is it that much of a stretch to see how even the bravest person could shut down in that instance?

This isn’t about what McQueary should have done; it’s about understanding why he might’ve done what he did. Clearly, he should have stepped in and done everything he could to stop it, and he shouldn’t have backed off until the boy was safe and in protective care, and Sandusky was in police custody. That unquestionably would’ve been the right thing to do.

But the situation wasn’t that simple. And while I respect everyone's anger and frustration, I also I get how McQueary could’ve made the decisions that he made.

(What I don’t get, however, is how, after recovering from the shock of the encounter, he sat idly by when it was apparent that nothing was going to happen to Sandusky. How do you not speak up at that point? And then you continue to see Sandusky bring kids around the football complex and do nothing about it? That’s negligence I have a much harder time understanding, but that’s an entirely different story.)

Ever since all of this came to light, and the details have slowly trickled out, I’ve thought a lot about the case from every angle. I’ve thought about how the adults could stand by and let it happen, and I’ve thought about the poor kids who will forever be scarred by that inaction.

And as much as anything, I’ve thought about what it must’ve been like to be Mike McQueary on that late winter night in 2002.

Picture it…it’s a typical Friday evening, the end of a long day at the end of a long week, and you’re getting some things together before heading home, when suddenly you hear a disturbing noise in the other room. You go to check it out, having no idea what to expect, only to find that no level of expectation could possibly prepare you for what you end up seeing:

A grown man sodomizing a 10-year-old boy.

And it’s not just any man. It’s a man you’ve known and respected for over a decade, a man who’s been a pillar of your treasured community, a man who you admire and look up to and who has seemingly devoted his life to, of all things, helping children. Your brain scrambles and your stomach pretzels as you try to compute what it is that you’re witnessing.

What do you do?

Like everyone else, I’d like to think that I’d have the courage and the capacity to play the role of the hero. I’d like to think that my “fight” instinct would kick in, that I would incapacitate the man and take the kid in my arms and rush him to safety, all the while Coldplay’s “Fix You” is whaling in the background.

But I can’t say for sure. Maybe that makes me a coward, and maybe I’d have to answer to John Quinones, but it’s the truth. And honestly, there’s probably just as good of a chance that I’d do exactly what McQueary did, the same thing I still do as a 34-year-old when I’m lost and overwhelmed and in the need of guidance:

Call my father.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Red River Rationale

I’ve spent the last five years working in the Jewish communal world. There have been plenty of perks, to be sure, from free in-house health club memberships to the daily opportunity to serve perfectly reasonable parents who would never blow anything out of proportion.

But the unquestioned, undisputed best thing about my experience has been how often I haven’t had to go to work.

With a calendar filled with Jewish holidays – some of which I’ve never heard of – these organizations are constantly closing their doors in observance. And when the dates line up just right, you can end up with more four-day weekends than you know what to do with.

That’s exactly what has happened in 2011, as Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot and Simchat Torah have all fallen (or will fall) on Thursdays and Fridays. The lone exception is Yom Kippur, which is today. Deemed the holiest day of the year, Jews are expected to spend it in synagogue, atoning for their sins and cleansing their conscience, so that they can move forward in their lives with a clean slate.

While that may not be my idea of an ideal Saturday, it normally wouldn’t be that big of an issue. After all, I’ve screwed up plenty in the last 12 months, and I’ve got more than a day’s worth of stuff to apologize for. But the problem is that this year the holiday happens to coincide with another special occasion that also deserves my undivided attention:

Texas vs. Oklahoma.

Dating back over a century, the “Red River Rivalry” is one of the most storied series between two of the most storied programs in all of college football. It’s featured Hall of Fame coaches, Heisman Trophy winning players, and all-time great teams, and it’s important enough that fraternities and sororities feel the need to make a t-shirt about it every year.

Like any border war, there is a palpable hatred between the two sides, which contributes to one of the most electric atmospheres anywhere. Played at the neutral Cotton Bowl in Dallas, in the midst of the State Fair of Texas, the game day air is filled with obscenities and taunting and the seductive smell of corndogs. The crowd is split at the 50 yard line, leaving each horseshoe end filled with either burnt orange or crimson. From the opening kickoff, the stadium never stops shaking, as each play brings half of the fans to their feet. Even for those who aren’t fortunate enough to be there, the energy and enthusiasm are so strong that they pour through the radio or TV screen.

(Quick story: in 1995, the game ended in a tie. The ramps to get out were jammed, because everyone had stayed until the finish. Amid all of the chaos, one of my friends started the “Texas-Fight” chant, and immediately, a bunch of other Longhorn fans joined in. Well, this did not go over well with the crusty old Sooner who was right next to us. He turned to my friend and began berating him for leading a cheer for a team that hadn’t won. “That’s how STUPID you are!” he screamed over and over. And this was considered a standard interaction.)

Because UT and OU are in the same conference – and are also often near the top of the polls – there is more at stake than just the bragging rights that come from bending over your hated neighbor. There are title shots and national rankings up for grabs, and the outcome can make or break you, determining the course for the rest of your year.

In other words, it’s the Yom Kippur of each school’s season.

And while I was born a Jew, I was raised a Longhorn, and I now devote as much time to UT athletics as a rabbi does to breaking down the Talmud. Message boards, press conferences, game recaps, film analysis, recruiting videos, insider reports…you name it, I consume it. It’s a year-round obsession, and there are no holidays.

Not even for the holiest that Judaism has to offer.

So instead of being in services today, I’m going to be in my burnt orange shirt – the one that carried the Horns to the 2005 championship – living and dying with everything that happens on the Cotton Bowl floor. I realize that most people can’t understand this, that they probably think I’m crazy for putting a football game above something as important as Yom Kippur. And honestly, it’s hard to argue with them. But from the moment I discovered this scheduling conflict, I knew what my ultimate decision would be.

Still, there was an uneasiness inside me, and I was determined to figure out an argument that could justify my actions. Below is what I came up with. I don’t know if it’ll carry any weight with the Big Man upstairs, but I’m praying that He’ll at least give me a little something for the effort and find a way to show mercy on my soul…

Hunger Pangs

For the longest time, I never enjoyed watching UT games at a bar. It was just too loud, and there were too many distractions, and I couldn’t stand listening to those loud-mouthed, know-it-all fans who, in actuality, knew nothing at all. I much preferred a more controlled environment, where I could concentrate on the task at hand.

When I moved out of state a few years ago, though, I was forced to leave my couch, because the games were rarely televised locally. So I found out where the area’s alumni chapter held watch parties and gave it a shot. Much to my surprise, I kind of liked it, and I’ve been going ever since. It’s a really cool spot, with a downstairs room reserved specifically for Longhorns, and when the fight song blares after every score, you practically feel like you’re home again. The only thing better than the camaraderie – and the cowboy hat-wearing regular who high-fives the entire bar when something good happens is tough to beat – is the special Texas-flavored menu they offer, which is full of things like chili dogs and Frito Pie and discounted Shiner Bock beer.

But today, I won’t be ordering any of it.

Like Jews across the world, I’ll be fasting. It’s an integral component of Yom Kippur, a demonstration that, for one day at least, we put aside our physical needs and focus solely on our spiritual wellbeing. And while I won’t be doing it in a synagogue, I will be doing it surrounded by people stuffing their faces with some of my favorite Lone Star State delicacies.

That’s sacrifice enough, isn’t it?

Step 9

As I explained here, I’m a huge fan of DVR. And when my schedule forces me to, I’m okay recording a UT game and watching it after the fact. Trying to make it back home without finding out who won is a fun challenge, and I’ll pull out every trick I can think of to ensure that happens. I’ll ignore my phone. I’ll take off my glasses if I’m near a TV (probably the only advantage to having less than perfect vision). I’ll even stick my fingers in my ears like a two-year-old if I hear somebody mention the word “football.” I’m pretty much willing to do anything.

But I am not willing to do any of it for Texas-OU.

Unless there’s a family emergency or Bruce Willis is summoning me to stave off Armageddon, I have to watch this live. I’m just too consumed by it to be useful at anything else. I can barely sleep the night before the game, much less absolve myself of all of my sins during it.

So even if I went to services, it wouldn’t do any good. I’d be an absolutely atrocious atoner. I’d atone so poorly that all of the people I’ve wronged would come looking for me like Costanza did when the recovering alcoholic gave him an insufficient apology. Next thing you know, I’d be climbing in the ice chest at Baskin Robbins, looking for Rum Raisin and trying to atone for my insufficient atoning.

Time Served

Judaism states (or, at least Wikipedia says Judaism states) that the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are among the most important of the entire year. It’s a time for introspection and reconciliation, when we can step back and examine our lives and make things right with ourselves, with those around us, and ultimately, with G-d. The Lord is watching throughout, taking notes, penciling in to the “Book of Life” each person’s fate – who will live, and who will die – for the coming year.

And at the end of the 10th day, the Book – and thus, our destiny – is sealed.

Given this, it seems pretty dumb to use my “closing argument” to blow off services and watch a football game. But because I knew this was going to happen, I put in my time early, going to services on three consecutive days last week.

The way I see it, I’m like that college basketball team that is dominant all season, then loses in the first round of their conference tournament, but is still deserving of a No. 1 seed in March Madness. After all, your entire resume, your full body of work should count for something, and one bad day shouldn’t be enough to erase it.

But I guess only time will tell how much the Lord has in common with the NCAA Selection Committee.

Family Ties

I attended those three services last week – two for Rosh Hashanah, one for Shabbat – at a synagogue in Chicago. I prayed. I chanted. I sang. I stood up when I was instructed to. I even listened to every single word of the rabbi’s sermon.

Of course, it helped that my brother was the one giving it.

That’s right…my brother is a rabbi. He has been for over three years now, but the shock still hasn’t worn off yet. When he initially went back to school, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t know if it was going to be a good thing or a bad thing, if he’d transform into a completely unrecognizable person, or if it would somehow negatively affect our family dynamic.

It turns out that I had nothing to worry about. My brother is still the same guy, cracking Larry David jokes and walking around in his boxer shorts. But now when he does put his pants on, he goes out and leads his flock of congregants on the path towards enlightenment.

And it’s this work that should offer me some cover here. If each Jewish family is expected to devote a certain amount of time and effort to Judaism, then the Stollers are more than hitting their quota. My brother practices it a ton, I barely practice it at all, and it all evens out perfectly, placing our bottom line right where it needs to be. Rocking that boat will only screw things up at this point.

"Our Destiny Chooses Us"

In the movie Rounders, Mike McDermott (played by Matt Damon) is a professional poker player who is torn between two diverging life paths – grinding out a living at the table, or taking the legitimate route and becoming a lawyer. Deep down, he knows that he’s a card player. It’s who he is. But he recognizes the inherent risks that come with it, and he understands that pursuing that lifestyle will also cost him the girl he loves.

Searching for guidance, he turns to his mentor, Abe Petrovsky, one of his law school professors, who at one time had also faced a similar dilemma. In the professor’s case, his parents wanted him, coincidentally, to be a rabbi, but in his heart of hearts, he believed he was destined to work with the law. So that’s what he decided to do, and subsequently, his family never spoke to him again. Hearing this, Mike asks him if, knowing what he knows now, would he still have made the same choice.

“What choice?” Petrovsky replies.

When it comes down to it, we have to stay true to who we are. Whether it’s a gambler or a lawyer or, heaven forbid, a Sooner, nothing good comes from trying to be something we aren’t. We just end up angry and resentful, wondering what might have been.

Me? I’m a Longhorn, and when Texas lines up to play Oklahoma – even on Yom Kippur – that is what’s at the center of my universe, and I’m not going to fight it. I know that may be blasphemous, and I know I might be tempting fate, and I’ll be happy to repent again next year.

In the meantime, though, I just hope the Horns aren’t the ones who end up paying for my sin.

(Note: The Longhorns did end up paying for my sin, getting blasted 55-17. I have spent each and every day since praying to Bevo in hopes of achieving atonement.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

'X' Marks the Spot

There I was, laid out on my back, gasping for air, beads of sweat pouring down my face and stinging my eyes. I attempted to get up but couldn’t. My body was somehow aching and completely numb, all at the same time. With my life flashing before me, I battled disorientation, as my mind tried to make sense of the trauma it had just been through.

Was it a nightmare? Had I been shot? Was I having a near-death experience? Was I getting my chest waxed like The 40-Year-Old Virgin?

Nope…I had just finished my first workout for P90X.

An “extreme home fitness program,” P90X promises to get you in the best shape of your life over a 90 day period by putting you through a diverse set of workouts for an hour or so a day – and it’s that “or so” that’ll get you – six days a week. You push, you pull, you lunge, you extend, and you hope you don’t vomit, all within the friendly confines of your own living room.

The evil mastermind behind the series is trainer Tony Horton, one of those perfect looking, impossibly fit dudes who sadistically finds pleasure in a burning quadriceps muscle. He’s the leader on the DVDs, instructing you what to do while also doing the workouts himself. And as you’re grinding and grunting, trying to keep your lungs from ejecting out of your esophagus, he’s smiling and laughing, making it all look so easy. The man is an absolute beast. I sometimes wonder if he has any furniture in his house, or if he just gets into a “Wall Squat” when he feels like sitting down.

I first learned of the program about a year-and-a-half ago on sports talk radio, when seemingly every show I listened to began endorsing it. The hosts were all doing the workouts, and you couldn’t flip the channel without hearing somebody going on and on about how great they felt and how much their body had been transformed.

Despite this constant bombardment, though, I never really considered doing it. Beyond the basic commitment that would cut into my “doing nothing” time, I just really don’t like working out. The straining, the sweating, the shaking…it’s not fun. And while I’ve forced myself to do a consistent routine a few days a week for some time now, I always want it to be over as quickly as possible. Honestly, if I had access to a wish-granting genie, the ability to jam all of my exercising into a Rocky-esque montage – where three minutes, some inspirational music and a Russian mountaintop is all you need to become a chiseled world champion – would be on my shortlist.

But over time, like any commercial jingle, the gospel of P90X seeped into my subconscious, growing on me the same way George endeared himself to the “Rat Hat” saleswoman who at first couldn’t stand him.

Opening me up that much more to its message was the fact that I’ve been feeling stressed and a little out of sorts lately, like something just isn’t right. And as a way to cope with all of these fears and anxieties, I’ve been breaking down and bending my self-imposed exercise and diet rules. I’ll skip a workout. I’ll go to McDonald’s. I’ll skip a workout to go to McDonald’s. And while these rebellions have initially been freeing, it never takes long for the shame and guilt to set in, leaving me to wallow in regret, as I poke my ever-softening midsection and try to figure out how to not lie when my mom inevitably asks, “Have you been taking care of yourself?”

Things finally tipped a few weeks ago when I was, of all things, going to pick up my car from the shop. The service station I use is right across the street from my office, and it sits on top of this big hill that, while annoying to go up and down, shouldn’t be anything that a seemingly healthy 33-year-old should even notice. But as I made my way up it, I found myself struggling to catch my breath.

And I was just walking.

Standing in line to pay, I was downright embarrassed, and also a little angry. Here I was, blessed with great genes and a strong metabolism, and yet I was wasting it all on Scrubs reruns and chicken nuggets. How had I gotten to this point? I knew that I was better than this, and I knew exactly what I had to do about it.


After buying the DVDs and spending approximately 83 hours assembling my pull-up bar, the final step in my preparation was determining when I was actually going to do the workouts. An hour a day is a lot, even for someone who isn’t married, doesn’t have kids and whose to-do list often includes watching high school highlight reels of potential Texas Longhorn football prospects.

(I’ll pause here for all of the parents of young kids to shake their heads in “Time…there’s never any time” disgust).

While I’ve always had an allergy to alarm clocks, I ultimately decided that I’d wake up early and exercise before going to work. It was like playing with found time, I figured, and it’d be the perfect way to get the agony over and done with. Plus, I’ve always heard people talk about how good they feel after a pre-dawn workout, how it’s a great jumpstart to their morning, how it’s a natural high that fuels them throughout the day. Maybe I could turn into that annoying, sunshiny person who everyone else quietly can’t stand.

Well, I haven’t.

Instead of being energized and invigorated, I’m just exhausted. I walk around in a haze, and come 9pm, I’m buried in the couch, doing a dead-on impersonation of my early-to-bed mother – sitting upright, my head drifting down, down, down until it snaps back to level, as I violently pinball in and out of consciousness. Once I can finally summon the motivation to get up and go to my room, the sensation of sinking into my mattress is one of pure ecstasy.

It’s the moment that I look forward to all of my waking hours, and it would be, without a doubt, the highlight of my day, if it weren’t for one haunting realization:

The next time I’m awake, there’s another workout waiting for me.

And these workouts are absolutely brutal, punishing every muscle you can imagine with exotic sets like “Full Supination Concentration Curls” and “Flip-Grip Twist Triceps Kickbacks.” There’s a running clock at the bottom of the screen that lets you know how much time is left, both for that particular exercise and for the entire workout. While I barely noticed it initially, now I can’t take my eyes off it, like a 5th grader looking at his watch, waiting for the Recess bell to ring. And I swear it keeps moving slower and slower with each passing routine.

Forget bull riding…do Plyometrics once, and you’ll gain a full appreciation for just how long eight seconds truly is.

I was at a wedding the weekend before last, and there was a single-person restroom right outside of the reception hall. As I was about to go in, I saw that there was a sign posted saying that the restroom was only for people who couldn’t make it down the stairs to the larger facilities. Now, I’m the last person who’d ever take a handicap parking spot or purposefully inconvenience the elderly, but I stood there for a good minute trying to rationalize to myself that the authors of the sign had “people in the first week of P90X” in mind when they wrote it.

(Then I remembered that when you’re faced with a dilemma like this, think of what Larry David would do – and do the opposite.)

Just 10 workouts into the program, I not surprisingly have little to show for my efforts. I’m not even capable of doing all of the required exercises yet, but I figure I’ll see some level of improvement eventually, if for no other reason than that I’m doing something more than I was before.

But honestly, I didn’t decide to do P90X just for the physical benefits. Like I explained here, for as long as I can remember, my life has felt like it’s out in front of me, like my present is nothing more than an inconsequential prelude to the real thing. And this “someday” quality has taken away any sense of urgency. I can sit around and watch TV all I want…the important stuff can wait for another day.

It’s like I’m standing at a crossroads and never choosing a direction.

But the time has come to change that now, and in some strange way, taking on this program is a way to get things started. It’s a first step, a shift in energy, and if I can complete something that’s this far out of my comfort zone, then…I don’t know…who knows what else I can do?

At least, that’s what I tell myself when I’m drenched in sweat, my legs convulsing and my will to live quivering as I try to hold a “Half Moon” pose in the Yoga workout. I’ve never worked so hard in my life, but I made this commitment, and as long as my body will allow me, I’m going to keep showing up, keep putting that DVD in the machine, and keep hitting play. Because, as the immortal Tony Horton would say, once you do that, there’s only one thing left to do:

Bring it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

In a New York Minute

On September 10, 2002, USA TODAY ran an article describing what life was like on that same date in 2001 – the day before the world changed forever. And when you read it, you get the sense that things weren’t all that different from the way they are today. While terrorism may have seemed like something only other countries had to worry about (there was actually a suicide bombing in Istanbul), the news was still filled with frivolous headlines about Hollywood gossip and adulterous politicians. A Gallup Poll revealed that the majority of Americans were “dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States.”

But what’s most striking about the piece are the stories of how some of the people who would perish in the impending attacks spent their last full day on earth. Some are, not surprisingly, heartbreaking, like the woman whose dinner plans with her mother got canceled. Some are eerie, like the son who, for some unknown reason, made his weekly call to his parents on that Monday night, instead of Wednesday like he usually did. And some are, in a way, touching, like the father who was forced to stay home with his two daughters, because his wife had a meeting; or the man who stayed up late folding a load of laundry, a surprise his wife wouldn’t find until the following morning as he was on his way to the World Trade Center.

Blessed with the benefit of hindsight, though, they’re all haunting, because we know what’s coming next. And that perspective allows us to see how these everyday, seemingly trivial occurrences, decisions and inconveniences add up to make something so much more, something that should never be taken for granted:


But if we spin things forward and apply that same perspective to our own lives, we may see that that’s exactly what we’re doing. Caught up in the tunnel vision of our day-to-day, weighted down by all of the pressures and demands and responsibilities, it can be difficult to be grateful for the small things, to not get frustrated with the never-ending hassles and annoyances, to step back and appreciate the big picture. There are just too many places to go and people to see. There’s too much money to make. There’s too much to do, and too little time to do it.

And while we talk a good game about living today as if it’s our last, that’s not really what shows up for many of us. We say that our families are our priority, that the people we love are what are most important to us, yet we spend the majority of our time away from them.

We’re like the out of shape person who claims to want to be fit, but never works out.

Of course, this neglect is not always driven by greed or selfishness. Oftentimes, it’s just the opposite – we work harder and faster and longer because we care about those who are close to us, to ensure that they have everything we can possibly provide them. But in doing so, we sometimes end up missing out on those precious moments we didn’t know were significant until it’s too late.

It’s a shame that we allow it to get to that point, that it takes something disastrous – an accident, a medical diagnosis, a death – to mute the madness, to strip away all of the trivialities and shift our focus back to finding some semblance of balance in our lives.

Maybe that’s just how it is, though. Maybe it’s impossible to be in tune to the good stuff without experiencing the bad.

So while September 11th will always live on as a time of great tragedy, as a symbol of heroism and bravery, of compassion and the American spirit, maybe it can also serve as a reference point for just how fragile our lives really are. Everything can change, just like that. One minute, our lives are about bank accounts and traffic and deadlines; the next they’re about…well…lord knows what. And by simply carrying that horrific day with us, we will no longer need any more misfortune to remind us about what truly matters.

Because really, for all we know, any day could be our own September 10th.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Swing Thoughts

I know I’m probably alone in saying this, but The Replacements is one of my favorite sports movies. While I recognize its absurdities (the placekicker smokes while lining up a field goal), its inaccuracies (why do they call timeout after a kickoff to stop the clock?) and its inability to decide on whether it's slapstick or serious, it’s still got a likeable story with a bunch of good messages about confidence, redemption and the game day advantages of having a sideline full of strippers.

(And if that’s not enough, it’s got an all-star “Hey, that’s so-and-so” cast, featuring Mikey from Swingers as a cop-turned-maniacal linebacker, Roy from The Office as a deaf, sure-handed tight end, and Tim and Billy Riggins’ future Friday Night Lights love interest as a hot cheerleader who can break down a zone defense.)

What sticks with me the most from the movie, though, is the scene in which the new replacement players are engaged in a team-building exercise where everyone has to open up about what they’re afraid of. When it comes around to Shane Falco, the quarterback and unquestioned leader, he gives a surprising response: quicksand.

“You’re playing, and you think everything is going fine,” Falco explains. “Then one thing goes wrong. And then another. And another. You try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink. Until you can’t move…you can’t breathe…because you’re in over your head. Like quicksand.”

It was a revealing confession, one that we can all probably identify with on some level. But I’d bet that there’s not another quarterback out there who can identify with it more than the University of Texas’ Garrett Gilbert.

Gilbert, like Falco, has always had star potential. A five-star recruit and national high school player of the year, he was blessed with all of the physical skills in the world, but since he arrived on campus, he’s seemed to struggle with a sort of emotional block that has kept him from performing up to his true capabilities.

In 2010, his first as the Longhorns’ starter, he suffered through a brutal campaign, throwing the second-most interceptions in the country and becoming public enemy number two among the UT message board crowd (Offensive Coordinator Greg Davis took the undisputed top spot).

And this past Saturday night, in Texas’ season-opening win against Rice, Gilbert got off to another uneven start.

While he did some nice things early on, like hitting a beautiful deep ball to set up the Horns’ first score, watching him, as a fan, still felt a lot like it did last year. Not only was he forcing some throws and struggling with his accuracy, he looked tight and anxious, seemingly pressing to make something happen. You could sense the tension through the computer screen (I was forced to watch an illegal online feed, because I’m not one of the seven people who get The Longhorn Network). There was no flow, no fun, and you wondered if a face-mask-grabbing disaster was coming every time he dropped back.

And eventually, it (almost) did. On a critical third down early in the second half, as he was about to get sacked, Gilbert inexplicably tried to lateral to his running back, who was trailing the play. The ball went bouncing towards the Texas end zone, the perfect opportunity for a defensive scoop-and-score, but UT fortunately recovered it.

It was a cardinal sin mistake, a play you wouldn’t expect out of a high school freshman – much less a college junior – and it appeared there was a chance that Gilbert could get benched. The word all offseason was how the starting quarterback would be on a short leash, and with the offense sputtering, this seemed to be as good of an opening as any to sit him down.

But I hadn’t given up on Gilbert just yet, and I was hoping the coaches hadn’t, either. Not just because I blindly support anyone in burnt orange, and not just because I thought he was still the best option at quarterback, but for a far more personal reason:

He reminds me a lot of myself.

Several years ago, when I was attempting to play golf competitively, I battled my share of difficult times, just like Gilbert has. Thankfully, I didn’t have a bunch of rabid fanatics depending on me to make their Saturdays, though, because if I had, I’d probably be locked up in a straightjacket somewhere, staring off into space like David Puddy.

For me, my internal expectations gave me more than enough to talk about with my therapist.

I was uncompromisingly hard on myself, and it got to the point where I dreaded going out to practice, because I knew what awaited. Instead of just concentrating on consistently improving, I was trying to qualify for the PGA Tour with every swing of the club. Each shot carried with it this far-reaching, core-shaking conclusion – if it wasn’t good, then I wasn’t good – and, sad as it is to admit, it turned the golf course into my own, private torture chamber.

I’d get up on the tee, and I’d be immediately drawn to all of the deep, dark places where my golf ball could end up. It was all I saw, and it flooded my mind with a million negative thoughts about how I wasn’t aimed properly or that I didn’t have the right club or that I was going to reenact Tip Cup’s performance on the U.S. Open driving range. The tension was utterly crippling, and despite telling myself that it wasn’t the end of the world if I were to hit a bad shot, it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that I believed that it would be the end of the world, and then when I hit it crooked, it felt like the end of the world. Each negative outcome would feed the next, and I couldn’t figure out how to break out of the cycle.

When you’re constantly worried about screwing up, you have very little chance of performing. Driven by fear, your natural ability is muted, and you become so consumed with all that can go wrong that any success you experience happens almost by accident.

One afternoon, I was out playing, and on the first hole, I hit a really nice approach shot about five feet from the flagstick. But as I lined up the birdie putt, I had absolutely no confidence that I was going to make it. The fears of failure, of success, of the gopher from Caddyshack jumping out of the hole and kicking me in the crotch swirled through my head, suffocating me with anxiety. I tried to shut it out by visualizing a positive image, but ultimately, it was no use. I could only see the golf ball finishing above ground.

And sure enough, that’s exactly where it came to rest.

Staring at my disobedient Titleist, I didn't know what to do. Why did I keep doing this to myself? Why was I giving in to such a ridiculous thought pattern? When was it going to register that playing out of fear and worry and caution was guaranteeing the negative results from which I was trying to protect myself?

As I walked to the next hole, though, I felt this anger swell up inside. But for once, it wasn’t a debilitating anger…it was an “I’m not going to put up with this anymore” fire, and it allowed me to see things more clearly. Maybe I was going mental, or maybe I’d just hit rock bottom, but whatever it was, I was a different person when I stepped on the tee box.

Golfers are often taught to focus on one thought as they prepare to hit a shot. Typically, it’s some sort of technical key, a trigger to help them execute a particular move in their swing, like “Rotate your hips” or “Stay down through the ball.” But as I stood over my next shot, armed with this newfound determination, I decided it was time that I go with something a little less sophisticated and a lot more primal:

F*** it.

What if I made a terrible swing? F*** it. What if I put it in that impossibly deep bunker? F*** it. What if I banana ball it through that kitchen window? F*** it. Just hit it. No strings attached. No deep, lasting effects. No nothing. The ball is going to go where it’s going to go, and wherever it ends up, we’ll go find it and hit it again.

Not surprisingly, I flushed it right where I was looking, and this time, it was no accident. For the first time in a long while, my swing had some authority to it. It had acceleration. It had power. It had command.

And more than anything, it had freedom.

When I got to the green, I decided to take things a step further – for the rest of the round, I was going to putt with my eyes closed. I’d read about tour players doing this to get back in touch with their feel, but for me, it was more about disassociating from what could go wrong. If I couldn’t see it, I wouldn’t worry about it. I could just concentrate on what I could control – my putting stroke – and trust that the golf ball could find its own way through the great unknown.

I won’t bore you with the shot-by-shot – I know that most people can’t stand to watch golf on TV, much less read about it – but I played the next 10 holes in three under par. That won’t win you much, but it was the easiest, most care-free stretch of my life. My swing wasn’t a model of perfection, nor was I in the “zone”…it was just that I had finally gotten out of my own way, giving my true talent the chance to take effect. Because I literally did not care what happened, I was able to focus on the process of what I wanted to achieve instead of being obsessed with the results. And with my mind uncluttered, my body could perform.

Naturally, once it registered that I had something going, I immediately wanted to protect it, and my old demons began wreaking their usual havoc again. But even though my back nine scorecard was littered with bogeys, I left the golf course knowing that I’d found the answer.

When things aren’t going well, our instincts obviously tell us to do whatever we can to fix them. We want to feel like we have control, so we dig in deeper, and we fight harder, and we scream louder, regardless of where it gets us. But the trick is really to do just the opposite - to relax, to let it go, to try not to try.

And if I could give Garrett Gilbert one piece of advice, that’s exactly what I’d tell him.

After making that head-scratching lateral, Gilbert was fortunately given another shot to redeem himself. Facing a pivotal point in his UT career, he responded admirably by leading the Horns on consecutive touchdown drives of 72, 99 and 94 yards. By no means was he perfect, and there was still plenty of room for improvement, but he did seem to settle down some, flashing the ability that had gotten him tagged just a year ago as the Next Big Thing.

The jury is still out on whether or not he can uphold the recent quarterback tradition that was established by the genius of Vince Young and Colt McCoy, but I still think he’s got a shot. Because beyond his improved second half production, I was most encouraged by something else that I saw the other night, something you won’t find in the game film or on the stat sheet.

Texas had just scored one of their final TDs, and the camera caught Gilbert on the sideline, reacting to the play. Jumping up and down, smiling, celebrating with his teammates, it seemed as if the pressure valve was finally loosening for him. He was happy. He was light. He was just a kid again, playing a game that was supposed to be fun.

And in that moment, even if just for a second, you could almost see his head poking out from underneath the quicksand.

About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?