Bets of Emotional Energy

This reflection was originally posted on January 13, 2015, shortly after the Ohio State Buckeyes won the inaugural College Football Playoff.

The only other national championship I know was won sometime after midnight in the early days of 2003, about a half hour after I had been sent to bed. I missed almost all of the overtime periods, including the controversial pass interference call. I had a celebration the next morning, where I jumped up too quickly from my kitchen stool and scratched my finger on a metal piece under the counter. The next most recent consensus national championship was the 1968 Ohio State football team. The Browns’ last championship was in 1964. The Ohio State basketball team last won in 1960. The Indians won last in 1948, and the Cavs have never won. The Blue Jackets hahahahahahahahahahahaha

This is different. I’ve watched every snap of this game. All of the ups and downs of every Elliott run, every random ridiculous turnover, every Joey Bosa dipshit provocation, and every gratuitous exterior shot of Jerry World.

And yet, something about it feels kind of strange.

Maybe it’s the fact that Ohio State is really the Yankees of the college landscape, a team that is expected to compete year in and year out, and even if there are things I can point to to prove OSU’s commitment to “doing things the right way”.

Maybe it’s the fact that that I’m tired from driving 300 miles through snow today and am not fully going to appreciate this until days or maybe weeks down the road.

Maybe it’s the fact that it shouldn’t be this easy to replace not one, but two Heisman-candidate quarterbacks. Maybe it’s the idea that the Virginia Tech loss, a loss that would have destroyed any national title contender in any other year (excluding 2007…but we don’t talk about 2007), ultimately didn’t come back to bite us.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m currently in a hotel room in a town called Auburn, the last team to beat Oregon in a national title game. (I can’t even write that one with a straight face)

Don’t get me wrong. This championship is special. The narratives that have dominated this season are the sorts of thing that prime sportsy memories are made of. It feels both less fluky and more earned than that 2002 championship in many ways. And to do it by knocking the SEC out of the title game entirely and then taking it to the best team in what may be the best conference in the country (outside the B10, of course) is not only a great win, but a literal tide-shifting victory in terms of how not only this team but this conference is viewed. (Michigan State over Baylor and Wisconsin, sans coach, over Auburn didn’t exactly hurt either.)

Sports fandoms are essentially a lifelong bet, not made with money, but with emotional attachment. They are in many ways patently silly, but they showcase some fascinating things about the way that we operate as people: our ability to take random occurrences and turn them into narratives, our ability to find common ground where there might not be any other, our ability to assign relatively arbitrary normative value without much justification, and our ability to yell repeatedly at a group of people who definitely can’t hear you, but if they sat back and thought about it, must know you and thousands of others are doing so.

My relationship with Ohio State has cooled over the last few years, particularly since I spent two years at Minnesota, since the Tressel mess happened and Urban was hired, since the Big Ten pile-on-fest really got going in earnest (deflecting some of my attention to defending the conference as a whole, minus one team up north), and since I moved away from Ohio. However, I think it is evident that you get out of sports what you put in: in a recent Ohio State/Minnesota basketball game, although I had incredibly convoluted rooting interests running in many different directions, I still breathed a sigh of relief when Ohio State ultimately pulled out the narrow win. And yet, I had a conversation with a friend during the game about the Browns. I made an off-the-cuff remark about five separate heartbreaking losses during the 2007 season, and the reaction was essentially what you might expect: something to the effect of “why do you remember the scores and general recaps of LOSSES from eight years ago?”. The answer, of course, is because I’m a crazy person, but the other answer is screw the Steelers. (And, for that year, the Cardinals, Bengals, and the Raiders too.)

I grew up with Ohio State, but not in the same way that I grew up with Cleveland sports. As much as it probably gets tiring for anybody who I force to listen to me about it, the word “championship” is a complicated concept for me. (Ask me about the 2007 Indians snowout sometime for a taste of my unreasonable thoughts on this issue.)

And so I can only imagine what it would feel like for one of my pro teams, a team that I have developed a strong bond with over repeated losing, to break through in the same way.

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