One reason I’m not interested in college football— or any football for that matter, though the season is now upon us— is that I had the good fortune to graduate from the school with the worst football record in America.
Most folks with even a passing knowledge of the sporting life know the travails of my alma mater, Northwestern University, on the shores of Lake Michigan in suburban Chicago. Sure, other teams boast longer slumps. Prairie College (I assume it’s on a prairie) once lost 80 games in a row. And Columbia University (not on a prairie) once lost 44 games straight. But these schools are not in the Big Ten, which is to say they don’t play Real American Football. So Northwestern wins the title of Worst.
Sports triviaristas will argue that the Northwestern University Wildcats have had some good years of late. Heck, they went to the Rose Bowl in the ‘95 season. But that was too late for me, class of 1973. In my day, it was three losing seasons out of four.
Between 1976 and 1982— seven long years!— the Wildcats won only six football games. Between 1979 and 1982, they lost 34 games in a row. And, during the fabled 1980 and 1981 seasons, they earned not a single victory. (Part of the explanation was that Northwestern required its players to be able to read, write and cipher— and not be the first member of their family to walk erect. Or wear shoes.)
Long after I’d graduated, I found it useful to boast about the school’s lack of pigskin prowess, as the sports cliché puts it. Brag and someone will quickly challenge you, but tell them your school was a loser— big time— and they’re only too happy to believe. I told some whoppers. I claimed that Michigan State played its freshman team in the second half of a game against the Wildcats. I said that Ohio State football coaching legend Woody Hayes put a Pop Warner team (that’s football’s Little League) on the field for the final quarter when Ohio State played Northwestern— and the kids scored twice. I boasted— I might have been under the influence of a couple of beers at the time— that Notre Dame played Northwestern blindfolded, and beat them handily. I told a guy at an airport bar that when I was an undergraduate the coach would ask people to come down out of the stands and suit up. The guy bought me a drink. Everybody loves a loser.
When the Great Scorer comes to write against my name, as sports cliché meister Grantland Rice put it, I fear he will note that I have been a poor sports fan. I’m not the sort of American to linger at the water cooler. I don’t have much to say about last night’s game because I did not watch last night’s game. I don’t care who’s No. 1. I’d go to a Tupperware party before I went to a Super Bowl party.
I’m less interested in who’s on first than who’s on parole.
I have never been to a Ravens game. But I enjoy their off-field antics. Oh, the fun-loving mischief those high-spirited lads get into when they aren’t playing football— the lively games of chance, the social outings involving cutlery. And their adventures with the judicial system.
As I write, the AP is reporting that Texas Rangers pitching ace Kenny Rogers has beaten two cameramen. The club says “Kenny” has “anger issues.” “Kenny” is 40 years old. But he’s just a boy of summer, bless his heart. (He got a 20-game suspension at this writing.)
The Olympics are the most spectacular example of sport— at its worst. The only thing I enjoy about them is the weird stuff. The gent from Africa who’d never swam before, dog-paddling his way down the pool. The Jamaican bobsled team. Guys going off ski jumps backward. And drug scandals. Give me a 250-pound East German “woman” with a deep voice any day. That’s about my speed.
A lot of this stuff is not that hard to figure out. Panem et circensus, as the ancients called it. Bread and circuses. Fritos and circuses. Sneakers and circuses. Takes the mind off more serious matters. If we’re hunkered down around the water cooler worried about whether there’s joy in Mudville, we can hardly be troubled about the mess in Mesopotamia.
One of the most amazing canards of American life is the quaint and quite wacky notion that sports builds character. It does indeed. Pete Rose. Rosie Ruiz. John Rocker. Bobby Knight. Tonya Harding. Ty Cobb. Al Campanis. Marv Albert. Darryl Strawberry. Kobe Bryant. Shoeless Joe Jackson. Mike Tyson. O.J. Simpson. Mark McGwire. Barry Bonds. Sammy Sosa. Dennis Rodman.
Take the children to the old ballgame, plenty of role models there both on and off the field. Get them while they’re young. Just the other day, I saw a sullen little girl at a local swim club wearing a sweatshirt reading “Second Place is First Loser.” She’s off to a fine start.