Why don’t I want to burn a couch?
That was my initial reaction after the game Saturday night, after the final seconds ticked off that scoreboard in Charlottesville and that 26-14 score went into the history books. It was a big win, probably the biggest I’ll see here at the school unless the Tribe wins a national championship this year, and I was definitely excited. But I wasn’t that excited and that left me disappointed.
Growing up, I had watched tons of news reports out of places like Morgantown, College Park and Chapel Hill where I saw acts of destruction, which looked to be the products of joyous delirium. Whether those acts were spirited or felonious I guess depends on your point of view, but I know I wanted to have that feeling sometime in my lifetime. Saturday seemed like it could have been that chance, but the feeling didn’t come and I was left wondering why.
The first thing I thought of was that it was my own fault, my lack of delirium, because I had successfully indoctrinated myself in to believing that the Tribe could win on Saturday. You see I worked over the summer in the athletic department, in charge of tasks ranging from scanning pictures to editing the football media guide. To the credit of the people working in the department, which I guess was an extension of the attitudes of the people on the team, nobody in the department thought the Tribe would be blown out and if they won it would not have been an upset.
So instead of concentrating on things like the 21 point spread between the two teams or the difference in subdivisions, I thought of the game compartmentally. Could the Tribe’s defensive line potentially dominate (yes)? Would the offensive line hold up against an ACC pass rush (I was doubtful)? Was the secondary fast enough to keep up (maybe)? The thing I realized though when I went through my checklist was that I really felt the Tribe had a chance, that I had drank deep from the Kool Aid as much as any player on the team. Doing this I realized took a little bit of the delirium out of the win for me because you cannot lose your mind over something you at least somewhat expected to happen.
The way the Tribe played didn’t help matters either. Looking back at the box score, Saturday’s game wasn’t the 1980 match up between the USSR and the United States at Lake Placid, where an overlooked Jim Craig stopped a flurry of Russian shots with a skill level he had never shown before to preserve the victory. It wasn’t Chaminade sneaking up on UVA basketball in the 1980s or Appalachian State eking out a victory at the Big House. In those games, you could argue the underdog needed luck as well as fortune to achieve the victory. On Saturday, it was clear the Tribe was the best team on the field.
Take as a comparison the Appalachian State-Michigan game from a couple of years ago. A great victory, one I remember being excited about even though I have no connection to either team, yet looking back at the game it could be argued that Michigan outplayed ASU. The Wolverines had 23 first downs compared to ASU’s 19, racked up 479 total yards compared to ASU’S 387 and out gained the Mountaineers 233-227 in passing yards. Need more? Michigan had 86 more rushing yards, one less turnover, the same number of penalties and only two and a half less minutes of possession than Appalachian State.
Comparatively, the Tribe out gained UVA 309 to 268 total yards. William and Mary had 15 first downs compared to the Cavaliers’ 12, 184 passing yards compared to 137, 35:36 minutes of possession compared to 24:24 minutes and most importantly, one turnover compared to UVA’s seven turnovers. The only statistical categories Virginia owned over William and Mary were rushing yards; they had six more, and penalties, where they had four less for 25 yards.
By no means should William and Mary be punished for their dominance over the Cavaliers Saturday night, in fact I think it makes the victory even more impressive. However, a victory that is expected I think means less to us as fans than a victory you can see coming. Think about those celebrations again, the ones with the burning couches and drunken revelry. You rarely ever see someone at that type of celebration turn to the camera and yell, “I knew we could do it!” No when you’re watching those celebrations on television you usually hear, “I can’t believe it. We’re the champs” or “No one thought we could do it.” The most joyous victories both in sport and in life are those that come unexpectedly.
The unexpected victories mean the most to us as fans because they maximize what we put in to them. Being a fan is tough, if you’re a real fan. You’re expected to give your passion, your energy, your free moments, your spare income and your thoughts, which occur in moments of solitude to your team. Essentially you give to your team your whole self and tie your sense of self worth to them. You may deny that last fact but it is completely true. If it were not, none of us would follow sports.
We follow sports because they make us feel powerful. Go back to Saturday night again. Think about your reaction, how delighted you felt as B.W. Webb ran back that interception for a touchdown. Was it because you know B.W. personally and were happy for him? Did you help come up with the game plan that put him in that position and the interception was the culmination of your hard work? Or was it because when he took the ball to the end zone you thought, “We did it. We’re going to win”? If you are like me, it was probably the latter.
The best thing I’ve seen on this subject comes from the ironically titled A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter, which is neither an about sport nor pastimes. It’s a great book though, very sexy and Salter writes like Hemingway if Hemingway had known how to write for both for women and men. Anyway, in the book the hero of the narrator, Dean, is killed and on the last page he is described thusly by the narrator:
“But of course, in one sense, Dean never died—his existence is superior to such accidents. One must have heroes, which is to say, one must create them. And they become real through our envy, our devotion. It is we who give them their majesty, their power, which we ourselves could never posses. And in turn, they give some back. But they are mortal, these heroes, just as we are. They do not last forever. They fade. They vanish. They are surpassed, forgotten—one hears of them no more.”
If this passage doesn’t describe fandom then I don’t know what does. The best example I can think of for this is my love for Adam Jones, the centerfielder for the Baltimore Orioles. I know nothing about the man. He could be the nicest guy in the world or he could go home every day and kick puppies. What I do know though is that when he hits a home run to put the Orioles overtop the Red Sox in the bottom of the eighth; it makes me happy because it makes me feel important. Because he did something powerful, it makes me feel powerful. It makes me feel important and it justifies my fandom.
Substitute Adam Jones for R.J. Archer or Adrian Tracy or Sean Lissemore and I think the reaction is the same. I would venture to guess that the majority of fans of the College of William and Mary do not have personal relationships with any of these players; I know that I do not. I also know that when Archer threads the ball through two defenders or when Tracy pursues a man all the way across the field to make a tackle or when Lissemore busts through a double team, it makes me feel good because, without sounding too childish, these guys are my heroes. Not heroes in a personal sense of admiration but heroes in the sense that they are my representatives on the field of battle. And when they do something great and powerful, I by extension have done something great and powerful. Even though Archer, Tracy and Lissemore are still regular guys, albeit regular guys with exceptional athletic talents, I give them this power because they can give it back to me in return.
This brings me to my second reason why I think the win at Virginia didn’t put me in a couch-burning mood. I think it’s because unlike many of the other students here, I don’t have a tie to the University of Virginia.
I am from Maryland and grew up personally ambivalent towards UVA. I never really rooted hard against their teams, I never applied there and to be honest, I only know maybe one or two people who go there. But I would expect many of the students here at William and Mary have very personal ties to UVA. Take my roommate for example. He went to the game, spending the pregame at the fraternity of one of his friends from high school. He’s from Reston so he knows a good number of people who go there and had applied there out of high school himself as a backup option.
I would venture to guess that my roommate’s experience is not uncommon here at the College, with many people having friends at Virginia or having applied there. For this group of people, a victory over UVA means more than even say a victory over Oklahoma or Notre Dame because it makes them powerful in a very personal context. William and Mary’s win in Charlottesville confirmed the legitimacy of the football team and by extension the legitimacy of the people who give themselves to the team. The win makes them feel powerful and although they themselves could never throw a pass 50 yards or flatten a running back, they can do it vicariously to the people who felt they were worth less than Virginia students through the football team.
Is this feeling a good thing? Well certainly not in extremes. One should never tie their personal value too closely to athletic performance because athletes are mortals and thus are fallible. It is funny to hear commentators wail and gnash their teeth about steroids in baseball, saying it sets a bad example for the children, because any child with good parents should learn to separate the feeling you get from your favorite player’s performance on the field from their actions off it. Also, one shouldn’t tie the performance of their favorite player too closely to their own self worth because that can be irritating. We’ve all met the guy who thinks he’s the coolest person ever because he loves Tom Brady and Tom Brady is wicked awesome.
However, on the whole though I find no harm in getting satisfaction out of your favorite team’s athletic performance because it provides a sense of community. I’ll end with a story from Saturday night, after the game. I had to work until 9:30 but had plans to go out with my roommate after. Now I love the guy to death but my roommate may be the most sport illiterate person I have ever met. When we played flag football together, we had to make him the center because he could play no other position. He proceeded to call himself the hutter because he thought that’s what the position was called. He also caused maybe three false starts a game because when I would say hike he had the habit of turning around and asking, “Now?” as the rest of the team went out in motion.
When I saw him Saturday night he had a big smile on his face. “We won,” he said. I think maybe he’s seen a total of three football games in his entire life but Saturday it didn’t matter. For him, he was just as much a part of the rewards of the victory because on this night, for this game, he had given himself to the team. He had cheered and yelled and screamed with the best of them, making him a part of the community. And although I didn’t have the same emotional investment in the game as he had, I was a part of the community too.
We won. The phrase causes a differing range of emotions different people, from a pleasant excitement to a couch burning euphoria. But no matter what level of emotion you attached to the win, if you rooted for the Tribe Saturday night you were a part of something special. For one night, it was one team, one Tribe.