WE’VE JUST RETURNED from a weekend in New Orleans, a long haul trip we made to watch the college playoff Sugar Bowl between my beloved Clemson Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide. It was a high expectations matchup between the two contenders in last year’s high drama National Championship–suffice it to say there was a lot riding on this game. There was also a lot of time in the car (1300 miles) and a little bit of time on Bourbon Street (lunch+), which I have to say was quite the blast.
The game’s outcome, though? Not so much.
Still the experience was a powerful way to kick off a new year because it set my feet squarely on the ground, reconciling giddy, hopeful, the-world-in-bright-colors possibility with loss and disappointment and the sobering gray of acceptance; because sometimes your heart feels battered and beaten* and then something happens that fills it with the joy of an even more brilliant light.
(*Lest you think I am being overly dramatic I should tell you there was a fan in front of us who turned and taunted and insulted so obnoxiously officials ultimately removed him from the stands. Believe you me, my heart felt stomped on.)
BUT THEN THE JOY came, unexpected as it was, and it happened like this.
There was that awful late game moment when in a single play the hand wringing stops and your husband (the optimist) turns and says, “That’s it, baby. That’s the game.” And you know it’s true but still you can’t grasp it, still your hope holds on to hope in spite of every single visible odd.
The clock clicks on, and time expires, and a giant lump forms in your throat. It’s surprising because it’s not so much for the “L” but for every senior on that team, for every player of every age who has spent so much of the year–and years before that–doing the gut-wrenching physical, mental, and emotional work it takes to be a great competitor. It’s for the men on that field who just yesterday were boys and through commitment and grit and tenacity brought happiness and pride and a collective spirit of one to the greater Clemson family.
You stay on your feet. You watch them cross to midfield where, helmets tucked under arms, they meet the victors for good sportsmen handshakes and “good game” acknowledgements over and over and over. Then they turn back, facing their disappointed fans, and make the long, painful walk toward the locker room.
You can hardly take it. You want to wrap your arms around each and every one, hugging them tight, thanking them, remembering the season and the fun wrought purely from their hard work and dedication. Holding their tender hearts in your gentle, grateful hands.
And then they do this.
That team, standing together in loss, swaying and singing the Clemson alma mater.
IF YOUR COLLEGE FOOTBALL loyalties lie elsewhere I hope you haven’t given up on this post, for I don’t mean it to be one about Clemson, per se. Fans of every team have experienced the same proverbial thrills and awful, dreadful defeats. It’s the stuff college football is made of, after all, this pendulum intent on proving we never know what will happen season to season, week to week, play to play. We ride the wave, we fans, and we hang our hopes–hang them high–on the backs of student athletes all across the country who game after game shoulder what must be a smothering burden.
And then they do something that demonstrates an understanding that the game itself is actually the least of it, that it’s showing up, and supporting each other, and being people of substance that matters. That winning feels fantastic and is glorious (believe me, I am NOT knocking winning, which I celebrate thoroughly) but that victory can also come through hard work, dignity, character, loyalty.
I WISH THE GAME had turned out differently. Of course I do. But as I make my way through this shiny new year filled with hope and promise, every time I face adversity or am forced to deal with disappointment I will remember the example set for me by the band of brothers on that field in the Superdome.
And I will raise my head and sing.
30 Days of Joy
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