The New Math
10/15/2005 - Michigan 27-25 Penn State - 4-3, 2-2 Big Ten
The seating configuration had been unwisely arranged so that directly next to me was an adorable young boy, the kind of boy who you could easily imagine saying "good game, mister" at innocent opposing fans in a post game melee. Since I have a regrettably difficult time refraining from swearing like a sailor, this was probably going to end badly.
The kid's father was pointing out the various players on the field during the pregame warmups, explaining who was who and what they did, when the kid burst in with an urgent question about the one player he did remember--one guess as to who.
"Where's number one?" he said, "Daddy, what happened to number one?"
From the mouths of babes. The kid had not only posited a specific question about a player currently busy being freakishly injured in the NFL but also levelled a piercing philosophical query about the state of the program. Where was number one? How could we expect to orient ourselves without last year's compass? While my rational side beats back thoughtless assertions re: Braylon's departure being devastating, I am not a robot, and in a Nittany Lion-overrun Michigan Stadium that day the overwhelming ennui of the program seemed to have a definite source that the kid had spotlighted for all to see.
The father tried to explain, talking about eligibility restrictions, the NFL, the history of the #1 jersey--essentially trying to cram in a deep, meaningful conversation about aging before the two hundred and thirty five member Michigan Marching band took the field. He didn't do very well. His son asked again, wheedling out "but where's number one?" one more time before his father ended the conversation with a flat, dull sentence.
"There is no number one," he said. "Not this year."
His son's facial expression made it very clear that he thought this was no kind of answer at all, and neither did I.
When you need affirmation of something's cultural relevance, where else do you go but Tina Turner and Mel Gibson? Even though Tina sang the following in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome ...
We don't need another hero
We don't need to know the way home
All we want is life beyond the thunderdome
...the movie--no, the entire movie industry--puts a lie to her chorus. Hell, making a song about defiantly not needing a hero underscores the ubiquity of the concept in human storytelling. Joseph Campbell built a career out of it. And what is sport but a story with no defined script and an uncontrived ending? The tendencies of sports writing I hate the most all come from this idea that all events are easily explained by previous events, that they follow a story. Mr. Rational Analysis thinks all this hero crap is just that, but he has the weekend off.
So, the chips were down, the towel thrown, the boat had sailed, and the bags had been packed. A devastating three play series had transformed a 10-3 Michigan lead into a 16-10 deficit; the additional nuts-kicking provided by the botched extra point that turned into a two point conversion was the symbolic signal to turn the lights out and hit the message boards, spewing bile. I swore like it was freestyle rap battle between pirates.
Then the ball was in the air, Mario Manningham was way behind the defender, and I was praying the ball would not be intercepted. Each step brought Manningham and his defender closer to the ball, except Manningham was getting, er, more closer. A step behind. Half a step. Even. A step ahead. Touchdown.
Then, then... after we had blown it, blown it all to hell, we were sitting on the ten with one second that Lloyd Carr had verbally eviscerated the referees to get, one little second and his little second pal, with one play into seven guys sitting in a zone. Henne dropped, and fired, and Manningham cradled the ball, and incoherent things came out of my mouth for a good minute. I think there was WOOOO. I think there was HOOOO. It was a good time.
86? 86? At that moment, if he had ripped off his outer jersey and revealed the gleaming 1 underneath we all would have understood. At that moment, if he had decided he was going to fly we all would have understood. We were beyond Thunderdome. Two teams entered, one team left, and it was ours because we had a hero.
After the game, I felt a tug on my shirt, and looked down to see the adorable moppet, beaming. At the half it had been revealed to myself and those around me that this was his first-ever Michigan game; I had said "sorry it couldn't be a better one," further proving that everything that comes out of my mouth about Michigan football is wrong, wrong, gloriously wrong. The kid didn't say good game, or call me mister. In fact, he just said "hi." I gave him a high five. "You're good luck, kid, keep coming, " I said.
However, I left something out. I hereby correct the error: Yes, little child who probably doesn't use the Internets and even if you did you probably would have gotten bored and seen what was up with Pokemon or whatever, there is a number 1. He wears number 86. It's the new math.