Monday, September 26, 2005

Burning Brightly
Not much will be happening on this blog today, as I'm traveling later on, and this morning I'm still in recovery from the weekend. And if you are not a football fan, go read Daily Kos (or this at The Hits Just Keep On Comin') and come back here tomorrow.

If you are a fan, you generally understand that every now and then, thanks to something that happens on the field, you become part of something bigger than a game itself. And the specific thing you have to understand is that in 110 years of football, Wisconsin had beaten Michigan only 10 times. The last time was in 1994. If you are a Badger fan, you don't expect to beat Michigan. And things went according to form for a while on Saturday night--Michigan led 13-3 at halftime, and Wisconsin was going quietly. But as we have learned during his years as coach, Barry Alvarez gives a good halftime speech. The Badger defense stiffened in the third quarter, and in the fourth, the team came from behind twice, the last time on a four-yard quarterback sneak by John Stocco with 24 seconds to play. After Michigan snuffed out its own last chance when their quarterback slipped on the wet turf, the Badgers had won it, 23-20.

In that paragraph, it's just another sports story. From our seats in Section Z2, however, it was far more than that.

I've never heard a stadium that was louder than Camp Randall Stadium in the second half Saturday night. Eighty-three thousand fans, all standing, all screaming their heads off (I still don't have my voice entirely back), high-fiving strangers and debating strategy with them, signaling for timeouts, respectfully quieting down when Stocco was calling signals--I've seen a lot of sporting events in stadiums, but rarely has it felt less like being a spectator and more like living through the game with the team in real time. All of us there, we felt it. And when it was over, all of us there felt like we'd helped to make it happen.

Badger fans never clear the stadium immediately after home games--our band's postgame show, the Fifth Quarter, is a tradition--but on this night, the Fifth Quarter was more well-attended and raucous than usual. As the band was marching off at the end, the stadium lights went dark. Whether this was intentional, to clear the place, or unintentional, I don't know. But it was a great effect--the score, Wisconsin 23, Michigan 20, continued to burn brightly on the scoreboard as we headed out into the night.

The party inside the stadium continued all the way up State Street toward the Capitol. In restaurants and bars, we celebrated, and many of us, trying to be humble in victory, extended condolences to the Michigan fans we saw. Not all of them were gracious in defeat, but at least they were quiet, which is not how they began the night--indeed, one of the pleasures of the second half was not just hearing their silence, but watching their facial expressions and body language as the truth of what was happening became clearer. (So maybe I'm not quite as gracious in victory as I'd like to think I am.)

Now and then, football (and sports in general--take, for example, the Red Sox winning last year's World Series) can unite fans in a shared experience of joy that's not often equaled in this life. (I wrote about this phenomenon a couple of seasons ago, when the Green Bay Packers captured a playoff berth in the last minutes of the regular season in utterly improbable fashion.) It's why we watch.

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