[We should have some BTT recap content for you later in the morning — I was at a wedding and then driving home this weekend, so I missed the last three games. Rats. —MNW]
I was chatting over the weekend with a bartender/friend who is not a native Midwesterner, and the conversation turned to sports. With March Madness nearing, spring training in full swing, and pro hockey and basketball heading down the playoff stretches, we were keeping tabs on each other’s sports mental health.
Finally, we stopped and realized we’d spent all this time torturing ourselves—and he asked: Could I live without following Northwestern basketball? What one sports team, if I had to choose, would I follow the rest of my life?
I needed time to think, so I turned it on him.
He responded, “The Mets. And I hate myself for saying it, but they’ve got me hooked.”
I pressed him, because I’ve seen him live and die with the football Giants, rock with our shared non-Northwestern basketball team, and treat others seated at the bar to lengthy dissertations of how he’d fix the Knicks if they just gave him the chance.
For as much as we laughed at the idiot outsider, though—”love the Mets? the Mets? get a load of Stelio from Islip over here!”—he turned the question on us, and I realized just what an idiot I am.
Look, I’ve got a lot of terrible fandoms to choose from. The Vikings exist solely to walk you right up to the pinnacle of competence (6th-best winning percentage all-time!) then kick you in the nuts and look at you if to shrug “What? You knew all along we were gonna do it.” While I have fond memories of the Kevin Garnett-era Timberwolves, the NBA is just not my style. The Wild are great and I try not to miss a game if it’s on TV or the radio, but they’re not old enough to buy a pack of smokes yet. Norm Green sucks.
No, it came down to my college fandoms and the Minnesota Twins.
I threw Northwestern basketball out first. Has an edge come off my ‘Cats basketball fandom? Maybe! I went through the five stages of grief pretty fast this year, and they’ll be a nice story when they come back. I’ll always be checking my phone to see how they did, but, for a Northwestern fan...I’ve been to the mountaintop, man. (Or, more accurately, the Salt Lake Valley, I guess.)
Now, I love the Twins. When I lived in Chicago and Milwaukee, I spent an unhealthy amount of time streaming their games in public places and social situations. From the start of March until late September, I’m guaranteed a game almost every night. I remember the ‘02 playoffs run vividly, the successive disappointments of the aughts, and somewhere out there is a picture of 1-year old me wrapped up in a Homer Hanky.
But it’s Northwestern football.
If you remember anything about me, I moved from Minnesota to Evanston to begin school not with the rest of my peers, but a week early to join the Northwestern University “Wildcat” Marching Band (NUMB). A week later, I was watching Stefan Demos hit a 49-yard field goal to hold off Eastern Michigan at home, then circling up at midfield and singing some weird songs I had just learned the week, wearing my shako backwards because “it’s tradition.”
It’s tradition. Celebrating a win over Eastern-fucking-Michigan is tradition.
God, I love this.
Why? What could possibly endear me to a school that, for most of my adolescence, I was intrigued by because of the bright purple uniforms, but that was normally supposed to be only a speed bump on the Gophers’ season?
Every win—at least then—was ecstasy. Every win meant something, and if you didn’t think so, an older alumnus/ae (a NUMBalum, for the uninitiated) would spring up, as if on cue, to remind you that they watched 6 wins in their 4 years in NUMB.
Well, shit. You’d better get excited about Eastern Michigan, because that success is fleeting.
Win 16-6 over Miami of Ohio? Circle up and sing at midfield; ‘Cats win. Knock off #14 wisconsin in the season-finale under the lights? Students are rushing the field, put your shako on backwards, march out, play, sing, celebrate. It’s been eight-and-a-half years since my dad dropped me off at Evanston—400+ miles from home, about 90% of them on I-94. That excitement—for the upsets of Stanford and wisconsin as well as the escapes of Ball State and Miami of Ohio—hasn’t quite worn off yet.
Now, I’ve been lucky. Northwestern has amassed, since 2009, a 68-47 (38-36 B1G) record, made 7 bowl games, and won 3 of those. I don’t know if you know this about Northwestern—that is...rather aberrational...from the historic trend of ‘Cats football.
But it was why I loved it.
I remember the turn from the 2012 campaign into 2013—riding high, coming into Gameday against Ohio State, and then...completely gutted. Everything crashed, everything burned.
The season was a 1-7 conference death march, a collapse so Northwestern in and of itself that, in retrospect, we almost have to be impressed at how to-script it was.
The ‘Cats failed to make a bowl game the next year with a season finale rout at the hands of the Tim Beckman-led Illinois Fighting Illini. Agony.
But that’s not the enduring memory of 2014. That would be marching (or, rather, riding) into South Bend, the lowly Wildcats of Northwestern taking on the pride of subway alumni everywhere in a game with all the build-up of a condescending pat on the head.
This all might be the most “little brother” reason for saying that I live and die with Northwestern football more than any other sport, but it’s that feeling of beating Notre Dame in South Bend with virtually nothing on the line. The celebration, the toasts, the songs, the unadulterated joy. I’ll never forget it.
The same joy—the pure joy, even if it fades to relief a minute later when you realize it’s not Notre Dame but Eastern Michigan this time on the walk-off field goal—characterizes my Northwestern fandom more than it does any other team, college or professional. I can shrug at a Twins win, roll my eyes at a Vikings triumph, and be annoyed with a Northwestern basketball squeaker over Houston Baptist or New Orleans or St. Peter’s. I can be cynical a few minutes after a Northwestern football win, but when the clock strikes zero I can’t lie to myself or anyone around me.
It’s the marching on the field, the singing the school songs, the completely-justified hatred of the color orange, the willingness to defend—to the death—the assertion that Pat Fitzgerald should be crowned Coach-and-Supreme-Emperor-for-Life and allowed to cancel classes and conscript RTVF majors to serve as tackling dummies at a whim. Northwestern became an integral part of my college experience—three of the most formative years of my life—that I could not erase if I tried, and one that I pray never leaves me in my old age.
Because climbing on the rooftops of academic buildings to impress my then-girlfriend, marching around campus drunk as shit the night before Homecoming because “tradition,” shaking in the stands with the flu during the 2010 Outback Bowl and still losing my mind because holy shit that game are you kidding me—those memories were, each in their own way, me living and dying with the college athletics program that embodies, to date, everything that I look for in sports. Success, sure, but a lack of fear of failure—that’s just a part of life; playing scared gets you nowhere. We’re Northwestern. This shit’s a gift. Enjoy it.
There is an ugly side to college athletics: the issues of paying players, of dealing with sexual assault and other misconduct—hell, of throwing games. I don’t know that I’ve seen a sport where I could look past all that over and over again, realizing that it makes me part and parcel of the problem, and thumb my nose at a—okay fine, flip off and impugn the dignity of the late grandmother of a wisconsin fan. I’ve lived and died those traditions, and while I will demand equitable treatment of athletes and accountability for perpetrators of assault, I will nonetheless stake out moral high ground, imagined or otherwise, to explain to Roger from Wausau, with his shiny Stevens Point degree on the wall at home, why Paul Chryst can suck an egg and Justin Jackson would run circles around Ron Dayne.
This is college football; cognitive dissonance is part of the game.
It’s March 5, and already I’m looking at flights to Chicago for the September 8 home opener against Duke. I’m already scheduling research trips around Northwestern road games. I’m planning out my schedule for finishing the basement in my new house, and I’m thinking about just how much purple I can sneak into the decor without my badger-fan fiancee noticing. No other team singularly occupies my mind around the calendar, and no other team could if they tried.
I’m MNWildcat, and I have a problem. I live and die with Northwestern football, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Tell us your “one team the rest of your life” fandom in the comments—feel free to write a FanPost if you’ve got a lengthier story, and we’ll front-page it!