Sunday, December 30, 2018

Magic, Mystery and Misery: The 2018 Cotton Bowl

Flights are a good time for me to catch up back issues of Sports Illustrated. En route to the Dallas, Texas for the Cotton Bowl I read an article that spoke of the "magic, mystery and misery"of sports. I paused and thought, I need to tuck that framework away for future reference. Instead, that triptych is serving as the way I've made sense of my experience at the BCS semi-final playoff contest. With a nod to John Heisler, Senior Associate Athletics Director and Fighting Irish Media Executive Editor, here's What I Learned from my time at the Cotton Bowl Classic 2018—through Irish eyes.

The Magic
Team 130 went 12-o in the regular season. If there were but a penny for every time I have read and even typed the words uNDefeated.... With a formidable defense, strong senior leadership, renewed focus under a much calmer Brian Kelly and a mental strength coach, this team was one to celebrate. And we did! Why else would 50,000 Irish fans travel to Cowboys' Stadium to see the squad take-on an undefeated Clemson team.

I have to admit, the draw for me to watch a game in "the palace that Jerry built" was Texas-sized. I wanted to see the scoreboard that spans 60 yards and the two arches— bigger than the iconic one in St. Louis—that support it. I really did want to know if the fan experience at AT&T Stadium is as magical as 'dem Cowboys fans would have us believe. Although this venue is not the official Cotton Bowl (that still stands—without a dome in downtown Dallas), it did not disappoint! It really was magical.
The game began with a prayer—only in Texas. The US Flag was unfurled in Star Spangled glory and when our national bird landed on a Notre Dame fan, I took it as a sign. Fans of both team showed up; the stadium that holds 100,000 was in stereo, loud and proud. Depending on where you sat, you saw green or orange—blocks of it. There was much to cheer and anticipate, a lot to question and more to behold for the first quarter only. The magic then made way for....

The Mystery
AND, the worst three quarters the Irish played all season. 

I want to thank former ND quarterback, Brady Quinn for offering much needed insight. Like many fans, I went to social media early this morning to deconstruct the 30-3 loss (it felt like more). His tweet said, "Lots of HOT TAKES, after that game. Bottom line: @NDFootball deserved to be in, but unfortunately played 3 of their worst quarters of football this season. Credit @ClemsonFB, talented team that will be fun to watch playing for National Championship." I needed to read those words.
what happened?
We love college sports—or at least we claim to—because there is mystery. There is the sense that anything can and might happen. Granted this is true on the professional level as well, but the chasm between the haves and have nots with amateur athletics isn't as deep as it is in "The League, the Association" and so forth...or is it? That question is one to consider.

Why did we have to have our three worst quarters in the biggest game of the season? That is for the coaches and the analysts to determine, but Irish fans came to Dallas knowing we were 11, then 13, then 13.5 to end up 11.5 point underdogs. I thought we could cover the spread. I thought we might win by three. What transpired was instead...

The Misery
Unfortunately for Notre Dame, this game had its moments of sheer misery. This sentiment however was exacerbated by so many of our own fans who seemed to turn on the Irish early. We were tied at the end of the first quarter! As Quinn said, the rest of the game was different. 

tough being down (almost) three (full) TDs at the half....
Too many people compared this contest to what happened in 2012. They spoke of the fear on the players' faces and that they weren't confident or strong, just like it was at that game. This comparison must stop. Not one single player on the field in the 2018 Cotton Bowl played in the 2012 National Championship. You are not talking about professional athletes who have "been there before." Much of coaching staff assembled by Coach Kelly is different than six years ago.

Clemson's freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence was unflappable. He was much more mobile that I anticipated. His passing was surgeon like. He continued to thread the needle and his receivers continually pulled down/caught/help on to what he threw. Notre Dame fans however seemed to complain that we have not had a "franchise quarterback" in years. These words confound me. For one, Book's passing rate was the best in ND QB history. Second, given that Notre Dame is a University and the players are student athletes, we have to work with who we have recruited. Brian Kelly or Chip Long (offensive coordinator) are not free to pick up a player off the waivers. We hope the talent we have develops. Irish athletics believes it plays a significant role in making this happen. Many times it does, other times it doesn't. I realize that college football is a free farm system for the NFL, and the farms out there vary in size, resources and requirements. We are yielding a good crop, but for too many it's a bitter one. I don't support this.
Losing Julian Love in the second quarter hurt our defense. Before the game, I saw on the scoreboard he was named First Team All American. This outstanding achievement is nothing to to scoff at. His contributions made a difference all season; losing an athlete to an injury is personal misery for the individual and collective misery for the team. I went looking for a message he might have sent out via Twitter only to read one from former team captain and linebacker, Joe Schmidt. This walk-on linebacker wrote 
I’m still incredibly proud of this team and to be an ND alum. To turn the program around from where we were in 2016 to a playoff appearance in 2018 is nothing short of remarkable. Looking for big things - both on and off the field - from these guys in the future. Salute, Irish.
Reading his words cannot help but force a fan out of his or her misery. What vision, what insight. Great perspective, Total class. If this is what the student athletes at Notre Dame share with the world after a tough loss, then wow, all I can see is there really something magical about Notre Dame. 

The mystery of when and if we will have another National Championship in the future remains, but in the meantime, I want to say "thank you" for the ride...the journey....for representing Our Lady the way you have. Amen.

Photo Credits
J Love
Team Together
Eagle on the arm

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