That video of Vols defensive coordinator Chris Rumph (starting at 13:59) talking about why he does what he does is one of my all-time favorite things. I’ve tried (and usually failed) many times to explain to friends and family that one of the reasons I love college football is that it’s simultaneously just a game and not just a game. Rumph gets at the same notion when he says that football is about life. It’s not just about tackling and sacks and the obvious football stuff, it’s also about who you are becoming while you’re doing what you’re doing.
To Rumph, his primary purpose isn’t to teach football but to disciple and mentor kids, and football is merely the context through which he does it.
That there is something underneath the surface of football that makes it even more special resonates with me as a fan. As much as I enjoy the games and everything that comes with them, I also beam with pride when I see evidence of the guys growing up before the cameras and the crowds. Call me a sap, I don’t care. The game and the media and the crowd can at times deliver some particularly cruel blows to these college kids, and I cheer every time they get back up, weather the storm, and get back to work chasing their dreams, stronger in life for the lessons they’ve learned on the field.
College football is great and fun on the surface, but it’s the below-the-surface stuff that keeps me coming back even when things aren’t going well on the field. It’s a bitter pill, but the truth is that sometimes – for players, fans, people in general – you grow more as a person when the results you’ve been striving and hoping for leave you disappointed. And the perseverance and determination make the success, when it comes, that much sweeter.
So, yeah. It’s not just about tackling and sacks and all the football stuff; it’s also about who you are becoming while you’re doing what you’re doing.
The fan experience
That truth applies to a multitude of contexts other than playing football, too, including merely watching people play football. I love the gamedays and the gameweeks and the moments and the winning when it comes, but often, when the appeal of those things wanes, I look underneath the surface for something to learn.
Suffice it to say, over the next month or so we Vols fans are going to have a lot of opportunities to learn some non-football stuff.
You can’t preempt pain
One of the things I’ve already learned over the course of 13 years of service as a long-suffering Vols fan blogging about the team is that you simply cannot dull pain just by bracing for it.
It’s not like we haven’t tried. As I said just a little over a month ago when anticipating this season’s mistakes, we often tell ourselves in advance of what we know will be challenging seasons that X number of wins is a reasonable expectation. We stoically brace for a loss before the game but then become enraged when we actually witness in real time the maddening details that contribute to that loss.
You can’t avoid the pain just by imagining it beforehand. You just can’t. You have to experience it.
Rumph would be quick to point out that this is as true in life as it is on the football field and in the stands. And one can help prepare you for the other. Pardon a brief digression into the personal while I explain.
Have you ever had to put a pet down? I have. It was a difficult but rational decision to conclude that we no longer had a choice but to relieve our beloved dog Oreo of her misery a couple of years ago. And yet I was totally unraveled by the details when the day came to actually do it. I hadn’t imagined standing over her whispering “You’re a good dog, you’re a good dog” over and over into her ear as her body relaxed on the table. I was prepared, but not for that.
Have you ever had a loved one on hospice? I knew my mom was going to lose her battle with cancer last year, but knowing it afforded no protection from the torment of the process. I was still completely undone sitting beside her, attempting to sing her favorite songs with a broken voice, wondering which of those difficult breaths would be her last. Knowing that day would come didn’t make it easier.
I dwelled on all of this last Sunday afternoon as I sat alone in an unsold tailgating chair in my Kingsport store after turning out the lights. I’d already known this past summer that the day would almost certainly come this fall that we’d have to close it down for good. I was at peace with knowing the time was approaching. But it didn’t actually happen until last weekend, and it sucked.
Life is going to throw you a bunch of crap in a variety of contexts, whether it’s something as serious as the loss of a loved one or something more trivial like watching your favorite sports team lose in spectacular new ways.
And even if you take the time to anticipate and prepare for the pain – in life, on the football field, in the stands –you can’t fully comprehend it until it comes time to experience it.
That’s the bad news, but there’s also good news: Anticipating and preparing for bad news and bad days can help you survive it, and when it’s over, you’ll be better for it.
Back to football
As I said earlier, football is just a game, and yet it’s also more than just a game. It’s about practicing and playing and cheering, and it’s about wins and losses and all of that other surface football stuff, yes. But it’s also about the underneath stuff, who we’re becoming while we’re doing what we’re doing. What we’re doing here is rooting for the Vols. It’s a relatively unimportant activity. But what important things might we learn while doing it?
By all accounts, the rebuilding Tennessee football team is headed for some potentially very bad days over the next month or so. No amount of knowing it, expecting it, or planning for it will shield us from the misery. It’s going to hurt. Absent some miracle (or just checking out as a fan), there’s no way around that.
What can we do about it? Hold on. Steel your resolve. Assume the crash position. Put a phonebook in your pants. Do whatever you need to do to get ready for a rough ride.
It’s not going to be fun, but better days await on the other side.
And when it’s finally over, we might just be stronger, wiser, and better for it.
For when it’s really important.