On Grief, Joy, and Football

I have never been a huge follower of football. My number one sport has always been basketball, both playing and watching, and baseball is a close second for watching and enjoying. I have always felt a certain tension that exists within football between its inherent violence and unparalleled beauty. And today as we learn more about CTE, my enjoyment of football has a tarnish to it.

However, for as long as I can remember, I have been an Iowa Hawkeyes football fan. The Hawkeyes’ performance during the last three decades that I have been alive can best be described as dark-and-dreary punctuated with points of greatness and light. The last truly great season was 1985 when I was just three years old, when Chuck Long barely missed out on the Heisman and Iowa was ranked no. 1 in the country for the first half of the season. They were Big 10 champs that year, but ended up losing in the Rose Bowl to UCLA. There have been a few other great seasons, such as 2002 and 2009. I distinctly remember 20 years ago watching our unranked Hawks dismantle the 20th-ranked Washington Huskies in the Sun Bowl and feeling so proud I wrote about it all over my 7th-grade English journal.

Well, this year has been another point of greatness and light, certainly the greatest season I have ever witnessed. To my astonishment, I have watched every minute of every game. I’ve watched as the players, none of whom are big stars, have gelled together and become a true team under the leadership of cool-as-a-cucumber QB C.J. Beathard. And this past weekend I was privileged to join 15 others in a trip to Indianapolis to watch our guys take on Michigan State in the Big 10 Championship. We tailgated for four hours, got revved up with the pep band and cheerleaders at the pep rally, and then headed over to the stadium to watch the warm-ups. At the coin toss, my sister noted the difference between the stances of the two teams and I snapped a picture to remember the moment:


This picture exemplifies to me how the Hawkeyes have carried themselves all season long.

For a while during the game it seemed that we could win, but the Spartans outlasted us. We put up a mighty fight, and Beathard showed his potential for greatness with a towering, perfectly-pitched pass to Tevaun Smith for an 85-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. 45,000 Iowa fans nearly tore the roof off Lucas Oil Stadium. As the Hawkeyes left the field, arms locked together, they received perhaps one of the loudest ovations ever for a losing college football team.

That night, none of us slept well. Since then I have not been able to shake the feeling of grief over the loss. As I reflect on why this game has affected me so much physically and emotionally, it occurred to me that the grief has several sources. Grief for the disappointment that Coach Ferentz, Beathard and the team must have felt and still feel. (I know what it feels like to have an amazing season and then to lose in a key game – it happened to me in my senior year of basketball. It still stings to this day.) Grief that we don’t get to see this unlikely team in the College Football Playoff this year. And perhaps most of all, grief that I didn’t get to celebrate a victory in person with my family and friends and thousands of other fans, and watch our favorite team hold up another trophy.

But I also know that the experience this weekend brought me much joy. Why is tailgating in the cold for hours, playing cornhole and tossing a football with strangers, and eating chili and brats and drinking Modelos so FUN? Why is sitting/standing in a covered stadium for five hours, shaking uncontrollably at times, and feeling like my head was about to explode from all the tension so pleasurable? I think there are many reasons for why this is, but the one that stands out to me is that we were all there for one purpose – to root for our team. If I had had a similar experience at a fall fair, it may have brought some pleasure, but not at the same gut-wrenching, soul-stirring level. We all had one thing in common. We were there to cheer on the Hawkeyes, and watching them play in person brought us great joy.

As I reflect on my experience further, I realize I am truly inspired by this team. Hearing them talk about being “family” may sound cheesy, but in truth it does make them a better football team, even though they don’t have the star power of other teams. It makes me want to be a better team player in all areas of my life – work, family, church – although I need much grace in all those areas. Watching Beathard play through his injury and talk about the importance of his team over his own individual performance (unlike certain other Big 10 players have done this season, whom I will not mention here) makes me not want to complain about setbacks in my own life. I never anticipated that I would learn so much about grief, joy, and togetherness from the Hawkeyes this year. On to the Rose Bowl!