“Once upon a time you dressed so fine
You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you ?
People’d call, say, “Beware doll, you’re bound to fall.”
-Bob Dylan,”Like a Rolling Stone”, Highway 61 Revisited
Those branches of the night and day
Where the gaudy moon is hung.
What’s the meaning of all song?
‘Let all things pass away.’
-William Butler Yeats, “Vacillation”
It’s 3:30 pm in Columbus, Ohio as Anthony Walker Jr. takes the field yet again. Once upon a time he would have left his headphones in the locker room, but today he carries his headset onto the field. Under Walker’s leadership, the Northwestern Wildcats are 7-0 and heading into a potentially difficult matchup against a 3-4 Ohio State team. Three straight trips to a New Year’s Six Bowl and direct entry into the 8-team College Football Playoff had left Walker, at age 47, the most sought-after coach in college football.
But for now, as he walks into the Shoe for yet another Big Ten football game, he can only think about schemes, special teams and forgotten dreams. The air rustles with cheering Ohioans. The autumn winds circle through the stadium and skitter down through Walker’s feet. He runs, like he once did as a player, onto the field. Unlike those halcyon days, there are a chorus of boos, as Northwestern has won six consecutive meetings against the Buckeyes and shows no sign of letting that streak lapse.
The offense starts off with a clinical opening touchdown drive. Harlan Carr, the second-generation Northwestern wide receiver, catches a five-yard pass for a score. Ohio State gets two first downs but the drive stalls at midfield and the Buckeyes punt. Northwestern makes it to the OSU 27 on the next drive and drills a field goal. The Ohio State fans groan.
By halftime, the score is 24-10, and No. 3 Northwestern is rolling toward yet another victory. The Wildcats successfully run seven speed options in a row after Ohio State pulls within seven points midway through the third. After an Buckeye interception, Northwestern immediately cashes in on a 36-yard touchdown strike to Carr, which puts Northwestern up 38-17. The fourth quarter is a defensive struggle. On a last desperation drive, Ohio State’s right guard is called for holding penalty in the end zone and Northwestern picks up a safety.
During a Roman triumph, the victorious general in question would march through the city followed by an enormous parade. And yet, in the midst of all the pomp and circumstance, he would have a slave follow him and repeatedly say “memento mori/remember that you will die”, in order to keep the general humble to the gods.
College football has no such tradition. Humility, in the American tradition, is best left at the doorstep alongside notions of universal health care and non-refrigerated eggs. No one ever told Joe Paterno “memento mori”. No one ever told Art Briles to take a step back and examine what his success entailed. No one told Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow, after their second national title, that they were mortal and success could be fleeting. It’s just not how college football works.
The Northwestern vs. Ohio State game in Columbus will have all the trappings of a Roman triumph, but no reminder of “memento mori”. Football is no fun when the experts remind us of its dangers. Football is no fun when college seniors retire due to repeated head injuries. Football, like all sports, is an effort to forget about mortality, which makes the pervasive kudzu of “memento mori” in sports all the more sad.
And yet we play on.
But mortality is not only measured in life or death. Mortality is the first metaphor, the reality that we can morph into any failure or preordained closure from the genesis of our mental capacities. And of course, dynasties can die. There will be a day when Ohio State will be bad for an extended period of time. It’s statistically inevitable. There will also be a day in which Northwestern is one of the best teams in the country. The variance of a twelve-game college football season ensures that.
Just look at the University of Michigan. How could that team ever be bad? I thought that once upon a time during the “Game of the Century” against Ohio State in 2006. Then Lloyd Carr retired, the Wolverines hired Rich Rodriguez, and they went 15-22 between 2008-2010. In the course of college football, as with history, there are ups and downs. There are triumphs and catastrophic defeats.
Northwestern will play a football game against Ohio State this Saturday. I will watch the game. You, most likely, will watch the game, because this article will be scarcely read outside of Northwestern circles. Ohio State, despite a tough loss to Penn State, will ride out of the tunnel with the swagger and presumption of a “damn good football team”. Northwestern, a 26.5-point underdog, will probably lose.
I don’t think college football games should be like Roman triumphs. Sports have never needed the Sword of Damocles formerly known as “reality” to hang over each and every stadium. In fact, I encourage everyone to be as happy as they possibly can be for this football game. College football is its own microcosm of the world, and its ability to compartmentalize emotion and strip away subjectiveness, at least for a few hours, is what keeps us engaged. Football is a good game. It’s a Spectacle that Guy Debord would be proud of, mediating our hopes and dreams into a sports team of unpaid athletes to create the ultimate form of Saturday afternoon consumption.
And yet, after the game is over and the concessions are swept away, I think there could be room for a cockroach in the top row of the Shoe whispering “memento mori”. It’s a message that will, of course, be picked up by the media and used to sell something in between the margins, but it is, at its core, worth hearing.
Someday, Ohio State will be bad. Someday, Northwestern will be really good. Someday, Gameday will come to Evanston once again. Someday, there will be a signature win that will be forgotten in 15 years due to six seasons of mediocrity. Someday, someone will fire McCall, and we’ll go on to criticize the next offensive coordinator. And then once he’s gone, we’ll criticize the replacement.
The Northwestern Wildcats board the bus and begin their way home to Evanston, just like so many teams before them. Coach Walker Jr. is beaming after a comfortable 40-27 victory. The good times will never end.