Get a load of that pic. No, that’s not the “Vintage” Instagram filter; I’m really that old, and this was taken at Northwestern University Softball Parents Weekend, circa spring 1997. Twenty-one years ago.
Anyway, that was my one and only season with the team, and probably one of two total pictures that exist on this planet to prove I existed in that community.
My college career followed right along with my entire life of loving the underdog. I was a timid freshman, a walk-on, a glorified cheerleader and batting practice pitcher on a team full of scholarship recruits from California. I had one, or two, shining moments before quitting – with only a broken jaw, a mug shot in the media guide and a 4+ ERA to show for my efforts – to pursue a career in sports journalism by finally getting myself a newspaper internship.
I’m nostalgic about my own Northwestern athletic exploits (loose term) because my alma mater’s football team is about to play in the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday night against THE (Evil) Ohio State (Empire), and I’m all in with the underdogs.
We are probably THE biggest underdog to be participating in any of the conference championships this year. We are probably looking at a 52-to-10-ish drubbing in Indianapolis, which is why I won’t be witnessing the game in person, but on my couch – if I can stay awake that long (8 p.m. kickoffs can go to hell.)
Back when I was applying to school at NU, there was no such thing as a Big Ten championship game. The league actually had 10 – sorry, Penn State, 11 – teams in it and you won it by beating people in the regular season, and then you went to the Rose Bowl to get your ass beat by the PAC-10. That was the deal. Northwestern was in the Rose Bowl the winter of my senior year in high school – a huge point of pride for all sports-savvy Chicago kids – and I rooted like hell for them while waiting to hear if I’d been accepted to the actual university.
Nowadays, the Big Ten has blown up, and there are divisions, and the winners end up clashing at the end of the season in a gigantic money grab. It doesn’t matter if the matchup is probably going to be awful. It’s a CHAMPIONSHIP and it’s ON TV, and I guess it matters who comes out on top, in terms of determining the NCAA National Championship scenario, but only for the team that has a shot at that.
Northwestern is never going to win any NCAA football championships. It’d be a stretch to expect any league championships. The 2018 Wildcats had to scratch and claw their way back from an abysmal start to the season – they were 1-3 heading into October, with losses to AKRON and DUKE – to make it to Indianapolis to clash with Ohio State, a team with championship pedigree and a (in)famous head coach that certainly appears to be deeper and more talented.
OSU just hung 62 points on Michigan last week. Michigan is a good team. Meanwhile, NU sputtered to a 24-16 win over Illinois. Illinois is a bad team.
Like I said, this is a true underdog story.
I can relate.
I’m an “in-between-careers” Medill School of Journalism graduate making just a smidge more than minimum wage in retail while I slog through a grueling job search. I’ve been turned down, by my estimate, 25 times by jobs I applied for since leaving my previous job with a newspaper company in September. Someone else was always “a better fit for the position,” according to the impersonal rejection e-mails that always seem to pop up when I’m in the middle of trying to give myself a pep talk.
Page through this website if you need a clearer picture of how that’s affected my psyche and self-esteem, but you can probably just use your imagination. Or, maybe you know from personal experience.
The idea of scratching and clawing out of a ditch to achieve greatness, as NU football has a chance to do, is especially inspiring to me because I currently am in the proverbial ditch. I’ve created a bit of a couch groove down here, but in no way do I want to to get comfortable.
I left journalism with thoughts of landing my “dream job.” Writing that feels like an empty gesture, because when you’re in the ditch, you can very easily lose sight of your dreams. This is an obvious parallel to the sports world, where handling failure is integral to finding success, as is fighting the urge to give up, and persevering when your only source of hope and faith is your own beating heart.
Before I devolve any further into schmaltzy melodrama, I’ll be on my way. But, hey, for Northwestern to beat Ohio State, it would be quite the schmaltzy, melodramatic tale. It would go down in college football lore.
I’m not holding my breath. I’m realistic. At the same time, as a sports fan, how can you not be at least a little bit hopeful? …Or, even, as a human being?
As long as you’re still alive, you gotta believe there’s one, or two, shining moments still to come.