Maybe it was the suit and tie I was wearing. It's hard to get too pissed off wearing a nice suit and tie. The bartender, Hayes, was an amiable guy. Over the four plus hours I sat there, in a largely empty place, we shared some great stories about Bobby Hull, Herb Brooks, and our respective time playing and observing hockey. That kept me in a pretty good mood. It could've been the fact I was sitting at a friendly bar in Cincinnati, blowing the three hour layover between ceremony and reception while I waited for my wife to pick me up. I'd met some nice people at the bar slash restaurant who'd asked me about Michigan's season so far, even though they were Ohio State, Michigan State, Miami, etc. fans. Perhaps my usual frustration and hypertension were dissolved by the fact I knew I'd be tying one on at the reception later and that it's hard to get too upset about a football game when you're minutes away from celebrating the union of two people who are legitimately in love.
But even as the final minutes ticked away Saturday, as I watched Michigan throw away a game it easily could've won against a rival I'd feel happier if we beat, I really didn't feel anything. I'd finally hit the point in this season from hell where the disappointment, frustration and anger had given way to nothingness. As I said my goodbyes, signed my tab and shook hands with Buckeye and Spartan fans alike, I didn't feel anything.
Just a few hours earlier I'd pulled into Teller's, a nice Cincinnati bar and restaurant, with my wife, sister-in-law, mother-in-law, and grand-mother-in-law in tow. The wedding ceremony was over and we were all starving. Teller's had been suggested because the food was good, and more importantly, it had TV's that were always tuned to college football on Saturdays. God bless my family, they understand me. So I happily nodded in approval of their choice. They knew I had to watch the game and they made allowances for me to do so. I got the chair staring at the TV. They allowed me to drift in and out of conversation as Michigan fumbled its way through the first quarter. They finished up and let me remain, promising to pick me up around 6ish for the reception. My wife gave me a kiss on the cheek and told me not to drink too much. She reminded me that I was her date that night, and she fully expected me to dance and drink the night away with her, and not the bartender. I've said it in this space before, I'm a lucky man.
And through three quarters of horrific football, it seemed Michigan was living luckily as well. Despite two huge touchdown producing gaffes on defense, Michigan went into halftime tied at 14. They had no business being tied, mind you, but they were. The defense was its usual brittle self, and the offense was as disorganized as always. The only real offensive production came from Brandon Minor who produced one definitive touchdown run and one touchdown catch that really shouldn't have been allowed. I'll say this on the subject, according to the rules, Minor's catch wasn't a touchdown. I don't know how or why it was ruled a touchdown. But it was. And Michigan had life at halftime just like it had a week earlier.
Even so, the same problems that have plagued Michigan all season were still on display. Horrific defensive play on third down. Bad tackling. Inconsistency on offense and poor execution. Fumbles. All things that can't exist, or can only exist in limited quantities if a football team is going to be successful. Michigan was in the game in spite of all of this, not because of anything exceptional it was doing on either side of the ball. As much as Michigan seemed to be trying to give the game away, Michigan State wanted to give it away more.
That's not a way you want to win a game, and it's a terrible recipe for success. But it's the one Michigan was relying on. And as a result the Wolverines came away empty handed again on Saturday.
As the quarters passed I talked with the Ohio State fans next to me about their hopes for the sesason. One of them had seen the USC debacle first hand and sounded just like a Michigan fan from the past five years. The play calling was predictable. Run. Run. Short pass. Punt. We laughed about it. And drank a series of different beers from Teller's abundant taps. The Rogue Dead Guy Ale is the best of the bunch, but you can judge for yourself. The beers were good, the conversation was enjoyable and I was watching football. All in all, things were good despite the play of the team I was rooting for.
Midway through halftime a table of Michigan State fans rolled into the place. They were innocuous enough. Ordered drinks and a meal. But whenever I'd pump a fist at a stop or a Michigan first down, I'd see them look over, or I'd hear them say "yes" quietly in an effort to contain their enthusiasm in a public restaurant. When Michigan took the lead midway through the Third quarter they were quiet. When State tied it up seven minutes later they were not. I can't blame them. They were winning a game Michigan usually wins.
As the minutes ticked away and Michigan continued to give up yards on obvious runs or 17 yards on 3rd and 5, I felt the air slowly pouring out of my figurative tires. It's not that at any point I really felt Michigan had a firm grasp on the game, but that it would've been nice if they could pull this one out.
But what are you going to do? At least that's what I told myself. When Michigan State scored their final touchdown of the game to go up 35-21, I called Hayes over and bought a round for the Michigan State fans a couple of tables over. I paid my tab shook hands with the table of State fans and finished my beer just as my wife walked in the door, 45 minutes late and annoyed that we weren't going to be at the reception just as it started. Not annoyed at me mind you, just annoyed.
She looked me over and could tell I'd had a beer or two and asked how the game went. We've been together long enough for her to know the outcome of the game just by looking at my face. However, this time I don't think she was able to pick it up. So I told it went her pretty much like every game this season and she nodded, taking my hand, shrugged her shoulders, smiled at me and led me to the car.
I suppose I could've told her about the missed opportunities. About the titanic collapse of a defense over the course of the season. Maybe told her that Shafer is about two games from wearing out whatever patience I have. But I didn't. Nothing I could tell her on our short walk to the car was going to change anything. The season was basically deposited in the septic tank when we went 1-3 in our non-conference schedule, so a win against Michigan State would've only given false hope.
As we walked out to the car I asked my wife about their afternoon and whether she was excited about the reception. We usually talk a little football after the scores are final but that night we didn't. It just didn't come up. It wasn't worth talking about. Neither of us felt like doing anything other than enjoying ourselves at the reception and sharing those embarrassing dances that only married couples seem to enjoy.
It wasn't until the next morning when I talked with my Uncle-in-Law over brunch that I realized I didn't have a reaction to the game. He was asking me all kinds of things about the offense, Rodriguez, etc., and my reactions were simple. Short. To the point. None of my usual long winded treatises on the spread or the importance of coaching. I realized I didn't really feel disappointed, upset, angry, hopeful, or thoughtful. I felt like I usually do on a Saturday in Mid March when football isn't on anymore and I'm waiting for baseball season to begin.
Sure, I knew I still loved my team, and that I'd watch every game this season regardless of outcome. But I didn't feel anything one way or another. It is what it is and will become what it will be. It was a zen-like moment, but not one I wanted or expected.
After eight frustrating games I was finally numb. Numb to the reality of the season that had occurred so far. Numb to the expectations I'd placed on them. Numb to the outcomes. Sure the feeling will eventually come back. I'll move around, shake it off, get back to normal. But for a day at least, I didn't feel anything in spite of it all.
And I'm not sure how to take that.