Sunday, December 1, 2013

Football Guts and Glory

American Flag at Michigan Stadium
To paraphrase the legendary Michigan radio announcer Bob Ufer, there are five seasons in Michigan: winter, spring, summer, fall...and football. This past weekend was a celebration of Michigan’s football season from the NFL to the high school level.

Some teams reached glorious heights, while others walked off the field in tears, their players wishing that a ball had bounced differently, that they had just executed a little better, or that they could just have one more possession.
The Glory

Several football teams throughout the state met their goals this past weekend. The Detroit Lions won on Thanksgiving Day for the first time since 2003. At the college level, Michigan State wrapped up an undefeated Big Ten schedule with a win over Minnesota, and Grand Valley State overcame a sixteen point deficit to win a Division II playoff game. At Ford Field in Detroit, eight high school teams won state championships.

Although all of these teams should be commended for their victories, sometimes we give standing ovations to the team or athlete that played with reckless abandon only to fall short of victory. We applaud them because we understand that glory is rare in sports.

We know that failing to win in no way diminishes a true effort to achieve greatness. On Saturday afternoon, the Michigan Wolverines strove for greatness from the opening kickoff until the final minute of the game. They played with guts, but Ohio State walked away with the glory of victory.

The Guts

The mood in Ann Arbor was somber as I walked towards Michigan Stadium before the game. For the most part, Michigan fans did not look hopeful. A season of disappointments and uninspired football seemed to be leading to a blowout at the hands of the undefeated Buckeyes. 

Ohio State was favored by two touchdowns, and many Michigan fans were afraid of much worse. While Michigan fans might have had only a sliver of hope, there was one group of Wolverines huddled up in their locker room before the game who knew they could win.
Michigan Stadium during The Game
If you like offense, the 110th edition of the game was a masterpiece from both teams. Michigan stopped Ohio State's first drive, but the Buckeyes pinned Michigan's struggling offense on their one yard line with a masterful punt. At this point, the guts kicked in. Michigan put together a 99 yard scoring drive in 5 plays, highlighted by an 84 yard pass from Devin Gardner to Jeremy Gallon.
Michigan and Ohio State traded scores throughout the game with each team only punting three times. While Ohio's Carlos Hyde ran over and around Michigan defenders for 226 yards, beleaguered Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner put together a performance that only he and his teammates could imagine. For the most part, his offensive line finally gave him time to throw, his receivers made plays, and his running backs supported him with a strong rushing attack.
At halftime, the score was 21-21, but Michigan would quickly find itself down 28-21 in the second half. Instead of quitting, the Wolverines drove deep into Buckeye territory and found themselves facing a decision on fourth and two late in the third quarter. Instead of kicking a field goal, Michigan went for the first down and failed. Ohio State then marched down the field in 6 plays and took a 35-21 lead, seemingly putting the game out of Michigan's reach.
Again, Michigan did not quit. Instead they managed two straight touchdowns to tie the score at 35 with 5:25 remaining in the fourth. Ohio State then marched 65 yards to take a 42-35 lead with 2:41 left.
Again, Michigan did not quit. They drove 86 yards with Gardner completing seven passes, including what could have been the game-tying score with 32 seconds left to play. Coach Brady Hoke asked his players if they wanted to kick the extra point to tie the game or go for a two point conversion and the win. After playing the whole game with guts and enduring a season in which everyone doubted them, his offense did not doubt themselves and told Hoke they were going for two. 

It did not end as they believed it would. Gardner threw his only interception of the game. Michigan's desperation onside kick failed, and Ohio State's team and fans celebrated as Michigan fans walked out of the stadium stunned and in some cases despondent.

"Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly."
                                                   -John F. Kennedy

Twice in this game, Michigan failed because they were trying to achieve greatly. They failed by passing up a field goal try on fourth and two in the third quarter, and they failed on their final two point conversion attempt. If they had successfully kicked a field goal in the third quarter, the decision to go for two may not have been necessary. If they had kicked the extra point, maybe they would have won in overtime. Instead of playing it safe, they reached for glory, only to have it slip from their fingertips.

According to the final score, Michigan failed, but they did not fail miserably. They played to win and came up short. Bravery is not always rewarded on the scoreboard. No player or coach on that team should be haunted by playing to win. They believed in themselves, and that's a hell of a lot better than not believing at all.

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