A win for every generation of Northwestern football fans

Basking in the victory. (I'm on the right.)

Basking in the victory. (I’m on the right.)

I wandered around Jacksonville’s EverBank Field after Northwestern’s spectacular 34-20 victory over the Mississippi State Bulldogs on New Year’s Day 2013.

I was waiting to meet my student media friends who were inside getting postgame quotes but I was also thinking about what this Gator Bowl win means to Northwestern fans.

It’s easy to say: “Northwestern earned their first bowl victory since 1949!” That’s great. It’s very good that the media won’t talk about that year anymore. It’s also pretty cool that NU won their first bowl game in 64 years on the same date they won their previous one.

But that sentence doesn’t even begin to capture the feelings of fans that have lived and died with every play of every game for the decades of frustration that have occurred since the 1949 Rose Bowl win.

A middle aged man sat in front of me at the game. He was freaking out about the play clock, the play calling, everything. I’m passionate but I don’t go crazy over really small plays in a 60-minute game.

At first I thought he was being irrational. But he wasn’t. Unprompted he turned around to me in the third quarter and said “I’ve been following this shit since 1970. I can’t take any more of this.”

I’ve been following this team for seven years. He’s been following this team for 43 years.

43 years. 0 bowl wins. Until now.

43 years. It started out well. The first two seasons (1970 and 1971) were winning campaigns!

Then they didn’t have another one until the miracle 1995 Rose Bowl year.

43 years. He witnessed the longest losing streak in D1 football history. He witnessed Northwestern winning a total of three games from 1976-1981. He witnessed some of the most inept football at the major college level one can imagine.

Bowl losses are frustrating. The Alamo Bowl was awful. The Outback Bowl was spectacularly awful. The Ticket City Bowl and the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas were both miserable.

But not even having a prayer of a bowl is much worse. It’s a feeling of hopelessness I can’t even imagine. I’m too young. This guy has been following Northwestern for 18 more years than I’ve been alive. It takes a hell of a fan to stick with that many years of futility.

Hell, I’ve lost almost all patience with the Mariners and it’s only been a decade of misery. This guy had gone through so much more.

For non-sports fans, imagine your greatest passion. Perhaps it’s reading. What if you read nothing but lousy books for 43 years? No matter what book you picked up, every time it ended up ranging from lousy to terrible. Even worse, the books were thoroughly depressing every time. And of course for other fans, it wasn’t 43. It might have been 50. It might have even been 64.

Would you keep reading? Or would you find another hobby?

Well fans who have stuck with the story of the Northwestern Wildcats were rewarded Tuesday.

Wikipedia pages rarely produce emotions unless they’ve been tampered with by someone. But the bottom of this chart is one of the most satisfying things I’ve seen in a long time.  Maybe it’s the bold font of the word “won” after all those years of blank spaces and losses.

Pat Fitzgerald was crying tears of joy after the game. His postgame speech to Wildcat nation was inspiring.

“We talk to our guys all the time: ‘act like you’ve been there before,’” Fitzgerald said. “Well, we’ve never been here before! But as David Nwabuisi just said, ‘we’re here now and we’re here to stay!’”

He went on to thank all the fans for their support through the years.

The man in front of me was in tears too. He was also speechless. The man who’d been yelling the whole game was at a loss for words. As the old cliché goes, there weren’t too many dry eyes in the place.

People laugh at bowl games a lot. They say the games are meaningless exhibitions. I guess that depends on your definition of meaningless.

For long-time Northwestern fans, this win means everything. I know how much it means to me and I’m only 25.

There’s more to accomplish of course. Fitz isn’t satisfied. Neither are Northwestern fans.

This story is just beginning.

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An atheist’s case for Tim Tebow

Logically there is no reason why I should like Tim Tebow.

In fact, there is no reason why a lot of us should like Tim Tebow. I know Tim Tebow’s brand of Christianity very well. It’s not an easy one to digest when you know the facts. Tim Tebow’s brand of Christianity holds that if you do not accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior…you are going to hell. That’s right, even though Tim Tebow has never met me, he thinks I’m damned for eternity unless I accept Jesus Christ died for all of our sins.

That’s a rather radical perspective, isn’t it? No matter what kind of life I lead, it’s not good enough according to Tebow’s brand of Christianity. Tebow does a good job dressing up his religion but facts are facts. Tebow believes the Bible is the literal word of God. And as anyone who has read the Bible can attest, the literal word of God is not particularly pleasant.

Furthermore, I’m an atheist. It is my opinion that man created God, not vice versa. I’m a fan of Bill Maher, George Carlin, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and the many others throughout history who stepped up and said “religion is bullshit.”

But God help me I love Tim Tebow.

Perhaps some background information is in order. I spent the summer of 2007 in Fairbanks, Alaska with a baseball team called the Athletes in Action Fire. This is where I was introduced to Tim Tebow’s brand of Christianity. I spent the summer broadcasting their games and traveling with them throughout Alaska. At that time I was rather ignorant of the power Christianity had on people’s lives. Growing up in Seattle I had assumed fundamentalist religion in America was a thing of the past. Yes, some people went to church, but it was more a tradition than any actual belief in a higher power. I had known a few religious people, but they did not subscribe to this brand of Christianity, not even close. Politicians talked about their religious beliefs, but they were politicians, the best bet there was not to believe a word that came from their mouths.

Basically, religious fundamentalism was not something I experienced growing up, so it was not something I really comprehended as a reality in America.

Needless to say the summer of 2007 was a rather eye-opening experience for me.

These guys were the real deal. They also couldn’t have been nicer human beings. I think a few of them were thrilled to have an atheist in their mix to challenge their beliefs. And challenge them I did. I remember one particular discussion about dinosaurs. It’s a tenant of Tebow’s brand of Christianity that the earth was created in six literal days. Not metaphorical days. Literal, 24-hour days. Naturally this brings up the rather problematic issue of dinosaurs and well the entire fossil record. It’s been a few years now but I’ll never forget one of the guys coming up to me after the debate and saying in a quiet voice “hey man, I really think you were making a lot of sense in there.” I wish he’d came to my defense during the debate (30 against one is not easy), but I appreciate the sentiment.

To make a long story short, I couldn’t have had a better time with the AIA Fire. Their mission was to spread the word of Jesus Christ through baseball and that is Tebow’s mission when it comes to football.

And guess what? That’s fine by me.

Would I want some of the friends I made with the AIA Fire running our country? No. But in the context of sports, their religion, no matter how fanatical it may seem to me, is frankly, irrelevant.

What made that group special and what makes Tim Tebow special is that they kept prevailing despite seemingly insurmountable odds.

The Fire were a regular bottom dweller in the league before I arrived in 2007. It’s hard enough to recruit good talent to Fairbanks but when that talent has to be fundamentalist Christian to boot, it’s even harder. The other teams had an almost unlimited talent pool to choose from, not so much the Fire.

But they did it. Of all the players on that team only one that I know of (Kirk Nieuwenhuis) is still in affiliated baseball. A few others got drafted late but didn’t stick. Some of the team’s very best players in my opinion didn’t get drafted at all. They were going up against five other teams who had a number of future high draft picks and yet in the end, it was the Fire who won the title.

How did they do it? I don’t know. It had nothing to do with any higher power but was still one of the most thrilling summers of my life. Two years later I went back and called games for the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks. The Goldpanners ended up having nearly three times as many players drafted as the Fire but finished in the middle of the pack that season in the league.

The Fire were not the most talented team and Tim Tebow is not the most talented quarterback.

But they both embody what I absolutely love about sports. On Sunday Tebow went up against the vaunted defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers finished the season as the AFC’s number one defense. They were loaded with playoff experience and some fearsome talent on both sides of the ball.

Tim Tebow entered the game having completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes on the season. Naturally he carved up the Steel Curtain for 316 yards through the air and three total touchdowns.

All of this defies logic, just like Tebow’s religion.

It’s one of my (perhaps illogical) beliefs that in order to be the best at what you do, you must have more passion than anyone else. I chose baseball broadcasting as my career because I care more about calling baseball than I do anything else. I’m not a natural. I talk too fast at times and my voice isn’t exactly going to make people think of Vin Scully. But I’ll be damned if I let anyone else outwork me at pursuing my dream of becoming a major league baseball announcer.

When I see Tim Tebow screaming “LET’S GO” on the sideline like a madman, it inspires me. His inspiration for his passion may be a belief in a God I don’t believe in, but his passion is genuine. We live in a world of millionaire athletes who certainly want to win, but there are a few special ones who stand out for wanting it more. Their reasons may vary but the results are often the same. Michael Jordan wanted it more because he had an insatiable desire to prove every doubter wrong. Ichiro displayed more passion for winning the World Baseball Classic than he does the average MLB game because his country’s honor was on the line. These guys became the best at what they did through athletic ability AND a passion that was unmatched by their peers.

Being a highly skilled player simply isn’t enough. Tim Tebow has plenty of athletic ability but minimal throwing ability. Do I think he can succeed long-term thanks to his determination to be the best quarterback in the game? I don’t know. He will never be the best in the game but I do think there’s a chance he could develop in to a very solid starting quarterback. I know he’ll continue to outwork his peers.

Every time Tebow wins, it’s not a sign from God. But it is a sign that a fanatical dedication to success can outweigh talent. No one can teach what Tebow has and no one can explain it with statistics.

I asked my friends on Facebook and my followers on Twitter to weigh in why they did or did not like Tebow. The most negative responses related to him “throwing his religion in our faces” which is ironic considering Tebow’s throwing accuracy. (I couldn’t resist.) Look, I think all religious views are silly, it’s just a matter of degree. Tebow’s open displays of his religion don’t bother me because I just see it as part of the show. Sports are entertainment and what’s a better story line than a fundamentalist Christian QB who can’t throw helping his team to improbable victory after victory? Besides, on Sunday it certainly beat rooting for the alternative. Religion being “thrown in my face” is fine. We’re constantly bombarded with messages from the advertising industry every day. Religion is just another product being sold.

Some people take issue with ESPN’s overwhelming positive coverage of Tebow. They think the hype is excessive. Well, I ask you this. When Tebow plays the Patriots, will you be watching? I thought so.

That’s really it though. The only reasons people have for not liking Tim Tebow seem to be his religion and the media hype surrounding him. The former is a rather silly reason to dislike someone personally and the latter is not really his fault.

However, as I said at the start, the fact remains that if Tim Tebow is right about the nature of God, I’m most definitely going to hell.

But in the meantime I’m in heaven watching him defy the odds.