Time for some honesty among friends...I lost my mind last weekend.
Having been raised on Syracuse Orange football over the past several decades, I think I have expected some form of set destiny for our program. Some form of destiny for us as fans.
We have a proud history marked by some incredible highs in the late 50s, early 60s and more recently at the end of the last century. Yet we’re falling farther and farther from our heyday of 1987-2000 where we were a regular Top 25 team, and success and failure was based on an over/under of eight wins and how close our annual Bowl game was to New Year’s Day. We’re so far off from those days, in fact, that our oldest underclassmen & women were watching Thomas the Train when Donovan McNabb was throwing passes for SU.
And since 2000, many of the older fans like me – those who haven’t lost the will to support the team -- have expected an eventual return to greatness…well, at least a return to goodness. Yes, our facilities lagged behind. Yes, recruiting evolved, and big money poured into college football at a pace that we have struggled to keep up with. Yes, our coaching hires, scheduling, and overall investment in the program suggested the university was satisfied with just being in the game…rather than actually WINNING the game.
Yet with all of those headwinds, I still somewhat blindly expected us to overcome these obstacles and simply start winning again. There is always a cyclicality to life, and I just felt deep down that our footballing recession simply had to end and revert back to a period of sustained success.
…it was our destiny.
Yet the past 15 years has taught me that believing in destiny is a dangerous thing. It falsely prepares you for an outcome that may not happen. And if it doesn’t happen, it could drive you to depression, confusion, anger, and perhaps a bit of madness as well.
Honestly, I have felt all of these things regularly on Fall weekends for as long as my fading memory can remember. And watching the absolutely absurd final loss of our 2016 football season, a 61-76 "perfect storm" of offensive theatrics and defensive ineptitude, I sort of snapped...yet not the way one would expect.
And this brings me to the story of Lieutenant Dan – the featured secondary character in the film "Forrest Gump" so wonderfully played by Gary Sinise.
Like many of us, Lieutenant Dan believed in a set destiny. One where he, like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him would go off to war, fight like hell, and wind up six feet under. It was a moribund destiny, but one nonetheless that prepared him for a set outcome that allowed him to stay at peace and function expertly under the duress of the Vietnam War.
When Forrest Gump saved him in battle and left him alive but without his legs, his destiny was denied. The result left Dan confused, angry, and fearful of a future that held no certainty – only obstacles. He wasn’t a virile, young soldier, but a broken man.
And from that point Dan raged against reality. He drank too much, smoked too much, swore too much, and probably ate way too many encased meats – in many respects, he was just like an SU football fan!!!
He was spiraling out of control as if in an attempt to ultimately achieve his demise under the most tragic of circumstances, until one day, sitting in Forrest’s shrimp boat, a great storm hit. The hurricane tossed the boat and put Dan (and Forrest) in a situation so perilous, so out of control that Dan finally snapped! He raged against the heavens, screaming at God about how his life unfolded and daring the Lord to take him.
Yet the storm eventually subsided, and Dan survived. It marked a turning point in his life. Following the tempest, Dan found peace with his future. He faced his demons, regained his will to live, and set out to realistically (as opposed to optimistically) build a future no matter what that future entailed.
In the end, Dan found happiness, wealth, and a great sense of perspective that only those who face adversity can achieve.
And this, my friends, is where I am with Syracuse football today. For me, the whole 2016 season has been one great storm. Dino Babers blew up the "Old Syracuse" with an exciting offensive system like we've never seen in the 315 complemented by a defensive system that looked competent at times, a complete trainwreck at others.
The utter and sheer madness of the Pitt game exposed the extremes of these two systems and served as my own personal Lieutenant Dan-like tempest. I screamed at the heavens questioning the absurdity of the game unfolding before me. I looked angrily at my calendar and frustratingly added another year to the period we’ve been well outside the Top 25. I once again questioned why we can’t ever seem to regain the respectability we once expected. After all, we’re a proud program with great history. It’s our destiny to get back to that greatness, right?
Admittedly, I quietly lost my mind and questioned my will to keep doing this Saturday ritual during the 47-point fourth quarter that left us with another disappointing 4-8 record. But when the final whistle sounded and the "storm" ended in Pittsburgh, I decided to let go of any sense of destiny for Syracuse Football. And in the days since, I have found my peace with not only the 2016 result, but with my expectations for our football team in general.
Indeed, I accept the following: Syracuse Football is and will always be an imperfect work in progress – one that will continue to give us exciting highs and disappointing lows, but one that requires us all to accept that adversity will always be a part of our reality as a fan base. We will have great moments ahead. That we are already exceptionally experienced in living with adversity will give us all that much more perspective when we achieve those moments of greatness (what such greatness means for us, remains to be seen. In Dan’s case, it was buying Apple at $3). We don't have the means to succeed with the consistency of the Alabamas and Ohio States, yet we were never like them anyway. And that is in many respects a really good thing.
For now, I’ll reflect on the season with some disappointment, but like Lieutenant Dan I am leaving that baggage behind. And for once I’ll focus on moving forward enjoying an uncertain future rather than looking backward in search of reclaiming a familiar-yet-distant past.
Hey, we survived a big storm, are still aboard a ship that seems to know how to move fast, and appear to have a staff and administration that, like us, wants to play some exciting football and play to win while doing it. Lieutenant Dan can have his Apple…I’ll keep on loving my Orange.