Dread December 21, 2011
I had to explain the whole “why I don’t watch the Missouri game” thing again yesterday. That’s three times in the past week I’ve explained it in person, and several of you have emailed me questions about it. Part of me hates bringing it up again – part of me strangely enjoys it. So if you’ve heard this before, I urge you to stop reading – it’s the same old drama. If you want to walk the dark path with me, here we go.
Dread. I don’t watch the Missouri game because I dread the experience. It used to ruin my holidays.
See, I live in St. Louis. My car has Missouri license plates. My drivers license has an image of this ridiculous state outline with a boot heel. I live my life fully immersed in Tiger culture.
I also grew up in the St. Louis area – just on the Illinois side. As such, I was an Illini fan. And in the 80′s, the single greatest sports moment of every year was when we’d beat Missouri just before Christmas. It did not matter our ranking nor their ranking – we always won.
In 1991, I arrived on campus in Champaign. I joined the Orange Crush (yes, it was Crush then). I got my tickets for the Braggin’ Rights game as soon as they went on sale. Now was my time to shine. I was a student, a Crush member, and the #1 Missouri hater on campus. You guys can have your Indiana and your Iowa – I have all the dislike for Missouri that this campus will ever need.
And then we lost. And I was stunned. I had never been more confident of a victory, and I had never been more stomach-punched by a defeat. Losing in the Final Four was awful. Losing to Missouri felt personal, like some guy had stolen my girlfriend. A Missouri guy.
I went again in 1992. We lost. I went again in 1993. That’s when it got really ugly. I’ll cut and paste the story I told from a few years ago (DOWNER ALERT).
I attended the Braggin’ Rights game in 1991 and 1992 with my dad. We had tickets for the 1993 game as well, but my father passed away suddenly of a heart attack over Thanksgiving (warned you). I decided I was not going to use my tickets, but as the game approached, I was convinced that I needed to go. My mom agreed to go and take his seat.
Yes, for that game. A 9 point lead with a minute left that vanished. Kiwane missing two free throws with no time left on the clock, all while Norm Stewart screamed and stomped at half court. A triple-OT defeat after nearly all of Missouri’s starters had fouled out. The most exhausted I’d ever been at a sporting event.
And, in the stairwell walking out, I lost it. Cried like a baby. The emotions of the month were too difficult to overcome. I was supposed to be at game with Dad. Kiwane was supposed to hit one of those free throws. Jason Sutherland was supposed to follow normal rules of human decorum.
But none of that happened, so I lost it. And some Missouri fans took notice:
“Are you CRYING? Hey fellas, come check out this Illini fan who is CRYING! Ha! You lost! LOST! Cry away on mommy’s shoulder, little Illini baby.”
Sports are great. College sports, especially. MY school, MY team, I-have-class-with-Kiwane-and-now-he’s-on-the-free-throw-line. I’d never felt more attached to a team. And I’m an emotional guy, too. I’ve always worn my orange & blue-pumping heart on my sleeve.
That night, I wore my orange & blue tears on my sleeve. I don’t really hate the Missouri fans that mocked me that night – they had no idea why I broke down. They were just drunken morons. But in that moment, I resolved that I would never not root for Missouri to lose. I had identified my White Whale. Cubs fans hate the Cards, my UNC buddy can’t hear the word “Duke” without cringing, and I will always – ALWAYS – hate Missouri.
So with this new-found mortal enemy, I went to the 1994 game. Another loss. And driving home, I realized that I needed to stop going. I hadn’t eaten all day. I felt like throwing up afterward. It’s all fun and good to have a hated rival – it’s another thing to watch their fans celebrate their fourth consecutive victory.
So in 1995, I stayed home and watched it on TV. Jerry Hester went OFF in overtime and we won by 9. I still have a tape (yes, VCR) of that game. I can still hear Larry Conley talking about Hester and saying “I’m telling you, he’s the guy!” It was quite possibly the most satisfying Illini victory of my lifetime.
We won again in 1996, but lost in 1997 and 1998. In 1999, I worked up the courage to go to the game again. I couldn’t be that bad, could it?
Yes, it could. I attended the MicronPC Bowl the next week and it was somewhere on the drive to Florida that I decided to never attend or watch another Braggin’ Rights game. Right or wrong, it kind of ruined my Christmas. The team I love, the team I hate, and a stadium filled with many of the fans of the team I hate. Many of you could probably deal with something like that – I came to the realization that I couldn’t. Living here, working here, being fully immersed in Tiger culture – I just can’t do it.
And it’s been great. Seriously. Many people asked me “Illinois won 9 years in a row after you quit – you’re happy that you didn’t watch any of those games?” Yes, I am. Usually, I go Christmas shopping. I avoid looking at texts or game scores. It’s my yearly fast – my “college sports are very important to me, but they’re not THAT important” moment. One day to unplug. Also, one day I don’t have to see Missouri fans on my television.
See, if you’ve never met a Missouri fan, they’re obsessed – and I’m generalizing here, but generalizations can be fun – with one thing: recognition. They’ve been to the NCAA Tournament 24 times… but they’ve never been to the Final Four. They’ve been to 29 bowl games… but they’ve never been to a BCS Bowl. So when they’re dismissed by their Kansas brethren with “talk to me when you make one of those”, they are filled with a white-hot focus to be recognized for their accomplishments apart from Final Fours and BCS Bowls. Such and such named their 2006 bowl win one of the top wins this decade. So and so said that they’re the next great college basketball program. You know how we kind of enjoy being titled “best college basketball team to never win a title”? Missouri fans HATE being “best team to never reach the big stage in either sport”.
So when you live around these fans, and you work with these fans, and you hear these fans call-in to radio shows… and when you were predisposed as a child to dislike their team, and you built on that in college to the point where some of their fans verbally berated you while you were crying… and when you live near a neighbor who leaves a yellow tiger tail hanging out of his trunk, and your old Missouri boss used to bring up every Illini loss, and your son’s friends at school all mock him for being an Illini fan… and when you’ve never attended a football or basketball game in against Missouri in St. Louis where you’ve walked out victorious…
…you stop going to, or watching, the Braggin’ Rights game.