this morning, with it’s cascaded sunshine and crisp but comfortable smooch on the cheek as i walked to catch a cab marks the start of the madness that is college basketball’s race for the coveted national championship.
the big dance.
when i was a younger man, my list of priorities was topped by two words:
as a freshman it wasn’t something i thought realistic…i’d chosen to play for a relatively unremarkable program in the face of offers to join arguably more likely contenders for the sport’s top collegiate prize.
i’d sacrificed a bit of soccer prowess for a bit of academic prowess.
nonetheless, my last game as a freshman was played in front of 20,000 fans and broadcast across the nation on ESPN, as we lost to indiana 3-1 in the national championship game.
from that point on, my priority was a return to the Final Four and a better result than our first trip.
undisputably the best.
my sophomore season came to devastating end when i missed a penalty kick at the end of double-overtime and shoot-out against our biggest rival santa clara at home, in front of a packed crowd of 10,000 of my friends and classmates. it was a sudden-death, one off between me and one of their guys, winner take all.
i was unhappy with the result…let’s just leave it at that, mkay?
my junior year we made another run at the title with renewed focus and a battle hardened team with tournament experience. we found ourselves matched up against SMU in our home stadium, vying for a spot in the Final Four, the two top-ranked teams in the nation. we’d spent all year ranked #1, firing on all cyliders.
but alas, a late goal turned our dreams on their head, and we watched a group of texans pack up on their way to the Finals.*
so senior year arrived…and nothing else mattered. i was the best player i’d ever be, a co-captain with The Lee on a fortified team of professionally bound players. we couldn’t see anything but success. we were favored.
oh, fate…you little bitch.
this time we cruised through the playoffs and earned our ticket to the Final Four. we were decidely and by most accounts the best team and playing our best soccer. our parents were pretty excited. our girlfriends were flying to ohio to be there when it happened.
and it didn’t happen. again in front of thousands and again on ESPN we watched the clock wind down to the last five minutes of our semi-final game against UCLA…we looked up at a scoreboard that showed us ahead 2-0.
i was taken off the field. i was battling mono, and i was done. after three long months of fighting a silent illness just hoping to make it one more weekend, i was un-useful and looking ahead to the championship.
and i turned around to watch UCLA put two unlikely shots into the back of our net.
i sat there, on the sideline of my dream, and saw UCLA take our immediate future away with a goal in overtime.
i watched it all in desperate horror.
and i never got the national championship i so wanted.
and i’m left with this…in a way that’s not just knowledge but in a way that i can taste and hear and smell and feel:
it’s elusiveness is its beauty and its venom, that national championship .
*i scored the best goal of my career in this game.