I’m slowly coming to grips with the possibility that the sequel to “None Call Me Dad” may be without a Rose Bowl chapter. As I write this piece, my Spartans are sitting with a record of 2-2 overall and a dismal 0-2 in the Big Ten.
Maybe it’s the shirt I’m wearing.
Yes, I’m the one in five sports fans who thinks that maybe, just maybe, the shirt I wear or my game day routines affect the outcome. As a matter of fact, I was surprised to read that I’m in the minority. Don’t laugh. As Steve Boudreau aptly states, “Sports fan rituals may seem silly, but to the avid supporter, they are no joke.”
Writer Hampton Stevens nails it: “All these little ceremonies we perform to court supernatural favor, are they mere tricks of the mind? Skeptics, of course, would say our constant quest for good luck is just a comforting nonsense—a simple case of psychic busywork. The human mind—being hard-wired to seek patterns—finds order and causality where none exists. Maybe. Maybe, though, the skeptics are wrong.”
Seriously, I have a basketball warm-up jersey that went oh-for-four before being retired. In contrast, last year my dark green “Michigan State Basketball” shirt carried the Spartans to a B1G Tournament Title and a 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. What happened against Middle Tennessee State? Due to work obligations I had to wear a tie.
Two losses in two weeks is never easy. Even harder considering that over the past three seasons I’ve only endured five losses in 41 games. And one of those came in the College Football Playoff to the eventual National Champion.
Spartan fans have been spoiled — no, blessed — by three years of New Year’s vacations. My trip to Pasadena for the 2013 Rose Bowl is chronicled in a chapter in “None Call Me Dad,” “We’re Going to the Rose Bowl.” I wore a gaudy silk Hawaiian shirt, green of course, emblazoned with Michigan State sports scenes. Aaron chose the Spartan basketball jersey he bought during our campus visit when we went “On the Road with Sparty” the year before. I can still see Aaron, ready and willing to walk back down 73 rows with his hands full of hotdogs and soda because the Spartans had taken the lead when he was at the concession stand.
The following year the Spartans were “relegated” to the Cotton Bowl. Using verbs like “relegated” when your team earns a spot in one of the New Year’s Six bowls speaks volumes for your expectations. Aaron and Justin had work obligations, so I went to the Cotton Bowl on my own. The money saved on their tickets paid for a seat in Section C133. Sitting on the thirty yard line three rows up from the Spartan bench means never having to look at the colossal flat screen suspended from the roof of AT&T Stadium.
The opponent that year was Baylor, located less than 100 miles away. Needless to say an off-shade of green dominated the stands, but in my section everyone wore the only green and white. Including me, of course. I chose a white turtleneck with the Spartan logo embroidered in green and a green sweatshirt honoring the Rose Bowl victory. The Spartans staged a dramatic comeback, scoring a touchdown with 17 seconds less left in the game. The win was sealed by Michigan State blue blood Riley Bullough’s interception three plays later.
Hank Bullough played for the Spartans in the ‘50s, his sons Shane and Chuck played in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, and his grandsons Max, Riley and Bryan all followed suit. Coach Mark Dantonio’s decision to suspend a Bullogh from the 2013 Rose Bowl for disciplinary reasons remains one of his outstanding coaching decisions.
I exchanged high-fives with anyone within arms-length as Sparty Nation erupted and the green and white confetti fell from the rafters. Needless to say, I stood at the edge of the stands and applauded until the last Spartan left the field.
Prospects for a return to a New Year’s Six game appeared to be endangered more than once. On the third Saturday of October I was sitting on the edge of the couch with the remote in hand, my index finger poised to press the power button as soon as the gun sounded. Losing is hard, but seeing the Wolverines take possession of the Paul Bunyan trophy was just too much. But I wasn’t going to tune out my team, even with just 10 seconds left and the Wolverines punting from MSU’s 47 yard line.
Sean McDonough worked to keep the viewing audience tuned in, reminding viewers that the special teams unit still had to execute the snap. Within seconds McDonough was screaming.
“Whoa he has trouble with the snap and it’s picked up by Michigan State. Jalen Watts Jackson. And he scores on the last play of the game. Unbelievable!”
Fortunately no one but the dogs and I were home to feel the floor shake and hear my screams. “Oh my God! Unbelievable! Touchdown MSU! Oh My God!” Boogie and Roscoe went wild in response. Boogie grabbed my leg so hard his polo shirt nearly came off. And, yes, Boogie’s polo shirt is green with the MSU logo on the chest. He also has an MSU hoodie and a jersey. For big games he lets Roscoe wear the jersey.
Similar scenes occurred in late November against Ohio State — a 41 yard field goal by Matt Geiger as time expired — and on my birthday against Iowa — true freshman L.J. Scott reaching the ball over the goal line with 27 seconds remaining, long after I had replaced my MSU Christmas sweater with a Cotton Bowl Championship shirt. The stage was set for a second consecutive trip to the Cotton Bowl. As luck would have it, I waited until nearly midnight before giving my mother any ideas for a birthday present.
Having a birthday so close to Christmas usually means a smaller birthday present. This time, however, I combined my birthday and Christmas presents for a return to section C133. Once again, the entire section was green and white. There appeared to be three or four Spartan shirts that Tammy has yet to buy for me. We knew the Vegas oddsmakers were betting against us, but we all remembered what happened on that very field just 364 days earlier.
I don’t know if eagles are color blind, but assuming they’re not I figure the bald eagle who circled AT&T stadium during the playing of the national anthem saw more more crimson than green. Nevertheless, we held steadfast, shouting “Go Green! Go White!”
The first half was a nerve-racking slug fest. With just over a minute to go in the half Alabama led 10-0, but the Spartan offense moved the ball 63 yards in seven plays. With six seconds to go, Connor Cook launched a pass toward the end zone at our end of the field. The same end zone in which he rang in the New Year by completing the game-winning touchdown pass to Keith Mumphrey.
Cyrus Jones, a senior from Baltimore whose 4-star recruiting ranking led him to Tuscaloosa, leaped in front our receiver snatched the football. In unison everyone in my section plunged back down in our seats, burying our hands in our heads. A few of us tried to convince one another that we’d overcome greater deficits, but deep down we admitted that momentum. I had a snagging feeling that I’d made a critical error in choosing an old-school Michigan State sweatshirt. Alabama opened the second half with a nine play, four and a half minute scoring drive. From that point on the Tide rolled.
With just over 4 minutes left on the clock, I was dismayed to see that 1 of 5 green and white clad fans had left the stadium. “I don’t see how people can leave,” I told the guy sitting next to me. He nodded in silence as I droned on. “When people asked me if I predicted MSU would win, I told them all I would guarantee is we’ll play for 60 minutes.”
I ended 2015 the same way it began, standing at the edge of C133 and applauding until the last Spartan left the field.
This year began with the “experts” downplaying expectations. That’s fine, we like having a chip on our shoulder. No one other than the Spartan faithful gave us a puncher’s chance when the Spartans took the field at Notre Dame under the watchful eyes of “Touchdown Jesus.” The Irish had entered the season with lofty expectations, they had a dynamite quarterback, and the players slap a sign as they leave the locker room to enter the field.
Whenever the issue of superstitions is debated on ESPN’s “Mike & Mike In the Morning,” Mike Golic laughs at the idea, yet he has never to my knowledge denied that either he or his sons ever left the Notre Dame locker room without slapping the sign.
Shortly before 11 o’clock that night Boogie and Roscoe ran out of the bedroom. Even though I was sitting quietly when MSU faced a critical third down, they knew the game was on the line. When Tyler O’Connor found R.J. Shelton wide open for a first down with 1:05 remaining. O’Connor took a knee on the ensuing play, fanatics.com sent an e-mail offering a new shirt, and the dogs went wild. By the time our celebration ended, Boogie’s Spartan polo shirt was so riled up I had to let him take it off.
A week later I came to the realization that Notre Dame isn’t as good as everyone thought. And perhaps the same might be said of the Spartans. I wasn’t able to watch the game and the best I could do was check the score on my iPhone. It seemed like every time I checked the ESPN app Wisconsin had scored again.
Michigan State hasn’t lost two games in a row since November, 2012, Surely we would defeat Indiana and hold on to the Brass Spittoon.
Legend has it that the spittoon was found in a Lansing antique shop in 1950. As the story goes, people from Michigan and Indiana used the spittoon when passing through a trading post near what is now East Lansing. MSU’s junior class president suggested the schools play for the right to hold the brass spittoon and it has been a treasured trophy ever since.
“For Griffin Oakes to win the game… And it’s over!” the announcer blared. “And they take home the old brass spittoon.” It came as no surprise the next day to learn that Michigan State had been dropped from the Coaches’ Poll.
The Spartans may face hard times, including the quarterback controversy that inevitably follows defeat. Maybe we aren’t going to the Rose Bowl. But don’t worry. I’m surviving. After all, I’m a Spartan.
I may, however, be changing shirts.