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The Twilight of the Odds
I never gave up on Fridge. I don't think anyone completely gave up on him, of course; you can't simply dismiss a man who won 30 games in his first three years with a football team (the University of Maryland's, natch) that had been mired in mediocrity for a decade and counting prior to his arrival. But Ralph Friedgen was certainly taking some heat: His faith in Joel Statham, our sophomore QB, seemed to be misplaced, and the team's offensive line wasn't blocking well enough to spring our powerful running backs Josh Allen and Sammy Maldonado. The defense was stout, holding the previous three opponents to 20, 13, and 10 points. The problem was that we scored a combined 17 points in those games, gaining under 100 yards of offense in two of them. On October 30, 2004, the odds against an upset of Florida State, the fifth-ranked team in the country, a team we had never beaten in 14 tries, seemed prohibitive, even if we were playing at home.
Playing at home meant I got to go see the game, with Spam-O-Maticker Jordan Baker allowing me to tag along to his brother Dans tailgate and prevailing upon his brother to secure student guest tickets for the two of us. I donned my "Fear the Turtle" T-shirt and met Jordan at the Metro to wend our way to the parking lot, where his brother and his friends had been setting up since 7 am. For a 3:30 game. My hat remains off to their dedication.
Still, it was easy to understand why tailgating properly was so important: Something about sitting outside, popping open a cold one and gnawing on fire-cooked food (not to mention chewing on a generous spread of non-fire-cooked cookies) puts me, and everyone else, in a relaxed mood. Chatter concerned everything but the game: music, other football games, the scrimmaging of the mens basketball team going on in the Comcast Center 200 yards away. The game was almost a foregone conclusion, even if you nurtured some mote of hope deep within your football-lovin' soul. Why spoil the mood?
Game time approached and we tromped up to the stadium, in which hip-hop was blaring from the Jumbotron at motivation-inducing volume. As Jay-Z's "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" played, I felt a strange giddy lightness, the same giddy lightness that had sprung me out of bed that morning, the same giddy lightness that had helped propel me through the preceding week: We were going to win.
I have lots of gut feelings, but most of them are negative: That girl's not going to date me, I'm not going to get that job, something's wrong with this review that I'm sending in now. I practice a little mental maneuver to get around them and move along. A positive gut feeling, though, makes me guilty with its unexpected bounty, like finding a $50 bill on the sidewalk: I wonder where it came from and why I deserve it, and whether it shouldn't be given back to someone, like the FSU fans piling in to practice their tomahawk chop. I didn't exactly tell Jordan about this; I said, "You know, we could still do it. It's not impossible." But that wasn't what I was thinking. I was thinking: This is the year.
Gametime: We kicked off. Our defense forced them to punt. We drove 68 yards and kicked a field goal, making it look easy. We kicked off. They had to punt again. "Huh," I thought. "This is going unexpectedly well. If we keep scoring and not letting them score, we'll win." The student section absolutely roared on every FSU down, then roared even louder on every third down. The sun was attempting to peek out from behind the clouds.
The Terps and Seminoles traded field goals, and then in the middle of the second quarter we drove 69 yards for a TD, having gotten to the 2-yard line after Vernon Davis' caught the ball at about the 30 and made an insane run, shedding defenders everywhere, that ended only after he leapt clean over one defender and kicked another in the head as he came down.
I barely remember any of this. I was high from seeing all the red, from yelling all the time, from seeing the offense run like it always used to run under Fridge and offensive coordinator Charlie Taffe, from seeing Gary Blackney's defense tie Bobby Bowden's vaunted offense in knots. Halftime seemed to pass in the blink of an eye, even if the Tower of Power tribute by the Mighty Sound of Maryland seemed to take five years. Why was the band playing songs that almost nobody knew? I sang part of What Is Hip? to Dan just to see if any bells would go off, but no dice.
Early in the third quarter, FSU intercepted a Statham pass on third down, and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown. Understandably, the wind was knocked out of the crowd; FSU still had a potent offense and had suddenly closed within 3. "Something's going to happen," I thought. "We just have to keep cheering and wait for it."
After the kickoff, our offense ran two unassuming plays, then on third and four Josh Allen took a short pass from Statham and broke it into a 72-yard touchdown, following blockers, zagging across the field to less congested territory, slowing up just enough so defenders hurtling towards him couldn't put on the brakes in time, finally stumbling forward into the end zone with FSU hands still grabbing at him and trying to bring him up short. The roar of the crowd, the report of the cannon that fires after every score, and the incredibly lusty rendition of the fight song seared me, in a good way. In a touch only a hack novelist would make up, the sun had fully dispelled the clouds and lit up the sky to the west in a spectacular sunset, emitting yet more red onto the stadium beneath.
From then on, the sky got darker, and we fans endured about an hour and a half of cringing, as FSU scored a TD to pull within 20-17 but kept missing field goals and our defense kept making huge, unlikely plays. We played man-to-man pass defense the whole game, and towards the end the split seconds in which the football hung in the air and the FSU receiver and Maryland defensive back battled for position felt like hours every time. FSU kept making it partway down the field, despite our efforts to drown out their preplay deliberations with a vast roar of sound, then Maryland would make a big defensive play to stop them in their tracks. The fight song kept coming loud and strong from the Mighty Sound of Marylands end zone outpost, and we all kept singing it. I gave up on the idea of having a voice on Sunday.
At one point, FSU pushed to the 27 before a massive sack forced them back to the 36. The ensuing field goal attempt went up and had plenty of distance it would have cleared the crossbar had the goalposts been ten yards deeper. Then we heard a massive clang, and saw that the ball hadnt even managed to pass the goalposts; it has hit the left post. Never did I think a metallic clang could be so beautiful, like a bell summoning us to achievement. And that wasnt even the last miss; I hugged Jordan after FSUs final field goal attempt went wide left with 4:45 to go. He didn't seem to mind, especially since we didnt know if that was going to be the last attempt. We managed to bend but not break on one last possession, with a fourth-and-15 that featured louder crowd noise than Ive ever heard in my life, and the game was over. The upset was accomplished. What had not yet been done had now been done in style. Maryland 20, FSU 17.
Students stormed the field and Ralph made his way through the teeming mass to the podium where he leads fans in the fight song after victories. Ralphs singing would make Tim Page cry hell, it almost made me cry. But it was heartfelt and fearless, and we all were in its thrall as we sang with him. We Believe signs popped up around the stadium, and we all did that, too.
Nobody rioted afterwards, though Route 1 was swarmed by happy students for a few minutes. The goalposts did not fall, and no one lit a bonfire on Frat Row, though those instances of admirable restraint may have been influenced by the heavy police presence, including a full cavalry unit of mounted police and two (count 'em, two) helicopters with searchlights, which I waved to. (And, as always, epicenter of riot police standing-around activity was the Maryland Book Exchange, which must hand out free textbooks aplenty to the po-po for this honor.) Jordan and I ate our postgame sandwiches at Potbelly, which fronts on Route 1, without feeling a bit unsafe sitting by the window. We merely chewed our sandwiches in total satisfaction, free T-shirts at our sides, smiles on our faces, watching the world go by.
I cant honestly say I enjoyed my time at Maryland; I did a lot of good things there, which is not quite the same thing. I didnt really hook into any groups except inasmuch as I wrote things that got published in certain publications (D-back and Cow Nipple, holla!); every class that challenged me and expanded my horizons was balanced by lackluster or agitprop pedagogy in other classes; I took advantage of the astonishing cultural banquet presented to us students, but rarely joined with other students in doing that.
Before I entered Maryland, I had quit college for two years to work through psychological issues; I was older than most of my peers and had supported myself for a while, and our respective attitudes towards college reflected that. Due in part to those psychological issues, I lived in the same apartment that I moved into when I moved out of my parents house, which was (and is) in beautiful Silver Spring, Maryland rather than College Park; my lack of a car meant I rarely went to campus for social purposes. In truth, I wanted and needed to be a bit aloof from the bustle of campus life, but I felt what I was missing, keenly at times, and still do.
The one thing that made me feel a part of campus life was our athletic teams, specifically football and mens basketball. We had some great triumphs during the years I was there: an ACC championship in football, a national championship in basketball. And when I took part in impromptu discussions with my classmates, gave an entire presentation in Foundations of Rhetoric based on various facets of the upcoming Maryland-Duke game, or even just sat at home screaming at the TV because I couldnt make it out to campus, I felt for almost the only times during my Terp career that I was part of something larger than me, something that was (while I was there) a very happy thing to be a part of. I will always be loyal to that, regardless of whether we go 0-11 next year in football and lose to East Tennessee State in basketball.
To me, that (and knowing that Lonny Baxter represents Silver Spring) is what being a fan is all about, and that is why I have appended these last four paragraphs. Athletics can bring out the best (or the worst) in those who participate, but they can inspire the best in those who watch as well. And if sports also can remind me that positive gut feelings sometimes turn out to portend actual victories, that's a good thing too.
All this tasty writing ©2002-11 by Andrew Lindemann Malone. All rights reserved.