Sunday, November 14, 2010

Absence and Fondness

I have two pronounced rooting interests in college sports: my Alma mater and my hometown team. While the two compete in athletic conferences geographically far removed from one another and rarely encounter one another in any sport, yesterday afternoon my two favorite universities had something in common. Kind of, sort of anyway.

Earlier this week in the foothills of Boulder the Dan Hawkins Era as Head Coach of the football team came to an arguably overdue, indisputably abrupt end. Coach Hawkins was fired with three games remaining in what had been his fifth season as the man in charge of the Buffaloes. To his credit, while he was certainly disappointed in the way his course in Boulder was ultimately plotted, on his way out of town he kept his head up, accepted responsibility for his own demise, thanked those who had presented him the opportunity to coach at CU for doing so and begged the home fans to show up in droves to support the kids on the team during these final couple of weeks of the season.

I read quite a bit on-line in the Boulder newspaper, The Daily Camera, this week from individuals who identified themselves as a CU alum and/or a CU fan who declared that in honor of change at the top of the coaching staff they were going to do something they had not intended to do: attend the second-to-last home game of the 2010 season. Yesterday's game was not close to a sell out and having had the chance to watch at least some of it on TV it gave me pause momentarily to contemplate just how empty Folsom Field would have looked had their been two Hawkinses wearing the home team's black and gold instead of just the one who was: the senior quarterback Cody.

It was nice to hear the home crowd cheering for the kids who were out there on the field trying their hardest to represent the University - even if some of those present still harbor the delusion that our now former coach was the personification of evil in Boulder County. To be clear for those of you who have a comprehension problem, let me make it simple for you. This son of a bitch IS the personification of evil in Boulder County. This man is not. And it was especially nice to see that for this particular afternoon anyway one Hawkins was all that the Buffs needed to win the game.

Yesterday on the banks of the old Rar-i-tan the home team came home for the first time since the life-altering injury sustained by Eric LeGrand. While it seems as if it was a lifetime ago, it was in fact only a month ago that Eric was injured - during RU's October 16 game against Army. Rutgers won that afternoon to raise its record to 4-2. In the thirty days since they have played three times - including yesterday. Their record now stands at 4-5. It is starting to look more and more as if the Rutgers renaissance that Coach Schiano has orchestrated the past half-dozen seasons is going to take a bit of a step back this season. A fact that is of course not lost on the folks here in the State of Concrete Gardens.

Not only has the football team felt the loss of Eric LeGrand, the entire university has been touched by his plight. It was evident at the Stadium yesterday in the impossible-to-count number of people who wore the special t-shirts that have been created to honor him. And it was evident to anyone watching on television who saw the enormous banner that was unfurled across the back wall of an end zone, which banner actually functioned as the largest "Get Well" card I have ever seen (and one that I hope is hand-delivered for I would not want to be responsible for the postage). That card was signed by countless thousands of people including his teammates and friends and - of course - many who have never met him but are nonetheless moved by what has befallen the LeGrand family. The outpouring of love and affection that the Rutgers family has provided to the LeGrand family, while prompted by the most tragic of circumstances, has nevertheless been beautiful to watch.

On the field, this autumn has quickly dissolved into a season of discontent for RU. From a football perspective, their troubles have far more to do with a brutal, almost unwatchable offense than the loss of one of their emotional and inspirational leaders. But from a human perspective, one cannot accurately measure just how much his absence is felt by his teammates. Even young, hearty, athletic kids with strong backs and broad shoulders can carry only so much weight without bowing. This autumn it seems from afar as if Eric's teammates have exceeded their carrying capacity.

If life was even a reasonable facsimile of an event grounded in fundamental fairness, then yesterday in Boulder Colorado a football coach in the midst of his fifth straight successful season would have led his team - quarterbacked by his son - onto Folsom Field and yesterday in Piscataway, New Jersey a rugged defensive and special teams stalwart would have done likewise at Rutgers Stadium. Life is not only not fair but at times it is downright cruel.


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