Friday, March 13, 2009

The Gift and the Curse

Call me old, but these days the college selection process seems different. With a restructured SAT scoring and emphasis on bullshit community service and bullshit club involvement, there's almost a mechanical formula to getting into college these days. Or perhaps this has always existed and I just bypassed the rigmarole by having four criteria to picking my university: far enough from home where I wasn't tempted to visit old flames, a big student population, south of New Jersey, and, most importantly, a big time athletics program.

The University of Maryland fit the criteria. I wasn't a big fan of the color red or anything blow the Mason-Dixon, line but something about the school seemed right. So right that my mind was made up before I ever stepped foot on campus. Embarrassingly enough, I grew up cheering for Duke. I wanted to go to Duke. But somewhere between a B in Driver's Ed. (ruining my 4.0) and a 2 on my AP Calc exam, I had to readjust my goals for something a little more realistic.

So junior year, I was watching a CBS basketball match up between the Terps and the Blue Devils- the mighty Dukies vs. the scrappy Terps- and it just clicked. The rabid fans. The fiery coach. And the team who emulated their coach with grit and tenacity.

In retrospect, it's kind of stupid to pick your school based on one basketball game. I knew nothing about Len Bias and the harsh sanctions that paralyzed the program for years. I knew nothing about the shit hole, campus-hating town that was College Park. Yet, it felt right. Before I knew it I was stalking the mailbox every day for that letter from Maryland.

It didn't take long to understand what it was to be Maryland Terrapin student and fan. The first day back from winter break and Maryland was up 10 against the Blue Devils at Cole Field House in College Park. At Maryland, we riot, so I was tying my shoes, getting ready to sprint a half mile to the campus fraternity row to burn couches, goalposts, desks, or anything else that takes to a flame. Like a duckling needs only its instinct to follow its mother through the pond, I knew the drill without ever participating in the infamous Maryland riot. Except, it was not to be.

Maryland blew the lead in the most gut-wrenching, heart-snatching way imaginable. Turnovers, missed shots, questionable calls- just eight different ways to punch you in the stomach, kick you in the teeth, and tell you your girlfriend got pregnant by a Duke MBA. Oh and the same thing happened in the semifinals of the Final Duke.

Well next year Maryland won the National Championship. It was euphoric and cathartic and anticlimactic all in one. The Terps were favored to win, but we still had to win. You would think a national championship would elicit prose and hyperbole, but it didn't. It felt more of a great exhale, a year and a half in the making.

The next year we flamed out in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament. The year after that we shocked the nation by avenging our heartbreaking loss to Duke by rallying back from 14 down to win the ACC Championship. Then we lost and won and lost and repeated through a permutation of huge wins over top ranked foes and awful losses against beatable teams.

And it's been the same ever since graduation almost five years ago. I'm forever locked into a team that will break my heart or make my weekend. One minute I won't care, the next minute nothing can be more important. It's irrational to put so much emotion into the ability of people I will never know scoring more points than the other team based only on the color of the jersey. But such is sports.

I often say i made a deal with the devil (one of many) by trading a championship for a lifetime of annual heartbreaks. But it's nights like these, nights where the Terps beat Wake Forest to likely earn a spot in the Big Dance, where it makes perfect sense to choose a school out of something as trivial as its collegiate athletics.

Bring on the Dukies.

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