The rain came after I arrived at new and improved Carl Stadium in Tabor Friday night, but I brought the fog with me. Those shiny, unfamiliar bleachers might have had a little to do with it, but the more likely culprit for my mental haze was certainly the six weeks I’ve spent away from the game.
Not the game of football, specifically, but the game around the game of covering local sports. You know that feeling you have on the first day of work following a long vacation? You’ve forgotten passwords, your chair seems too low, your routine is out of whack and you’re not exactly sure how to kick the old instincts back into gear. Yeah, that was it, but with a side order of feeling like I just showed up three days after my own funeral.
Perhaps that’s a bit melodramatic. There is an iota of truth in the analogy, though. When you leave a job, particularly one that’s come to define a significant chunk of your public and personal identity, a little piece of who you are passes away, slips into history and – to yourself as well as others – becomes a fond but closed chapter. Walking into that stadium felt like preparing to act out the lines that someone else had written.
Luckily, there was a game going on other than the one between my ears. And, though it ended up a not-particularly-close contest, I got to witness some pretty wondrous events on my first official beat back. I got to see Essex seniors Cody McClintock and Alex Dailey - two guys I have known since before my sports reporting days when I spent a year as a substitute teacher and they were just goofy, gangly eighth-graders – finish their football careers fighting to the last. With his team trailing substantially, Cody picked off an F-M pass and had a big return to set up Alex’s fourth-quarter touchdown reception finale on the next play.
Struggling through two winless Trojan seasons, they won their 2015 opener to snap the streak and spent homecoming night in the glow of an unforgettable win over Sidney.
I also got to see some of the guard-changing going on in the vaunted Knight program. With living legend Nate Meier home on a Hawkeye bye week and watching from the stands, the new breed of upperclass leaders, Sam Phillips, Parker Powers, Nate Hardisty, Hunter Rasmussen, Adam Todd, Carter Jennings and the consummate winner and game time tactician, senior Jason Rusten, completed a gutsy, challenging 8-1 regular season campaign. At the same time, preternaturally gifted freshmen like quarterback Mason Vanatta and Swiss Army Knife Jaeger Powers heralded the next wave of F-M fortitude.
Within that 2015 work-in-progress, Rusten is attempting his own rewrite on a running clock deadline. A broken collarbone, even early in the season, would spell the end for most mortal men. But, with the end of this ongoing gridiron effort ominously, always now possibly circling in to signal the end of his great football career, there he was doing whatever he could to help his team, even running a series under center and completing a pass with that still-tender throwing arm.
We often think of rebirth, especially in a religious context, as a joyful, uplifting event but, as a very interested observer at a couple of first births, I can tell you it’s in large part a tense, traumatic and messy situation for all parties involved and only hopefully brings a happy ending. Rebirth can be much the same and coaches and players go through it on a fairly regular basis. New leaders, new stars, new faces, new challenges, new fortunes and new ideas of the possible. The payoff is a thrill associated with the discovery of the undiscovered, but it comes at the expense of more than a few gray hairs and sleepless nights.
Writing, as I am right now, helps organize the thoughts that come and put them in perspective or, at the very least, exorcise them from a frantic mind. I don’t know if coaches, as a rule, keep journals, but I imagine the late evening/early morning bull sessions with their assistants after a game are some first step in the transition from this week to next. For me, the process seems in its early stages of discovery, despite four years of experience. The “then” is over. Let the new chapter begin…