Temple football, and loving football

140107_HIED_TempleOwls.jpg.CROP.promo-mediumlargeThe good folks as SI’s new Campus Rush site asked me to write this story on the rare excitement in Philadelphia about Temple football as it plays the biggest game in program history this Saturday night against Notre Dame.

This was a fun story to report, and it inadvertently provided an answer to a question posed the other day on Facebook by a former journalism professor of mine, one I greatly admire. He plays sports more than watches them. But when he does watch, he said, he enjoys excellent play by either team, and he asked people to explain the us-against-them mentality of most fans.

I didn’t weigh in when the discussion was happening—busy writing!—but the short answer is that sports fandom is a tribal behavior. And tribal behavior is something we are less removed from, evolutionarily, that we would like to think. Sebastion Junger, without once mentioning sports, explored this topic in a brilliant Vanity Fair article on PTSD. He argued that part of the difficulty soldiers experience is going from sharing a barracks with 16 guys to coming home and sharing a bedroom with either one or zero people.

Being a fan is a tribal experience, especially if loyalty to a particular team runs through your family. This Temple story gets at that in its way, especially through the lead anecdote, which—spoiler alert!—I come back to at the end. Enjoy!



The Michigan Game, and the Punter’s Lot


When I began blogging I decided to steer away from sports takes and tilt my commentary more toward books and reading. But I will venture a few words about the ending of the Michigan-Michigan State game, because in the days since the play went down, people have been asking me what I thought about what will surely go down as the most infamous play by a punter in sports history.

If you didn’t see the play, Michigan was leading their in-state rival 23-21 with ten seconds left and the ball near midfield. All Michigan needed was for the punter to hit the ball away, preferably out of bounds or though the end zone, and then Michigan State’s chances would come down to the Stanford Band Play, which has only ever worked in the Stanford Band Play game, in 1982.

But Michigan’s punter fumbled the snap, and then, instead of simply falling on the ball, which would have left Michigan State in Hail Mary/long field goal position, he attempted to pick the ball up and somehow shoveled it to a Michigan State player who was perfectly situated to run the ball in for a touchdown as time expired. (Here’s a vine of the play.) So Michigan State wins, and Michigan’s national championship hopes disappear. All because of the punter.

My initial reaction, I think, reflects my religion.  There’s a certain Jewish mindset which considers all events through the prism of whether they are good or bad for the Jews. As the author of a book, HANGMAN’S GAME, in which the main character, Nick Gallow, is a punter, I couldn’t help but see this play and think, “Bad for the punters.”  Even though fan reaction to the play (“can you believe we lost because of the goddam punter!) gets at why I chose to write about a punter in the first place.

I also thought, with some sympathy, what a former NFL punter had told me about how the key to the success at the position is unvarying routine. Not to make excuses, but this game situation came with an unusual directive for the punte: just get it out of there. Don’t do anything to lose it for us. Which, improbably, is exactly what he did.

For which he has my deepest sympathy. Immediately after the game former Patriots punter and Michigan man Zoltan Mesko tweeted, “I don’t care what any college player does to your Saturday afternoon mood. They are all student-athletes and they don’t owe you a thing.”

Nick Gallow isn’t on Twitter or any social media, but if he was, he would say something like that.

Sam Hinkie Pitches a Mystery Series

imagesIn which I imagine that 76ers GM Sam Hinkie is pitching a five-book series of mystery novels. His working title: The Quest for Champion:

BOOK ONE: Several people are killed, and their murders will all go unsolved, at least in this book. The murders are being perpetrated by a killer who calls himself Champion and sprinkles confetti on the corpses of his victims. Through the first part of this book competent veteran detectives work the Champion case and are making progress, but midway through the narrative they are transferred to the police departments of other municipalities. From that point the investigation is led by younger detectives, most of whom are not very good. Families of the victims are asked to be patient.

BOOK TWO: The confetti-covered corpses continue to pile up. The department hires two new detectives, but they provide no help. One new detective is from Croatia, but he can only work on the Champion case after he finishes with another case in Turkey, and that doesn’t happen in this book. The other detective is hired despite having a foot injury that will take a long time to heal, if it ever does. Meanwhile, the few remaining veteran detectives are all transferred to other municipalities. Families of Champion’s victims grumble that the town needs a new police chief. The chief answers that the only way to capture Champion is to build a great police department, and that is what he is doing. He asks the victim’s families to let go of their “solve it now” mentality.

BOOK THREE: The Croatian detective’s friends hint that he is done with his business in Turkey and will come to America to help capture Champion, but he doesn’t. Meanwhile, a new detective arrives in town, and he is not the detective the townspeople wanted, but he is supposed to be pretty good. At this book’s climax, this new detective unholsters his gun and fires a shot at a fleeing suspect who could lead him to Champion, but the shot is blocked by a wall the suspect has ducked behind, and the townsfolk worry that blocked shots will be an ongoing problem for this detective throughout his career. An aging uncle of one of the victims pleads the police chief, “Please, I only have so many years left. Hire some better detectives. I’d like to see an arrest in my lifetime.” The police chief asks the uncle to trust the process.

BOOK FOUR: The Croatian detective finally arrives in America, and the force also hires four new young detectives. The townspeople rejoice with hope as their squad is now stocked with young detectives who have graduated at the top of their academy classes. The problem is that these detectives don’t know how to work with each other, and have never solved a real-life murder. Champion, meanwhile, only grows more practiced and elusive. The book climaxes with Champion reeling off seventeen new unsolved murders in a row.

BOOK FIVE: Nineteen new murders are committed, and it is clear by the middle of the book they will all go unsolved. “Why did he think he had to reinvent the way police departments operate?” asks the uncle, on his deathbed. “Whatever happened to just hiring the best detectives we could afford and letting them work the cases as best they could?” The Croatian detective announces that he wants to work for another municipality or maybe just go home. The police chief, meanwhile, has soured on two of the detectives that were newly hired the previous installment, and sends them away in a deal with gives the municipality the rights to three new detectives from the next class of police academy graduates, which is touted by experts as the most talented academy class in years. The chief promises the irate families that these detectives will surely catch Champion.

NOTE: This first set of five books is really a set-up for a second set of five books, in which the detectives will have a really good chance of capturing Champion, provided all the detectives stay healthy. What do you think? Are you in?