TO THE MICHIGAN WOLVERINES:
Tomorrow marks the last day of your national embarrassment. And the first day of the rest of your football lives.
Already, you have learned a valuable lesson. How one minute you’re on top of the world and the next you’re on the bottom of someone’s shoe. Remember it well. Remember how certain people thought you were championship material and now, after one loss, think you should stay out of the Top 25 all year. Remember how certain analysts celebrated Lloyd Carr last season and now want him broomed out of town.
Remember it all.
Then forget it all.
Because in sports there is always another play, another game, another season. Tomorrow is Oregon, a team that evokes no laughs, a bona-fide Pac-10 squad that may not be the New York Yankees of college football, but is solid and respectable.
Play the Ducks hard. Beat them. And some kind of healing will begin.
You notice we said “beat them.”
That is not a small detail.
The agony of one defeat
You are not blameless in this awful week. You didn’t play hard in your opener and you didn’t play smart. You seemed to act as if Appalachian State were going to stop at some point and say, “OK, we’re just kidding.” Your coach, by his own admission, did not have you prepared.
This is another good lesson. Any team you take lightly can light you up, be it Division I-A, I-AA or the University of the Weak and Hopeless. If you want respect, you can’t watch guys catch passes in front of you, or forget your assignments, or get outcoached on both sides of the ball.
But what you endured after the game went beyond that. What you endured was the overhyped, overamplified world of sports, where everything is measured against history, and nothing is more fun than calling for someone’s head.
Were you surprised at such venom? Were you surprised to hear about how arrogant you supposedly are, how you had this coming, how your coach is a failure, how your program deserves shame and ridicule?
Don’t be surprised. Life can be unfair. And Sunday morning quarterbacking can be even more unfair.
You freshmen playing your first game at Michigan might wonder what you ever did to make people so angry. Nothing. They were angry before you got there.
You 19-year-olds – just starting your sophomore year – might wonder why talk shows and e-mailers called you pathetic, embarrassing and a joke. Don’t wonder.
What you did – lose, in the final seconds, to a championship team from a lower division – was indeed one of the great upsets in college football. It was stunning. But it was not disgraceful. To call it disgraceful is to insult Appalachian State.
It’s funny how when the 1980 U.S. hockey team upset the Soviet Union at the Olympics, it was because of heart, pride and spirit. Not because the Soviets were a disgrace.
Guess it depends on which side of the upset you’re sitting.
Another good lesson.
A rocky road ahead
Saturday, you can do something about all this. You can show that last week was a lack of focus, not talent. And your coaches can show how they earn their pay, steadying a ship of young men who just got hit with a tidal wave.
You can do something you must get used to doing in sports: Put the bad behind you. Be it an injury, a trade, a dropped touchdown, a missed kick – it’s going to happen again in the athletic world.
But the media volcanoes subside. Lava cools. You can chill some of the controversy with a victory Saturday, with a victory over Notre Dame, with a Big Ten title. No, there will be no national championship. But you won’t be the last team eliminated from that.
Tomorrow, get back to being a group with a goal, with its eyes forward, not back. It’s the beauty of a new kickoff.
But never forget this week. Learn from it. And Saturday, tell yourself, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
And, not to belabor the point, win.
That would really help.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).