By: Jeffrey Newholm
“Life was such a wheel that no man could stand upon it for long. And it always, at the end, came round to the same place again”. Readers can perhaps be excused for not being in the mood for philosophizing upon reaching the end of Stephen’s King massive extended version of The Stand. Yet while the rest of college football is on hiatus, the humble athletes of d3 annually conclude their tournament. In the process, they provide a real life dramatization of King’s keen insight. And all sports fans can gain a new insight into the human condition by taking a quick look at those who play for the love of the game, but very rarely play past college.
Therapists often are faced with patients who bemoan that their lives are supposedly “devoid of meaning”. Such a sentiment is easily avoided as long as we don’t shoot wildly high. However, the nature of sports incentivizes the cliched American sentiment of aiming for the moon. How many college scouts say to the young hooper: “well you could play for us for a few years, but no way you’ll play past that”. Have you ever heard of the football coach who told a player “don’t worry about practice, just focus on your grades and your major”. Most upon starting won’t even try if there isn’t a chance for a big payout. But in d3, while the late playoffs are very exciting, few have any chance of getting anywhere.
Almost all semifinalists come from a group of seven or eight power programs. The one exception this year proved to be the one that proved the rule. Saturday, Brockport State’s Joe Germinerio flung wild pass after wild pass in a futile effort to come back against Mary Hardin-Baylor, who won their 29th game in a row. Meanwhile Mount Union led a furious rally from 25 down, but not exactly in an inspirational way. It clinched the Raiders’ 12th appearance in the Stagg Bowl in 13 years. The win was also abetted by a quarterback who had to navigate criminal charges at the same time as he was eluding pass-rushers. So perhaps it’s misleading from the beginning to just focus on the last two teams, out of over 200 who may never make the final game. But yet in sports, all fans seem to care about are the strongest teams. So what do the Crusaders and Raiders tell the rest of us about life?
Every time a new champion is crowned, scribes become spectacularly optimistic about that team’s future chances. For instance, Sports Illustrated gushed out reason after reason why the Astros are the next dynasty in baseball. Never mind that experts had barely ceased saying the same things about the Cubs. Also worth noting is the shot-in-the-dark nature of the MLB playoffs. Fans shift allegiances so frequently that it’s easy to sympathize who Dante, who so disliked opportunists that he could find a place for them in neither heaven nor hell. In d3, the wheel of fate spins slowest. The folly of imagining anyone can forever rule a field is here hardest to see, yet clearest once understood.
The Raiders were the first to ascend to the d3 throne, winning six of seven titles from 1996-2002. Then it was UW-Whitewater, beating the Raiders six out of eight years in the Stagg Bowl from 2007-2014. But even as the Hawks won their 45th game in a row in 2011, the experts knew all dynasties have a beginning and an end. In 2016 the Crusaders, held back for years with conservative play-calling, stunned the Raiders with a fake punt in the semifinals. The “Cru” then topped UW-Oshkosh in the Stagg Bowl. Oshkosh was a team that worked for years to steal the baton from the Hawks in Wisconsin, and then didn’t look back after passing them. Now Mary Hardin-Baylor can become the next big thing Friday by extending the longest winning streak in college football. But when friction grinds the Crusader war machine to a halt, yet another new team will rise. By now longtime d3 fans have realized what Lakers and UCLA fans already found out the hard way. No team is on top forever, and even the longest run eventually becomes but a curiosity of out-of-print history books.
Fans who take the initiative to tune in Friday should soak up the atmosphere as the best sports, and life, has to offer. We are only here but for a slimmer of time in the pantheon of time, magnifying the importance of each moment we do have. Skeptics claim we return to non-being after death. This sentiment finds an Old Testament parallel in Genesis. Adam is sentenced to work “Until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; for you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return”. Eastern traditions put Man in a continual process of deaths and rebirths. Each new life starts, as King observed, in the same place: square one. True, most teams can only dream of making the Big Game (whatever the sport). Most of us only fantasize about being famous or rich. But the Stagg Bowl provides a novel glimpse each year of what it’s like to be King, even if for just one day. And it’s much better to be on for the ride of the wheel of life, than to try to push against it.