The Blair Wish project

The heartbreak train was right on schedule. Once every a decade or so, we Vikings fans can expect our hearts to receive a thorough stomping. If we’re feeling good about our team, if we are thinking, “Hey, maybe…,” well, that’s as clear a signal as a chug of smoke and a distant whistle on the prairie horizon. Vikes looking pretty good? Then the heartbreak train is coming. Right on schedule.

Blair Walsh has one of the strangest jobs in human history. His contribution to his economy, to his culture, is that on Sunday afternoons he kicks a weirdly shaped leather object between a pair of elevated yellow poles under high-pressure conditions. Because Blair Walsh has established the ability to perform this weirdly particular task under these demanding conditions exceedingly well, he is rewarded quite handsomely. Rough calculations say that he is one of the top .000001% of people in the world at this feat of feet. Remove a decimal place, so that he is only in the top .00001%, and his talent at kicking that leather object is valueless, a party trick.

Yesterday, Blair Walsh successfully performed this trick thrice (under almost comically miserable conditions), and failed to perform it once. That one failure meant his team was eliminated, and we fans added another chapter to our great Norse saga of sorrows.

As he lined up the kick, and I sat in my living room with my 11-year old son, I said “Blair has been on fire all game. I think we’re moving on!’  And then, just before, or maybe as, the ball was snapped, I thought: oh wait. He could actually miss this. A half second later, when he hooked it in exactly the manner I’m prone to hooking a five-iron, I wasn’t even surprised. It felt like the fulfillment of a dark prophecy. It felt foreordained. I should have seen it coming. It was right on schedule.

The dominant post-game narrative seems to be personal empathy for Walsh (by all accounts a stand-up guy) colored by the insistence that he failed to do that which he was required to do. In a nutshell: yeah, we feel bad for the guy, but he must make that kick. I saw this theme of requirement repeated in interviews and commentary: He must make it. He cannot miss it. Missing that kick is unacceptable. Even coach Zimmer said it: “he has to make it.”

I hear these requirements and wonder, what do we mean, has to make it? Clearly we aren’t saying it is physically impossible for him to miss it. Are we saying that if he misses it he is no longer qualified to be an NFL kicker?  Because there isn’t a kicker in the history of the league (well, other than those kicking for the Patriots) who never missed a clutch kick.

Walsh’s role, his value — in fact, the role and value of all athletes — is based on his effort against the looming spectre of failure. That’s why the rules don’t give the Vikes a victory for reaching field goal range. The fact that he CAN miss that kick is why he must try it. So yeah, of course he can miss that kick.

Or is it this: in our head, in our heart, he always makes that kick. By missing, he has failed to match our mythology.

I tell you, when that kick went wide my son wailed and shrieked like I have never heard. “NO! NO NO NO! DAD HOW DID THAT HAPPEN! NO! I HATE THIS! NO!” He was inconsolable for hours.

Welcome, my boy, to the club. Now, let me tell you about Gary Anderson and Nate Poole and Darrin Nelson and twelve men on the field and 41 donut and some super bowls in the 70s that form some of my earliest memories.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty uncomfortable with the idea of sitting in my living room eating crackers while it’s 6 below outside and decreeing which minor failures by other humans are not acceptable to me. Saying Walsh “must” make a kick is a stark example of the strange tyranny we fans impose upon our sporting heroes: we reverse the cause and effect relationship of talent to achievement. We declare our expectations based on an imagined ideal, not on a fellow human being’s effort, talent, capacity, and shortcomings. We think: because Blair Walsh is a well-paid NFL kicker, he must make a kick. But the truth is the reverse: because Blair Walsh is much more likely than almost anyone else in the world to make that kick, he has become a well-paid NFL kicker.

We repeat this pattern all the time. Our anger at Adrian Peterson for fumbling, at Teddy Bridgewater for his arm strength, at Joe Mauer for slapping grounders to the second baseman, is because we demand these people — these flesh and blood, flawed human people — match our mythology. Holding on to a football when it’s -6 degrees and a horde of giant aggressive humans are colliding into you and pawing at that ball is just really hard. In that situation nearly any of us would fumble. So how dare we declare, “AP just can’t put it on the ground in that situation, and, hey, grab me another beer.”

This kind of thinking has the counter-effect of devaluaing these athletes’ actual talent and hard work. It makes their talents an effect of their status, rather than the reason they’ve achieved the status.

One of the things I’ve heard often in the last 24 hours: “Even I could make that kick.” It’s a weird sentiment, which suggests the speaker doesn’t quite believe he and Walsh are the same species. I hear that and think: of course you could make that kick. You also could miss it. Just like Blair Walsh. He’s still the one I’d want trying it.

Meet the new Moss, same as the old Moss

One of history’s great physicists: Randy Moss. Click for a gallery on the official VIkings site.

News that Randy Moss was on a longship headed back to Viking territory rang out across the northland like a gjallarhorn this week.  Moss has (possibly correctly) been described as petulant, cancerous, even abusive.  He has also (definitely correctly) been described as totally awesome at catching footballs, and one of the greatest Vikings ever.  Since his role in my world is almost entirely about the latter, my reaction, like most fans of the purple, was joy. My brother declared Wednesday one of the five greatest days of his life.  My wife immediately changed her facebook profile photo to a picture of afro’d Moss taken during his last victory as a Viking, the playoff moon game against the Packers.  (Her great quote, when reminded of Moss’s purported moral failings: he’s my wide receiver, not my pastor.)

I should admit: I had recently declared that I was beginning a lengthy rebuilding period of my Viking fandom. See, I overpaid for a ticket to their home opener against the Dolphins, and I spent those three hours in the upper deck of the Metrodome feeling miserable about the team. I left that game, a pathetic loss, determined to reset my priorities.   The next week, when they played (and beat) the Lions, I protested by staying away from the TV.  I mowed the lawn. I got my hair cut. I played with my kids. I enjoyed my little protest.

Then this week’s news broke. #84–hero of the ’98 glory-to-heartbreak season; the most thrilling Viking of all time– is back in Minnesota, where he belongs, and I’m declaring my fandom’s rebuilding period over prematurely. Moss is back; so is Jason.

During those seven years when Moss was here originally, he treated us to some of the most spectacular moments Minnesota sports fans have ever witnessed. He is one of very few athletes who adjusts the geometry of a playing field, whose talents are described by theoretical, not practical, physics, like he’s a quark, or Schrodinger’s cat.  Throw a ball in Moss’s direction, and straight lines are bent, rigid shapes flex, time slows down.  I recall a play against New Orleans late in Moss’s first stint here where Dante threw a deep ball that was clearly (1) way past his intended receiver, and (2) out the back of the end zone anyway.  But while that ball sailed harmlessly out of the playing area here in this universe, down on the field a different physics was at work.  Time both slowed and accelerated as #84 flattened himself across an event horizon, extended his long arms out and up while rapidly tapping his feet down and back at the same time as he propelled them up and forward. I tell you, a particle accelerator, the Hubble telescope, and some grad students with lab coats and unkempt beards could demonstrate that the back right corner of the end zone actually expanded in all dimensions —  laterally, vertically, temporally — for both an instant and an eternity, and then collapsed back to this reality when the ref raised his hands. Touchdown. Huh? Moss caught that? Show me that again. Wow. So that’s how the universe began.

Bottom from Midsummer Night's Dream

If Moss were a Shakespearean character. Source:

I know that Moss has been vilified for his petulant behavior.  I’ve always thought this was overblown.  My basic framework for following professional sports is to regard them as an ongoing compelling narrative, the way some people regard the Harry Potter books or Lost.  The coaches and athletes are the characters in these narratives.  In the narrative of pro football, Moss’s antics are not the work of a villain, like Shakespeare’s Iago. They are the work of a low character, like Shakespeare’s Bottom.  Mooning the crowd.  Bumping a traffic cop.  Squirting a ref.  Walking off the stage while the scene is still playing.  These are things circus clowns do, not archenemies.  But this circus clown also makes circus catches.

I don’t say this to justify him, but to say that Randy Moss is probably more complex than we realize, and perhaps less to blame for his teams’ failures than we make him out to be.  Moss walking off the field late in a game against Washington is widely regarded like it’s tantamount to murder, but no one ever points out the fact that Mike Tice managed the clock in that game like it was a sundial made from a stick and he was Survivorman: imprecisely.

And Moss’s infamous “I play when I want to play” quote demands some context and some reflection, doesn’t it?  Has anyone heard this quote, first hand?  I’ve only seen it in print or heard it repeated by pundits.  What was Moss’s tone?  What was the nature of the question he was answering?  How do we know exactly what he meant? The media always gives it a defiant, belligerent reading, as if it says “I am uncoachable; I don’t care about my team; no one can tell me what to do.”  But couldn’t a skilled actor read that line as Moss’s reflective description of his internal will?  Try this translation instead: “I play when I want to play” equals “my motivation to play comes from deep within me.”  What’s wrong with that?  Heck, read differently, “I play when I want to play” becomes a thoughtful riff on Ecclesiastes or the Byrds. There is a season for everything: a time to sow, a time to reap, a time for playing football.

I’m not naïve about professional athletes; he may very well be a jerk.  And I’m not saying that reacquiring Moss is without risk.  I actually fully expect this to end badly – after all, for the Vikes, it always does. But Randall Gene Moss (the man) playing the complicated and rich part of Randy Moss, 84, Superfreak, the Viking wide receiver, is like Brando playing Stanley Kowalski or Olivier playing Hamlet: the perfect man for a perfect role. I can’t wait to watch it again.

Purple, Like a Bruise

Rationally, I know a professional football game doesn’t actually matter. Rationally, I know that my wonderful wife, my happy kids, my satisfying career, and the abundance of love and opportunity that fill my days mean I don’t know real misery from a Mr. Misty.  The long list of sorrows in this world features Haitian babies left parentless, not the results of professional football games. Yeah, rationally, I get this. And so I spend 95% of my life gliding along in thankfulness, optimism, and patience. I’m a blessed guy, I know it, and (usually) I act like it.

But rationality is the last thing on my mind on Sunday afternoons in the fall and winter, when the Minnesota Vikings take the field.  Those hours are the full-moon, funhouse 5% of my time, when my brain careens toward the irrational, when I turn impatient and childish, and when my priorities reset themselves in ways even I don’t expect.  The swings of emotion I feel during these games are uncomfortably broad, like I’m a toddler or a dog.  A great play shoots me to the ceiling; a turnover crumbles me in my chair.  The Vikes beating Dallas last week mattered to me, in a way it rationally shouldn’t.  And the Vikes losing to New Orleans on Sunday mattered to me, in a way it rationally shouldn’t.

The first Vikings game I remember watching was the Super Bowl against the Raiders in January of 1977.  I was 6 years old.  They lost; I cried.  With that loss, I was initiated into a tradition of trying but not quite succeeding, of striving but not quite reaching. Of failure. I’ve cared about so many players since then. Some are superstars; some aren’t. None have celebrated a championship for the Vikings.  I remember getting an autograph from Rickey Young at a mall in the late 1970s: he briefly became my favorite player.  I have cheered for Matt Blair and Matt Birk. For both McDaniels, Ed and Randall. For Leo and Greg Lewis, for Anthony and Cris (and even Tyrone) Carter, and for speedy receivers like Terry LeCount, Hassan Jones, Qadry Ismail, and Matthew Hatchette (though never for Troy Williamson).  I’ve watched Scott Studwell beget Jack Del Rio beget Ed McDaniel beget EJ Henderson.  Other favorites: Tommy Kramer. Sammy White. Chris Doleman. John Randle. Randy Moss. Gulp: Korey Stringer. These people have mattered to me, even though they are people to whom I do not matter.

In recent years, since suffering the deep puncture wound of the 1998 season and the 41-donut game of the 2000 season, I have taken to saying, proudly, “the Vikings have run out of ways to break my heart.”  I thought maturity had inoculated me against their pointless pain; I thought I had outfoxed them by outgrowing them.  I’ve still watched every game and followed every offseason move, of course, but for the last several years I had let the burdens and pleasures of my mature life put some distance between the Vikings and my heart.

And so it proceeded until this season, when the Vikes enacted a genius ploy: they convinced an archenemy, Brett Favre, to become their hero.  Brilliant!  Subversive!  Favre had been to two superbowls and won one as our rival.  He was a player Minnesotans all privately admired and publicly loathed.  And now we would make him ours?  What a phenomenal idea!  He was untainted by our losses, was beyond our purple stink, had years of experience being the unViking.  Again: How brilliant!  Favre, a gunslinger from titletown, might have the silver bullet which could break our curse.  And when Favre led our purple to victory over his old Packers twice, I found myself again wearing my lucky, dirty Vikes hat, and I consciously plunged in for the rest of this season: if this was the year they finally slew the beast, I wanted to be fully a part of it.

Then came Sunday’s championship game against the Saints, four hours of bayou madness. This game unfolded as a tempting smile, followed by a ruthless punch to the gut, followed by a traitor’s kiss, ending with a knockout club to the brain and a 40-yard stake through the heart. I don’t know if it was worse than the Atlanta game 11 years ago, but it was definitely less rational.   It felt like chaos, in the old, Greek sense of an ancient time and place devoid of order.  Nothing made sense. Moving the ball down the field resulted in turnovers rather than touchdowns.  Recovering a muffed punt near the goal line preceded heartbreak, not glory.  The pretty stat line of our superman (Peterson had three touchdowns and 120 yards: isn’t that exactly what we wanted?) only made his fumbles seem a more potent kryptonite. And the final drive towards the game winning field goal was negated by the dumbest penalty imaginable followed by the hero’s dumbest throw imaginable.  As for the overtime: screw effort and talent; we’ll let a coin toss, some uncertain video replays, and the leg of a slacker kicker decide our fate.  If that all sounds senseless, it’s because it all was senseless.

The kids just before Sunday's heartbreak.

The kids just before Sunday’s heartbreak.

I watched the game at my sister’s house, with 13 other members of my family, while keeping in touch with other friends and family via phone, text message, twitter, and facebook.  Any outsider would laugh at the way our purple-clad band really tried to participate in the outcome, through a combination of celebration, a delicious nacho bar, social networking, and voodoo.  My brother coordinated the seating positions of his nieces to ensure the best luck. My 13-year old daughter entwined her own blond hair with the yellow yarn of her Helga horns.  Another daughter turned her jersey turned inside out in rally jersey mode.  At one point I got this text message from my brother in Chicago: “I’m about to pass out; my vision is starting to get blurry.”  The Scherschligts are a family of faith and reason, Lutherans to the core, with enough diplomas to wallpaper the Superdome, and yet we turned to witchcraft and hexes in order to influence the outcome of a game taking place 1200 miles down the river.  None of this magic worked; of course it didn’t.

This championship game dealt a blow to the funhouse brain, proving what the rational brain knows at any time but on Sunday afternoons: that none of this actually matters, and the pleasure and the pain of professional sports are ephemeral.  Purple is not only the color of royalty and the Vikings, it’s the color of a bruise, spreading and diseased, like the one I imagine is now covering Favre’s ankle. (Seriously: how was that high-low hit on him legal?  Isn’t diving at the QB’s lower legs exactly what the new Tom Brady rule was supposed to outlaw?)  It’s tempting to talk about a curse, but that’s the opposite of the truth.  There isn’t a curse.  Rally jerseys don’t work.  Wearing the same socks from one week to another does nothing but entertain the kids.  Tails and heads are random outcomes.  Heck, I wish there were a curse — curses can be broken by the right counter-spell.  This has no counter-spell.  This was just another small failure in a large universe that doesn’t care about football.

My own son – who loves the Vikings — is almost 6, about the same age I was when the Vikes last appeared in a Super Bowl, that first game I can remember watching. He watched this week’s game while wearing his Adrian Peterson t-shirt and playing with his cousins.  He was sad that they lost, but certainly not crushed.

I hope that means this won’t become the first game he remembers.  I hope he forgets this one.

I wish I could.