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“This one’s over,” I heard a fan say as he ushered his family out through the gates of Princeton Stadium.
With 13:02 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Harvard football team had scored another touchdown, its fifth of the game, to take a healthy 34-10 lead over Princeton. It appeared almost a foregone conclusion that the heavily-favored Crimson would roll to yet another victory and extend the longest winning streak in the nation to 15.
The season’s only remaining question, it seemed, was whether Harvard would win its four remaining games to repeat as Ivy League champion, and, in doing so, make 2012 the program’s first undefeated campaign in almost a decade.
When you cover a team all season, it’s easy to become a fan and difficult to avoid rooting for success. But covering a team is not—cannot—be about that. It’s about the narratives that unfold and the characters who create them.
It’s about the star defensive lineman who perseveres through the deaths of both parents and bouts of homelessness to become the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year and a legitimate NFL prospect. The quarterback who is too small to be as good as he is and one day hopes to perfect a different kind of Hail Mary, this time as a pastor.
But, even beyond football, it is as much about those who fail as those who succeed. The recruit who never quite gets his shot, relegated to the bench for four long years. The coach who, despite assembling some of the nation’s best recruiting classes, can’t seem to put an elite team together.
These are stories about people, about goals, about teams. And though you’ll find them in the sports section, they’re just as often about something different entirely.
In the next five minutes and 19 seconds, Princeton scored not once, but twice, both times successfully converting two-point attempts. The comfortable 24-point lead had narrowed to eight.
Princeton was storming back, and the once-dejected crowd was now reengaged in the game.
The Crimson, and my time writing sports, is about other stories, too. Of fall afternoons driving through an ever-changing Northeast, of spring mornings in a small corner of The Crimson making sure this story or that picture is just right.
And, much like the stories we tell, these ones are fundamentally about people, too. Of learning at the hands of a co-Sports Chair whose sheer knack for the craft is unsurpassed by anyone I’ve worked with before or since, or a brother who refuses to shy away from what is right.
Perhaps Harvard had reclaimed its rhythm. After Princeton had stormed down half the field in under a minute, the Crimson responded, marching 52 yards in 86 seconds to the Princeton 5-yard line.
One, two, three downs later, and Harvard hadn’t budged an inch, let alone a yard. Fourth down proved to be the most disastrous yet, and a blocked field goal meant the Crimson was thwarted again.
With under 2:30 remaining, the Tigers struck for the third time in the quarter. Another touchdown, putting the hosts only two points away from knotting the score at 34. Mercifully, the two-point attempt proved futile, and the Crimson escaped clinging to the narrowest of leads.
But the bad news kept coming for Harvard. Three-and-out, Princeton ball. First down after first down for the Tigers. And then, a prayer, thrown up and brought down in the corner of the end zone. Touchdown Princeton, ahead, 39-34, with eight seconds left.
Moments later, as time wound down on the game clock and the Crimson’s shot at perfection, the stunned orange-and -black faithful stormed the field.
This is my 30th—and final—sports column for The Crimson or, barring something fairly unforeseen, any publication.
Of all the types of stories—the recaps, the blog posts, the features—none captivate me quite like column writing. It offers almost total freedom in distilling a story to its core essence.
For that, I owe a great debt of gratitude to the great LA Times columnist Jim Murray, whose collected works I stumbled upon in the summer of 2011. He understood what makes sports, and people, tick.
About baseball’s spring training, he once wrote, “It’s March. Everybody wins the pennant. Every pitcher is Cy Young. Every batter is Ty Cobb.” He understood that, before every season or even game, there exists a sense of optimism, at least of some sort, and uncertainty.
Because you really never know. Often times, things turn out exactly as planned. But sometimes, the unexpected or, to paraphrase Vin Scully, the impossible happens. The hero becomes the goat, or the goat the hero; the heavily-favored defending champion allows 29 unanswered points in the fourth quarter and, inexplicably, loses.
It’s all part of a circularity, of sports, of stories. You never know where it’s headed, never know what’s coming next. And that’s the point.
—Staff writer Robert S. Samuels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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