While nobody's particularly eager to talk - imagine having to face a group of people asking you questions after a really bad day at the office - they each answer questions, being as honest as they can, while trying to put the game into perspective and trying to overcome the shock of the outcome. Although the team has stumbled, they enter each game confident in the belief that they can win.
After each of the past three games, it's evident that the players' are all willing to shoulder responsibility for the defeats, they won't use injuries, penalties, crowd noises or other excuses. They'll credit the other team, but also acknowledge that if they did everything they were supposed, they should have won. They'll stand up for each other, and if they hear that somebody else is taking responsibility, they'll shift responsibility onto themselves.
There's no finger-pointing at teammates or coaches, no belittling of the opposition, and nobody saying anything wild or inflammatory. It's been said you learn the most about people by how they react to adversity. Throughout the season, Tedford has commented on his team as having "high character" guys and expressed faith in their resilience. While it doesn't take away the sting of the losses, it says something about a team when they can take a loss with degrees of grace, class and dignity.
Sign #1 when you think your trip might not go too well....When you get a call just before you're ready to head out to the airport telling you that your flight has been cancelled.
Whenever someone needs to point out the distinction between commitment and involvement, they'll often use the anecdote about ham and eggs. With a plate of ham and eggs, the chicken is involved, whereas the pig is committed. Likewise, with Cal football, there is a difference between involvement and commitment. For many people, college football is a nice way to spend a few hours on a Saturday, a chance to touch base with the university, a parting of some discretionary income, and hopefully a win. For the student-athletes, football involves a major life commitment of a period of four, five, and sometimes even six years. It means countless hours spent in the weight room, watching film, and practicing. It means playing through injuries, putting in rehab time during the season and encouraging your teammates. It also means leading a disciplined life. There's having to balance football and academics, finding time to enjoy the social aspects of college, while living in a YouTube age where every indiscretion of someone mildly visible is just seconds away from ending up on the Internet. This isn't to suggest that any sympathy is order. Everybody on this team has made a choice to attend the University of California and play football, and for every player that has that opportunity, there are several others that wish they had that chance. While they might not be able to work their way through various degress of recklessness that many college students do, they do have the chance to attend a top public university and play for a strong team in one of college football's toughest conferences. And in what should be some of the greatest moments that they'll have in life, they'll experience up and downs, often in front of crowds of more than 60,000 people. But for all of the indignant reactions that spectators might have after a loss, there's nobody that hates losing any more than the players who've just walked off the field after the game.
Sign #2 when you know your trip isn't going well...When you're about to go through the airport checkpoint, and you attempt to pull your clear bag of gels and toothpaste out of your toiletries bag only to find that you've left them at home.
Losing games always brings about a wide range of reactions. Certainly losing brings about a far more varied set of emotions than winning does. Is it because there's an expectation that a team is supposed to win and that no words are necessary because they didn't do any special? Is it because in this new era, people have become blase about winning? Or is it because fans have allowed themselves to set a level of expectation so high that they've inevitably set themselves up for disappointment? Throughout the season, Tedford has echoed the comment the team doesn't think about polls and doesn't talk about rankings and that it's focus is simply on the next game. At some point during fall practice, he and the coaching staff probably had an idea of how good this team could be - what it would do well, where it's weaknesses lie, and what positions they could expect people to overachieve. And with teams seldom playing the perfect game, there's always going to be a margin of error involved, a strong team can often generally overcome that, with most other teams, it's a 50-50 proposition. The coaching staff's thoughts about how well the team was playing was something that was going to be measured from game-to-game. There was no reassessment when the team reached the top 10, and even when the team was ranked #2 for a week, all they could concern themselves with was the task at hand; getting ready for the next opponent.
Sign #3 when you're really beginning to wonder...An elderly gentleman is about to cross a busy intersection, when he spies you out of the corner of his eye and waits for you. As the lights change and it's time for the two of you to cross together, he comments, "They wouldn't dare hit two of us."
While there's certainly nothing wrong about discussing what a team is doing well and where it needs to improve; people are more predisposed to make a comment when they want to express anger. And there's a subset of people who had little to no reaction towards the Bears' opening set of wins, have been fixtures recently, repeating the same arguments, with increasing amounts of emotion and rage. But where is the balance? People who live their lives with a semblance of roundedness who would conduct themselves with equanimity as parents, supervisors, teachers, friends, or functioning people in society and would never consider conducting any of those relationships in a one-sided manner have no hesitancy in doing so for a football team that they claim to support. The counterargument is that all they're doing is expressing the freedom of speech. Yet freedom of speech has never been absolute, and incumbent upon that is some unwritten but acknowledged sense of responsibility behind that freedom. What is it that's unique about sports, and in this particular case college sports, that causes people to be so begrudging with praise, but uninhibited and unbashed when it comes to times to say bad things about players and coaches.
Sign #4 that your trip is headed down the tubes...The Phoenix area traffic control police have been making a dog's breakfast of managing traffic for years, which is fairly impressive considering most of the city is laid out in a grid. The whole detour signs-and-arrows issue shouldn't be too problematic, because what the city faces isn't new. Part of this has to do with them not being able to fix the streets during the summer because of the heat so they have to cram in all of their work when it gets a little cooler, so it's not unusual to see large chunks of major streets being all torn up. But on this day, with various street closures around Sun Devil Stadium, there were no signs of detours or alternate routes, all you could do was work with print outs of maps. As traffic was forced up one street and down another, the traffic control police managed to turn an intersection a half-block away from the stadium into a huge cul-de-sac, meaning that people were waiting a half-hour in traffic so they could simply turn back around and go back down the road they came.
Some people will take the perspective that they are indeed the last, honest people. That they're they only ones who have the ability to see things honestly and that everyone who disagrees with them is either blind, a deluded loyalist, or is a big fan of losing games. And those that are inclined to see the world in terms of absolutes, where everything is a yes or no answer, would certainly be tempted to subscribe to that point of view. By that measure, one's doomed to be miserable. Perfection in sport is rare. Castigating a team for falling short of that is easy, in that the same set of arguments can be trotted out for 98% of sports teams. Why then would one continually take umbrage over a team that would fall short of this subset's expectations? No rational person would continually engage in something that makes them miserable. Unless of course, the object of all this is to find a reason to be self-righteous. Given all of the things in the world one can be self-righteous about, why college sport?
Sign #5 that it's time to look into swapping your trip for Jay Mohr's TV career...Before each game, there's usually either an announcement or a sign up in the press box that cheering in the press box is not allowed, and violators will be removed. Generally, it's not an issue with media and most others know how to mind their manners. But the south end of the Sun Devil Stadium is engulfed with the biggest bunch of homers this side of Ryan Howard in a home-run hitting contest.
Players don't choose to play badly. Nobody goes through fall two-a-days, a week's worth of practices, and fighting their way up the depth chart to play less than their best on Saturday. All they can do is prepare as best as they can, and have faith that the coaching staff will put them in the right position to succeed. Coaches put lineups on the field that give them the best opportunity to win. There's almost no coach with any record of success who's so enamored with his ego that he will insist on starting players who aren't worthy of the responsibility. Every player who goes out there gives it his absolute best shot and while some games will be better than others, and afterwards there may be some things that a player might have wished that he could have done differently. Recently, the Bears have won more than they've lost, and they're good days have outnumbered their bad ones. But every year, and especially this season, teams will have their ebbs and flows. Sometimes the team will play well for small stretches, other times they'll play well for longer stretches.
While the complete game has eluded them thus far this season, and they haven't been as dominant as they've been in past seasons, all you could do is evaluate this team relative to itself. From year-to-year, players change, coaches change, the schedule is varied, and you also have to account for getting a share of good luck for a good season to be a great one. And as a team hits a rough patch, their commitment to each other gets challenged. Highly competitive people will always want one more chance to make a play; having coming this far, they've earned the trust of their teammates, and they'd never think of letting their teammates down.
The world may never know the extent of how much Justin Forsett is hurting until January. He understands that part of football is playing through pain. He also understands that this is a point of the season where players can't look to avoid challenges or shirk responsibility or look for somebody else to take care of things. The growth of Fantasy Leagues has helped spread the idea that players are simply interchangeable parts, and that the team dynamic is something that can be taken for granted. But an actual team can never underestimate the size of someone's heart and what that person's example brings to the younger players on the team.
Sign #6 that famine and pestilence are just around the corner...Heading back to the hotel, the Valley Metro bus is mired in traffic at 12:30 in the morning as football celebrations give way to the perpetual spring break that's on Mill Avenue. Any consolation about catching the last bus is offset by knowing that the bus you're on is 35 minutes late and likely to fall farther behind schedule. The driver's so annoyed at how the evening's gone that she won't accept any fares.
Every team will have their share of bandwagon fans. Glory hunters who only stick around for the good times, front runners who need the mildest of reasons to bail on a team. That's their prerogative. But some of the greatest moments that anybody can have are those unexpected moments, when the team rallies and reaches back for something it didn't think it had a couple weeks earlier. The unpredictability of whether it's the emergence of a new talent, or a veteran regaining his form, a player taking advantage of an opportunity for a rare moment in the spotlight, or a team fighting to get back its respect; aren't those the reasons why people are at football games as opposed to attending musicals or renting Rocky DVDs?
Being a fan isn't simply about being a part of the "you only sing when you're winning" crowd, or dispassionately discarding your loyalty like you'd sell off a mutual fund that isn't giving you a 15% annual return. It's about attending the pre-game rally, wearing the school colors, yelling when the defense has a third-down situation, and high-fiving your neighbor after a touchdown. It's seeing the team run out on the field out of the north tunnel, watching the band spell out the script Cal, and hearing the cannon. It's grabbing a Top Dog before the game, and watching the players greet their families and try to sneak in a few autographs for kids before heading back to the locker room after the game. It's catching up with old friends, making new ones, and leaving the stadium afterwards, talking to a stranger about seeing something you'd never seen before.
Sign #7 that there are times when it's good to hate the Internet...After trying to upload your story from a Denny's at 2:30 in the morning and then having connectivity issues and finally deciding to pack it up, the signal final becomes clear at 3 a.m. meaning there's time for one more try.
"After this game, we might even be closer as a team. There are some people out there who are going to turn their backs on us after these losses." - Mike Gibson.
Sign #8 that this trip is now being ranked on the all-time disaster list with the Titanic, the Hindenburg, and the 1995 blind date with a law student...After getting all three and a half hours of sleep and while heading to the airport, there's another call. The return flight has been cancelled.
So on Saturday, what's the plan?
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