In 2000, about 12 hours after our third straight loss to San Jose State, my Stanford teammates and I trudged across our practice fields with our heads bowed, searching for answers between the pristine blades of grass. How had our Cardinal squad, which had won 11 of its previous 15 games, fired another dud against the inspired Spartans? How had we managed just 27 points while generating 614 yards of offense? How had our defense, which had smothered Washington State in our season-opening victory, allowed San Jose State to run wild en route to 40 points? And how could we possibly bounce back next Saturday against the same Texas Longhorns who gored us 69-17 to open the 1999 season?
We needed a sign, and there it was. Near the entrance to our dank but beloved weight room was a whiteboard, proclaiming, "Feeling sorry for yourself ends now." It was a line in the sand - drawn in dry-erase marker - courtesy of strength coaches Mark Wateska and Mike Bradley. Once we entered the weight room, there would be no more pondering our previous performance. Lamenting would be replaced by lifting. Sulking would give way to sweating. The Spartans had already defeated us once that season, but they weren't going to beat us twice. We wouldn't allow them to disrupt our preparation for our next opponent, let alone imbue our collective psyche with self-doubt. And while the circumstances surrounding Stanford's 23-20 disappointment against UCLA last Saturday differ, the lesson remains the same: The Cardinal (4-4 overall, 3-2 Pac-10) can spend their bye weekend stewing over the one that got away, or focusing on the bowl berth that remains in their grasp.
If Stanford's decision seems easy, the ensuing process is less so. With woeful Washington State (1-7, 0-5) on the horizon, the Cardinal should easily return to the win column next Saturday, even if they play through the hangover from a two-week pity party. Stanford's next stiff test - at Oregon on Nov. 8 - will be a more telling tale of its resiliency. Our 2000 team followed that Spartan setback with a 27-24 upset of No. 5 Texas. Our victory over the Longhorns was special, but to call it magical would be an insult. We used no tricks that night - just a tenacious defense, superb special teams and a clutch passing attack led by a redshirt freshman named Chris Lewis. The only alchemy we employed came earlier in the week, when we transmuted our bitter pill into an elixir of resolve.
While successful teams approach their preparation with zealous confidence, some of the most crisp, focused practices I participated in on The Farm came on the heels of our team's sloppiest performances. Athletes often have an easier time rebounding from disheartening defeats than fans do, simply because they're too busy readying for their next game to bemoan their last one. Stanford spectators typically have an entire week - or a fortnight in this case - to simmer and seethe following a frustrating loss, but Cardinal players are mending their injuries by Sunday morning and digesting new game plans by Sunday afternoon. Cardinal fans can only exorcise their frustration on Internet message boards, while players ease their chagrin by clobbering each other at practice. Though it is crucial that players remain faithful in their program's long-term direction and confident in their year-round preparation after an unexpected loss, those unforeseen failures force athletes to reevaluate their work habits, which often pays short-term dividends.
Players are similar to fans in one respect, however, even if they are averse to admitting it. Upon viewing their team's schedule before each season, athletes mentally sort games into the categories of "can win," "should win" and "absolutely will win." No loss should be expected or painless, and I never played in a game that I wasn't convinced would result in a Cardinal victory. But the nauseating defeats that remain lodged in my craw nearly a decade later are from the contests we "should" have won. In 1999, it was a home loss to San Jose State, after we thought we had left our worst performance behind in Austin, Texas. In 2000, it was a last-second letdown against Washington, after we had completed a miraculous comeback of our own. Our sloppy 2001 performance against Washington State spoiled our bold but realistic hopes of an undefeated season. Yet none of those missed opportunities haunt me as ominously as our entire 2002 campaign.
As our misdirected assembly of talent spiraled into a 2-9 lost cause, I experienced a symptom of failure far worse than pain: numbness. Each loss still stung, as did the constant self-examination for answers, but I occasionally got used to the process, and it was the worst feeling of my athletic career. Learning to cope with defeat only left me with guilt. After all, if losing didn't tear my world apart, how could I ensure that winning remained my top priority. I experimented with a more healthy, well-rounded perspective, but it didn't suit me. I knew a billion people in China didn't care if we lost, but I did. I knew our weekly outcomes didn't dampen the national economy or contribute to global warming, but all I could see was my 100 heartsick teammates, and it broke my heart that I didn't have a cure.
Football tests the axiom that time heals all wounds, and in my experience, the opposite is true. In retrospect, my senior season was generally disheartening, but I never let the negativity from our previous outcome dampen my enthusiasm for our next contest. I was convinced that even our most disjointed performances were merely caused by minor disconnects, which could be remedied with a sound week of practice and a renewed commitment to trust one another. That mindset may have been naïve, but it was the same Pollyannaish outlook our Cardinal team adopted after our 1999 Texas drubbing. We knew that our dismal showing was not indicative of our potential. More importantly, we knew that one performance had no bearing on the next, and that each game presented unique circumstances and challenges. That attitude carried us to the Rose Bowl, and it could work wonders for Stanford's current squad.
Knowing firsthand both how well and how poorly the same team can play within a short time span gave us hope against seemingly superior opponents in 1999 while rendering us necessarily wary of squads with no prior record of high performance. If the 2008 Cardinal are to go bowling in El Paso, Las Vegas or San Francisco, they must first cleanse their minds of their recent trip to Pasadena. They have the rest of their lives to bristle over their late collapse against the Bruins, but just four more chances to create memories that are more worthy of preserving.
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