Football is not real life. But boy, sometimes it’s so much better. Few things in life are as unabashedly and unassailable joyful as a 40-13 win over the Washington Huskies in the Apple Cup. In Seattle. 8 years later. It set off unbridled joy in the Ayers household that was capped off with a much-too-late martini.
People sometimes ask me (people who use terms like “sportsball,” to be clear) what the whole point of being a sports fan is. Isn’t it so boring, or morally complicated, or just kinda pointless? I don’t know if I can say this to them, but buddy: My midnight martini certainly didn’t think so on Friday night.
Which is kind of the point, right? Team sports provide this rare opportunity in life to be purely happy or purely sad. Not always. Not every game. Maybe not even every season (though most seasons, to be fair). Still, that’s a heck of a lot more often than real life.
When was the last time where something happened in your day-to-day life that gave you a glow for a solid 24 hours? Lifted an entire weekend? Keep in mind, not something that was mostly good or “had good moments.” Not something you understood was good. Something that was, simply, good. So good that it made everything else 50% better by sheer force of will. Something that couldn’t be spun as bad, or wrong.
A rose without a thorn. A rainbow without rain.
Been a while, right?
Not if you are a Washington State football fan right now! Which is kind of the point.
Team sports provide such an experience on a regular schedule, and we often celebrate the official release of said schedule! It’s wonderful.
Except, of course, when it isn’t. Seven times across eight long years, the Apple Cup did not provide joy but, instead, it’s cousins. Grief. Pain. Sadness. Embarrassment.
I suppose there is a thorn on that rose after all. It just only pricks you if you lose.
The pain of losing is every bit the equal of the joy in victory, and to be honest, I’m much more familiar with that. My sophomore year of high school brought a 6-4 record, and every season after brought more loses than wins. That’s five seasons as a player, and nine as a coach. Even in the season I finally experienced the postseason, we ended with more losses than wins. (High school football is weird.)
It was enough to make me question if maybe I was more of a track and field guy, anyway. I coach throws — fairly well, I think — and the trick about track is that every meet is much more like life than football is.
When you have as many as 30 athletes competing in multiple events, against each other as well as the other teams … well you have a situation where every competition brings both joy and pain. Often in equal measure. Often for the same athlete, who did great in one event and terrible another.
It has traditionally been much more tolerable for me than football has been. I even tried to quit football. But I couldn’t stay away, and with the help of a friend and the kindness of another Coug, Nick Lucey (who is the head football coach at Squalicum High School in Bellingham, where I live), I found myself kicking around football practices again last spring.
Which is how this fall I found myself watching the Cougs play on Saturday and then watching two future Cougs plays Monday through Friday. Djouvensky Schlenbaker and Leyton Smithson happened to be the starting backfield of my football team this season, and next season they’ll be playing football in Pullman.
We also had a guy named Bryson Lamb, an outside backer and o-lineman who happens to be a walking train wreck on a football field. And there were a couple dozen other gentleman who deserve more recognition than I can afford to give right now.
It was amazing being on a good football team. All the things I’d always heard good teams did — things I had taught, asked for and occasionally demanded that previous teams do, but had never actually seen done — happened.
Players held each other accountable in practice. They lifted each other up in games. They refused to be intimidated and innately believed they would win every time they stepped on the field, which was most obvious when the other team made a big play. Not by our players reaction — but their lack of one.
Great teams don’t panic when something bad happens. Great teams continue like the bad thing isn’t a thing that will ever particularly matter. This team did that.
Every team I’ve ever coached has gotten so much better. Every team I’ve ever coached has made me insanely proud, as have the people I’ve coached on those teams along the way. Nothing I’m about to say, or have said, diminishes the work, effort and character of the those who have played football for me.
This past season was the only winning team I’ve ever coached. We made it to the state semifinals, the furthest run in school history and the furthest run for any school in our city in decades. In the quarterfinals Leyton broke a zone read for about 70 yards and a touchdown right after half, followed up by a pick six by Djouvensky, essentially ending the game two minutes into the third quarter.
I sat in the booth stunned. Not surprised; this is what those guys do. But stymied, nonetheless. It was the kind of thing that had always happened to me. Never for me. A tear drop welled up in the corner of my right eye.
We lost the next game, which happened the day after the Apple Cup. It was close. We could have won, but we didn’t. The woulda coulda shouldas might always be with me, but so will that single tear drop.
Great teams believe they’ll always win, but unless they’re coached by Nick Saban, they don’t. The semifinal loss cannot take away the journey to that game, and it does not reduce the caliber of the team that went there.
Which leads me back to WSU.
This WSU football season has been … well, it’s been a lot. A bad team would have quit. A mediocre team would have quit. A good team probably would have quit a few games, at least.
This WSU football team never did. Not once. They are a special group of people who have dealt with a lot more than losing a football game and who chose to be a great football team. Everyday this season, regardless of the context or situation, the young men on this football team woke up and chose excellence. We may have won more games in the Leach era, but not one of those football teams was more impressive than the 2021 Cougars. Not one.
As I watched Squalicum High School play football and observed a great football team up close for the first time in my life, every week the Cougs played it became clearer just how special they were. Every obstacle they encountered showed their character, ability and belief.
I’m so happy they had a moment like the 40-13 Apple Cup. I’m so grateful they gave me a moment like the 40-13 Apple Cup.
Today, my mind kept wandering to football when it shouldn’t have. It surprised me, because that kind of thing hasn’t happened for years.
Which made me realize something. I love football again. The way I did when I was 14.
What a gift.
So, to the current Cougs, the future Cougs, and all the players, coaches, admin and families of SQHS football, I’m so pleased to say thank you.
Thank you for showing me what football can be.
Thank you for winning, but not *only* for winning.