Monday, September 10, 2007

What I learned while standing in the pouring rain

Saturday, September 8, 2007 promised to be a huge day. And the day dawned with gorgeous weather: partly sunny skies revealed that dappled-blue-and-hazy-white Nashville sky that I loved waking up to for four years.

As I parked my car along Capers Avenue behind the Village at Vanderbilt apartments and began the walk through the Medical Center toward Jess Neely Drive, I couldn't help but think to myself that "this is why I love Music City."

It was a day for football, for reunions with old friends while tailgating, and for celebrating the marriage of two dear friends with folks I hadn't seen since the last wedding.

And even the hordes of Crimson-clad folks who'd descended in their thousands upon my beloved campus "[o]n the City's west'rn border" could not take away the since of belonging, of coming home, that walking across Vanderbilt's campus gave me.

Hours later, as the sky darkened appropriately to match my grim mood, and as the Commodores punted yet again, I looked up just in time to notice the first raindrops begin to fall. The score was 3-16, and the good guys were losing.

All day long, calls of "Cumm own Baaa-muh" had echoed across Dudley Field, and what had begun as a truly amazing morning full of potential and hope had devolved into an ugly reminder that an entire team can be brought down by one player's injury (read Chris Nickson's hamstring).

But then, the rain began to fall. I turned to my best friend, who'd braved the disaster with me, and suggested that it was time to go.

To the uninitiated, that simple suggestion seems of little import. Indeed, considering the circumstances (rain, losing, disappointment, being surrounding by the opposing team's fans in one's own stadium), it might even have made sense to cut one's losses and head for the exit, giving a sigh for the sake of Cornelius Vanderbilt and the eternal underdogs who bear his name.

But for me, and for Mark, it was almost a sense of psychological defeat.

Neither of us had ever left a Vanderbilt game early. One of the great traditions that binds together Vanderbilt fans is the singing of our Alma Mater after the conclusion of our athletics contests. I do not know how the tradition developed; part of me believes that it could have developed as a soothing remedy for the star-crossed sons and daughters of the Black-and-Gold who, after "cheer[ing] for them through thick and through thin" needed the consolation and reaffirmation of their identity as Vanderbilters that singing those hallowed refrains of "Forward! ever by thy watchword / Conquer and prevail" call up within our hearts after the stinging, unforgiving football game has ended.

But as I stood there, waiting for Mark to respond, the raindrops beginning to fall with more frequency, while, all around us, the cheers of yet another opposing team's contingent of fans taunted and gloated, even the promise of the elixir of "mem'ries sweet" that the Alma raises within me seemed small consolation for the sense of disappointment that I felt. It was a dark moment. One of the darkest that I have experienced over the past few months that have indeed had their share of darkness.

And it strikes me as extraordinary that it was within the context of a football game that my psyche seemed to rear up these months' worth of emotions of doubt, and hope, and love, and hate, and fear, and confidence all mixed up into that plaintive request to Mark: "You want to head out?"

But it was Mark's response that struck me even more so. He didn't even really speak. Instead, he simply looked sad. It was the sort of emotional affect that I'm not even sure that someone who didn't know him well would notice. But, having known Mark for more than five years and having been brother to him in BYX, I know him well enough to catch it.

He knew why I asked what I asked, and I think he knew what the question meant. He knew that it meant giving up that perpetual hope and sense of eternal optimism that has marked sons of Vanderbilt since Dan McGugin roamed the sidelines of Dudley Field. He knew that it was admitting defeat; that it was more than just leaving a football game early.

It would be admitting that they were right: that we are losers. That doing things the right way won't work. That playing smart, playing right, and playing well won't cut it. That big money brings victory; that cheating pays off.

And, in a moment of strength for which I am grateful to God for his friendship, Mark told me, "Let's stay."

Don't give up. Do not surrender. The rain be damned. Let the Alabama fans cheer; they'll never understand what it means to truly be more than just a fan. This isn't just about football or school spirit or State pride or even the "old college try." This is about what it means to not give up in life. This is about fighting the fight even when you know it is lost. Aragorn charging into the hopeless darkness at Helm's Deep. It is the test of character, fortitude, and loyalty that few can pass.

This is what it means to be a Commodore. This is the life of the Vanderbilt alumnus and fan.

The rain came. And it came, and came. Many of the Vanderfans in the alumni section left; Mark said it best: "They've seen this game before."

But many more stayed. In the parents' section; in the student section; and in the south endzone season ticket section, they stayed. That's where Mark and I stood.

As the cold win and the bitter rain poured, I stood, without aid of hat or jacket, and faced the unrelenting pain of it all. I endured the embarrassment and the disappointment, I took the taunting and the the hurled insults and I let it pass through and out of me.

As the rain got worse, we sought some shelter against wet and cold at the wall at the top of the south endzone, just to the east of the television camera booth below the south jumbotron. It offered little in the way of reprieve from the pouring, driving rain, but it did offer us the comfort of the company of fellow Vanderbilters who continued to hold on.

Standing there, I couldn't help but respect the gentleman in the Vanderbilt polo and sport blazer that stood next to me in the rain. He looked to be in his mid-forties and, like me, he wore the Ring. When I noticed it, I remarked, "I guess it's always like this, isn't it. And it will be for the rest of my life."

He smiled sadly and said, "Yeah, I suppose so. But I keep coming."

I said, "You ever wonder why you do?"

"I can't give up on them," he said.

"Neither can I." I paused, sighed, and watched as we completed another three-and-out series. I shook my head. "Guess I'll inflict this on my children, too."

"I already have," he said. "On my nephews, too. But it's okay. They'll come to school here. Like I did."

Then he sort of stood a little straighter, despite the rain, the wind, the sense of loss and defeat, and he almost glowed as he said, "And then, they'll understand."

I haven't been so proud of myself in a while, as I was when I made it to the end of that game and joined my voice with thousands of others and sang:

"On the city's west'rn border, reared against the sky, proudly stands our Alma Mater, as the years go by. 'Forward!' ever by thy watchword, 'Conquer!' and 'Prevail!' Hail to thee, our Alma Mater; Vanderbilt, all hail!"

FEELING: Resolved
LISTENING TO: My better angels

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