Monday, May 30, 2011

Remember When: 2002 Washington

The 2002 Washington game is one that has continued to grow in its sentimental value and memorability. The fact that it hovers around the line of demarcation in my development that separates the innocence of childhood and adolescence is important because the cloudiness of one's memory in their youth helps the stoke the fires of legend. What was a game between two teams at the back end of the top 10 transformed into a fortunate escape against a mediocre to bad Washington team by the end of the season. The thing is, when most Michigan fans think about that game, I sincerely doubt that most of them remember the respective rankings of these two teams. Most remember a kicker who hadn't kicked very well until the moment in which he had to to prevent defeat.

I was 13, and  I don't really remember where I was when I watched this game. In fact, as time has gone on, the game became a handful of plays and a legend: Chris Perry's touchdown on the second play of the game, the 12 men on the field penalty, The Kick. Throughout the game, I remembered feeling that weird sense of incompetence as I watched another highly-ranked Michigan team blow their national title chances in September yet again. 1997 was five years ago but it could have been decades, centuries.

Other than the final kick, I remember being at school the next Monday, and some kid (who happened to be an OSU supporter of some sort) told me that we were lucky. In the parlance of kids, that was an insult. Today I'd just say that I'd rather be lucky than good. Is it lucky if a guy's third field goal attempt since high school goes through the uprights in a pressure situation? Is it lucky if the first and second attempts happened to be egregious misses? Does it even matter? When a kick goes through the uprights like that kick did, it's good, and that's all there is to say. Well, not quite.

Philip Brabbs, making the first start of his career, couldn't possibly have imagined anything that would happen. Unfortunately, this sense of the unimaginable stretched out long past Stadium and Main and into real life. Brabbs's struggle with multiple myeloma, a struggle that has been with him for much of his post-Michigan career. He's documented his battle on his blog, and it has been a great thing for all of us to hear that he's doing alright. Given all that has happened to him and what he's gone through, worrying about making a field goal is insignificant. Yet, we all remember what he did on that day. It's hard not to watch footage of that game and smile, knowing what happened to Philip Brabbs later on in his life. His mantra of "Dominate" becomes even more powerful, borne out by his experience on the field. After a pair of misses, he succeeded in the most pressure-packed of situations. There are very few situations as gut-wrenching as kicking a field goal, especially for Michigan fans, for whom Garrett Rivas is now the greatest thing since sliced bread. Everything falls upon the proverbial shoulders (which for the strange creature known as "the kicker" are located on their legs) of the kicker, no one else can help. A kicker is utterly alone, and even more so when they fail, as Brabbs had done twice before his third attempt from 44. When a kicker is asked to come through with the game on the line like that, there are two and only two avenues of action: 1) to wilt and fail or 2) to rise up and dominate the situation. I don't know whether people necessarily have certain traits or genetic inheritances that allow them to be "clutch," or if the successful (or unsuccessful) ends of any pressurized situation retroactively establish these things.

"Clutch" to me is not something ingrained within one's genome, like a disease, a propensity for optimism or pessimism, or height. It is something entirely unquantifiable and changing, but you know it when you see it. Clutch, to me, is a power of mind on a case-by-case basis, an ability to ignore the various data points (i.e., your experiences, performances, and so on) you have strewn here and there throughout the course of your actions only to focus on what is about to happen, and only that. For Brabbs, that was a 44-yard field goal, not a 44-yarder to win the game after having missed two already. Clutch is the completely unexciting but effective ability to take the most extraordinary of situations and make them ordinary until you're done with them. Philip Brabbs was clutch, and that win remains one of my favorite Michigan victories of all time. That game's sentimental value has only appreciated over time.

"I've hung low for a while in college,'' said Brabbs, a junior who had never attempted a field goal for the Wolverines before Saturday. "This changes things.''

While that Michigan team turned out to be just alright (ending with losses to a pretty bad Notre Dame team, a homecoming thumping at the hands of a really good Iowa team, and a frustrating loss to the eventual national champions in Columbus), that win is inviolable and secure from any and all critique. Washington turned out to be not very good, but on that day they were the #9 team in the country, and if they hadn't played us like they did then we wouldn't have gotten this:

Brabbs from 44, for the Michigan win...

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