How Mike Kafka Gave Me Hope for Ohio State

By Jake on February 23, 2011 at 1:00 pm
    Cam Heyward making the universe sit down, shut up, and listen.

Before the polls, before the drunken debates, before the posturing, the pleading, and the pandering of coaches spurned, before everything and anything gets determined in College Football, the game must be played. This is obvious to the point of cliche. Yet still we always seem to spend the final weeks of the season and the months that follow bemoaning the unfairness of it all. As loudly as many BCS teams may shout about how they deserve a shot more than anyone else, the truth is that, barring multiple undefeated teams, had they taken care of their own house, had the games played out differently, they could have sat in place of Auburn or Oregon in control of their own destinies. In the chaotic, pitiless, cruel world of the BCS, teams still play the game. Naturally, at one point or another we all find ourselves gripped by the existential dread of injustice and confusion wrought by the BCS. We inevitably ask, why don’t we have a playoff? Is Wisconsin’s victory over Ohio State impressive enough to put them in the Sugar Bowl despite their loss to Michigan State? Who in the hell decided to let Greg Robinson coach a defense? Yet within this maelstrom of torment, we find the inspirational, enthralling, and sublime.

My favorite name in college football history is probably Mike Kafka. An unwitting master of irony, he battled against the truly Kafka-esque heights of the polls, byzantine regulations, and prevailing zeitgeist that embodies modern football. In 2008 he led Northwestern to a 9-3 regular season, capped by an overtime loss to a very good Missouri team. In 2009, after and 8-4 season he orchestrated the most prolific passing performance in bowl history in the most exciting bowl game I've ever seen, just falling short against an Auburn team one Cam Newton shy of a national title. He and his team fought against prevailing wisdom, and the little guy landed some blows on the edifice. This season, we saw three such teams crashing the gates: Utah, TCU, and Boise, with several more right behind. Likewise, our own Ohio State, seemingly faced with a generation's worth of wind against her sails, the Buckeyes made mockery of Arkansas' secondary on route to a Sugar bowl victory. Despite the myriad rules arrayed against them, whether the restrictive recruiting requirements, the tradition of losing, or the sheer lack of talent, teams persevered.

Even so, Northwestern lost. Boise, TCU, and Utah had the door slammed in their face when closest to their prize. Ohio State, Notre Dame, and many others still struggle against outsize expecations and assumptions of decline. They might have won most of their season. They may even have won their bowl game. Yet in the end they are who we thought they were; TCU is still the scrappy underdog fighting for respect and Ohio State is still the turgid giant, fat with tradition but lacking in muscle. . . Right?

They are who we think they are only so long as they preform that way. The same is true of Baylor, UConn, Ball State, Illinois, and every other team-we-know-is-crappy. In truth, existence precedes essence. Though Mike Kafka may have known jack about his eponymous predecessor, he and his teammates chose to define themselves rather than let the rest of the world do it for them. Boise State is in a position to play for national titles despite all of the institutional disadvantages they face. Ohio State ended their burden despite the roar of disdain that follows them. That is why I love college football. That, I think, is the bigger picture.  For every team getting screwed out of the Mythical National Championship game, there are a dozen others exceeding our expectations and writing their own piece of College Football history. The greatest moments in sports are often not those that fulfill our expecations, but those that confound them.

Deep beneath all of our tribal alliegances to Alma Mater and obsession with championships and records, we all root for the little guy. Mike Kafka never reached The Castle at the top of the hill, but I rooted for him the whole time he climbed. So long as I watch our team on the field I'll support a playoff, but the true majesty and joy of the game lies in the drama that unfolds on the field, not over the airwaves. Kafka wrote about the ways that the outside contrains our ability to define who we are, imposing essence on our existence. As absurd as it may seem, I find in college football, from my Buckeyes all of the way through to the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, an act of rebellion against those constraints. In a way, the sport succeeds as much because of the absurdity and stupidity of the BCS as despite it.

Mike Kafka helped me to realize that it's not insane to be an optimist or to expect that Ohio State will win. Rather, true insanity would be to give in to the negativity surrounding the game, ignoring the game itself.

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