The Joy Luck Club

by Ramzy Nasrallah January 04, 2023
Jan 12, 2015; Arlington, TX, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Cardale Jones (12) loses control of the ball while tackled by Oregon Ducks linebacker Tyson Coleman (33) during the third quarter in the 2015 CFP National Championship Game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
© Jerome Miron - USA TODAY NETWORK

My first lucid memory of life involves a football game.

It was January 11, 1981 and I was seven. Every memory from prior to that afternoon is in foggy bits and pieces. Jumbled like the plot of a movie on TV while you're napping on the couch.

Life before that day is in photo albums, or stories older people tell me about me. My brain connects their dots and fills in the blanks. But that day is stored in pristine high definition inside my memory bank. I remember all of it.

We were staying with my grandmother in San Diego while the Chargers - back then, the local team - were hosting the AFC championship game against the Raiders - back then, from Oakland.

The first sports team I ever learned to hate was the Soviet hockey team, but that's in foggy bits and pieces. I remember the little television set in our kitchen where I watched the Miracle on Ice, but everyone has seen it so many times. I cannot place my first viewing.

I do remember being happy the bad guys wearing CCCP on their sweaters lost. I was learning how to write and that's not even damn word. The Soviets had a scary Toys 'Я' Us alphabet and I hated them for it.

So the Red Machine was my first loathed franchise. The second was the Oakland Raiders.

My grandmother lived directly across the street from Chargers defensive tackle Louie Kelcher in a little residential neighborhood not far from what was then called Jack Murphy Stadium. This was a simpler time, when NFL Pro Bowlers lived in humble bungalows across the street from tiny immigrant grandmothers.

Louie had bought a house near the office, as one does. This was significant in my football indoctrination. He was on television (!) and I had been inside his house (!!). That season, the Chargers were forced to win the NFL's final regular season game to make the playoffs.

They hosted the Super Bowl-frequenting Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night, and as luck would have it the Nasrallahs were already in town for Christmas. A win secured the AFC West and the tiebreaker with Oakland. A loss meant no playoffs at all.

That MNF game is foggy bits and pieces, but I do remember waiting by the window to see Louie's car pull into his driveway shortly after the game ended. The AFC Champs would host the Buffalo Bills on wild card weekend. They won that one too.

A week later on Jan 11 - our final day in town before returning to the Midwest - the Chargers played the dastardly Raiders to go to the Super Bowl. Oakland scored a touchdown on some lucky tipped pass that should have been picked off.

Oakland looked better than usual, while Dan Fouts threw interceptions and Chuck Muncie fumbled. The best version of the Chargers did not show up, and the evil visitors won to advance to the Super Bowl, which they would also win - against the Eagles, a team Fouts had torched already. That just made it hurt more.

this is some immaculate reception shit
Blown obvious hold, deflected pass goes right to Raymond Chester, TD. Don't ever feel sorry for the Raiders for the Immaculate Reception.

The memory crystalizes into high definition at the game's conclusion, with our bags packed and lined up for a redeye flight. The white jerseys on grandma's Sanyo television were celebrating with each other on San Diego's field, which was just a couple of miles away from us.

Everyone in my extended family was in the room together for goodbyes, where I was not just crying. I was little kid-crying, elephant tears, wailing, heaving, all of the breathless theatrics anyone who's ever met a child has witnessed.

I was not crying because we were leaving grandma's. I was crying because the Chargers lost. It was the first time in my life the world had ended. First of many. You always remember your first apocalypse.

It's nearly impossible to be self-aware at seven, except that my uncle, who was there to see us off to the airport was openly laughing at me and I remember being both furious and too breathless from crying to defend myself or attack him.

He was much bigger than me. I could kick his ass today, but he's the sweetest man on earth. In between his taunts, he explained to my grandmother in Arabic what the Super Bowl was and why I was so sad over a television show about a sport they never watched in Lebanon. I barely remember leaving the house, or the flight.

I do remember being sad about it for years. Especially whenever the Raiders were playing.

San Diego had fumbled a Super Bowl shot at home in what felt like a cataclysmic loss, like there was no way sports could possibly be worse than this. It was all right there at their fingertips, and they failed to secure it. Three weeks of hype, civic pride and hope that I had mainlined into my seven-year old body and brain on Christmas vacation all came crashing down.

The only destiny secured that day was the impact sporting events would have on my mental health for as long as I get to live. Sometimes, it has been calamitous. Other times, nourishing. The San Diego Chargers initiated that for me. They no longer exist. I'm still here, for now.

Next week it will have been 42 years since the day I bawled my eyes out in Southern California, as Georgia faces a TCU team the Ohio State Buckeyes would be favored to beat by two touchdowns. And they would have. And they could have. But they aren't.

Makes me sad. I'll be sad next week. But I'll never be that sad. I'll never be San Diego sad.

It took decades, but I eventually decided sporting events were no longer allowed to ruin me. Every team is on a journey to a destination all of us get to discover together in real time.

That's all they are. The joy is in the adventure. I have the right to disagree with the final destination.

The first Ohio State loss that affected me was Woody's passing. We had moved to his neighborhood a few years earlier. When a prominent neighbor dies it's impossible to be unaffected.

The first game loss that affected me happened that season. I was there, in section 22A.

It turned out to be Earle Bruce's final home game, which was against Iowa. I was still in the throes of my evolution from young Iowan to young Ohioan, which complicated everything. Each year I spent in Columbus pulled me further away from Iowa City, and in 1987 I was just happy the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes only met once a year.

When Iowa scored the shocking go-ahead touchdown with 10 seconds left I didn't know how to feel. It was OSU's third home loss that season, and I had been in the building for all three. I had not witnessed three in-person losses in my entire life combined prior to 1987. Losing suddenly felt normal.

Ohio State couldn't stop losing home games. This loss felt eerily different as everyone exited the stadium on Saturday, and by Monday that sick sense was validated. The Buckeyes had been ranked no.15 on Halloween. Sixteen days later Bruce was fired.

That was the start of Michigan week. Teenagers are the center of their own universe, and that morning at school I felt guilty for ever having rooted again Earle, despite having an unimpeachable Iowa excuse to do so, at least that Saturday.

You cannot live in Columbus as a sports fan without getting casually intimate with Buckeye sports machinery. I've lived in a lot of places since then, and that same degree of civic rapport happens at every one of my stops - though after your formative years, new indoctrination efforts are largely futile. You just appreciate the local team, and that's it.

Every single Ohio State loss since the one which ended Earle's tenure has affected me. When the Buckeyes won the 2002 BCS title I went back and counted the number of losses separating the afternoon Marv Cook silenced Ohio Stadium with that glorious night in Tempe. Forty-eight losses. I saw over 20 of them in person.

So in my universe, I endured 48 losses prior to experiencing that previously unscalable mountaintop. A whole bunch of Michigan losses are in there. Tim Biakabutuka is in there, as is Shawn Springs slipping on the west side of Ohio Stadium.

There are forgettable, embarrassing and tepid bowl losses too. Air Force. Alabama. Georgia.

After that night in Tempe, the Buckeyes would lose 27 additional games before the next apex at the end of the 2014 season. I was present for a lot more wins than losses over that stretch, but when you cheer for a program like Ohio State a lot of the wins kind of blend together.

They become foggy bits and pieces. I'm sure I've seen the Buckeyes beat Toledo, San Diego State and Akron more than a few times but I cannot tell you the exact number or too many details about them.

hey, a well-executed special teams play look at that
The 1987 Buckeyes probably lose at LSU if not for a one-handed catch after poorly-thrown pass on a fake field goal.

The losses? Not nearly as foggy. They never allow you to forget about them. Ohio State has lost 12 games since beating Oregon in Arlington, which includes the current two-game losing streak.

But the distance between the mountains is getting closer, which feels like it should be inspiring - except it's devastating to see it right in front of you and still inaccessible. The only mountains I was looking for back when Earle was fired were the San Gabriels.

National titles were sort of mythical back in 1987; they were typically "shared" and generally undefined. Four programs claimed national titles in 1990, when I was in high school - Colorado, Georgia Tech, Miami and Washington. Four. Four parades. Four different tee shirts.

That same season four teams claimed the Big Ten title - Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and Illinois. The Hawkeyes beat the other three head-to-head so they got to see the San Gabriel mountains at the Rose Bowl.

Ohio State would have won the conference in 1990 outright, except it blew the Michigan game in exceptionally brutal fashion. But the goal, if you rooted for any of those five teams atop the Big Ten, was always the Pasadena trip. National title? Never the goal. Not then.

Natties, however random, had one constant: B1G teams didn't win them. Not even pieces of them. They still don't win them. Ohio State does. Until another one does, it's not the B1G.

Which is to say all the 1987 Buckeyes were trying to do was return to the Rose Bowl. The previous year's team had opened with Alabama and Washington (!) before running the table and losing a heartbreaker in Ann Arbor, which gave the mountains to Michigan and sent the Buckeyes to the Cotton Bowl.

No one gave a shit about the Cotton Bowl. Everyone was salty about it. The Buckeyes kicked no.8 Texas A&M's ass. I don't think I had ever seen a Texas A&M football game prior to that Cotton Bowl. Couldn't name a single player. Still can't.

So that full year of buildup, of restoring order, winning the conference again - preferably outright - and wearing Gold Pants all the way to California were dashed first by Indiana on the Darkest Day, then by Sparty, Wisconsin and then Iowa.

I'm glad Woody isn't alive to see this is something I heard multiple adults angrily say that season. It was every bit of the misery Ohio State fans are feeling right now after letting Georgia off the mat in Atlanta. No Big Ten team won more than the Buckeyes did while Earle was on the sideline, and they fired him! They were that mad.

Earle's final team had pissed everyone off. It was just good enough to not be great, and even worse - it needed everything to go exactly its way to win. Losing JSN was lousy this year, but losing Cris Carter prior to the season was devastating. The rest of that receiver room wasn't what it is today.

If Carter plays, that season is...different. Which means more than wins replacing losses. It might have meant mountains. Carter staying eligible probably keeps John Cooper at Arizona State.

The 1987 Buckeyes without him needed every 50/50 play and flag to favor them in order to survive several Saturdays, and on at least four occasions they left no margin for error. That's how they lost so many times. Losing once makes losing again easier. Then it all snowballs.

It was the kind of Ohio State team that turns Buckeye fans into angry cartoons. The team being objectively terrible is almost healthier, like that afternoon the Hoosiers trounced them - that game wasn't close. The Darkest Day was almost pacifying. No what-ifs whatsoever.

Buckeye fans have been funny like that all my life. They were like that before I was born. I don't forecast any changes after I expire. Getting blasted by IU at home was a freakish incident, but struggling with Wisconsin (and Illinois, whom they barely survived) was unacceptable.

Losing to Sparty at home, unacceptable. Losing to Iowa on Senior Day, unacceptable. The Buckeyes were loaded, at least by 1980s/Earle standards and had four losses along with no coach heading to Ann Arbor.

As for me, just like I didn't know how to feel when Iowa beat them - I wasn't sure how I felt about the 1987 Buckeyes, either. When you live in Columbus, Ohio State football is the hot blood which flows through the city's body. The Buckeyes affect the general mood, all year but especially during the season. A win is stasis. A loss can become an embolism.

It almost feels like the weather is better when Ohio State wins, thought that's a trick the mind plays on you when you're happy. Everything is brighter and more buoyant. I didn't know if I even liked the 1987 Buckeyes, all the way up through the moment they lost at home to Iowa. And then, I still didn't know.

Seven days later I adored that team. Ambivalent for 10 games. Love for 35 years since.

Saturday night I was at my neighbor's NYE party watching the Peach Bowl without sound.

I live in New Jersey, which may be the birthplace of college football but it's not much of a college football state. Here is one of the micro-conversations I had during the evening:

PARTY GUEST: Your team is playing? That's exciting! Who are these teams?

ME: Ohio State and Georgia. I'm from Ohio.

PARTY GUEST: I like the Giants.

I declined free Peach Bowl tickets and could have been in Atlanta instead. Seven year-old me would have been in shambles. Current me didn't love making that adult decision either, but I've also been to plural bowl and national championship games. There will be others.

The only other time Ohio State played a CFP semifinal on New Year's Eve, I was in Hawaii. That game finished at 7pm local time, but it was over much earlier. A 31-0 playoff loss to Clemson - basically the Oakland Raiders, but 300% more tacky - should have felt worse than it did.

Let's be clear, that whole night sucked. I banged out a sad postmortem under a palm tree and a clear sky before despondently staring at a warm piña colada until midnight. The Buckeyes had no business winning, and they didn't.

But the 2016 CFP Semi still wasn't even the most devastating Ohio State loss in Glendale. Three years later, it wouldn't even be Ohio State's worst loss to Clemson in Glendale. On that night in 2019 the Buckeyes had no business losing, but they somehow did.

there's no worse turf in American football that the skating rink in Glendale
In a closer game, Clemson fans might actually remember Mike Williams slipping and Gareon Conley giving the Buckeyes a short field.

Those might be the worst ones. The derailed team of destiny nightmare. Conversely, the scrappy underdog nobody expected to win ending up on the dais covered in confetti is the best. I've experienced two of those now, in 2002 and 2014. Will take them to my grave.

Two rewards for a lifetime of seeking joy and appreciating luck. Ohio State has won two impossible national titles but has lost, like, a half-dozen inevitable ones over my lifetime. If that makes you want to feel like a victim, that's all you. I'll pass.

Losing at Penn State prior to that 2016 Clemson debacle felt worse to me. The Buckeyes did everything in their power to lose in Beaver Stadium and still would have won if not for a disastrous field goal attempt. Absolutely deserved to lose. Trying to extend their lead lost the game.

As an added bonus for me, I found out my identity had been stolen and spent most of that game battening down my financial hatches. On one screen, I'm closing accounts and talking to bots about fraudulent charges. On the other, Ohio State is forgetting it has Curtis Samuel.

By 2am I was writing about how much losing sucks but feeling preachy, because Ohio State was still only two seasons removed from the CFP title. The mountains were still in view.

I adored that 2016 team as it was flying home from Oklahoma after having mashed the Sooners. But then the same guys barely escaped Northwestern and three-win Michigan State. In between, they beat Nebraska and Maryland by a combined score of 124-6.

Who are you? They're college kids, always. I had a tough year in 2016 and - this is unfair to those college kids - I selfishly needed them to be a more effective distraction. That's on me, not them.

The 2016 Buckeyes had me paralyzed. CFP shoe-in, or like, Music City Bowl? They were as cruel as the 1980 Chargers, who had 60 minutes to either win the division and get home field in the playoffs, or lose and miss them entirely.

Amazing or terrible. Arguably the most common lens through which Buckeye fans view their team.

I was the kid in 22A watching Marv Cook sign Earle's termination papers all over again. I didn't know how to feel about the 2016 Buckeyes. When Clemson blanked them in Glendale, I buried them. But three years later when they beat Clemson and still lost, I held onto them. I'm still not ready to let go of that 2019 team.

It has free reign in my memory along with the 1996, 1998 and 2006 ones, forever in limbo. That's four Ohio State teams out of the 36 I've allowed to permanently affect me. Two others won national titles. A handful of others I made peace with and interred. A few others I've put in the ground and don't think about too much, if at all.

But those four get a pardon. They deserved better fates. They still bring me joy. They were deprived the kind of luck other teams ended up getting instead. The kind of luck the 2022 team needed.

I'm not sure what I'll do with the 2022 team, whose season ended the exact same moment the year did. That one started out as a team of destiny and then slipped along the way. More than one thing about the Buckeyes didn't feel right, far beyond Jaxon Smith-Njigba's hamstring.

If you felt like that was a team of destiny in November, your heart and head were still in August.

The Buckeyes still should be playing for the national title on Monday. I've heard and thought a lot about parallels to that 2019 Clemson loss and as understandable as the connection is (the coach, the officiating, the stakes, the breaks all seemingly going in the opposite direction) this wasn't the same.

That 2019 team blasted everyone it played, especially the Wolverines. It had a championship offense, defense and special teams. It had championship mettle and played without entitlement.

The 2022 team was one big soft tissue injury with a championship mindset. The defense is still paying fines for recruiting and coaching crimes committed dating back to 2019. Its defense has a penchant for allowing cartoonishly long touchdown plays. They lost at home to Michigan by a whole bunch of points.

That's the team we got. The team on paper which was prohibited from appearing beyond halftime of the home opener never happened. Keeping the services of your best players has always been luck. We just don't acknowledge it when it goes our way. Only when it doesn't.

We'll undoubtedly rehash the postmortem this web site for the next eight months. I just wasn't ready to start doing that yet today. I enjoyed the Peach Bowl until the final four plays.

Ohio State has been on the fortunate side plenty of times. Go back and watch the last 20 minutes of the 2015 Sugar Bowl against Alabama and count the number of setbacks the Buckeyes overcame. It's exhausting, but largely forgotten - just like the five CFP title game fumbles against Oregon. They still won.

In the 1997 Rose Bowl, Arizona State's first touchdown never should have counted. Even the review booth that stole Jordan Fuller's touchdown against Clemson would have overturned it.

The 50/50 elements that go Ohio State's way in wins become foggy bits and pieces.

this is targeting, you assholes
This textbook targeting violation by Michigan's Noah Furbush resulted in a 15-yard penalty on Ohio State's head coach.

We don't value them or obsess about those moments nearly as much. The balls and calls bounced Ohio State's way against Penn State in 2003 and 2014, and they seized the opportunity. They bounced Penn State's way in 2017, but the Buckeyes won anyway.

The entire 2018 Michigan game felt like it was being stolen. That's not what your memory retains.

Twenty years ago Ohio State was called the Luckeyes by fans and pundits accustomed to and being quite comfortable with the Buckeyes failing to overcome their own setbacks. You haven't heard that term in years. Georgia did exactly enough to stay within the margin of error of winning or losing in Atlanta. Ohio State got close. Georgia got lucky. Good for them.

A call here, a bounce there, an available player or players - sure, changes everything for the positive, probably. We have to talk about something over the next eight months and those things will make recurring appearances. But they're elements of joy and luck we just didn't benefit from this time.

We'll get them next time, or maybe the time after that. If you want to see what a college football program and fan base that obsesses over misplaced joy and luck turns into, simply look at the one Ohio State broke 20 years ago. You don't want to devolve into that. Don't be them.

This Buckeye defense basically threw batting practice to its final three opponents, which would have made Luckeyes out of them reaching and winning a national title, however shorthanded the offense might have been. A national championship-contending sieve. Would have loved it.

But it's the journey we got this year, and we don't choose it; it chooses itself. Wishing the 2022 season transpired or finished differently is wasted energy. Yeah, JSN, peak TreVeyon Henderson and un-concussed Marvin Harrison Jr. would have been useful in that 2nd half.

Nick Bosa and Chase Young playing together in 2018 would have been fun. Ted Ginn Jr. playing even one offensive snap in Ohio State's worst Glendale experience would have been fun. Trey Sermon not watching the Alabama game from the hospital would have been fun.

Cris Carter in 1987 would have been fun. Robert Smith in 1991 would have been fun. I'll stop.

If you flip every player availability, play calling or penalty fantasies...what will you do with your realities? Are you keeping Braxton Miller's shoulder intact in 2014? Declining any one of six instances the 2002 Buckeyes could have lost games? Reversing the dicey Michigan outcomes which featured moments that all bounced in Ohio State's direction?

I cannot remember when it happened, but at some point I realized I'm joyless without luck, both good or bad. So I've accepted the best way to meet each sports apocalypse - and there will be others - is by staring directly at it and consuming it whole.

I've seen far more good than bad, and I would never be able to properly value the former without having binged on the latter. Being a loser for a day or even a decade makes winning that much sweeter.

Seven year-old me didn't know that yet. Losing is a temporary if not invaluable inconvenience. It stings and sucks, but it does something else, too. It brings the mountains closer to you.

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