Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Touch of Class

Penn vs. Harvard, yesterday

PSAYINGS.5S.9-11. So, you decide to be a bad sport about the elections, and you're fed up with the whole American scene, from Britney's divorce to Pelosi's permanently startled look as she disputes the idea that victory has any definition at all... What do you do? You pretend that your alma mater hasn't become a malignant nightmare on the landscape of your country and you go see a truly amateur football game between that school you simultaneously love and hate and the University of Pennsylvania.  What do you get? If you're really really lucky, an exuberant reaffirmation.

Not from the game, sad to say. The most valuable player was the Penn punter, who repeatedly pinned a frustrated Harvard team against its own goal line for most of the second half. The Crimson were forced to start offensive series from their own one, two, and three yard lines and failed utterly to escape the trap, which sprang finally with a dull thud as the Harvard quarterback tripped and fell for a safety in his own end zone. (There was once a Harvard QB nicknamed End-Zone Crone. Does anyone out there remember?) Penn won 22-13, even though a game but rattled Crimson team won the second half 3-2.

Not from the ambiance, either. Because of a ticketing error, our Harvard contingent spent the first half on the Penn side, where the fans were moderately pleased with success and moderately disappointed with setbacks. The Penn cheerleaders were scrupulously discreet, interrupting the private conversations of the fans only at selected intervals, except for the guy in the golf cart shaped like a Penn helmet who whizzed by occasionally barking indecipherable cheers through a bullhorn. This kind of hit-and-run encouragement didn't inspire anyone to cheer, not even the corpulent women in black-muslim burkhas who filled all of row three in our section. After two quarters of play, the ambiance meter hadn't budged from zero.

At the start of the second half, down 20-10 and feeling somewhat like a clandestine and impeached president at the Army-Navy game, we transferred to the lightly populated Harvard side of gigantic Franklin Field. There, we saw a welcome shadow of the past as the Harvard Band -- like Marlon Brando in every movie he ever made -- was acting out its own comedy-drama independent of the game, including at one point the assassination of one of its own members with five pounds of flour.  Meanwhile, an entirely new and unwelcome brand of Harvard cheerleader, all female and dolled up in high-school micro-skirts, was doing a terrific impersonation of Britney at a spelling bee. By my count they correctly spelled the words 'score,' 'defense,' and 'touchdown' without a single error. Their smiles were fixed throughout the long sorrowful labors of their team to advance more than a yard or two from their own goal line before having to punt yet again from the back of the end zone. They were certainly prettier than the Cliffies of old, but not one of them ever turned to look at the team they were there to support. They may have had the 700 SATs of old, but no sane man would have bet a nickel that any of them knew the rules of football.

(I'm not going to mention the guy who sat a yard behind my right ear. He's not a cultural phenomenon, but a perosnal curse. He's been in exactly the same relative position to me at every college football game I've ever attended. His vocal chords are made of bronze. He's something of an insider. he knows everyone on the team. He feels that it's his personal responsibility to exhort the team, and the crowd, through every vicissitude of accomplishment and failure. He never shuts up. He can utter the letters 'D' and "O' as if they were the mystic Tibetan phonemes that can end the world, and he can prove it with his own personal trail of permanent ear damage caused... As I said, this is simply my own personal curse, and I will not include it in my impressions of the game, but he was there.)

Where in all of this could there be any reaffirmation? Deep in the tunnel, under Franklin Field, as we were making our way back from the Harvard side to the exit where the car was parked. We reached a point where the stadium security officials asked us to stand aside because the Penn team was comng through on their way back to the locker room. Obediently, we withdrew to the edge of the tunnel, as did everyone else but a four- or five-year old boy wearing a Penn T-shirt. While we waited, he stationed himself along the corridor that had been created for the Penn players and, as they passed, he put up his hand in hopes of a high-five from his heroes.

And here they came, flushed and smiling with their crushing defeat (it was) of the most interminably conceited rival in their conference, and they were big and small and tired and smiling and exhausted, and every single damned one of them spotted the little boy and his outstretched hand and  stopped along the way to give him that high five, including the one on crutches whose leg was wrapped in pressure bandages and for whom each step was a pain and a promise of months of rehabilitation or the end of his athletic career. But he stopped, painfully, and smiled as if there were no bandages on his leg, and balanced his crutches while he high-fived Penn's youngest fan.

There were no cameras. There was no need for show. They just saw the kid, changed their course, and did what good men do. I told myself the Harvard Crimson would have done the same. I realized I believed they would have. And Alabama's Crimson Tide. And Notre Dame. And USC. And the Ohio State Buckeyes. And even Michigan's Wolverines.

For the first time in a week or so, I felt good about my country again. God bless us every one.

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