Flowers for Duke Football

October 16, 2012

I have seen Duke lose a lot of football games, and I will almost certainly see them lose a lot more.  But Saturday’s loss to Virginia Tech made me feel worse than any of them, and it’s not even close.  I was watching the game at a bar in Durham with a couple of friends my age and a bunch of much older Duke fans, including a couple of former players.  It was a fun crowd and the excitement level for the game was completely unprecedented for Duke Football.  The Blue Devils’ performance over the past couple of weeks had people thinking that they could actually win in Blacksburg, an unfathomable idea in years past.  I was certainly buying the hype, but I wasn’t alone.  Against all odds Duke Football had become relevant and competitive.  Of course it was never going to last.

Duke’s performance in the first quarter of the game was nothing short of dominant.  They took a 20-0 lead over the Hokies and looked for all the world like blowing Virginia Tech off its own field.  The end of the first quarter was the high water mark of Duke Football in the past two decades.  We looked great, and most importantly people really seemed to care.  The bar I was at was going nuts, and people from all over the place were interested.  For the first time ever, friends were texting me about Duke Football in a non-sarcastic manner.  A State fan let me know that both State and Duke controlled their own destinies with regards to the ACC Championship game and a South Carolina grad I know asked me if I would go see Duke if they played USC in a BCS game.  These expectations were premature even at the time, but it was nice to have dreams bigger than “hopefully winning six games and losing the Independence Day Bowl.”  I felt like a real college football fan.

As a diehard Duke fan I had resigned myself to low expectations and even worse results from my college football team.  I was at peace with this.  You can’t be good at everything, and Duke has basketball.  That seemed fair.  But this year has been so exciting that I threw myself into Duke football and after the first quarter yesterday really believed things were going to change.  I saw a competent football program as a real possibility.  Then the second quarter started and things began to slip away.  By halftime even though Duke still had the lead I don’t think a single Duke fan on earth really believed the blue Devils would win the game.  The all too familiar pattern of turnovers, penalties and poor defense had already begun to assert itself.

The second half of the game was a special kind of hell as Duke fans had to watch their promising team slide back into the abyss of incompetence and depression that has encompassed the football program since 1994.  Pretty much everyone I was with had an attitude of grim acceptance that I found even more terrible.  There was none of the rage, anger, or yelling that I normally associate with college sports fans.  The most common refrain was, “Classic Duke” or “Same old Duke.”  It’s like we all knew deep down that Duke Football was never meant to win big road games or ever escape from the ACC basement.

I have spent most of my time since the game trying to come up with an analogy or some way of describing the two hours of crushing sadness that was watching the final three quarters of the game on Saturday.  The best thing I can come up with is that being a Duke fan is like being Charlie in Flowers For Algernon.  (In case you were raised by wolves and haven’t read Flowers for Algernon here are the sparknotes.)  Think about it.  Charlie was a mentally handicapped man (Duke Football over the past 19 years) who had experimental surgery to try and increase his intelligence. (The hiring of Cutcliffe and his fancy new ideas about stadium renovation and “bowl games.”)  The surgery was successful and Charlie was able to live a normal life, (this season for Duke) albeit a brief one because the effects of the surgery were temporary.  This revelation rocked Charlie and his behavior became increasingly erratic. (Duke fans during the last three quarters of the game on Saturday.)

I could go on but I think you get the point.  Duke football fans got a taste of the good side of college football.  The wins, the night games, the AP votes.  All of it was great but it was never meant to last.  Seeing what life was like with a successful college football team and then feeling it slip away was what made this loss so much worse than any other Duke football defeat.  Charlie knows that game only too well.  He regressed entirely and spent his final days in an institution.  We can only hope that our ending is a little better than his.  Maybe Duke can keep some semblance of their new-found abilities and win another game or two and take us to the promised land. Or at least to Shreveport in late December.  I have my doubts though.  The Blue Devils have new coach and some really sick black uniforms but at the end of the day it’s the same old Duke.




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