The Anxiety of Arrival
It’s lonely and a bit scary at the top
by Rick Levin
Eugene, we should talk. Sit down. I realize you’ve been feeling sorta strange lately, that your mood’s been trucking a bit wonky-doodle — whipping back and forth between hard-core emotions of anxiety and exhilaration. That’s understandable. In fact, it’s natural. The Ducks are soaring. They look like some precision instrument, fine-tuned and ever honing itself toward total domination. And, while you’re no doubt enjoying the pure spectacle and vicarious thrill of watching the progress of this gargantuan gridiron gizmo, it’s making you nervous, isn’t it, Eugene? You feel sort of — how to put it — exposed? Like a bull’s-eye, or a big fat piñata stuffed with excelsior and just hanging out in the open, ready to be thwacked by some snot-nosed bully looking for his playground advantage? You feel like a target, right?
Eugene, if the BCS poll, where the Ducks hold at No. 2 overall, could sing a song to you, it might be that creepy Conway Twitty ditty: I can almost hear the stillness as it yields to the sound of your heart beating/ And I can almost hear the echo of the thoughts that I know you must be thinking … And as I put my arms around you I can tell you’ve never been this far before. Yikes! It’s lonely at the top, and when you stare into the abyss, the abyss also stares into you. Like HAL did to that cosmonaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the cold computerized calculations of the BCS rankings have catapulted you into the limitless outer space of endless attention. Suddenly, you’re everyone’s darling. You’re numero uno in every other poll. Everyone is talking about the Ducks. The Ducks this, the Ducks that. Last week, during a segment on ESPN radio, an interviewer actually asked UO head coach Chip Kelly where the Ducks might need improvement — because, for all the world, they look like a perfect football team. That, Eugene, is some serious expectation. That’s pressure.
There are all kinds of fancy names and diagnoses and analogies and metaphors for what you’re feeling, but I think it’s best summed up as the anxiety of the goalie at the penalty kick. And, so long as you keep winning, it don’t get no better. The not-so-hidden meaning of that Twitty song? You’re screwed.
Listen, Eugene, I don’t want to presume. I’m just here to offer some perspective, and tell you that you aren’t alone in your anxiety. Remember “Casey at the Bat,” and how he let down the fictional folks of Mudville? Your fear is valid, yes, but it doesn’t have to be paralyzing. I recall acutely the queasy feeling I had when the Sonics went against Jordan and the Bulls for the NBA title. And on a more personal level, my high school football team was a total juggernaut, going undefeated by huge spreads two years in a row. And, at the end of each of those glorious seasons, that same team was destroyed in the first round of the playoffs. From high-high to low-low, just like that. But any one of those losses had little or nothing to do with talent, or lack thereof. They were completely, and complexly, psychological — fear of success, fear of failure, fear of the unknown, plain old capital-F fear. Losing sucks, sure, but it’s also instructive.
So, look, Eugene: I’ve come not to bury the Ducks, but to praise them, and maybe, if only for a moment, to help you relax. As of this writing, and with each successive game, the Ducks have become incrementally, perhaps even exponentially, a better football team — and not just on paper. Their 60-13 drubbing of UCLA on Oct. 21, which was broadcast nationally, held more than just the obvious and expected triumphs. The subtleties of that particular victory were revealed in the contrasts to be found between watching the game live and in-person, and then re-watching the ESPN broadcast on the tube. For instance, seated in Autzen, I groaned like Chicken Little every time the Ducks defense gave up a freaking first down; but reviewing the game on TV, I noted with surprise how the commentators actually cracked up because the Ducks offense moved so rapidly there wasn’t time to slo-mo the previous play.
Somewhere between these poles — spoiled and overcritical versus bewildered and overawed — rests the true secret of the Ducks’ current success. Granted, coach Kelly’s insistence that every player take each game seriously (motto: “Win the day”), while refusing to take himself too seriously, is an age-old piece of clichéd motivational folderol rarely exemplified outside feel-good sports movies. What makes this team so special is that the carpe-diem dictum actually seems to have taken hold. Kelly’s innovative, machine-gun offense has been much heralded. But his ability to inspire is his real ace in the hole. There are brilliant architects, and there are born leaders, and rarely the twain meet. Kelly, however, appears to be both.