I’m no stranger to sports heartbreak.
I’ve watched my beloved New York Mets squander seemingly untouchable division leads in the last month of the season, my body numb with depression as my eyes fail to hold back the hot tears streaming down my face.
I’ve witnessed Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson cap off an unfathomable comeback against my New York Giants with a punt return that silenced Giants Stadium and put a bounty on the head of former Giants punter Matt Dodge.
And for the past year, I’ve experienced the ceaseless heartbreak that is Northwestern football and basketball as a fan and sports writer.
Over that time, I've thought about one question incessantly: Why does the pain of being a Wildcat fan hurt me far more than that of my other teams?
On Saturday I figured it out.
Calling Northwestern’s 38-31 overtime loss to Michigan a heartbreaker is an unforgivable understatement. In classic Northwestern fashion, the ‘Cats took an early lead, then lost it, and then gained it back. Northwestern wasn’t able to score on its last drive, so Michigan would have mere seconds to even the score.
And they did. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner hurled a last ditch dream downfield, Northwestern cornerback Daniel Jones tipped it up, and Michigan receiver Roy Roundtree brought it down. The Wolverines kicked a field goal with 8 seconds left and subsequently won the game in overtime.
After the loss was sealed and some semblance of humanity slowly remerged within me, I realized why these losses hurt so badly.
With Northwestern, it isn’t about what could have been – it’s about what almost was.
While I’ve only had the ability and interest in keeping up with the ‘Cats since I enrolled at Northwestern, time and time again I’ve sat dejected on my bed contemplating how close they came to exceeding expectation and transcending every stigma that has suffocated the school intermittently.
Last football season was defined by “what could have been” scenarios. What if Dan Persa was actually PersaStrong enough to lead Northwestern’s offense with reckless abandon as opposed to cautious conservatism? What if Mike Trumpy never tore his ACL in Champaign? What if the Wildcats could have held late leads?
But this football season and the previous basketball season has left me to dwell on how close the ‘Cats have come to the next level of success we so desperately strive to see.
Last year’s basketball team came excruciatingly close to its first NCAA Tournament berth in school history, but heart-wrenching losses to Michigan and Purdue and a failed comeback against Ohio State crushed a dream that for so long looked to be a reality.
This football season, soul-crushing losses to Penn State, Nebraska and now Michigan have derailed a potential trip to the Big Ten Championship game, if not the Rose Bowl.
It’s tempting to find solace in Northwestern’s 7-3 record and third place ranking in the division, and it’s what I’ll inevitably do once I regain my capacity to reason. But then again, that’s what makes Northwestern football so heartbreaking.
If the Wildcats have mastered anything, it’s pulling you back in.
Neither the football nor basketball teams will ever let you become disenchanted or disinterested. Just as you swear never to invest your emotions in either team, they give you a new reason to believe. It’s a beautifully twisted indicator of just how far these teams have progressed over the past decade and a side effect of committing yourself to a program always on the cusp of something better.
But it is always being on the cusp that is so heartbreakingly, soul-crushingly, mind-numbingly painful. The ‘Cats show you all the signs of a jump into excellence, all the evidence of a brighter future and then destroy it as you squirm in anxiety, scream with rage and then sulk in depression.
There’s no doubt in my mind that I’d pick these current teams over their dismal 1980s counterparts, nor do I doubt the direction Jim Phillips, Pat Fitzgerald and Bill Carmody are taking Wildcat athletics.
However, as long as Northwestern is on the cusp of the excellence that will one day become standard, I’ll be forced to grapple with what almost was in the meantime.
Looking back on the season with a “what could have been” mentality doesn’t fairly value how far the team has come since last year. But it’s the lingering memories of what almost was that makes rooting for Northwestern so painfully, amazingly difficult.