In the 1999 classic film, The Matrix, Neo is forced to make a life-altering choice after he first encounters Morpheus and is introduced to the concept of the Matrix: Did he want to take the red pill or the blue pill?
The red pill would allow Morpheus to show Neo the full extent of the Matrix. This would reveal the mirage of the apparent world. It would also reveal that Neo — along with the rest of humanity — is merely a slave to conscious machinery. The blue pill would send Neo back into a state of ignorance, unaware of his enslavement and unknowingly trapped in a virtual reality.
When I think back to Northwestern’s heartbreaking Outback Bowl defeat to Auburn on January 1, 2010 — my first time cheering for the Wildcats as a newly-accepted student — I sometimes contemplate what I would have done if I had faced a similar choice between painful reality and blissful ignorance. In that game, Northwestern staged two impressive rallies against a favored SEC power in a wild overtime contest only to lose on botched special teams play and bad luck. The tease of victory and the ultimate letdown of crushing defeat against a seemingly superior team foreshadowed four years to come of my romance with Northwestern sports, and the football team in particular.
After Auburn stopped a Northwestern fake field goal attempt in overtime to seal the victory, what if I had had the choice between the red pill and blue pill? I took the red pill. It wasn’t as dramatic a step as Neo’s decision to join humanity’s rebellion against its machine overlords, but my choice to fall in love with the Wildcats has defined much of my relationship with Northwestern. I’d have to think long and hard to name my classes from fall quarter of 2010, but I could list Northwestern football’s schedule and results from that autumn, or really any season since I started my college career. I spurned the team of my childhood, Michigan, for Northwestern, despite the fact that I slept under a Wolverines comforter every night for much of my childhood. Cheering for national powerhouse Michigan was like dating a supermodel. And leaving her for Northwestern may have seemed like dumping Kate Upton in favor of a smart, semi-attractive girl with a cynical sense of humor. But the Outback Bowl reeled me in, and since then, I’ve been unable to escape the hope, thrill and letdown that characterizes Northwestern fandom.
I took the red (purple) pill that Morpheus (Pat Fitzgerald?) offered me after Northwestern’s exhilarating, painful defeat in the Outback Bowl. But I could have taken the blue pill. I could have foreseen the heartbreak of Northwestern sports and rejected emotional ties to the Wildcats, instead opting for apathy. It would have been a blissful ignorance: I would have been aware of Northwestern sports and all of its troubles, but I would not have developed my affinity for the Wildcats. Many Northwestern students — even sports fans — take this route.
What would I have missed if I had never developed ties to a team that has caused me so much emotional distress? I would have missed the long, forlorn walks home from Ryan Field after dispiriting home defeats to Michigan State in 2010, Michigan in 2011, Nebraska in 2012 and Ohio State in 2013. All contests in which Northwestern held leads against supposedly superior opponents. I would have missed hearing the east side of Ryan Field — typically overrun by fans not wearing purple — roar as the Wildcats surrendered late fourth quarter leads. I wouldn’t have experienced the comedy of errors during the 2013 season, in which a promising September and whispers of the Rose Bowl turned into a disastrous 5-7 season.
But as Tennyson said, it is better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. Though Tennyson may have revised this statement had he been a Northwestern fan, the joy that Northwestern sports has brought me throughout college — the tingling sensation in my head before kickoff, the ecstasy of toppling Big Ten goliaths, the beauty of singing the fight song with thousands of strangers — has dwarfed the temporary misery caused by a Northwestern defeat. While the ‘Cats have experienced their ups and downs since I arrived in Evanston, supporting Northwestern captures the essence of what sports is all about: The willingness to remain loyal and embrace both joyous victory and stinging defeat, the former of which is amplified by the presence of the latter.
When the Outback Bowl concluded on the first day of 2010, my choice between fandom and apathy was not presented to me as clearly as the offer that Morephus made to Neo in the form of red and blue pills. In retrospect — knowing what I know now about Northwestern’s unique ability to foster both wonderful surprise and heartbreaking anguish — I know exactly what I would have said if I had to embrace or reject a permanent romance with Northwestern sports following the 2010 Outback Bowl.
I’ll take the purple pill, please.
Read last year's NBN Sports seniors' reflection for more nostalgia.