Grieving After The Game, 2016 Edition

The 2016 edition of The Game between the Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State Buckeyes will go down in history as a classic chapter in arguably the greatest rivalry in sports. Unfortunately for me and Michigan fans everywhere it was another painful chapter in which we ended up on the losing side. Michigan blew a 17-7 lead, a trip to the Big Ten Championship, and (likely) its hopes at a spot in the College Football Playoff, prompting me to update my 30 at 30 list of “The Most Devastating Losses of My Life as a Sports Fan.” Yesterday’s double overtime thriller jumped all the way to number six on my depressing countdown (a list that I really wish I didn’t have any more cause to update). Yesterday’s loss for Michigan marks the third time The Game has made the list. In my time as a Michigan fan, which dates back to the early 1990s, only the 2006 edition of The Game was as a more devastating loss against Ohio State.

Recovering from a devastating loss is never easy. Unfortunately, I am experienced when it comes to grieving sports losses. As miserable as Saturday’s outcome made me feel, I knew I needed to process the loss and eventually get on with life. Over the past 48 hours since the game ended, I have been mourning the loss through the sports fan’s equivalent of the traditional five stages of grief. I have borrowed some of that language here and edited other parts of it to more accurately reflect a sports fan’s perspective. (I don’t mean to trivialize grief and mourning. The loss of a loved one is obviously much more traumatic than the loss of a football game. I shouldn’t even have to write that sentence, but I wanted to be clear.) However, I also cannot pretend not to grieve after yesterday’s loss to Ohio State. No, it wasn’t life or death. However, the pain of a devastating sports loss like the one Michigan suffered on Saturday—a rivalry game on the road in double overtime—is real. And if you’re a diehard fan like me, you probably know the feelings associated with grieving a devastating sports loss all too well.

1.  Denial (As sports fans, denial helps us survive a devastating loss in the immediate aftermath of the defeat. When the clock runs out or the final buzzer sounds and your team is on the losing end of a critical game, life temporarily makes no sense. As fans, we are in a state of shock and denial after spending several hours—not to mention the days leading up to the game—cheering for our team. When the game ends badly we go numb to the real world for a time as denial allows us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle. Eventually, as we begin to accept the reality of the loss, the healing process begins. But it takes time to get to acceptance because dealing with those denied feelings takes time.)

In terms of Michigan-Ohio State’s meeting on Saturday, denial was lingering in the back of my mind long before the game was over. Despite controlling the flow of the game in the first quarter, Michigan only led 3-0 after 15 minutes of play. Nonetheless I convinced myself the strong defensive play was enough and overlooked the missed opportunities on offense. Later in the first half, after Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight dropped back into his own end zone and threw a terrible pick-6 to give Ohio State the lead, I denied the significance of the turnover because Michigan answered with a touchdown of their own. Sure, Michigan led 10-7 at halftime, but realistically Ohio State never should have been gifted the 7 points in the first place. I kept trying to convince myself that those little things wouldn’t add up to cost Michigan yet another loss in this bitter rivalry that has been so one-sided in recent history. That trend of denying the significance of little moments would eventually catch up with me. 

Michigan scored to extend the lead to 17-7 midway through the third quarter. Michigan’s defense is controlling the game, I thought. They had turned J.T. Barrett into a pocket passer. They were pressuring him and limiting the Buckeyes’ big plays. I assured myself it’s not possible that Michigan—a team that had protected the ball all season—would make another critical mistake on par with the first half pick-six. A fumbled snap on the Ohio State goal line? I don’t think so. A bad decision to throw over the middle into coverage by a heady QB? No way.

The fourth quarter was a blur. Michigan’s offense sputtered and stalled. Ohio State missed a 20-yard field goal that would have tied the game at 17. Rather than capitalizing on that opportunity to run out the clock and putt the game away, Michigan’s offense was stuffed and forced to punt again. They scored zero points in the final 25+ minutes of the game.

The next thing I knew it was overtime. I blinked and it was double overtime? I blinked again and Michigan had connected on a field goal, giving them a 27-24 edge. Suddenly it was Ohio State’s ball, 4th-and-1 from the 16-yard-line. Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer decided to forego a game-tying field goal attempt and instead went for the first down. The play was a designed QB run for J.T. Barrett. Questionable spot. Review upheld. First down. Touchdown. Ballgame. Buckeyes win. That did not just happen.

After losing 11 of 12 against the rival Buckeyes, this year’s edition of The Game was supposed to be different. Harbaugh had the team ready. Forget that speed bump against Iowa two weeks ago. A win over Ohio State would make the season an unequivocal success. Speight was starting at quarterback after reportedly breaking his collarbone two weeks ago and sitting out last week’s  game. With the versatile Jabrill Peppers leading the way, Michigan had finally closed the athleticism gap that had allowed Ohio State to run circles around Michigan over the past decade. Ohio State was due to falter on a big stage. Surely this was all a bad dream I was going to wake up from soon. It was not supposed to end like this.

2. Anger (Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process after a loss. Sports fans’ anger comes out in a variety of ways—healthy and unhealthy. It is important to feel anger, express it healthily and get past it rather than stifling it and having it come out unhealthily later. Fans likely have many other feelings that are masked by the anger and they will be dealt with in time, but anger is the emotion fans are most used to expressing after a loss. Underneath that anger is pain. The anger is just another indication of the intensity of the love we have for our team.)

In the aftermath of losing any big game, fans can and usually do turn the focus of their anger in a number of different directions: the officials, the opposition, the coaches, and the players are the usual targets of blame. Despite three costly turnovers from Speight, it was hard to be angry at the Wolverines quarterback who gutted out an otherwise solid performance against a stout Buckeyes defense just a week after missing a game due to injury. Likewise, Harbaugh earned a pass from most Michigan fans for the way he has restored the program to national prominence in his two years in Ann Arbor. That left the Buckeyes and the officials. My anger took over as I started to scroll through my feed on Twitter. It only gained steam after listening to Coach Harbaugh’s postgame press conference where he made it very clear that he was “bitterly disappointed” in the officiating. That spot?! Barrett was short of the line to gain. The no call pass interference on 3rd down in double overtime?! Grant Perry was being held; that’s why he didn’t catch the ball. Two penalties for six yards called on Ohio State?! Two penalties for the whole double overtime game?! C’mon, man. That’s ridiculous. Don’t try to tell me this game was called evenly or well-officiated. Even if referees were not the reason Michigan lost (they were not) it is a shame that they are even a story in the aftermath of an instant classic like this.

3. Bargaining (After a tough loss, fans become lost in a maze of “If only…” or “What if…” statements. We want to go back in time before that pivotal play or blown call…if only, if only, if only.Before too long we start to reason with ourselves, fellow fans, or anyone who will listen. Unfortunately the “reasoning” is not often reasonable or logical.)

After getting some of the anger out of my system, I began to reason with myself: well, OK, so now that Michigan lost… let’s go Penn State! If Penn State wins that will keep Ohio State out of the Big Ten Championship Game! Anyone but Ohio State is a mantra I can support. But then wait, now I’m reading that Ohio State is going to make the College Football Playoff regardless of what happens with Penn State? Well, screw that! Actually, I hope Penn State loses to Michigan State. That way the Buckeyes will play in the Big Ten Championship. If Ohio State wins the Big Ten, their resume looks better, and therefore so does Michigan’s does as well. So maybe Michigan could be invited to the College Football Playoff along with Ohio State. Maybe they could meet in a national championship rematch! Yikes.

I cannot tell you the amount of time I have spent reading and listening to people write/talk about hypothetical scenarios for the College Football Playoff based on the hypothetical outcomes of real and hypothetical conference championship matchups.

The fact that almost all of them leave a sliver of hope for Michigan—and some are almost campaigning for Michigan—to still get in after some unlikely, convoluted series of events probably isn’t helping me get over this loss any faster. Also, if Michigan hadn’t lost to Iowa two weeks ago, imagine how good Michigan’s resume would look then with their only loss coming against a one-loss Buckeyes team on the road in double overtime.

Cue the slew of “if onlys.” If only we had beaten Iowa. If only we hadn’t thrown out of our own end zone. If only we had punched it in instead of fumbling at the goal line. If only we had tackled Barrett a full yard short so that there was no doubt of the spot. If only the refs hadn’t been from Ohio. If only they’d seen a more definitive view of the play. If only Michigan had tackled Samuel on 3rd down before he ran like a Tecmo Super Bowl player so that 4th-and-1 in double overtime would’ve been 4th-and-10. If only, if only, if only…

4. Depression (Feeling depressed is an appropriate and natural response to a devastating loss. As a fan it is not fun to feel depressed. Similarly, depressed fans are not fun to be around. Yet if the grieving of a devastating loss is understood as a process of healing, depression should be understood simply as a step in that process. Fans need to wallow in the muck for a while before they can resurface and achieve acceptance. Following a significant loss fans may feel as if their depression will last forever. Fortunately, the belief that “there’s always next year” rings true for sports fans around the world. In time, they will make this realization and the healing process will progress to the next phase.

I was not a pleasant person Saturday night (or most of Sunday for that matter). Immediately following the game I attended a Thanksgiving dinner with my in-laws. I was cordial and kind. I did my best to stay off Twitter and limited my discussion of the game with family members who offered genuine condolences. I think I did well in terms of preventing my game-fueled anger from coming out sideways amid the holiday meal. However, I wasn’t fully present to the family gathering, and I was both physically and mentally unable to snap out of it. It was more than a bad mood or a bad day; I was legitimately depressed by Michigan’s loss. Rationally it doesn’t make sense, so I understand if sports agnostics might think that depression is an absurd reaction to a sports loss.

The point of this article is not to explain how or why the outcome of a game can have such a profound emotional and psychological impact on fans—those are topics for another day. I am simply stating that it does have a powerful, lasting effect.

Late Saturday night I found myself caught in a Twitter vortex, scrolling mindlessly through tweet after tweet about The Game, the turnovers, the big plays, the officiating, the playoff scenarios, the incident with Jabrill Peppers and a Buckeyes fan after the game, Harbaugh’s press conference, and every other Michigan-Ohio State topic imaginable.

Now, some 48 hours after the loss, I am over the worst parts of the depression stage of the grieving process, although I do not know that I am fully in the clear. Next week when the Big Ten Championship is played and again when the College Football Playoff teams are unveiled it is likely my fan reflexes will be triggered and the feelings will return—not as strong as they were when the wounds were fresh on Saturday, but they will be there.

5. Acceptance (Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being “all right” or “OK” with what has happened. This is not the case. Fans will never like accepting the reality that their team lost, but eventually we accept it, even if we hold onto grudges. We learn to live with it. We move on to the next game or the next season and find distractions to keep ourselves occupied until that time comes.)

I am not fully in acceptance mode yet. More than anything, grieving a devastating loss takes time. I probably won’t fully get there until Michigan plays their next game, at the earliest. If Ohio State goes on to win a national championship, the grieving process will be extended. Unfortunately for me Michigan’s next game won’t be until late December or early January when they play their bowl game. Exactly when, where and against whom that game will be played all remains undetermined.

In the meantime, I found my sports distraction on Sunda. In addition to cheering for Michigan, I am  also an avid Oakland Raiders fan. I don’t know that any one sports team can fully compensate for the shortcomings of another, especially a loss as devastating as Saturday’s was. However, watching the Raiders defeat the Carolina Panthers 35-32 on Sunday to improve to an AFC best 9-2 record was a helpful, much appreciated diversion the day after The Game, 2016 edition, ended badly. The grieving process goes on.

Leave a Reply