My great friend T. competed in the Ironman triathlon world championships in Kona, Hawaii Saturday. He earned his spot in the pinnacle of the sport by finishing with a qualifying time in another Ironman race (2.1-mile swim, 126-mile bike, and a full marathon) last year. It’s a feat of endurance, athleticism, strength and courage that I can only imagine.
T.’s journey over the lava fields of the Big Island would take him 10-plus hours. I occasionally checked his progress online — the closest I will ever come to competing in an Ironman.
While T. was enduring in Hawaii, Ryan and I were off on another sports road trip, this time to see Michigan play at Penn State. Our journey began at 8:30 a.m. and did not end until just before midnight. In between, we drove, walked, watched (while standing most of the time), walked, and drove some more, spending every minute in each other’s company. The marathon day would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Just two years ago, we debated leaving an NHL playoff game early so that Ryan could get to bed at a normal hour. But he has grown and matured and become much more flexible. He has also turned into an intense fan of many sports, not just hockey. Taking him to a game is a pleasure. His focus on the game is absolute. He refuses to miss even a single play, or pitch, or minute of action.
I all but tried to talk him out of this trip. I had a pair of tickets that I acquired over the summer from my local Michigan alumni club, but I was planning on selling them to friends after already catching a pair of Michigan games this fall — the second with Ryan at Connecticut three weeks ago. It was at that game where Ryan burst through so many barriers while showing a genuine passion for Michigan football. I was debating what to do with my tickets when Veronica suggested I take Ryan.
First I offered the trip to Riley, since it was her turn. She declined, opting to host a sleepover with a friend. I pitched it to Ryan and he jumped at the chance. But first, I needed him to understand the obstacles. Penn State is a four-hour drive from our house. I have a friend in State College who offered to host us, but space was tight at his house and I knew that after a long day Ryan would need uninterrupted sleep. Football weekends are such a big deal in State College that every hotel within a two-hour drive pretty much books up. I found a Best Western about 80 miles back towards home and reserved a room.
I spelled out for Ryan how the day would go. We’d leave early to drive to my friend’s house, leave the car there, and head for the stadium to tailgate — a nearly two-mile walk. That meant we’d have to make the return walk after the game ended. I told him it was either that or sit for an hour in post game traffic. After retrieving the car we faced an hour-plus drive to the hotel. With the game set for a 5 p.m. kickoff, I figured we would get to the hotel by 10:30, 11 p.m. at the latest. Ryan listened carefully as I laid out the day, nodding at each step. When I asked if he still wanted to go, he said an enthusiastic yes, and that’s all I needed to hear.
He was fantastic. He’s a great car companion. He spends most of his time on his iPad, occasionally asking for food or water or to stop for a bathroom break. He never complains of boredom. He put his iPad aside for a while to work on homework, and we spent 20 minutes or so trying to solve an algebra problem as we rolled through the hills and farms of central Pennsylvania at 70 mph.
We arrived at my friend’s house shortly after noon. Ryan was social with the adults and even complimented my friend on how cute his infant son is. We tossed the football for a while as Ryan explained his favorite hockey and football teams to my friend and his guests.
Soon it was time to head for the stadium. We drove part way there and then walked probably a mile to reach the tailgating fields. Ryan’s only complaint was that he wanted to arrive at our destination so we could throw the football some more.
Ryan marveled at the size of the stadium and the people arriving from all directions for the game. He quickly realized there were a lot fewer Michigan fans in this crowd than there had been at UConn, but he proudly sported his Michigan shirt and hat, and laughed when the occasional passerby mocked us.
When we got to the tailgate he was again social and engaged. He talked to the other guests. He threw the ball with some of the other adults. I kept telling him how proud I was to have him with me to show off to my friends. I also wanted him to appreciate the social gathering power of college football. Thousands upon thousands of people come from all over every home Saturday to spend time with each other and take in a game. There is plenty of negativity surrounding college athletics, and Penn Staters sure know something about that, but on a beautiful fall day in an idyllic setting like State College, it’s easy to see why the sport has such drawing power.
Ryan loved that total strangers — Penn State fans — stopped us to ask about Michigan, the game, the season, and invite us to have a burger or a beer with them. Random Michigan fans offered high fives and shouts of “Go blue!” I told Ryan how sports is one of the few activities that can convince total strangers to strike up a conversation with one another.
I explained how college football is something you can stay connected to long past your school years. I’m almost 20 years out of college and I still build my autumn around watching Michigan and attending a game. I told him I hoped we could go to games together for many, years. He smiled.
At 4 p.m., it was time to head for the stadium. Ryan gets nervous that we will miss some of the action, so we make sure to go in early. We posed for pictures high up in the upper deck. I told him to look around. Penn State’s stadium is surrounded by hills and farmland. It gives every indication of having been dropped precisely in the middle of nowhere. And yet, each home Saturday, over 100,000 people make their way to nowhere to see their Nittany Lions play. I told Ryan that only football can draw people together like that.
The game started poorly for Michigan. It wasn’t Ryan’s fault — he did his best to fire up the Wolverines. He stood for nearly every play. He shouted along with all the chants and the fight song. He high-fived all the fans around us after good plays.
Michigan trailed by 11 at halftime, but Ryan told me not to worry. He said Michigan was going to fall further behind before storming back. I found it interesting that any time I press him for a prediction on a hockey game, he refuses to give one. But here, he spelled out exactly how thought the game would unfold. He was close, too. Michigan didn’t fall further behind, but burst into the lead. With 10 minutes to play, Michigan was up 10 points and things looked good. We were in a celebratory mood.
That’s when one of the more ridiculous sequences in the recent history of college football began to unfold. The details are too painful to recount here, but suffice it to say that Michigan missed three consecutive field goals that would have won the game before falling in four overtimes.
By then I was just hoping for an end. Ryan wanted badly to stay for the finish, but he was also worried about getting to bed, and knew — because of my warnings — that we still had a long walk and drive ahead of us. But he uttered just one complaint — when the fourth overtime period started. We watched passively as Penn State finally, mercifully, but an end to the contest with a touchdown. We listened as the stadium exploded in celebration. We offered congratulations to the Penn State fans around us — people so nice that they let Ryan in his Michigan jersey stand in front of them to have a better view.
Soon we were trudging back to our car. In my near 25 years of watching Michigan, it was probably the second most-painful loss I can remember. (#1: Kordell Stewart. I was also in the stands for that one.) In my twenties, I would have been depressed for days. In my 40s, with my son, who has overcome so many challenges to be by my side? My upset lasted mere minutes. I took us many years longer that I thought to reach the point where we can share a love of Michigan football. But we’re here now, and it’s glorious. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it — not the painful loss, not the walk, not the drive, not any of it. One of the many Penn Staters to talk to us asked, genuinely, how we enjoyed the game. I jokingly groaned, before telling them that I got to watch the game with my son, so I enjoyed it immensely.
By the time we got to our hotel, it was more than 15 hours since we left home. If you subtract the time spent in the car, we had been walking or standing for more than 10 hours, or about the same time it took my friend T. to complete his Ironman.
Comparable? Not exactly.
But in terms of obstacles overcome for Ryan to do such a thing, and genuinely enjoy himself? Maybe he’s got the stuff of an Ironman after all.
- Penn State beats No. 18 Michigan 43-40 in 4OT (cnsnews.com)