Strong feelings can bubble up around the topic of class reunions.  For some, they’re a chance to reconnect with a moment in youth when everything seemed possible.  For others, they’re an uncomfortable step back into a past they’re glad they’ve moved on from.

Me, I’ve only been to one high school reunion – my fifth – and no college reunions, not because of any strong feelings about them, but because, when you live 10,000 miles away, something’s going to fall through the cracks.  So – I’ve crossed oceans for family and close friends, for weddings, funerals, and other big life events, but reunions have until now eluded me.

This year is different.  This year, I’m in the midst of my own homecoming to the United States after 27 years abroad.  My earthly goods are, at this moment, on a ship somewhere on the Pacific, and my own journey back into being an American in America has barely begun.   So I figured, what better time to return to the campus  that served as a springboard for my peripatetic life.

Northwestern University’s campus nestles up against Lake Michigan, with a view to the south of the Chicago skyline.  It’s a leafy, pleasant place with a mix of stone buildings covered in climbing vines, and spanking new concrete centers for business conferences and executive weekend courses.  Along the lakefront, construction of even more new buildings is ubiquitous.  Almost makes me feel like I’m back in my adopted home – China.

But one aspect of Northwestern now seems completely unfamiliar.  As a topic of conversation, football came up all the time, and the campus was awash in purple t-shirts and jerseys.   All this, without any sense of irony.  NorthwesternFan

Now.  When I was at Northwestern, it’s not that we didn’t have a football team.  We just had a remarkably bad football team which, over the stretch of my four years here, set the NCAA record for most consecutive losses.  When we hit the record, 29 straight losses, students rushed into the field to celebrate, chanting ‘we’re the worst!’  Then we kept right on going, racking up 34 straight losses before finally winning a game.  That time, students celebrated by rushing the field, tore down the goalpost, and threw it into Lake Michigan – from which it’s never been recovered.

And how did we feel about all this?  Just fine, actually.  It was still a joy to walk on a crisp autumn afternoon up to the stadium, hang out with friends, join in a few perversely creative chants, watch the band at half-time – which was far better at doing what it did than the football team was at what it did – and then head back to study, perhaps looking up when the last die-hard fans came back, and asking “how much did we lose by this time?”  Not a whole lot of angst came into play.   We were a Big 10 school, but the athletes – on four-year scholarships – were students first.  They were expected to keep up academically, in one of the most rigorous academic environments in the country.  Of course, there were those who thought this was taken a bit to far.

“We used to think our academics would be enhanced if our athletes were lousy,” alumnus and long-time Chicago Tribune editor George de Lama said at a gathering at this weekend’s reunion.  “Northwestern had an inferiority complex, because the University of Chicago had given up its football team entirely, and we seemed to think we should ‘keep down’ with the Joneses.”

George de Lama, second from left, Michael Wilbon, far right.

George de Lama, second from left, Michael Wilbon, far right.

The occasion was a panel discussion, a retrospective of the Daily Northwestern newspaper and the role its journalism has played in campus life.   We sat in a big white tent, with strings of sparkly lights overhead and astroturf below, and once again, football dominated the conversation.   An alum, ESPN’s Michael Wilbon, recalled being a Daily Northwestern sportswriter at the start of the epic losing streak.

“The drama, the great stories, were in the losing,” Wilbon said.  “It gave an entirely different perspective on what great storytelling is and should be.”  Kind of reminded me of Tolstoy’s observation, that happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

But then Wilbon turned a sharp corner.   “There were (Northwestern) presidents in the past who didn’t necessarily want us to win, who thought the lack of academic prowess was somehow noble.  Money changes everything.”

Apparently.  In the years I’ve been away, the Northwestern Wildcats have gone to the Rose Bowl, and become a credible team.  And nationally, the culture and visibility of college football have changed considerably.    Fewer college athletes are getting four-year scholarships.  Instead, their free ride is based on year-to-year performance, and if they get injured, they may lose their chance to get a college education.  Their injuries, on the other hand, may stay with them for life.

A new book and documentary on PBS’s Frontline, “League of Denial”, documents this issue.  Authors Steve and Mark Fainaru look at the growing body of scientific evidence that links football and brain damage.  Most of the focus is on the NFL’s resistance to paying compensation for such disability, but the damage can start in college football, especially with the higher stakes and higher visibility on national television college football now has.

For me, it’s an odd experience being back in the one place in the world where football is followed with near-religious fervor.  Almost everywhere else, it’s soccer that revs the crowds’ engines.  So when I came back for my reunion, and Northwestern’s Homecoming, I skipped the ESPN Game Day broadcast on campus to hang out with an old college friend.  I skipped most of the game for a dinner with my former Chinese news assistant, who’s now a graduate student at the Medill School of Journalism and living outside of China for the first time.   My homecoming wasn’t about football – it was about seeing a place that held memories, friends and classmates who’d enhanced and influenced my life, and – thanks to the serendipity of my former news assistant being here, living outside of China for the first time, a chance to think out loud, together, about the adjustments we were each experiencing.

And yet.  When I strolled back to my hotel, and saw the last quarter of the game on a big screen in the lobby bar, I pulled up a chair.  Northwestern was trailing Ohio State by 3 points and yes, my pulse quickened when a Northwestern player got the ball and sprinted down the field before being tackled a couple of yards shy of a touchdown – gained moments later.  Ohio State came back with a touchdown of its own.  Northwestern rallied and looked briefly like it might pull out a victory, but time was running out.   With five seconds left to play, on the far end of the field, they started a wild passing game, two, three passes – and then, fumbled the ball.  A Ohio State player picked it up, stepped into the end zone, and gained an, unexpected, unneeded, ‘oh, by the way’ touchdown – pulling the lead from a respectable 4 points to a more humiliating 10.

“Well, that was a bad way to lose,” one alum near me said, drink in hand.

As a Minnesotan, I’m used to football players in purple snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  As a Northwestern alum, I watched first with disbelief, then with an affectionate chuckle.  Say what you like about how money changes everything – those final seconds of the game reminded me of a team I’d known that helped me learn to lose gracefully and in good humor, to shrug and get on with it, and keep some perspective about what really mattered.   Not a bad lesson for life.

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