Kitchen Knives and Hurricanes

by dave on October 31, 2013

Last spring in the final weeks of my sabbatical in Sin City, I returned to my condo after a mid-morning workout. My plan was to eat a quick lunch, shower up and head to a coffee shop to work on my book.

(which, as a reminder, is now available at a virtual book store near you!)

Before starting to make my lunch, I had to clean up the remnants of the previous night’s dinner. I grabbed the large kitchen knife and started scrubbing the sharp blade with a handled dish sponge as I had a hundred times before.

A moment later, the sponge slipped and the blade of that knife embedded in back of my right pointer finger. Despite feeling no pain (yet), some portion of my brain immediately registered that this was not a positive development.

Long story short, I spent the next couple hours at a walk-in clinic getting my finger cleaned and stitched and I returned to my condo for a newly daily routine of changing my bandages and failing to keep my new wound dry in the shower.

After a couple weeks of an aching finger, the stitches were eventually removed and my finger is perfectly fine today. Except for the lingering scar and the dread I feel every time I start to clean a kitchen knife.

Some six months later, I still feel a moment of dread when I scrub a blade, flashing back to the small shock my body went into upon the knife carving through my skin – the hot flash, the queasiness, the slight shaking. The cut wasn’t irreparable. It didn’t change my life. But there were still a few moments of pain and confusion and questions about what comes next. Re-visiting that is not pleasant and yet I feel it regularly.

Which brings us to this week’s FSU-Miami game.

All of the experts agree that FSU should win handily. We have more talent at nearly every position, better coaching and a homefield advantage. The wise-men that I used to call neighbors in Vegas have increased the point spread from FSU -9 (preseason), to -14 (last week look ahead line) to -21 (this week’s opening). Everyone agrees FSU will win comfortably; that Miami has been winning with a wing and a prayer for much of this season – Florida continuously fumbling away the game in the redzone; Wake Forest and UNC throwing away winnable upsets in the last two weeks.

But I can’t feel the confidence of others, because I still sport the scars that always bring back the pain of previous games where FSU was a prohibitive favorite.

When I first started to paying attention to FSU as a middle-schooler in the late eighties, the FSU/Miami game was the prism through which I watched football in the state from all the way across the country. I remember in 1988, FSU as preseason #1 traveling to Miami in the opening weekend and getting crushed by the Canes, 31-0.

In 1989, in the loudest football game I had ever watched on TV, the Noles shocked the #1 Canes and my love affair with Tallahassee was born as Dexter Carter placed a penalty flag on a Cane’s head.

In 1991, I bet a friend $5 when #1 FSU played #2 Miami. That game is now known as Wide Right One. One of my earliest gambling experiences would also be a good indicator of my future gambling success.

The following year, my senior year of high school, I laid on a friend’s basement couch with an ankle sprained the night before in my own football game watching what is now known as Wide Right II.

And these were all before I was even a student at FSU.

Since those early days, weird games in which one team was favored and ended up either an upset victim or survivor of a close call have come to define this series – especially in the years since 2001. The number of games where the heavy favorite have won comfortably are out-numbered by last minute heart-stoppers by the same ratio as Miami alumni are out-numbered by bandwagon Hurricane fans. In the last 12 years there have been three games decided by more than six points.

Two of those have been Seminole romps in the last three years (with the middle year being a closer than necessary 23-19 FSU win thanks to an ACC referee crew possibly on Nevin Shapiro’s payroll). A part of me wants to say that Jimbo Fisher has a fundamental understanding of how to beat the Canes with a better team but that part is quickly beaten down by the battle scarred remainder.

I want to look at this year’s game objectively and feel confident that the Noles will roll. Jameis has been a revelation beyond even the most partisan Nole’s wildest dreams and his receivers and offensive line look like they could dominate any team in the country. The defense has put away early season slow-starts and looks like what an SEC defense used to look like, when SEC teams still played defense. After the season re-defining win at Clemson two weeks ago, it is easy to look at a less talented team coming into Doak Campbell and seeing an easy Seminole win. But the more confident the world becomes in FSU winning, the more nervous I become.

I still hold the scars of too many other games in which we looked at Miami as just another soda can to be crushed on the drive to an inevitable championship only to blow a tire and end up stranded on the side of the road at the Champps Sports Bowl. Miami may not be demonstrably better than a team like North Carolina, but that ridiculous bird mascot and the nostalgic arrogance for a time when THE U meant something seem to alchemically transform the Canes whenever they face the Noles.

None of this is to say that Miami is going to win – Stephen Morris should probably set aside a portion of his practice week for form tackle drills given his penchant for throwing interceptions – but, to quote one of the more famous FSU alums, I do believe this game will be closer than the experts think.

A prisoner named Red once said that ‘hope is a dangerous thing.’ It is the motto for the guarded and cautious; a motto I have become all too familiar with over the last decade as a Seminole fan.

But hope, by definition, reflects a level of doubt. Hope may be dangerous, but it is certainty that can be lethal.

Certainty can lead to much greater pain than just a sliced finger.



College Football’s Flavor of the Month

by dave on October 23, 2013

It is a strange time to be a Florida State fan.

A year ago, I wrote about the home win over Clemson that *could* represent that we were finally back to our place of prominence in the college football universe…only to see the team choke away a road ACC game as they have done annually for the last decade and then lose a winnable home game to the Gators.

Even winning an Orange Bowl, while gratifying, was diminished by playing a clearly over-matched Northern Illinois team that should have only been visiting south Florida during a layover on the way to play in the Bahamas Bowl.

This year, I had no idea what to expect. Sure, our recruiting has been otherworldly the last few years and lots of young guys have seen playing time but we lost our 2nd straight quarterback to the NFL during the first round of the draft. Surely, we take a step back at quarterback, no matter what stories we heard about Jameis Winston.

Then the spring game came.

Then media day.

We were no longer being given a year’s pass. Instead we had <gulp> expectations again. Like a greyhound beaten once too many times after a stumble coming out of the games chasing that mechanical rabbit, we prepared for the inevitable failure.

A road game on Labor Day night against a mediocre team making their ACC debut seemed like the perfect place to start our season with the loud sound of sad trombones. Our savior quarterback would look like the freshman quarterback that he is. Our defense, losing several starters to NFL rosters and playing under a new defensive coordinator would struggle.

Final score: FSU: 41, Pitt: 13

Winston: 25/27, 356 yards, 4 Touchdown passes, 8 rushes, 25 yards and another touchdown

Rather than re-setting expectations, the Pitt game ratcheted them up. Winston joined the Heisman conversation after his first ever game. FSU became the favorite to win the conference over an experienced, talented Clemson team.

The team escaped a landmine, trap game at Boston College after a slow start, which had all the earmarks of another FSU road failure. The capstone? A final play before half, miracle touchdown pass to take a definitive lead. This team was different and so was the young quarterback.

Last week’s Clemson game, a road game pitting two top-five teams was the culmination of the season to this point and it went about as no one expected. The most dominating game of the season by any college football team. 51-14, in a hostile environment. A redshirt freshman quarterback making a 5th year senior look like a 5th grader.

So, now we are here. #2 in the BCS. After years of being a punchline, we are the darlings of college football. Fast, fun and dominating. Our young leader is still in the honeymoon phase of fame in which everything he does is endearing – not just for FSU fans but the national media as well. But where to, from here?

After three days of round the clock fawning, the inevitable backlash is just over the next hill. I mean, we can’t always be this dominant can we? Jameis himself can’t be this perfect can he?

Sooner or later some idiot sportswriter looking to create his own #hotsportstake and 15 minutes of internet fame will try to tear down Jameis. Call him overrated, find some blemish on his unimpeachable backstory, find any way to diminish his accomplishments while propelling the writer to some imagined glory.

We are on top of the college football mountain at the moment, yet nearly every Seminole must be wondering if this loose scree field is about to give away.

It once wasn’t this way. When I attended FSU back in the nineties, a top five ranking and national championship contention wasn’t a dream it was a minimal expectation. We didn’t look at a schedule with a pit in our stomach identifying which teams might pull the upset, we looked for games where a chance existed we might lead by less than four touchdowns at the half and wouldn’t allow us to head back to the keg early.

Now, that seems so long ago. We watch the Noles destroy Clemson with a simple surgical precision just like everyone else but where others see, possibly the best team in the country, we see potential heartbreak after a shocking loss down the road.

I don’t know if the Noles can go undefeated the rest of the way. People smarter than me, say it is only slightly more than a 50/50 proposition. I know the Gators are down right now, injured and with an offense that might not crack 20 points in the campus intramural championships, but it’s still a rivalry game in a difficult atmosphere. Add in the fuel of being the ones to keep us from a national title game, and it is easy to see the Gators surprising everyone. It has happened before.

I have gulped every morsel of coverage about the Noles I could find the last few days. In the glow of Saturday’s game, it is impossible to find anyone with a “yeah, but” to say about the Noles. I think I watched the same two shows on ESPNU four times the other day. I am not sure even the 1999 team that went wire to wire #1 received as much as universal love as has been heaped on this particular band of Seminoles. The team that played on Saturday night in Death Valley was as dominant as any team as I have ever seen.

But the question that haunts every Nole today is whether we will see that team every week from here on out. The last decade plus has trained us to worry. To take a single game as the best we can see, not the usual.

Some pundits are saying that the game this weekend against North Carolina State is a trap game, but here I couldn’t disagree more. I think this game comes at a perfect time. If the boys on the team are starting to believe their own hype, there is no faster way to bring them back down to Earth than showing last year’s loss in Raleigh on a loop in the locker, training and weight rooms. NC State is the perfect reminder how little things can bring down a good team. I have to assume the coaches will yell themselves hoarse this week, reminding the team of that.

If Clemson was about staking a claim for national prominence, beating NC State is about saying that this year, things are different.

And FSU may be the only school in the country where their very own fans need the most convincing.