Sunday, November 15, 2009

What it means to be a fan

I hear people say all of the time, "I'm a fan of (insert team/school name here.)" And, I have to admit that the majority of the time, I'm skeptical when I hear others make that statement.

On Saturday, as the late afternoon darkened in Lawrence, KS, my fandom was in full overdrive. Kansas had scored on a Todd Reesing to Dezmon Briscoe touchdown pass and the Jayhawks were on the verge of stopping a four-game losing streak with a win over traditional football power Nebraska. Alas, an inexplicable coaching decision to pooch kick, which led to a long return, followed by an ill-timed penalty resulted in a Nebraska touchdown, and the victory.

As I soaked in the scene, and listened to the cries of "Go Big Red" from the Nebraska fans who are uniquitous at any NU football game--home or away--I thought of how many times I had been witness to this scene in Kansas' Memorial Stadium.

My first recollection of Kansas playing Nebraska was in 1967. KU had lost their first three games and were playing the Huskers in the Big 8 opener. Kansas, surprisingly, dominated and won 10-0--the impetus for finishing the season 5-5 which included wins over Kansas State and Missouri. The next year, Kansas won in Lincoln, a key victory in a year which would culminate in an Orange Bowl appearance. Little did I know, as a kid who considered himself an avid Jayhawk fan, that 1968 would be the last time Kansas won against Nebraska for many, many years.

During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, I suffered, alongside other avid Kansas fans, through game after game of Kansas futility in their contests against Nebraska. I was there in Lincoln in 1973 when Kansas missed two FGs and a PAT in a 10-9 loss. I was there in Lawrence the year Nebraska scored prior to halftime to go up 33-0. Husker coach Tom Osborne then went for two, explaining later that he was concerned about Kansas' "potent offense." It was a bush league move that I obviously never forgot.

Each year I would hope and each year I would suffer through another defeat. And, unfortunately, too many of those defeats came with scores like 56-0 with red clad players running all over the field...and way too often into the end zone, encouraged on by the hordes of Nebraska fans who would fill KU's stadium or Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.

The frustration, of course, finally ended in 2005 when Kansas broke the skid--its first win over NU since that '68 victory. And, two years later, Kansas had the chance to exact even more revenge with a 76-39 trouncing of Nebraska.

I was not only reminded of my frustration yesterday, given the way that Kansas lost, but also when I read a story in the Wall Street Journal about a man who can rightfully be considered the best fan in America.

Robert Lipson is a fan of the Kansas State Wildcats football team. But, Mr. Lipson is not just any fan. Lipson has attended every KSU game--home and away--since 1972. He has kept all 141 ticket stubs and has them in his safety deposit box.

What's remarkable about Lipson is, like me, he consistently witnessed some very bad football by his team. However, while my frustration centered around KU's inability to beat Nebraska, Lipson had to deal with the overall futility of Kansas State football in the 1970s and early 1980s. During the first 18 years that Lipson began following KSU to every game, the Wildcats won a grand total of 47 games while losing 149.

How many of us can claim that we would remain a fan of a team--a true fan--if the team, on average, won 18% of its games year in and year out? How many of us would remain a fan if our team didn't win one game over the course of three seasons? Lipson did and was rewarded from 1989 to 2003 when KSU won 127 games. Yet, even in that era of success, Lipson still points to 1998, the year when Kansas State lost to Texas A&M in the Big 12 Championship game, as the season he most wants to forget. It was that loss which kept KSU from playing in the national championship game.

It's easy to be a fan when "your team" is winning. It's hard to be a fan when they're losing. It's hardest to be a fan when your team is in a position for greatness, but loses.

What, then, defines the true fan? For me, former President Theodore Roosevelt used words which explain it best: "It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

Melodramatic perhaps but like the man in "the arena" in Roosevelt's quote, the true fan is the one who is there--good times and bad--and whose feelings are dashed when his or her team loses, only to have hope spring anew when the next game shows up on the calendar.

Let's hear it for Robert Lipson...and all the true fans out there.

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