Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Jonathan Opie O'Connell, the red-headed fool that can be seen crying after our regionals loss to Iowa in '99, my freshman year, has written something for the Hodags, and all elite teams really, that he wanted me to reproduce for you here. Feel free to read and comment. I am behind his message as if the words were my own:
To the current Hodags: Remember what this is really about
When I was a freshman at the UW, in 1998, during a three-year streak in which the team didn’t even make nationals, UC Santa Barbara won their third title in a row (and sixth overall). Talk about dominant.
Before Santa Barbara’s three-peat, ECU (East Carolina), had won two in a row despite coming out of an outrageously difficult Atlantic Coast region. Another utterly vicious team.
Upon arriving at the UW, I quickly learned from Jammin, Rez, Simon, etc. that everyone knew these teams. They kicked ass and won titles, so naturally all the other teams followed them and tried to figure out how to replicate their dominance. Other teams also, for the most part, disliked them. Partly this was because of jealousy – people tend to bitch about whomever is at the top – but partly it was because both Santa Barbara and ECU were cheaters and assholes. They rammed cutters, intentionally hacked throwers and screamed at opponents all the time. Particularly ECU.
The first time I played either of these teams was when I was a sophomore and we played ECU in South Carolina. Our team was in good physical shape but was very low on throwers, particularly those that could throw forehands. ECU decided they would front the open side and not allow us to attempt a break throw. In the first half, every time we pivoted over there, they hacked, the stall went to zero, and they called us pussies. We called lots of fouls, but in the second half they started bitching more, we stopped calling fouls and they just trampled us. They bullied us out of a fair game, even though they were better than us, and we felt cheated. They didn’t care because they were big dogs with a high seed.
A decade later, the Hodags are the big dogs with a high seed. The pride that this brings me, a former player on the team, is tremendous. Knowing how bad and disorganized we were then, and how unbelievably good the team has become recently, compiling outstanding numbers of victories and tournament wins, really makes alumni feel as though they were part of building something special, even if they had no direct hand in any of the games (i.e. we give ourselves too much credit). We keep tabs on the team, we root you on, and if we can, we come to nationals to cheer. Some of us have Hodag tattoos (and would consider more if we won more titles). One particularly generous alumnus is even setting up a foundation for the team, for god’s sake. You make us very, very proud.
What doesn’t make me proud is the idea that Wisconsin ultimate handles the spotlight of being a top team the same way Santa Barbara and ECU did. There is a big difference between truly expecting that you will win and believing that you are pre-ordained to win. Let me be clear about something: You are not god’s gift to ultimate. You didn’t invent it and it will be going on long after you are done with it.
I don’t pretend to know if any of the many rumors about the Hodags being a bunch of cheating egomaniacs on the field are true or not, and it doesn’t matter. For one, there is always more jealous criticism of the big dogs. And moreover, what really matters is that you feel – that you really believe – that you are treating the game and your opponents with respect. And as you sit atop the competition, I hope you consider this even more than we did when we toiled away in obscurity.
We have all played with bad spirit. I played a point against some terrible team at college sectionals with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my hand. My teammates like to joke about it – and it is funny – but I would undo it if I could. I have in one way or another, bullied teams that we were better than to let them know we were going to win. Would I undo those transgressions now for whatever advantage our team gained? Absolutely. It's not something to cry over, but I would undo them if I could.
My point is when you’re at the top you need to be particularly concerned with being stewards of the sport. Strangers come to watch you play. Probably, even, people who have never seen ultimate before come to your games. Acting like a dick is never good, but it’s particularly harmful to the game and to the Hodag name when you do it at the top level. Remember Joe DiMaggio’s quote about why he played so hard every game? "I always thought there was at least one person in the stands who had never seen me play, and I didn't want to let him down."
I read the post about Dan Heijmen for Callahan on the Hodag web site. Sounds like an awesome player. But given that a third of the award has to do with sportsmanship – something you mention nothing of in a 1,000-plus word write-up – someone who really cares about the game is unlikely to vote for him. And if that’s the way the team he leads acts and portrays itself, in my book he shouldn’t win. Simple as that.
Just remember that as you (hopefully) blaze your way to glory this weekend, how much it will mean to the sport – and to alumni – when you do it with class, and with a smile on your face. Imagine the tremendous good step you take for the game and the Hodag name when you resist making a ticky-tack call or – can you imagine? – take back a bad call on the biggest stage in ultimate. Shaking an opponent’s hand after a good play is also excellent, though it is certainly not required.
I promise that it will make all the memories and friendships far warmer. And you will still dominate.
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