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The Christmas that Wasn't: James Madison University, the University of Georgia and the Green Bay Packers' 2008-09 Football Seasons

December 27, 2008

First, I would like to say that I in no way confuse the birth of Jesus with football championships, but having seen teams I root for win championships in the past, I know that winning a championship divides a fan's existence into BC and AD, much like the birth of a Savior. All summer and through the early parts of this year's NFL and college seasons I thought this Christmas would be a turning point in how I measure the passing of time. I was wrong.

I thought Georgia would be the SEC champions and preparing for the BCS Championship Game against the likes of Oklahoma or Southern Cal. I thought James Madison's miracle finishes would continue to unfold like a Hollywood movie script, and I thought the Green Bay Packers would be the NFC North champs and have a real shot at making a run in the NFC playoffs. When I was in elementary school, I always thought I'd wake up one Christmas morning and unwrap a Nintendo or Sega Genesis--I never did.

Sonic the Hedgehog never came down the chimney with Santa Claus to collect gold rings, and apparently, neither do my football teams. I guess I should have seen this coming. I can think back to moments before and during the season where the writing was on the wall. The same day I wrote an article about Knowshon Moreno's place in Georgia's running back lineage, I also wrote, in my notebook, an article I planned on posting the week before the annual Georgia-Florida game. The article was basically a list of things I've never seen or never will see. The article made note that I can only remember Georgia defeating Florida on three occassions and that I've never seen Georgia win that game two years in a row. I thought this year would be the year the impossible happened.

I thought the planets had alligned, that the winds had shifted, and that three kings were making their way to Jacksonville, by way of a star. I didn't even post the article I wrote in my notebook, predicting such things, on the blog, for fear that I might disrupt the cogs that preside over miracles, that my post might somehow prevent Gabriel from getting word to Mary.

Also, by the time the Georgia-Florida game rolled around, Georgia had already lost to Alabama and despite a big win at LSU just didn't seem to have that championship quality. A manger was still a manger, and a few words in my notebook became prophecy. I still haven't seen Georgia beat Florida twice in a row, just like I've never seen Tetris blocks fall like snow on Christmas morning. Some things just aren't to be, and sometimes Mary doesn't listen to angels.

James Madison's season was a thing of destiny. The team came back from 21-0 to knock off number one App. St. This win jumped the Dukes to number one in the polls, and they never relinquished the position, continually plucking wins out of the jaws of defeat. I use a cliche here because every JMU game seemed to feature a cliche from Varsity Blues, Friday Night Lights, or Remember the Titans. Games were won on last second punt returns when the opponent should have kicked the ball towards the sideline. Games were won on hail Mary's, as golden S's appeared on purple shirts like fish drawn in the sand or crosses in the sky.  Fans felt like Constantine, and these immaculate finishes gave me all the Techno Bowls my childhood never had. Every JMU game I watched at Bailey's in Arlington seemed to feature Bo Jackson and Tim Brown high-fiving in slow motion, but these signs too should have been read like words in King Belshazzar's court.

Madden doomed Techno Bowl. The Superman movies, starring Christopher Reeves, got progressively worse, ending with him fighting a solar-powered version of himself, Louis and Clark was cancelled and didn't even make it to syndication, and even the comic book Superman met Doomsday. James Madison's football team went a whole fall without facing any kryptonite, and then Rodney Landers and his 170.7 quarterback rating went down against Montana with an ankle injury, and JMU's title hopes soon followed suit. Imagine Mario going into a drain pipe and never coming out the other end.

Despite all the drama caused by the Favre fiasco in the offseason, I thought the Packers would rally to still be a threat in the NFC. I don't think I was far off, and here's why: Tampa Bay took the lead for good against the Packers with 2:26 left to play, Atlanta did it with 7:19 to play, Tennessee had to wait until OT, Minnesota didn't take the lead until 2:22 to go in the game, Carolina won with 1:30 left on the clock, Houston kicked a field goal with no time remaining, Jacksonville scored their go ahead points with 1:56 on the clock, and this past week, on Monday Night Football, the Bears won in OT. What hurt most about this Chicago game was the fact that Aaron Rodgers led us down the field for a game-winning field goal by Mason Crosby that got blocked. This team may be the best 5-10 team of all time.

In eight of their ten losses, they led or had a share of the lead deep into the fourth quarter. They put themselves into position week after week to win despite their youth and injuries, and week after week they didn't come away with a victory. They dropped all the hints and made all the inclinations that they wanted a Nintendo for Christmas, but no Nitendo ever came. Each week was a box filled with clothes that one's grandmother picked out. One would pick up the box, always neatly wrapped and feel it sag in the middle from the slacks draped over cardboard. As the box felt like it might give way, one would hear the tissue paper crinkle and know inside this wrapped Macy's box was a turtle neck and some khakis. As the scotch tape was ripped open like busted scar tissue one's brain would begin to scramble and try to answer the question, "how do I pretend I wanted new church clothes when all I wanted was to play Mike Tyson's Punchout?".

The answer was always some confused corkscrew of a smile; an expression that simultaneously suggests one's disappointment and one's awareness of how selfish they are. Christmas should be about family and a celebration of one's faith. Gift-giving is supposed to be about giving, not receiving, but it's hard not to think, "how well does my family really know me if they keep giving me turtleneck sweaters when I only ask for one thing every year and never get it? What's wrong with these people and what's wrong with me?". Then one feels guilty for attaching so much importance to a plastic box full of wires when one knows that those giving the gifts did their best, just as you did when you gave them gifts that they may not have wanted either. Georgia never meant to fail against Alabama, get slaughtered by Florida, or slip up against Georgia Tech. Rodney Landers didn't want to get hurt. James Madison didn't want to run out of time and plays against Montanna. Green Bay hinted that they wanted to win, but were shown that in the NFL it takes a declaration, and a fan has to accept these gifts out of love because that is how they were given.

Mark Richt will continue to build teams capable of threatening for championships. Mickey Matthews will get the Dukes to make more playoff runs. Aaron Rodgers has proved more than capable of leading an NFL team.

There will be other Christmases. There will be other seasons. Afterall, Jesus doesn't make his way to Earth every year, but we still celebrate the one time he did. Moments like that are worth waiting for. They stay in the psyche of a fanbase, and while I never did get my Nintendo, I did get a PS2 one year in college for Christmas; and although I hardly ever play it now, I do wear khakis and sweaters to work every week.

Disappointment is something to be outgrown, like a night inside the lion's den.

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