Pain and Progress
Beating Georgia was beyond this Michigan program, so Michigan took a beating. But don't throw away your Orange Bowl gear.
The weekend after the Big Ten title game, my girlfriend and I took a one-night trip to Royal Oak to see Khruangbin in concert.
Live music used to be a big part of my life. Readers of this post are probably aware of my history as a high school ska band frontman; between that and playing jazz saxophone, I spent a lot of my teenage years on a stage. I have ticket stubs from seeing The Roots, Andrew Bird, Method Man, The Aquabats!, Ornette Coleman, and many more. I road-tripped to New York City for Rock the Bells and Manchester, Tennessee for Bonnaroo. (Once each. I have limits.)
Until last month, the most recent concert I’d attended was the 2016’s inaugural “Folk the Pig” festival at the The Blind Pig in Ann Arbor. While I told myself work and life got in the way, the increased limitations my health placed on me kept me away from live music, and often even listening at home.
Last year had been different, though. Despite moving twice, quitting my job, and starting this business, I had the energy to socialize during the post-vaccine, pre-delta easing of the pandemic — hence having a girlfriend to see a concert with in the first place. At the point in the season when I usually need an emergency week off, I took a day here and there.
It had been a year full of personal victories. We went for a celebratory capper.
Michigan’s hope dissipated in a hurry.
I’ll admit I’d talked myself into the semifinal matchup with Georgia being a close one. When a season goes so well, it’s hard to imagine it ending with a thud. I stared deep enough into terrifying on-their-face PFF stats to come out the other side, as if they formed a magic eye spreadsheet with “MICHIGAN” as the secret message.
Stats aren’t necessary in retrospect. Georgia was bigger, faster, stronger, and flat-out better at football. They’re what Michigan wants to be, boringly dominant and inevitable against any team not coached by Nick Saban.
The Bulldogs line up their three best players at defensive tackle, inside linebacker, and tight end. They all made eye-popping plays — in the open field.
This was a different level of challenge, even from Ohio State. Michigan wasn’t ready, as a program, to match up with Georgia.
The Bucket Problem is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
We arrived when the doors opened, our first mistake. The line for the show snaked around the corner, slowed by the necessary step of showing proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. Leaning on my sturdiest cane, I felt prepared.
Once inside, we made a beeline for the merch table, which had its own lengthy wait — but at least we wouldn’t miss any of the show. My girlfriend grabbed waters while I held our place in line. After we bought shirts, we found the seated area of general admission. So far, so good.
I hit the wall hard. Every conversation from the concourse behind us felt like it was happening inside my head, a cacophony of strange voices I couldn’t tune out. The shifting, colored lights made my head thud along with the bass of the not-so-background music. I closed my eyes and rested my head on my cane, hoping it would clear.
The opening band came on. Within 30 seconds, it was over. My dull headache evolved into a piercing one; each high note on the guitar split my brain in two. Every cell in my body screamed for me to leave.
Though I knew the inevitable outcome, I tried to hang on. After all, this was a birthday gift, the culmination of a rare date night, and I wanted to see Khruangbin. Hell, I already had the shirt.
Each song was interminable, the set neverending. I cracked, later than I should’ve and earlier than I wanted, and told my girlfriend that I had to go, right now. We walked out into what had become a rainy, chilly night, and took a cab back to the hotel. The opening set was still in progress.
I broke down when we got back to our room. I felt awful for bailing out of an event we’d eagerly anticipated for a long time. I also mourned what felt like the end of my time going to concerts. I didn’t, and still don’t, know the name of the last band I saw live. I had failed; my body had failed me.
Losing to Georgia doesn’t erase what came before. In many ways, it makes Michigan’s run all the more remarkable — a team with obvious flaws overcame them to beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten.
I turned the game off long before it was over. That wasn’t how I wanted to remember this team; watching until the bitter end would’ve been an exercise in self-flagellation. There’s so much from this season to celebrate, especially now that we’re no longer worried about the next game, what the last game means for the next game, and what it all means for Ohio State.
Losing to Georgia in that fashion was painful. That such a game was capable of hurting in the first place speaks to how far Michigan has come. While a return isn’t guaranteed, it feels eminently possible with greater heights potentially in store.
Regardless, this was one of the most successful, enjoyable seasons in the long, storied history of the program. After taking a few minutes to get over my own inflated expectations for how the semifinal could’ve gone, I sat with that, and I felt content.
As I sobbed on the hotel couch, my girlfriend found a way to break through my self-pity.
“You did so well,” she said. “You did so much today.”
It was true. We’d left town for the first time during the pandemic, gone out to dinner, and tried to do something I hadn’t felt capable of in years. It was early December, the first weekend I hadn’t spent neck-deep in college football since August, and a time when I usually retreat into my bedroom for a week, a fortnight, a month, depending.
Being there in the first place was my victory; not just moral, but tangible.
My girlfriend gave me earplugs for Christmas. We’ve learned some lessons if we’re going to try again: show up late, pick a better (read: outdoor) venue, don’t have a whole day beforehand.
It’d been a long time for me. My grand return didn’t go as planned. I wasn’t ready.
That’s okay. I’ll be more prepared next time. In the meantime, I’ll celebrate my considerable progress this year. I may not have seen Khruangbin, but I started my own business, moved in with a woman I love, and allowed myself to believe this better life can last.
I’ll even keep the shirt. I made it there, after all.