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A Win Beyond All Wins

by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)

JACKSONVILLE, FL — I was standing in the customs line at Denver International Airport perhaps a week ago, and as I stood there, a most marvelous thing occured right in front of my very eyes. One man was wearing an old-fashioned Denver Broncos shirt, and soon two couples were talking, exchanging stories and laughs about going to their first Broncos game, sharing war stories of the husband getting mad at the wife for changing channels during the game and whatever else. There, in an airport terminal, sports was once again front and center. Somehow, a dreary customs line turned into a spot for amicable conversation. Sports had done its magic.

Sports remains a somewhat intangible joy to me. I don't know why it matters so much to me, but it does. For all of the moments I spend as a professional, commenting on games from a vast distance, the sport still brings up an emotion that I can in no way control or explain. So it was on a steamy Tuesday afternoon in Jacksonville when I watched the Northwestern Wildcats break their long, long bowl drought with a victory over the Mississippi State Bulldogs. As I stood there on the sideline, the sun breaming down brightly, and the droves of purple-clad fans getting louder and louder with each defensive stop, I got that feeling that you only get when you know you're somewhere special, and that for all the places life has taken you, you're finally there in the right place, in the right moment and there's nowhere else you'd rather be. Looking over at the fans, at Jim Phillips exchanging hugs and J.A. Adande with an impeccable smile on his face, it was hard not to smile myself, because while being a professional might have taught me to capture the moment, being a human being demanded that I relish it.

At some point, we all find ourselves in mysterious ways. As a 17-year-old entering Evanston for the first time, I was scared to leave home, scared to leave my dad. I was tangling with girl problems that never seemed to let me go, dealing with the difficulties of making new friends while celebrating a relentless excitement about my new life in Evanston. Yet, for all of the ups and downs that characterized my first years at Northwestern, there was one place that I could always go for a high, for a release of emotion, for a thrill. Somehow, I found myself at home in the stands at Ryan Field and Welsh-Ryan Arena. I once joked that Shea Stadium was my third home, given how ardent a Mets fan I was as a kid. Ryan Field became my home away from home. Long before I fell in love with a girl, who I do love more than anything, I fell in love with the game and with Northwestern.

In some ways, Northwestern sports provided a stability that little else did in this world. The Wildcats have played for a century, and they'll probably play for a century more. There's a schedule, a non-conference season and a Big Ten season, that happens again and again and again. It gave me something to look forward to, something that I could always count on. I'm not sure one could ever capture how much that matters in life. For all of the turbulent twists and turns of my social life, Northwestern's bowl drought and NCAA Tournament drought remained a stone wall, an impenetrable albatross. Each season, I could look forward to the Wildcats' ultimate tussle with a doomed fate — and the joy, exultation, hope and pain that would come with it every year. I saw, first as a fan, then as a journalist, the turmoil, the constant questions, the desolate feeling in both Houston and Dallas that followed what seemed to be an inescapable fate. I saw as Northwestern surrendered its early 13-0 lead Tuesday, the feeling of familar dreariness come back. And then I saw Northwestern surpass history, surpass what fans had grown accustomed to seeing and I saw them turn the game around with a couple of big plays. Suddenly, history had shifted. In a little part of the world, where purple and white reigns supreme, everything had changed.

It's honestly hard to know what to think now that this bowl drought is past. I'm not sure what life will be without it. Because for a long, long time, Northwestern, like the Boston Red Sox and Bobby Orr before it, was unlike any other team or player. It had a drought, a cause that exceeded wins and losses, that spoke to that intangible feeling that lies deep in the heart. Now, I suppose Northwestern will join the ranks of the multitude — in football, anyway. They'll seek Big Ten championships, national championships, reach new highs and new lows, just like any other team. But they might never get a chance to do this again. This is the afternoon that they broke their historic bowl drought. On January 1, 2013. That's for the history books now — as is their curse.