All animals are sad after intercourse, the old saying goes. And following their climactic victory over Bates, one got the sense that the Polar Bears were, too.
The day after victory is a sadly neglected moment in history: what did David do the day after bringing down Goliath? Themistocles after Marathon? Ali after Frazier? For the Polar Bears, after Whittier Field had been cleared of fans and trash, the beers had been drunk (“a thousand of them,” by one estimate) and the sun had returned, it was back to business as usual: breakfast at eight, treatment at nine, practice at eleven- thirty. Though the losing streak was over, the season wasn’t, yet.
Entering the final game of the season against the Mules—and, with both teams having beaten Bates, the deciding game of the CBB Championship—the Polar Bears had “momentum,” which is just sports fans’ preferred way of referring to that flavor of hope that expects the future to resemble the past.
For some context, the CBB Championship goes to whichever of Maine’s NESCAC schools finishes the season with the best record against the others. The trophy for this championship is a small and severely dented copper football mounted atop a wooden box, which is fitting, since the grandeur of the trophy is about commensurate to the glory of winning the championship itself.
Before the game, Coach JB Wells described the CBB championship to me as “a war of attrition,” with the upper hand often going to teams with the highest percentage of intact, mobile bodies.
And with the help of a few late-season returns, Bowdoin was comparatively healthy. I should stress the element of comparison: last year, the team ended the season with 19 players on the bench with season-ending injuries. This season, it was only 15.
These figures are a testament to the fact that, despite marked improvements in protective technologies and increasingly cautious training techniques, the human body is still not very well equipped to bear the beating that it takes over the course of a three-month football season. The crutch-and-sling brigade, which is a permanent fixture on the Bowdoin sideline, is limping proof.
In any event, the momentum the Polar Bears had entering Saturday was frozen, along with everything else, by the near-freezing game-day temperatures in Waterville. The night before, Seaverns Field had been blanketed with about an inch of snow, which had melted into a semi-solid slush by game time. Players had to avoid piles of ice that had been plowed to the sides of the end zones.
In the first half, the chill got to both teams’ offenses, which collectively struggled to string together plays and generate first downs. The first half ended 3-0. The one bright spot for the Bowdoin offense was Brendan Ward ’22, who rushed for 100 yards in the first half and finished the game with 146 and a touchdown.
Sometime during the second quarter, an unbelievably kind and humane Colby fan—employee? parent? I don’t really know—took pity on my shivering self and invited me into the press box, where I gradually regained enough feeling in my fingers to begin taking notes again. I wish I had learned more about this woman, who served no apparent role beside bantering with the PA announcer and intermittently dancing, but my words got stuck somewhere between my chattering teeth. She told me that my refuge in enemy territory was conditional on my writing that there was at least one decent Colby fan out there. Well, here it is: you, mysterious Colby woman, are a bonafide saint.
In the third quarter, the wheels really started to come off for Bowdoin, which gave up two unanswered touchdowns, one off a 48-yard run and then another off an interception. Early in the fourth, the Polar Bears dropped a kickoff return, which was recovered by the Mules at the one-yard line. They walked it in easily from there, and then scored again on the next possession, putting Bowdoin down 30-0.
Bowdoin made a late push, scoring two touchdowns late in the quarter, but it wasn’t enough. The Mules had the honor of hoisting the Dented Ball Trophy, despite being out-rushed and out-passed by the Polar Bears.
If you’ll indulge a moment of self-reflection: I decided to follow the Bowdoin football team this season out of a mix of good-natured curiosity and a healthy dose of skepticism. What, I wanted to know, kept these 76 men going after two consecutive winless seasons? What was behind the black hole into which the College was pouring so many resources, both material and human? Why, in short, would anyone spend his Saturday in the freezing-cold hell-hole of Waterville, Maine just to get his ass kicked in a football game?
So there I found myself, in the dark in some parking lot somewhere behind the Colby athletic facility, at the final post-game tailgate. Parents had laid out spreads of food, dads were grilling, a fire in a small fire pit provided limited warmth. As the sun set, parents and players gathered into a circle around the fire pit, and each senior player offered a brief toast.
I’ve been on enough sports teams to know that, in these types of situations, there is a predetermined set of clichés and bromides that form the basis of these benedictions. Every team is “special” and teammates are “brothers” and the team is a “family” (but don’t forget the actual family, who made this all possible) and thanks to the coaches who have “pushed us to grow both as players and as people.” And so it goes.
And nearly all of these found their way into the players’ toasts. But what the banality and redundancy of these remarks belies is that they are all, in a certain way, true.
In his concluding remarks to the team, Wells invoked the “three Fs” that form the basis of his and his players lives: friends, family and football. On the one hand, I hope that this isn’t entirely true and that the horizon of their worlds are a little bit broader than this mantra implies. (And given the breath of personalities that populate the football team, I suspect that they are.)
But on the other hand, would it be so bad if it was? You can draw your own conclusion about the relative benefits of intensely homosocial organizations in an increasingly cosmopolitan world, or the question ethics of an institution of higher learning funding a minimally successful athletic program that probably puts its players at least some risk of lasting neurological damage.
But in the end, in a cold and dark parking lot in Waterville, the members of Bowdoin football find that other f-word (no, not that one) that all of us, whether we know it or not, seek: fullness.
Fullness of purpose, of meaning, of joy.
See you next fall.