THE EARLY LEAD: Heartbreak and disappointment, why do us fans invest so much with such little return?
By BRANDON HURLEY
As a sports fanatic, I’ve never cried after a game.
I’ve thrown things, screamed after joyous upsets and reacted out of pure shock.
But when Iowa’s Luka Garza checked out for the last time Monday, March 22 following a historic career, I broke.
I felt like letting the flood gates open.
I was frustrated.
And honestly, I was a little lost. How could this happen in such anti-climatic fashion, and why does it keep occurring?
Sometimes, sports rip your heart out, this week was one of those moments.
Iowa’s NCAA tournament loss in the second round to Oregon really stung. I felt a remarkable amount of discouragement combined with the aforementioned emotions.
There are a few things I gravitate toward after a disappointing loss. Weirdly enough, I sometimes do the dishes. Or I write.
When Iowa got embarrassed as a two-seed earlier this week, laying yet another disgusting egg on national television, I tweeted.
And tweeted some more.
I let my thoughts out, flowing through my fingers onto the screen. This was a tough one to process, and I didn’t even attempt to hide my feelings.
Social media, when done well, is a unique form of writing. This was a proper way to cope.
I am tired. Sick of disappointment, fed up with trying to defend my home state to others.
My life can be summed up in one simple word - sports.
I’m an absolute sports junkie. I legitimately live and breathe sports. It’s all I watch, and it’s a topic that’s on my mind 24 hours a day. My core of college buddies usually only connect over Iowa games.
I’ve been an Iowa fan for my entire existence, spending 25 years attending various Hawkeye events, dissecting each game, analyzing the players and coaches. The silence of the long, dreadful car ride home along the boring stretch of I-80 between Des Moines and Iowa City is usually broken up by the sounds of a post game radio show.
I grew up wanting to attend the University of Iowa, eventually earning two degrees from the Big Ten school.
I actually purchased season tickets during the atrocious Todd Lickliter years. I watched the Hawkeye football team, as a freshman in the stands, lose to Western Michigan inside Kinnick the day before Thanksgiving , pissed that students held shoes in the air, embarrassed of the product on the field.
I saw Iowa State claw back from a 17-point halftime deficit and pull off the shocker. I was in attendance when Saquan Barkley and Penn State captured victory on literally the last play of the game, sending Kinnick Stadium into an eerie state of silence and disbelief.
I was at Lucas Oil Stadium when Iowa gave up one final, 14-play, game-sealing touchdown drive in the Big Ten Championship, ending a perfect season and demolishing any hopes of a playoff appearance.
I vividly remember being sent into a daze of anger when Iowa was upset by 14th-seeded Northwestern State. To this day, I still have no idea where that school is located (A simple search says it’s located Natchitoches, Louisiana, wherever that is).
We’ve been through some stuff.
Which is why Monday’s loss was so painful.
Though sports are merely entertainment, it doesn’t mean we can’t experience strong feelings once the eventual outcome is settled.
As Iowa’s tournament run began, it felt more meaningful than just a basketball showcase. Perhaps it would be an exclamation point on what we’ve overcome as a Midwestern society. The promise and excitement was palpable. We had waited decades for Iowa to return to the Sweet Sixteen, and it never happened, yet again.
Nope, it was simply a sporting event, one that eventually transformed into a massive letdown.
Basketball is by far my favorite sport. I eat it up. I constantly watch both the NBA and college ball, shoot hoops when I can and discuss it every chance I get. I love the pure beauty of the game, it’s simplicity but also its subtle intricacies.
Sadly, I don’t think I can watch anymore college basketball this year. That’s how much that loss hurt. I need some time to recover from the disappointment and anger. In no way am I making a mockery of a fan base. I legitimately am sick over yet another demoralizing defeat.
Let’s get one thing straight - I believe all of Iowa’s basketball players are great kids, and I don’t place blame on them. They seem like good people. I’ve never heard a bad word, and they’ve managed to stay out of trouble. They dealt with a lost season and nearly matched the insane expectations the following year.
I have mad amounts of respect for the time and dedication it takes to become a successful Division I athlete, which is even more difficult during a pandemic. College athletes are a different breed. They build their lives around trying to succeed. Unfortunately, Iowa didn’t achieve its goals.
That sucks for everyone involved - the players, coaches, trainers, fans and administrators.
I’m sure that post game locker room Monday afternoon was an absolute mess, filled with tears and anger. The silence had to be sickening. Those situations are heartbreaking, and I’ve seen it first hand many times during high school events.
The thing is, those athletes aren’t the only ones who invested time into a this sport. As fans, we don’t play or practice, but we do spend more than 30 nights every winter watching one team for two hours each outing, building and tweaking our schedules to fit around tip-off, hoping for postseason success.
When that glory never comes, it’s painful.
I tuned in for every single Iowa game this year, as well as each one last season before the pandemic hit. That’s more than 60 nights spent invested in one team. Hoping and wishing for an historic outcome.
There were certainly amazing moments along the way - watching Garza rewrite the record books while becoming the program’s all-time leading scorer and putting the team on his back in the process.
That is something I’ll never forget, but it all feels so hollow.
The loss to Oregon is one of the more gut-wrenching defeats in my life. To not even make it close is probably why it stings so much.
The Hawks didn’t give themselves a chance - I knew it was over with 15 minutes left.
As I take time to really let the loss sink in, I begin to wonder why I even let myself have such sky-high expectations if the ensuing let down is already preordained.
It’s as if a crew attempted to scale Mount Everest with some of the best climbers in the world, only to know beforehand they are going to fall off a cliff seven-eighths of the way there.
I entered last weekend excited for a deep run. It was our first chance to take in March Madness in two years. We were deprived, but ready.
This was the team to do it. When you deploy the best player in program history, the best shooter and top assist man, as well as one of the deepest - and most experienced - rosters in the country, you’re supposed to go far.
My anxiety creeped in, eventually overtaking me. As an Iowa fan, I’m conditioned to prepare for the worst, and even then, I can’t stop the feelings of anger.
Iowa didn’t come through when it mattered most.
This program has continually done that to us for the last few decades. The finished product never lives up to the hype.
It makes me sick.
It’d be nice if just once in my adult life I could root for a team deep into the tournament. I now know another Final Four run likely isn’t in the cards for this school. That’s OK. But to have not made a Sweet Sixteen in 23 years, that’s what really tears me apart. The Hawks haven’t even sniffed the possibility, either. They’ve made it to the second round several times, only to get their doors blown off.
We’ve been truly blessed to witness an awesome dude like Luka Garza break tons of records and produce some of the most bonkers stat lines in years. To know he never reached the Sweet Sixteen, that hits me hard.
I can only imagine how he felt this week. He clearly came to the same realization as the final seconds ticked away.
“I just feel heartbroken that I couldn’t... you know with all the work that I did, I couldn’t lead this team to where it needed to go,” Garza said during his post game conference Monday. “That’s something that’s gonna haunt me for the rest of my life.”
Ugh. That’s tough to read, and it was even tougher to watch.
Perhaps there’s a silver lining in all this. Maybe I don’t have to watch every game in its entirety. My stress levels may decrease. I may get more things done around the house. I won’t yell at the TV.
But I won’t give up. Iowa is my school, I’ll be there for the Hawks, though I likely won’t be as invested as before. It takes too much out of me.
There’s only so much pain and disappointment a man can take.