A Special Bond
By Matthew Osborne
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For my father and me, a lifetime worth of shared suffering came to an end on a glorious night in October.
There is something uniquely distinct about the relationship between a father and his son.
Although we commonly cling to the hips of our mothers as young boys, earning ourselves the moniker of “Momma’s boy” with our neighborhood companions, any adult man will attest that there is something different about the relationship between a young boy and his father.
Perhaps it is that our fathers frequently take on the role of the disciplinarian during our days of rambunctious trouble-making; maybe it is that as young boys we view our fathers through a lens of innocence and reverence, elevating our fathers to the heights of the supernatural.
Whatever the reason may be, young boys glance upon their fathers with a refreshing sense of wonderment, developing an incomparable, and admittedly sometimes infuriating, life-long bond.
For any young man and his father, there are a select number of events or activities which hold particular significance in the relationship. Normally, these events prove to be shared areas of interest, common denominators which serve to strengthen the bond between the two.
Like many young men in this great country, a unique bond was formed early on between my father and me due to our common interest in sports.
My father participated in numerous sporting events while growing up in the Panhandle of Florida. And although he would never be mistaken as a star athlete, the dusty boxes in our attic which held his childhood trophies reflected his prowess and passion for athletics at a young age.
Born in a small town in North Carolina, I have been told that I have not stopped my athletic endeavors since exiting the womb. My mother often lovingly reflects back upon my days as a young boy where I would drive my family to the brink of insanity with my incessant dribbling of the basketball in the driveway.
No matter the time of year, it was a safe bet that I would be found in our front yard after school practicing whichever sport had captured my interest on that particular day.
A loving husband and devoted family man, Dad was never one to turn down the opportunity to play catch or shoot some hoops with his wide-eyed and abnormally energetic little boy. We spent innumerable afternoons out in our backyard throwing the baseball while he would methodically swing back and forth on his beloved hammock. It is to his staggering patience and unbridled love that I owe many of my greatest athletic accomplishments.
My dad moved from Florida to attend college in North Carolina in the 1970s. Upon arriving in the Old North State, Dad decided that he would become a Duke fan to stray away from the mainstream. He always told me that he never really had a vested interest in the Blue Devils before moving to North Carolina, but that, as he put it, he “didn’t want to be like everybody else and pull for North Carolina.”
Dad was never one to force his fandom on me.
As a grade school boy who believed that his dad was a real-life superhero, however, I never really needed to be forced into that decision. My dad was my hero, and if Duke was good enough to be his team, they certainly were going to receive my respect and adulation as well.
I dabbled in a number of sports while growing up, but I would eventually become completely enthralled by the game of football.
There wasn’t a single aspect of football that I didn’t enjoy. The blood, the teamwork, the camaraderie, the dedication, the sacrifice – in my mind, there could be no more perfect sport.
Mom and Dad had long known about my intense passion for sports, as well as my borderline psychotic fanaticism with Duke University (I wore a Duke t-shirt every single day of my high school career), but this was the first time that I had truly labeled one sport as my singular favorite.
In order to satisfy my impassioned love for my sport and my team, my parents decided to buy our first set of Duke Football season tickets when I was 14 years old. At the time, I knew that Duke wasn’t a very good program, but I also did not realize the depths of the historical ineptitude. I had watched Duke Football games on television since I was little, but the Blue Devils’ games generally weren’t televised frequently enough for me to understand exactly where the program stood on the national scale.
By the time we ordered our first set of season tickets, Duke had not been to a bowl game in nearly a decade, spanning back to 1994. It didn’t take long after our first trip to Wallace Wade Stadium, though, to hear the horrifying tales from the die-hard Duke Football fans, which in most corners of the world are considered to be an endangered species. Through some painful combination of coaching mishaps, administrative apathy and overall program incompetence, the Blue Devils had managed to cement themselves as the laughingstock of major college football.
My dad and I were relatively new to the masochistic brotherhood of Duke Football fans, but it took virtually no time to become fully indoctrinated in the concavity of the program’s deficiencies.
From 2004-2007, a span of four seasons, my dad and I witnessed exactly one home win for the Blue Devils against an ACC opponent. That win also happened to be Duke’s only home win against an FBS opponent in general during those tumultuous seasons. At one point, the running joke for fans of the program became “Hey, maybe this is the season that we can finally end our losing streak against the Bye Week.”
In grade school, we were taught to “Shoot for the moon….for even if you miss, you will land amongst the stars.” Well, Duke Football shot for the moon, only to have the bullet reflect squarely off of an overhanging limb and implant itself directly in its foot.
During those seasons, waking up and driving to Wallace Wade Stadium to watch a football game was like waking up and driving to Las Vegas to challenge Mike Tyson to a fight: the outcome was decided before you got there, and you were going to go home bloodied and demoralized.
Despite our keen awareness of our team’s impending fate, my dad and I would faithfully awake on Saturday mornings and make the one hour trek to Durham to support our team, all the while proudly sporting our Duke apparel.
As the losing seasons mounted, inexplicably so did my passion for Duke Football. Although I grew increasingly infuriated by our inability to compete at even the most meager of levels, somehow the team’s failures brought my dad and me closer.
It is difficult to understand unless you are a fan of Duke Football, but something about an unadulterated love for a program which never ceases to leave you distraught and dejected brings people together. The losses grew exponentially more intolerable as the seasons progressed, yet so did my dad and I’s steadfast resolve to still be onboard when the Blue Devils finally got things turned around.
Ted Roof was relieved of his head coaching duties at the end of the 2007 season, and the introduction of David Cutcliffe would provide a rejuvenating jolt of energy into a program which was on life support.
With Cutcliffe’s arrival, gone were the winless seasons and the unenviable distinction as the worst team in major college football.
However, as the team began its steady climb towards respectability, it in some ways became more exasperating to watch the Blue Devils fail to reach bowl eligibility time and time again. There was no doubt that substantial progress had been made on the gridiron, but, in the minds of most Duke fans, my father and I included, the improvements only served to tease a fan base desperately yearning for inclusion in college football’s postseason.
Heading into the 2012 season, the Blue Devils amazing bowl drought had reached 17 seasons, a brutally long streak of irrelevancy.
I was no longer able to purchase season tickets due to a job opportunity which forced me to move out of the state, but I continued to text my father periodically during every Duke game. Our hour-long phone conversations, which usually took place two or three times a week, almost always centered on Duke Football.
The season got off to a good start, with the Blue Devils earning an impressive 46-26 victory over Florida International. As life-long Duke fans, though, Dad and I knew better than to heighten our expectations.
The following week would bring us back to our familiar level, as Duke was steamrolled 50-13 by Stanford.
Being the devoted Duke fans that we are, Dad and I knew what that meant for our program. After 17 years of futility, we knew to expect the worst.
To our surprise, the Blue Devils responded with an unfamiliar focus and determination, rattling off four consecutive wins to move within a mere victory of reaching bowl eligibility.
While the 5-1 start was certainly encouraging, a glance at the back half of the schedule summoned up immediate concerns. Duke would be the decided underdog in every game for the remainder of the season, and would need to pull off an improbable upset in order to attain the sixth win.
The first upset attempt ended in customary fashion, with the Blue Devils being blown out by Virginia Tech.
What happened next would prove to be one of the most emotional moments of my life.
Facing the North Carolina Tar Heels in Durham, the Blue Devils stormed out of the gate, building a 14-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. It was at that time, as we Blue Devils fans like to say, that “Duke went Duke”, losing the lead on a fumble return for touchdown with 3:12 left.
Sean Renfree and the Blue Devil offense would take over at their own 13, needing to go 87 yards in three minutes in order to end the dreaded streak.
Methodically moving the ball down the field, the Blue Devils were able to get inside of the North Carolina 10 with less than 30 seconds remaining. Shortly thereafter, the Blue Devils were faced with fourth-and-two at the UNC five, a play that would assuredly decide the outcome of the game.
The Blue Devils had been in this situation a thousand times before, and we Duke fans already knew how the story ended. My dad and I had just finished texting each other about our utter disgust that we had let another game slip away.
With neither my dad nor I expecting a miracle, we sat in our respective living rooms, states apart from one another, awaiting our verdict of doom. Although I could not visibly see him, I could envision Dad in my head, sitting in his recliner, hands behind his head and letting out an audible sigh of disbelief.
Renfree took the snap from center, awkwardly faded away, throwing the ball off of his back foot to the diminutive Jamison Crowder, who made an incredible catch in the end zone while being sandwiched by a pair of Tar Heel defenders.
I know people frequently throw this term around loosely, but it was the happiest moment of my life.
Calling my dad when the clock struck zero, we engaged in a conversation that only the two of us could truly comprehend. Through the immense tears of happiness and the inaudible shrieks of joy which only come from a lifetime of pent up frustration coming to a halt, Dad and I shared a moment which transcends any emotion I have ever felt. Although I’m not certain that either of us ever really recovered emotionally to the point where we could formulate a coherent audible sentence, our tears and our sobs expressed more than words ever could. All at once, our tears communicated feelings of “I love you”, “I miss you” and “You are my best friend.”
Looking at it from an outside perspective, it is difficult to imagine that one victory in a single football game could have such a profound impact on two people’s lives.
But, to my father and me, the victory meant more than Duke’s first trip to a bowl game in nearly two decades; it was the grand culmination of a lifetime of special father and son moments. Somehow, this Duke Football program brought all of my nostalgic childhood memories fluttering to the forefront of my mind. It was an emotional roller coaster which was too frenzied to be contained.
Every father and son share defining moments in their life.
For my father and me, a lifetime worth of shared suffering came to an end on that glorious night in October, and it is a moment that neither of us will ever forget.
That moment is the same reason that, although we do not know where Duke is yet going to play its bowl game, Dad and I have already made plans to be in attendance, regardless of the destination.
All of a sudden, the persistent inner-monologue in my head which questioned how I could ever pull for a team that never gave me a return for my unadulterated love and dedication has dissipated.
Duke Football has given my father and me more than our fair share of heartaches and misery, but it has also given us an avenue through which we have grown closer than ever.
Thank you, Duke Football, for making our wait worth the while.
Dad, we finally did it!