Schwartz: A.J. Epenesa and Separation Anxiety

September 13, 2018

Written by David Schwartz

Everything – everything – about college football is weird. It’s the most absurd American sport by a country mile.

Each fall Saturday, 80,000 people crowd into stadiums to watch 19-and-20-year-olds inflict permanent physical and neurological harm upon each other. These athletes play for base-level college tuition and the very, very slim chance that they’ll someday play football professionally.

Each game includes about 11 minutes of action and 100 commercials – that’s true, not an exaggeration. That’s the equivalent of 100 commercials through one half of a single episode of The Office. Further, whether these 19-and-20-year-olds win or lose affects their communities’ emotional well-being for days at a time. We have a lot to deal with: jobs, mortgages, partners, kids. The Hawkeyes beat Iowa State last weekend. Did their victory land us a promotion at work? Did it allow us to skip a mortgage payment? Did it ease your grandpa’s arthritis pain? Of course not, yet we treat what happens on Saturday afternoons as the most important part of our week. The people on the field? They’re actually doing something. We’re just sitting there, watching them, waiting for their performance to dictate our mood.

Most peculiar of all is the fleeting nature of a college football roster. The players are in our lives for four years, at most. Then they’re gone, disposed of like a razor blade, and we move on to whomever is next. That’s one reason why college football coaches hold so much power. Players come and go in college, but coaches – the good ones – stick around longer than many marriages. Kirk Ferentz is Iowa football. Nick Saban is Alabama. Dabo Swinney is Clemson. Bob Stoops was Oklahoma, just as Barry Switzer was once Oklahoma and Tom Osborne was once Nebraska and Bobby Bowden was once Florida State.

Last weekend I wrote up a few notes after Iowa’s win. One was about A.J. Epenesa, the sophomore defensive lineman just named the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Week. It included this line: “… [Epenesa] could go professional after his junior season, and if that were the case, then Iowa’s Oct. 13 game against Indiana this year would already mark the halfway point of Epenesa’s Hawkeye career.”

How staggering. How absurd. How crushing that Iowa’s most destructive defensive prospect since Bob Sanders, coming off the best statistical game of his career, who is not even yet listed as a starter, is almost to the crest of the Hawkeye rollercoaster and bracing to come down the other side.

We still haven’t seen the full breadth of Epenesa’s super powers. Hell, even he doesn’t know what he can do. If this were a super-hero movie, he’d still be in the early training montage trying to figure out whether he can fly.

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I didn’t think much of the line about Epenesa when I wrote it. When the story posted, however, it turned out to be the only line in the piece that anyone wanted to talk about. One person on Twitter said it “ruined their day.” Another said it was “typical Schwartz BS” to go negative. Another said I was a fun-hater, which, if you believe my kids, is true.

And that’s when it hit me. College fans don’t revere football coaches because they stick around. We revere them because they don’t leave us like the players do.

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College football fans suffer from permanent separation anxiety. The institution of college athletics – an American phenomenon – breeds one-way, unreciprocated adoration and idolatry. In American culture we worship athletes, yet the culture of college football mandates that our heroes must leave us, which means fans are in a constant state of being dumped whether we choose to admit it or not.

In professional football, we know there’s a chance a player will remain with his original team until he retires. In college, players have one foot out the door the minute they step on campus. They’re not being devious; it’s how the system works.

I’m not ready to live in a world in which Epenesa isn’t part of The Swarm running out onto the Kinnick Stadium field. He just got here. He’s barely a C+ against the run!

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Sorry to ruin your day with the typical Schwartz BS, but could it be that the remedy for sports-fan separation anxiety is to make a point of enjoying Epenesa as much as we can now, knowing that in two short years he might be playing on Sundays instead of Saturdays? Enjoy his mistakes and growing pains, his incremental development. Soak in the whole experience.

College football – designed to give us the highest of highs and the lowest and lows, and there’s nothing we can do about it beyond finding a coping mechanism and enjoying the ride.

* Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.

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