The Little Engine that Almost Did


I was at the dentist office last week when he asked me who I wanted to win the NCAA basketball tournament. I withheld my answer, knowing he was a UNC fan and since I’m rooting for the Tarheels, I didn’t want to offend him. Now, I’m not one that lives by too many rules of thumb, but not ticking off the man charged with sticking a needle and drill in my mouth is one I adhere to. Plus, he’s a good man and a fine dentist. He has finesse with the needle and he goes easy on the nova cane, ensuring I don’t leave his office feeling like a squirrel who’s just gotten into a street brawl with Mike Tyson.

I kept my answer under my hat because I wanted Gonzaga to win the national championship, which means I was a bandwagon fan, and I wasn’t ready to admit that in public. Bandwagon fans are the bottom feeders of sports fandom. If they were tobacco, they would be the kind that gets swept off the floor, cheaply packaged and sold for $1.29 per pack. A Buddhist monk who is a jerk in his first life will come back as a bandwagon fan in his second.

The start of NFL season brings enough Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys car flags to make the average passer-by think my hometown was full of zombies controlled by the Steelers and Cowboys’ organizations (P.S. Pitch Jerry Jones, and the Rooney family my Riddler-inspired TV mind control device as seen in Batman Forever).

I have never understood why so many Virginians with no familiar ties to Pittsburgh or Dallas would choose them over the Washington Redskins who play no more than a six-hour drive from anywhere in Virginia. I guess it’s because Pittsburgh and Dallas are two of the most successful franchises in NFL history and are showing more promise than the Redskins. It’s easy to love in good times, but harder to love in difficult times and let’s face it, the Redskins will be mired in bad times as long as that Dope Head Dan Snyder is at the reins.

Snyder is the Donald Trump of the NFL. A rube who knows as much about football as Trump does of foreign policy and only rose to success because he had the money to play. For the past 19 years, Snyder as looked as green as a sea-sick sailor or a Nebraskan pitcher getting on the A-Train on his way to Yankees Stadium.

But let me stop here. Things are taking a turn for the worse and this is supposed to be fun, not burdensome or antagonistic.

My wanting Gonzaga to win the national championship had nothing to do with feelings of dislike for Roy Williams, and the Tarheels. I grew up a little over an hour from Chapel Hill and even though I am a Duke and Virginia Tech fan, I am an ACC aficionado as well. But for some reason, I found myself abandoning my ACC allegiances and pulling for the squad from Spokane, Washington, a team I hadn’t watched all season until they defeated West Virginia in the Sweet 16. I needed to know why I was breaking my alliances.

And then it hit me like two tons of bricks thrown by John Cena. I was pulling for the Zags because I love a good underdog story and Gonzaga provided just that.

Now, I have been around sports long enough to know it’s a bit of a stretch to make an underdog out of a team that has made 19 consecutive NCAA appearances and produces NBA players at the rate the state of North Carolina churns out bluegrass pickers or Paula Deen’s cookbooks give readers diabetes. But when North Carolina stands in your way of a national championship, then you are the little engine that could.

There was something special about watching Gonzaga’s tournament run this season. It was like watching the Jamaican bobsled team carry their sled across the finish line at the end of Cool Runnings or Notre Dame carrying Sean Astin off the field at the conclusion of Rudy. Once upon a time, Gonzaga was college basketball’s Cinderella, but the Zags proved this is not the case anymore. The Golden Slipper has started forming to Gonzaga’s feet and it will not be long before it fits perfectly.

In the end, the Zags lost, though, and the clock once again struck midnight. Gonzaga gave UNC it’s all and then some, but in the end, it was not enough. Still, there was something inspirational about watching the mid-major battle its Big Brother counterpart down to the end, and I dug it. And that my friends, in a nutshell, is why I abandoned my ACC allegiances to root for the Little Engine that Could.


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