Black & Gold 

People, listen up: “We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.” This is from T.S. Eliot, the famous 20th-century poet, in a 1929 essay. He was writing about something deep and meaningful. He might as well have been writing about...VANDERBILT FOOTBALL.

Down West End Avenue, next to the chunky edifice that serves as Vanderbilt’s football stadium, you can find the football team suited up just about every afternoon, hitting the practice field for another shot at a winning season in the toughest conference in the country. This is a team that has an epic tradition of losing. It knows about “defeat and dismay.” As it fights “to keep something alive,” it enjoys our respect and encouragement.

The details have slipped away with time, but this much is worth mentioning: The team has not had a winning season since 1982. That year, the Commodores defeated the University of Tennessee and seven other teams, finishing the season 8-3. Since then, the team has hired and fired coaches, seen defeats snatched from the jaws of victory, announced one marketing plan after another, and all but hired an exorcist to dispel the demons that many think haunt the confines of their gridiron. For 18 years now, the team has flirted with a winning season several times but never been able to consummate the deal.

What is remarkable about the Vanderbilt football team is that around this time of year, in accordance with some natural law written in the city’s DNA, hope springs eternal. Optimism bursts onto the scene; greatness lurks right around the corner. Normally sane columnists opine that this may be the year for the men wearing black and gold. With all other evidence pointing to the contrary, fans reason that the receiving corps, or the linebackers, or the running backs, look as good as they’ve ever looked.

It may be hard to explain, but this newspaper is willing to say that this year may really be the year. The reasons for our optimism are rooted in the nature and essence of the team. Most of these boys, after all, are not the best in the nation. With a few exceptions, they are not the prized players recruited by teams in Knoxville and Tuscaloosa and South Bend. They do not get the headlines from the myriad of sports publications that target greatness at the high school level.

That said, they are committed and good. They came close to a winning season last year, and a high percentage of the starters have returned. A young quarterback who will take the field this year has a solid season under his belt. And on defense, a linebacker named Jamie Winborn may single-handedly inspire fear in his opponents. The team is well-coached, and it may be the first Vanderbilt squad to play like a team. Not only does it have a solid defense, but it has a quick and strong offense as well.

Across the Cumberland River, the Titans are known as winners, as is our city’s arena football league team, which lost a championship game last weekend. At Vanderbilt, the history is more complex and tragic. But for a fan, the script is a compelling one.

What compels us to support the Commodores is that they are the smart and decent underdogs who must work twice as hard to win. They are the ones attempting to break a cycle of losing with victory. They have to fight history itself, in addition to the players on the other team. For them, the struggle is epic. That is why we wish them well.

On Sept. 2, the Commodores take on Miami of Ohio. The telling of the story is at hand.

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