On the winning side, a coach hugged a sobbing edge rusher. On the losing side, a mother hugged a sobbing quarterback. A 6-foot-4, 250-pound giant sobbed over here, and a 6-foot-1, 215-pound giant sobbed over there. November brings the sobs, and the sobs quake with dignity.
Just about everything that could make a semi-reasonable person put up with all the crud in college football found its way into the long postgame embrace between Washington edge Zion Tupuola-Fetui and Washington head coach Kalen DeBoer: towering culture, staggering effort, near-impossible stakes, near-impossible drama, the principled ethic of Hawaiian football players, love.
“This team loves you,” DeBoer told Tupuola-Fetui among other plaudits, and he said it after No. 5 Washington had reached 9-0 and sustained all its daydreams with a 52-42 win at No. 20 Southern California wrung from a 10-0 fourth quarter, and he said it after something more important still. Tupuola-Fetui had played with untold grief after the death at 58 on Oct. 28 of his father, Molia, a man the 23-year-old son called in a social-media post “my picture-perfect definition of what a man is supposed to be.”
Head Coach Kalen Deboer consoling Zion Tupuola-Fetui after the game, knowing his father passed last week. This is about more than football. This is how you show your players you care about them and this is why every player at Washington would run through a wall for this man. https://t.co/bQueEBGcqQ pic.twitter.com/rEOGMY4tus
— Robert Griffin III (@RGIII) November 5, 2023
His honorable cry abided through an interview with Dave Mahler of radio station KJR in Seattle, when Tupuola-Fetui said, “Yeah, you know, I just, this week was really hard, but I knew my Dad would want me to play. You know, he loves this game. He loves ‘U-Dub’ (the University of Washington). And I knew I would just be doing him wrong if I didn’t play. But I’m thankful I was able to play good in his memory (four tackles, one sack and a half). Aw man, that was him playing through me. The beginning of the game, I don’t even know if I wanted to play to be honest. I’m here for my brothers.”
“He’s got a smile that lights up a room,” DeBoer told reporters in Los Angeles. “He just makes everything, when he’s around, just so positive. And you know, having him with us here today, just knowing what he’s capable of doing on the football field, that was a big boost for us. We needed his relentlessness and just his pursuit, his passion, and I know that he was playing that game for not just himself tonight. He was playing that for his Dad as well. And I know the emotions came out here afterward but that’s to be expected.”
He spoke as the rather new coach of a 1991 national-champion program that spent the 20 seasons before DeBoer arrived going 122-123, and has spent the two seasons since DeBoer arrived going 20-2. He spoke from your midst, November — you and your wild variables from midgame ties and late-game moments that render lifetimes of memories either lilting or wincing.
By November, the records have gotten steep, so the stumbles get … steep.
That’s how the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Caleb Williams of Southern California, winds up climbing into the bottom part of the stands and hugging his mother while his body quakes, their faces hidden behind some sort of paper product held up for a bid at privacy. His ambitious team has gone from an everything’s-possible 6-0 to a sorely limited 7-3, the last bits of big hope for even a conference championship washed away in Washington’s clinching 91-yard drive that began with Dillon Johnson’s 53-yard run up the right side with a simple pitch.
“I want to go home and cuddle with my dog and watch some shows,” Williams told reporters in the Coliseum interview room of a hundred years and a hundred emotions. “I don’t know — we lost the game. Something we work hard for throughout months, years, to have big games like this, try and go win, play your best, each and every one of us. We came out with this loss today, so emotionally I want to go home and I want to lay with my dog.”
Dogs, too, have upgraded roles in November.
November arrives, and an Oklahoma season once riding in the clouds finds a second straight thud, not only a 27-24 loss to Oklahoma State in the final Bedlam game before the Sooners make off for SEC money, but also an elimination from College Football Playoff consideration.
“Really hurt for our guys,” second-year Coach Brent Venables starts off. November arrives, and a respectable Missouri challenges the empire of No. 2 Georgia but takes a second loss, making its dreams a tad less rambunctious and making Coach Eli Drinkwitz say, “We came here to play to win, and didn’t quite.” November arrives, and No. 25 Air Force (8-1) feels a mind-boggling ouch that crushes its New Year’s wishes, a 23-3 loss in Colorado against Army (3-6), which came off its home loss to Massachusetts (3-7). November arrives, and a second loss almost greets No. 7 Texas (against Kansas State) after its customary trouble with prosperity (a 27-7 lead), but then the loss doesn’t come (a 33-30 overtime escape), and November carries on.
Here you are, November, with your tiny sways causing large emotions. You’ve all stocked up this year, with No. 3 Michigan (9-0) at No. 11 Penn State (8-1) up ahead next Saturday with all the psychodrama that promises, with Michigan hosting No. 1 Ohio State (9-0) on Nov. 25, with all the more psychodrama that promises. Maybe you’ve got grand plans of seeing to it that once you’re gone again, December will start with No. 5 Washington (9-0) playing No. 6 Oregon (8-1) in the last Pac-12 title game, and with No. 4 Florida State (9-0) playing an impressive No. 13 Louisville (8-1) in the ACC title game. Sustaining those possibilities will be part of your unforgiving stakes.
And damned if you don’t also have this forgotten upstart lurking in the South. Radar hasn’t found it much even though it’s 8-1. You might even yield some respect for its budding, thrilling quarterback, Jalen Milroe, and for its once-woebegone coach, Nick Saban, who dared to lose once this year, at home even.
Now Saban called the 42-28 win over LSU Saturday night “probably as close to a complete game as we’ve played all year,” and even dared to participate in the visions of wonder, gazing across the calendar and seeing a possibility to “maybe win the (SEC) West and maybe get in the SEC championship game and who knows what happens from there.”
The team name is “Alabama,” for those familiarizing.
Yet Saban knows as well as anyone how you’re a fractious brute, November — remember your last day 10 years ago in Auburn? — and so even a sparkling story with a sparkling culture like Washington has this ahead the next two Saturdays: No. 16 Utah at home, No. 19 Oregon State away. “I feel like that’s what we do best, is, When the lights are brightest, our guys are ready to play,” DeBoer said. They’re ready to play even in November, and even in ways too meaningful to grasp.