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A Dream Come True in Memphis

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Pain of the past makes glory in the present all the much sweeter

NCAA Football: American Athletic Championship-Cincinnati at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

I still remember feeling the seemingly endless stream of tears glistening down my face. And no, as a fan of Memphis Tiger athletics for as long as I can remember, I’m not talking about the AAC championship from this past Saturday in which the Tigers walked away with a 29-24 victory over the Cincinnati Bearcats at the Liberty Bowl.

Instead, this was a memory from April 7th, 2008—the night the Memphis Tigers lost 75-68 to the Kansas Jayhawks in the NCAA Men’s national championship. Even to this very day, I can still vividly remember every little detail from the final 2:12 of that game.

I remember the free throw that Robert Dozier made to put the Tigers ahead by 9 at the 2:12 mark.

I remember my dad running down the hallway yelling at the top of his lungs to get my mom out of bed so that she could see the final victory.

I remember the joy of victory slowly turning into pure, unadulterated dread as Mario Chalmers and Darell Arthur—two players that would ironically later endear themselves to the Memphis faithful through their time with the Memphis Grizzlies—cut the deficit to four. That feeling only grew when Chris-Douglas Roberts and Derrick Rose, two of the greatest players in program history, combined to make only one of five free throws in the final minute of the game.

Most clearly of all, I remember the dagger three that Mario Chalmers made at the very end of regulation to tie the game at 63 and render himself public enemy number one in Memphis for the foreseeable future. The only portion of the end of the game that’s a hazy blur to me was the overtime period; it might have been free basketball, but everyone knew deep-down that the game was over as soon as Chalmers made that shot.

And as the final seconds ticked away while I stood there with those glistening tears in my eyes, I wondered for the first time in my ten years on earth whether Memphis Tigers athletics was cursed. Whether it’s in football or basketball, it seemed sadly inevitable that the Tigers would always fall just short no matter how talented or elite they are.

Of course, that 2008 national championship may have very well been the Alamo of my childhood, but there definitely wasn’t much of a need to put much effort into remembering it. Memphis football in 2017 and 2018, in particular under Mike Norvell, did a phenomenal job of hammering home the merciless inevitability of the Tigers always falling short when the stakes are at their highest.

The Tigers had the 2017 American Athletic Conference championship in their grasp on multiple occasions on the road in Orlando against UCF. With just 28 seconds remaining, Riley Patterson had an opportunity to make a 51-yard field goal to win the game. He missed, allowing the game to go to overtime. The Tigers then scored a touchdown off a fantastic pass from Riley Ferguson to Anthony Miller, putting them ahead 55-48 and in the driver’s seat to finally end UCF’s undefeated season.

However, the Memphis defense could not hold—a common theme throughout most of the Fuente and Norvell era—and gave up two consecutive touchdowns, one at the end of the first overtime and one at the beginning of the second. Riley Ferguson then threw an interception to Shaquem Griffin to send the Tigers home empty-handed.

Inevitable.

The Tigers then would have their chance for a rematch against UCF (or technically, a second rematch since they had lost to them at home earlier in the season) in their return to Orlando for the 2018 AAC championship game.

Now make no mistake: That Tigers team was not good; they were a mediocre football team that had an especially poor defense (94th in the country with 31.9 points allowed per game), a mediocre version of Brady White but also one of the two or three best running backs in the country in Darrell Henderson. Their superficially solid 8-4 record also came against opponents with a combined 30-66 record.

But even if that Tigers team just simply wasn’t good enough to beat the yet again undefeated Knights, they still played well enough to win the game—at least on the offensive side of the ball anyway. They led by three scores for most of the first half and took a 38-21 lead into halftime. And then the wheels totally came off as the offense only managed a single field goal, and the defense didn’t force a single punt in the second half. The Tigers lost 56-41.

Again, inevitable.

So maybe an outside observer can understand why seemingly inexplicable boos began to rang out as Brady White threw his 12th straight incompletion while the Tigers trailed 17-14 near the end of the first half this past Saturday. It’s certainly not acceptable for a home crowd to do that to a team of college kids that had clawed to a 12-1 record and a third consecutive conference title game appearance. But in their defense, they had simply seen this story many times before in the last 10-15 years.

They were tired of it.

It was not surprising to the fans sitting at the Liberty Bowl that Brady White, who had legitimately been one of the ten best quarterbacks in college football this year, had regressed to the 2018 version of himself on the absolute worst day. It was not surprising to them that the Memphis receivers like Antonio Gibson and Damonte Coxie, who had both been electrifying all year long, inexplicably couldn’t create separation against admittedly excellent Bearcat defensive backs.

After all, this is just how it goes in Memphis.

Even when Gibson scored the go-ahead touchdown to put the Tigers up 29-24 with just over a minute remaining, I began to feel that old familiar dread from 2008 return. It’s that dread that quietly whispers in your ear that you’re so close but just not close enough. That whisper became a scream when Desmond Ridder completed two deep passes to put the Bearcats at the Memphis 21-yard line.

However, the outcome was finally, beautifully different this time. There was no miraculous, back-breaking three-pointer. There was no critical missed field goal (in fact, Riley Patterson made two important field goals that were both longer than the one he missed in 2017). There were no heart-breaking turnovers.

NCAA Football: American Athletic Championship-Cincinnati at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The Memphis Tigers had finally turned that crippling inevitability on its head, winning their first outright football conference championship since 1969. It didn’t matter in that moment that everyone knew Mike Norvell was leaving to take the Florida State job. It didn’t matter that there was now uncertainty surrounding the program. All that mattered was that a dream of championship success for the Memphis Tigers had finally come true, putting to bed the agonizing nightmares of past heartbreaks.

As a sports fan, you have to taste the most bitter form of despair to be able to enjoy the most joyous bliss possible. And now, fans of the Memphis Tigers can say that they have tasted and enjoyed both.

My ten-year-old self would be glad to hear it.