Even after a night's sleep, it's still hard to talk about.
My favorite Arena Football League team, the Chicago Rush, won't be going to the playoffs this year. It's the first time in its 11-year history that Chicago won't be playing extra games at the end of the season, and it's going to take awhile to wrap my head around that concept.
It was already an uphill battle for the Rush, but the San Antonio Talons applied the kill shot on June 8, beating my team by a score of 61-54 at Allstate Arena. The result clinched the Central Division for the Talons and the final two National Conference playoff spots for the Utah Blaze and the San Jose SaberCats, leaving the Rush in the entirely unfamiliar position of watching the postseason on TV this year.
The Rush played an inspired game, perhaps fueled by the antics of a few Talons before the game that sparked a huge brawl, but when San Antonio DL Victor Degrate dropped Chicago QB Russ Michna for a 20-yard sack in the fourth quarter of a tie game, a sick feeling started to set in. When Degrate sacked Michna again for a 19-yard loss on 4th-and-1 with :16 left to play, reality punched me square in the face.
Lots of Anger, No Target
I felt angry, but I didn't have anyone at whom to lash out.
About three chairs down from me in the press box was the ESPN San Antonio radio announcer. Listening to him come out of his skin with excitement as he called Degrate's second sack was like a knife twisting in my gut. A large part of me wanted to rip the radio guy's equipment away from him and throw it up against the wall, but the sane part of me knows that he was only doing his job.
I wanted to be angry with Michna for getting sacked twice, but as I watched him sit on the ground, the reality of the situation sinking in, I knew that he's going to torture himself over this for a long time, and then I felt bad for being angry with him.
I wanted to lash out at the referees, but that's so cliche, and officiating is just part of the game. Everyone has to deal with that.
Maybe I could lash out at the Rush coaches, but I really can't put my finger on any calls during the game that made me say, "What?!" Besides, those coaches have forgotten more about arena football than I've ever known about the sport. I'm hardly qualified to critique coaching decisions.
I wanted to be angry with the Talons who started the pre-game fight, but that felt hollow. That nonsense had happened three hours prior, and with one or two brief exceptions, everyone behaved during the game. If anything, the attempted intimidation only served to fuel the Rush's fire, as evidenced by WR/KR Reggie Gray returning the game's opening kickoff for a touchdown.
So I was just left up in the press box after the game, smoldering. I couldn't even bring myself to attend the post-game press conference. I think seeing the faces of head coach Bob McMillen and whichever players had to suffer through the presser that was sure to be question after question about "How does it feel...?" would have sent me straight over the edge.
Instead, I went straight to my car and headed home, finding myself angry with the everyday Chicago traffic, angry with the road construction, angry with the position of the sun in the sky, and angry with anything else that happened to cross my line of vision.
A Unique Connection
Somewhere in northern Indiana, it finally occurred to me why I'm so angry. I care about this team like no other team I've ever rooted for.
This season was my first to have a connection to the team from start to finish. I attended Media Day before the 2012 campaign began, and I attended every home game for the first time ever. In fact, it's the first time in my life that I've attended every home game for any team in any sport at any level.
I talked to players during the week, during warmups, and after games. I spent time at every game right down by the boards with my camera, listening to them battle on the field. It's an entirely different feel when you can hear the players during the game, let me tell you.
I feel some sort of connection with them. I'm just not sure how to describe it. It would be delusional to say with a straight face that they're my "friends" or that more than maybe two of them could pick me out of a police lineup, but I have a much better sense of what they've endured from start to finish than I ever have with any team I've ever supported.
I can't stop thinking back to Media Day when JLB Kelvin Morris was brimming with confidence that this was the team that could go all the way. This wasn't some soundbite that he created for the media. I know his media face and voice. This was a one-on-one conversation on the side with no one but him and me around to hear. This was the real Kelvin, and he was truly excited. It got me truly excited about this team.
Sixteen games later, the Rush are 9-7, out of the playoffs, and haven't beaten a team all year that currently has a winning record. They really only got their butts kicked three times this season, and the rest of the losses were painfully close to being victories. Just a play here, or a tweak there, or a few more seconds, or a couple more yards, and Chicago could be 13-3 right now.
However, those things didn't break our way this year, and so now I'm sure Michna is spending his nights staring at the ceiling and replaying those two sacks over and over in his mind instead of sleeping. I imagine that more than one player feels like he let the fans down. I'd guess that McMillen has a belly full of acid and a bad case of heartburn after being the first Rush head coach to miss the playoffs.
And I think that's what makes me angry. People I care about are left feeling this way, and I don't like it one bit.
I've never had to deal with this kind of thing before. I love the Seattle Seahawks and the Indianapolis Colts, but I've never talked to any of their coaches or players, so when they lose, I'm disappointed, but that's about it. Same with the college teams I love and with any of the arena football teams I've cheered for in the past.
With the 2012 Chicago Rush, however, it's different. While swallowing the bitter pill of no postseason is not something I'd like to repeat anytime soon (and for me, it's not all the way down the hatch yet), I wouldn't trade my relationship with the players, coaches, and front office for a softer landing in disappointing times like these.
Time heals all wounds. There are also two more games to play this season, and I'd love it if the Rush wrapped things up on a two-game winning streak. After all, an 11-7 final record is nothing to sneeze at. Eight of the nine American Conference teams have no shot at an 11-7 record.
And next spring, the Rush will have that much more motivation for their run at ArenaBowl XXVI.
The author is a Featured Contributor in Sports for the Yahoo! Contributor Network and holds media credentials with the Chicago Rush and the Arena Football League. You can follow him on Twitter at @RedZoneWriting and on Facebook.