Longer ago than a long time ago, I applied to Duke University as a transfer student. I had just spent a year off from school amassing a stack of newspaper clips bearing my byline at my first reporting job (okay, I was a lowly intern), and I will never forget the pride and thrill I felt the first time I saw my name under a headline.
I covered all things small-town in a rural southern county–from city council meetings to holiday-decorating events–and I was utterly confident that these fine examples of my writing would convince any school to ignore the straight-C average I’d barely maintained during my previous two years in college. That’s right, even Duke. Especially Duke.
Of the three schools I applied to, one wait listed me, one accepted me outright, and one returned my typed application along with my application fee. That would be Duke–a school so unimpressed with my credentials that it couldn’t bring itself to cash my check. You could say I could take the hint. So long Blue Devils; hello Hoyas.
This also began a long RG tradition of vehemently rooting against Duke in any sport, particularly basketball. Not that I held a grudge or anything….
“Hey guys, I bought the NCAA package for us so we can watch the tournament,” I told my regular daytime customers a few weeks ago.
“Football’s over, right?” one asked the older man sitting next to him.
“Tournament?” another asked me.
“You know, March Madness!” I said, thinking for sure this would encourage my regulars to put aside their requests for the History Channel or “The Three Stooges” reruns.
No one said anything for a half minute or so.
“I hate basketball,” said one.
“I’ve never watched a game in my life–why would I start now?” asked his pal.
“You actually spent money to watch sports on TV?” queried another, thoroughly puzzled.
“Oh, come on,” I scolded them. “Don’t even pretend you don’t know about this tournament. And yes, I paid good money so we can watch it–four games at once on one TV.”
“What, you’ve never filled out brackets for a pool, either?” I laughed, astonished at their very real disinterest in something I look forward to every year.
No answers from anyone. Great.
The next day, I brought in three blank brackets for them to fill out.
“I told you, I don’t even like the sport!” fussed one.
“I’ll do it later,” growled another.
Really. No, I don’t think so. Not on my watch.
“Look, I’m in an awesome pool in D.C. I’m entering a bracket for you guys. On me, no problem,” I smiled at their blank looks.
“Too much trouble to fill out,” grumbled one I figured I might have on my side.
I poured three drafts and placed the icy mugs in front of each. “Humor me and the beer’s on me.”
For the next half hour, I called out first round match-ups and told each to pick a name without thinking about it. Once we got past the “Who’s ever heard of THAT school?” and “I can’t spell that one’s name so I’ll go with the other team” comments, I had a completed bracket that I nicknamed “Keys Boys.”
In a tournament of crazy upsets, with my beloved Jayhawks bowing out way too soon, my Keys Boys chugged along quite nicely amidst the 200-plus entries. Old Dominion, really? Baylor? Butler? The further I fell in the rankings, the higher they climbed.
“You realize you’re annoying the crap out of me,” I told them when it was Final Four time.
One laughed: “Yeah, but we’re not even watching any of the games. Don’t want to jinx it.”
But, despite their seeming disinterest, one perked up when I told him his brackets might place in the top five.
“So, who would we have to root for?” he asked.
“Repeat after me,” I instructed. “Go Duke, then no Duke. And Michigan State or Butler all the way.”
“What?” asked my great guy when I was explaining the amazing place the Keys Boys were in. “You gotta root for Duke so I can win something in my pool.”
“You know why I can’t,” I explained. “Besides, I have to live with these guys.”
“You live with me!” he laughed, but not really.
“Right, of course,” I smiled. “But I know I see more of them than I do you, given our schedules!”
Nothing like a little March Madness to bring out true love.
I also think my Keys Boys finally watched a game–the final last night–and yep, they likely jinxed it.
In the movies, I’d have sailed through Duke’s application process and gone on to graduate with honors. In another movie, Butler would have made that last shot at the last second last night.
In my world, I did just fine at Georgetown, which somehow started me on a path that led me to tend bar in the Keys–something I am sure my theology professor, may he rest in peace, would be appalled to know. In my world, my Keys Boys didn’t end up in the money, even though they were on the money so often in their care-less brackets.
I owe my great guy a dinner. I have to switch the Direct TV box back to The History Channel. My Jayhawks T-shirt is carefully folded away until college football starts months down the road.
And damn Duke wins–again.