Sunday, November 1, 2015

A difficult week for Minneapolis sports fans comes to an end

                                    Photo Credit: Geno Green

Minneapolis sports fans have seen brighter days, like the Twins' World Series wins in 1987 and 1991, along with hosting Super Bowl XXVI at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, but nothing could have prepared anyone for the events of this past week.

Sports can be the best form of poetry, with the unknown result going into each game and waiting for the script to be written with every passing play, but on a Sunday afternoon, everything came to massive halt like a DJ stopping a record at the club.

On Oct. 25, Minnesota Timberwolves coach and general manager Flip Saunders, who returned for a second stint after stops with the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards, died at the age of 60 from Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

The loss not only affected National Basketball Association community, but for the Minneapolis/St. Paul area as Saunders helped lead the Timberwolves to eight straight playoff appearances from 1997-2004 with power forward Kevin Garnett as the centerpiece.

Sure, some fans might hold on to the fact that the T'Wolves mustered one Western Conference Final appearance in the time frame, but overlooked was Saunders' ability to build the team into a consistent playoff team year in and year out.

Consistency is another word you can associate with Jerry Kill.

Fresh off of three consecutive bowl trips as Minnesota coach, things appeared to be looking on track for a fourth straight appearance, only needing two more wins to become bowl-eligible, but on Wednesday morning, less than 48 hours after Saunders' death, the Minneapolis sports area would be dealt another blow.

Kill resigned and retired effective immediately on the advice of his doctor after suffering two seizures on Tuesday.

Kill has had a history of seizures since 2005 and missed seven games in the 2013 season because of the episodes.

The press conference saw a defeated and emotionally shaken Kill not knowing what the next step would be without football being the top priority.

As great as sports is as a release and a getaway from the real world, no one's health should be sacrificed at the cost of winning games, but whether realizing it or not, Kill won by stepping down and leaving while alive.

Fast forward to Halloween in cloudy Minneapolis, with both worlds colliding— Saunders' memorial and Minnesota's rivalry game with Michigan under the lights for the Little Brown Jug trophy.

Before catching the Green Line at the Target Center stop in downtown Minneapolis to the Stadium, a series of images came up on an advertisement and in perfect symmetry, an image of Saunders came up in tribute.

Once arriving to the Stadium with a crisp wind and an endless amount of clouds, another sign on the big screen showed of Saunders and his time as a basketball player for the Gophers from 1973-77.

With the sun setting and backdrop of the glorious Minneapolis skyline and the game minutes from getting underway, Saunders' picture appeared again as fans observed a moment of silence.

After the national anthem played, the somber tone of TCF Bank Stadium began to rise as Minnesota starting quarterback Mitch Leidner ran throughout the sidelines area waving around the famous Jerrysota flag.

Yet, in a cruel twist of fate, the Gophers were in a perfect position to write a happy ending to this sobering week, but with 19 seconds left and the ball at the Michigan 1-yard line down 29-26, everything that went wrong did go wrong as Leidner lost awareness and watched time tick away until it two seconds was left in regulation after a quick incompletion. 

The final play watched the Gophers do the opposite of what a team would do down three and that was to go for it, instead of the almost automatic 18-yard field goal attempt.

Minnesota did not want to let it go to an extra session, heck Kill did not go overboard with his coaching and health issues, so it was poignant to see the final play be a quarterback sneak as the majority of the Michigan defensive unit swarmed Leidner, not allowing the ball to go anywhere near the end zone.

In the blink of an eye, triumph turned into defeat again for Minneapolis sports fans. Not attempting to compare a loss to a real-life death, but devastating because of an opportunity gone to escape from reality.

Stunned after the finish, Minnesota interim coach Tracy Claeys chose to look at Saturday's loss from a different perspective.

“I’m just awfully proud of their effort. With what we found out Wednesday morning, to prepare and get ready for a good Michigan football team, they did a great job,” Claeys said.

“They played with a lot of passion and I’m extremely proud of them for getting ready to play. Just came up a play or two short there at the end. If it’s inside the 1-yard line, you got to be able to win that football game.”

Football, like life is nothing more than a game of inches and there will be better days ahead for fans of Minnesota sports teams.

Rest easy and everything will be alright.