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Shi: Stanford football: The show must go on

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I’m Winston Shi, and I’m your standard hypercompetitive Stanford student.

I care about winning. I cared about winning at sports, regardless of whether I was starting or warming the bench. I care about getting good grades and proving myself at a great school. I care about whether my bags reach the baggage claim at the airport faster than those of my friends (the answer, as always, is carry-on). And I care about Stanford football and its ability to endure.

The longer I’ve been at Stanford, the more I’ve been fixated by nagging questions of continuity: whether Stanford can truly consolidate its status as a top-tier football program, whether David Shaw can crystallize his already staggering achievement. I want Stanford to win all the time because that’s just me. But I want Stanford to win badly because I was worried it might not.

Well, look at Stanford now. Just yesterday, I mentioned that my four years have been the best four years in Stanford history. I brought up the three conference championships and the three Rose Bowls, and those have been amazing. But even beyond the bowls, my time at Stanford has left me so satisfied because there’s a certain dramatic unity to the entire experience.

If you’d left Stanford after the 2013 season, you would have seen a run of dominance, but you’d likely still have felt incomplete, left to wonder whether Stanford could succeed after the last Harbaugh recruits moved on. The people that graduate in 2016 know that this program has proved itself in nearly every conceivable way. David Shaw’s right to say that fixating on Harbaugh five years after his departure demeans what Stanford is today. He’s proven the doubters wrong and he’s given the Stanford family the catharsis of watching Stanford conclusively prove that it was going to continue being great, and that catharsis is what makes me think so highly of the last four years. Winning is great. Sustained excellence is special.

Nevertheless, I still wonder whether I’m missing the point. I like winning. But I’m not sure winning is what really matters in the end, and I do wonder whether over the years I’ve lost sight of what Stanford football really was. Let’s not forget that there was a time when I was 18, completely new to college football, with a freshly minted ID card and absolutely no idea what the future held for the team. People were justifiably wondering whether Stanford would continue to succeed after Andrew Luck; there were questions at quarterback, and nobody except the team knew how good the 2012 defense was going to be.

More than any other time over the last four years, freshman year was the moment when people were watching Stanford like it was the last time they’d ever get to see a great Stanford team. And that was a different kind of fandom. We didn’t expect winning. We just wanted to have fun and Stanford gave us a 54-48 overtime thriller over Arizona. Stanford rallied from two-score deficits twice. Josh Nunes threw for 360 yards and scored five touchdowns. We weren’t disappointed that Stanford shouldn’t have needed overtime to beat Arizona. We were thrilled out of our minds!

And while the rational fan in me wants to project for the long term, deep down I’ve always treated every game and every down as something special. I actually haven’t forgotten the feeling of being a freshman with no long-term expectations and no awareness of how legendary Kevin Hogan – whose rise was the most unpredictable thing of all – would end up being. Every play matters to me on an almost spiritual level. I don’t know what day I will finally leave Stanford. I could be here for a few years more, or I might not. But the clock will still be ticking down regardless of whether I receive a three-year reprieve. For a long time that saddened me, because I’m aware that I have the opportunity to watch something amazing and I know that I don’t want it to end.

Watching the Rose Bowl, however, I realized that sometimes endings don’t have to happen. The difference between the fan experience as a student and the fan experience as an alum is fairly large, to be sure, but it’s still fundamentally the same team – the classic uniforms, the Big Game, and the alma mater’s tune floating away into the sunset fire. The question has never been whether Stanford football will be there for me: It is whether I will continue to care about the program.

The Stanford Club in Hong Kong hosted a watch party and there were plenty of people who woke up at five in the morning in order to watch the Cardinal play Iowa. For most of them, it had been decades since they graduated from Stanford. They were still fans. They still cared about the team regardless of whether Stanford won the Rose Bowl or finished 1-11 – but they wanted Stanford to win and they put their money where their mouths were, because the efforts of people like them helped bring Stanford back to relevance. I spent so much time thinking about winning, but even though I’m confident that Stanford will continue to be great as long as David Shaw roams the sidelines, for people as obsessed with the program as I am, winning has never been the point.

Nevertheless, rational me had lost all frame of reference for what being a football fan is like. I didn’t know what Stanford being bad even entailed. I had no memory of Stanford football being irrelevant; in fact, I touched down in Palo Alto the weekend that Stanford knocked off No. 2 USC, so there was never any moment during my time at Stanford when I did not expect great things from the football program. I was obsessed with Stanford’s ability to remain relevant because unconsciously, I was scared that one day I’d wake up, Stanford wouldn’t be good anymore, and I’d lose the ability to care.

But I watched the Rose Bowl with people who cared about Stanford football not because it was good but because it was their team. And that’s why I’m confident that my relationship with this program isn’t a four-year decision. It’s not even a 40-year decision.

I believe in eternal life, and I love Stanford football, and I can say for sure that this is a story that never ends.

 

While Winston Shi’s love for Stanford football is eternal, his Stanford email address is not. Take advantage of one of your last opportunities to send Winston fan-mail by emailing him at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.