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Kintsugi: The Beauty of Brokenness

In Japan, there is a form of pottery art called Kintsugi that involves repairing cracked vessels with a mixture of lacquer and gold, platinum, or silver. The basic idea of Kintsugi is that, by using this process, the cracks and breaks within a vessel are highlighted rather than hidden. A bowl or cup or vase or plate that was once broken into pieces and rendered useless can become a new work of art with a bit of gold epoxy and a craftsman's skill.

As this season has progressed, my mind has returned again and again to this concept of the benefits that brokenness has brought this team—and, to an extent, the fanbase as a whole. In fact, I would argue that our entire team is founded on the premise of brokenness down to its very heart and soul. Had we not been broken before this point, we never would've reached the National Championship with a real chance to win it all.

When Jacob Eason went down just a few minutes into this season, the outcome that most of us predicted was not, "Jake Fromm is going to take his place with maturity and aplomb and we're going to reach the National Championship game." Many of us felt that the season had been shattered beyond repair before it had truly begun, and we understood just how tall of an order going into South Bend and emerging with a victory was going to be for our young quarterback and his teammates—especially given the team's struggles the previous year. But then, the unthinkable happened: We took over South Bend in a wash of red and eked out a win in what felt at the time like a season-defining victory.

Even after the fact, most of us still didn't know what this team was capable of. After all, Notre Dame had not had the greatest season last year, and we still had a tough SEC slate ahead of us. Lighting up the House that Rockne Built with the blaze of smartphone flashlights was enjoyable, to be sure, but would that success translate to the rest of the season? What we did acknowledge, however, was that this victory had come to us courtesy of a core of seniors who had come back to play one more year in the red and black even though they could've declared early for the draft. They wanted to fix what had been broken the year before, and they proceeded to do just that in the most delightful romp through the SEC East I've ever witnessed. Every team who'd beaten us last year took a beating itself as our motivated pack of savage Junkyard Dawgs tore them to pieces.

If memory serves me correctly, the concept of the "Revenge Tour" wasn't truly born until after our dismantlement of Tennessee. We were all hyped for Chubb to get his revenge, but we were content to take the season one game at a time and just enjoy demolishing a hated East rival in their ramshackle House of Horrors. Several classless UT frats posted tasteless banners celebrating Chubb's horrific injury there two years before, but Tennessee was the team that lay broken and battered by the time the clock read all zeroes. Sometimes brokenness can only be repaired by shattering what broke you in the first place.

Destroying Florida was a complete and utter joy, especially since the Revenge Tour had already victimized another couple of teams. Those previous games don't stand out to me, though, because there's no team I despise more than the Gators. I remarked in the game thread that this game might be one of those things that I'll watch in the future whenever I'm feeling sad, and I don't think I stopped smiling in that game until the backups let the Gators score late. I started smiling again when I saw the seniors scolding them, however, enjoying the sight of strong upperclassman leadership at work. They understood the value of fixing what had been broken, after all, and could appreciate even the relatively unimportant goal of stopping a defeated yet hated rival from scoring in garbage time.

And then we shattered. Actually, we stuttered a little against USCe before shattering, but in the scheme of things, that game didn't matter much. All that mattered was that our perfect season ended in what seemed at the time like the most Georgia way possible: In the home of a hated rival right before our previous head coach whooped the team against which we had carded our highest-quality win. The seniors who had come back to play one more year would never get a chance for revenge on Auburn, and the dream of going undefeated was broken beyond repair.

But were we as a team broken? Nobody knew the answer to this question as the end of the regular season loomed. Would we be able to complete our sweep of the East? Would be we able to defeat the Techies at our home away from home? Would we even have a puncher's chance in the SEC Championship? Were playoff aspirations even worth entertaining? Were we shattered beyond repair or could we patch up our brokenness with gold filling and move on?

By the time we finished our rout of the East and proved to the Techies that we still ran this state, the answer was clear: Losing to Auburn had helped to strengthen and focus the team, and the Revenge Tour might not yet be complete. Chubb and Michel had avenged last season's loss to GT, but they had, of course, not come back just to beat the Bees but to win it all.

I've always been wary of storybook plot-lines unfolding in real life around me because believing in them is so often nothing more than a recipe for heartbreak—especially in regards to Bulldog football. Auburn defeats Bama in the Iron Bowl and sets up a rematch with us in Atlanta, giving our seniors the opportunity to carry out a special kind of vengeance against them after all by winning the conference and denying the Barn a shot at the playoffs. That sounds like a great story, right? Well, to me, it sounded like crap. It sounded like the sort of scenario that would partially unfold for the sole purpose of crushing our hearts and sucking our souls yet again so that the college football world could snicker and guffaw at hapless Georgia once again.

And then it happened. It actually happened. Auburn beat Bama in the Iron Bowl. We beat Auburn in the Benz, winning the SEC and providing them with the means to possibly get beaten by two national champions in a row. When Swift glided through the middle of that enormous hole the O-line opened up and sprinted for the endzone, we realized that the scenario that had seemed so improbable to many of us had come to pass and that our team had gotten an especially delicious flavor of revenge against a hated rival. Auburn had beaten both Georgia and Bama during the regular season only to watch both teams ascend to the playoffs at the hands of the selection committee. Meanwhile, they ended up being relegated to a bowl game in the Benz against a mid-major team in a game they'd receive no credit for winning and endless scorn for losing. Many "We Kicked the Dog Crap Outta Them" T-shirts are probably residing in numerous Goodwills across Alabama by now in order to benefit those who are even less fortunate than Auburn fans.

I stopped taking the Rose Bowl seriously—if I'd ever really taken the Rose Bowl seriously—back when they insisted on selecting also-ran Illinois instead of even trying to take us a decade or so ago. Let them have their antiquated, overrated B1G/Pac-whatever love-fest and let the rest of us sort out this "National Championship" thing, I felt. As is so often the case when your team is the one involved, however, I found myself suddenly developing an interest in proceedings that I had ridiculed in the past. (And purchasing one of those fabulous black shirts with the outline of the football and roses on it, of course.) The reality of the situation began to set in, and we found ourselves once again wrapped up in a scenario that would've seemed ridiculous at the beginning of the season and still seemed somewhat improbable at that point: We beat Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl and then go home to the Benz to play whichever team wins the Sugar Bowl.

Almost immediately after the playoff field was set, we were besieged and beset by what seemed like a barrage of Oklahoma fans who couldn't wait to bludgeon us into submission about how awesome they were and how we didn't stand a chance of beating them. While not all of these people were unpleasant idiots, we quickly became fed up with the mentality of most of the visiting Okie posters. What came to irritate me about them the most—outside of their generally obnoxious nature--was their position that we were broken but they were not. We were still trying to savor our win over a hated rival in the SEC Championship, but they were already swarming here en masse telling us why our brokenness was worse than their brokenness and that they had no brokenness because OOOOH LOOK OVER THERE SHINY HEISMAN!!!1

Yeah, we knew we were broken. We knew. All of us did, in point of fact, watch as much of the first game against Auburn as we each could stomach. All of us had seen all phases of our game sputter at various times this season. We knew we had flaws that their talented players could exploit. We knew that we might lose the game. We knew that we were broken, but we accepted that brokenness as a fact of life and desired to direct our energy at celebrating our accomplishments as a team rather than obsessing over whether Baker Mayfield was the GOAT.

In the first half of the Rose Bowl after the pomp and pageantry of the parade and opening ceremony had faded into memory, our brokenness was once again put on display for all the college football world to see. Our secondary got exploited. Our run defense was pathetic. Our O-line was having little success opening lanes for our all-world backs. As the half drew to a close, our Rose Bowl seemed irreparably shattered to the degree that I gave up on it as I often do. I'm a pessimist by nature, after all, and I'd seen enough versions of this movie to be able to guess its ending.

Can you really point to a single instance in a game that has such an immense amount of moving parts and say that is was the factor that changed everything? Many have pointed to the kick that ended the second quarter as just such an occurrence, and they may have a point considering that it did provide us with a bit of a spark as we headed to the locker room. Goggles's struggles from beyond the 40 are well-documented, so to hit a 55-yarder at the end of the first half was as improbable as reaching the Rose Bowl itself seemed to me at the beginning of the season after Jacob Eason took that sideline hit. The fact that a guy who often misses from beyond the 40 holds the record for the longest field goal in Rose Bowl history tickles me about as much as the fact that Greyson Lambert holds the NCAA record for completion percentage in a single game.

One thing I can't fault this staff for is second-half adjustments. Smart & Co. did an excellent job of fixing what was broken at halftime, and the team managed to tie the game up in the third. That sounds so cut-and-dried, so rational, so matter-of-fact. Yes, they tied the game up in the third. They fixed what was broken. Good for them. In all honesty, so much of that third quarter—or the entire second half-- is a blur to me because at the time, I just knew that the Dawgs were setting me up for massive heartbreak once again. I began to feel as if it were 2012 again and we were trying to win the National SEC Championship. We couldn't possibly actually win this thing, could we? We couldn't possibly refrain from having a typical Bulldog screw-up ruin everything, could we? When Sony fumbled midway through the fourth, I figured I had my answer. I mean, of course the player who fumbles about as often as Auburn succeeds without our cast-off troublemakers would lose the ball for a scoop-and-score in the Rose Bowl. Of course. Why was I even surprised?

Nick Chubb understands the concept of brokenness. From the cratered, cleat-pocked surface of Kneeblown Stadium to the Techie-trashed hedges of home, Nick Chubb knows well the feeling of wanting to fix what's broken. With less than a minute to go in regulation, Nick Chubb scored out of an offensive formation that many of us have found to be offensive over the years and gave us a shot at overtime. Of course I was elated, but why would I assume that we would win in overtime against the current fun-and-gun Heisman winner while we had a kicker on our side who'd already missed one field goal earlier? At least we'd clawed back into the game and would die with honor when the time came.

I've posted that picture of Roquan's upraised hand sporting a UCLA glove as his mother and grandmother look on horrified in the background numerous times because it's the most perfect slice-of-life capture of the recruiting process I've ever seen. He broke his family's hearts; UCLA broke his heart; we benefited. Had the Falcons not hired Smith's position coach away at the last minute, would any of our other defensive players have had the ability to stop Smallwood from getting a first down in the first overtime? Roquan had already experienced much of the brokenness that college football had to offer before he'd even joined the team, but he still made the most of his trip to the place he would've played had Signing Day gone differently.

Bloggers and pundits sometimes say that the stars next to a recruit's name don't matter because true ability and accomplishment are determined by heart and character. No amount of feel-good sentiments, however, can add inches onto a man's wingspan or his height. When Lorenzo Carter stretched out that marvelously long, rangy body of his and got his large Dawg paw on that freshly-kicked football in the second overtime, I reflected—when I was capable of rational thought, of course—that having five-star hearts is well and good but having five-star players is even better. Still, many wondered over the years whether Lo Car would ever live up to that five-star billing; before this season, they figured that he might end up becoming yet another elite commit who never reached his potential in Athens. He decided to come back for his senior season to take care of some unfinished business—and, perhaps, to quiet the skeptics. He did both in resounding fashion not only by having a dominating year but also by writing himself into Bulldog lore with a defensive play for the ages.

Had Sony Michel forgotten about the concept of brokenness before the Rose Bowl, he had certainly been reminded of it in painful fashion midway through the fourth quarter. Michel has come back from many injuries in the past, though, so if there's anyone outside of Chubb who understands how to put the pieces of a season back together, it's Number 1. A successful run play must first involve the cracking of a defense, and several key Dawgs were instrumental in fracturing the Sooner defense beyond repair on that final play. In the end, all Sony Michel had to do was to take advantage of the breaks his teammates had made for him, and what had been broken earlier was remade in the few seconds he needed to sprint into the endzone.

I'm honestly not sure when my own passion for writing about the Dawgs began to fragment and wane. Which defeat shattered my hopes of ever winning anything of note again? Which argument thread or ridiculous article soured me on the fandom? Was there even one specific thing or did I—just like many others—simply gradually tire of the constant BS? Or did I simply grow up older and change as one does? I don't know when I shattered, but I've often lamented to myself that this run is happening now instead of, say, five or six years ago when I was churning out good work weekly. This long, rambly post is nowhere near as good as some of the things I've written here. It's flawed. It's verbose. It's fragmented. It probably has mistakes that I'm not going to edit out because I, like the Dawgs, am out of time to make any more significant changes before the Championship game. I'll post this anyway, however, because if the team can gut out an imperfect but sufficient victory in the Rose Bowl, then I can do no less here.

Maybe I truly shattered at the end of that game against Bama in 2012, which was the last time I cried after a game. Maybe that's when I knew we'd always only come just close enough but never even have a real shot at going any further. Regardless of the specifics, I already knew I was broken when Michel broke to freedom at the end of double overtime. During those few seconds that comprised that play that will be replayed and rehashed and relived by Dawg fans everywhere for years to come, I felt many of my broken edges being mended, but not with any technique that would disguise my previous brokenness. I am still a cracked, imperfect vessel, but as I lay slumped over in an insensate heap in front of my TV as the tears traced down my cheeks, I once again remembered that sometimes you can only heal by being broken. For those few moments, I was both broken and whole, and I still feel that way to a degree now.

As the end of the season approaches, we have the chance to craft an ending to a story-line that's schmaltzy enough to be an inspirational movie. Our head coach can face down and conquer his mentor as our seniors accomplish all of the goals that they laid out at the end of last year's disappointing season. We can bring home a National Championship trophy while playing for it all in our backyard. We can fix what was broken with gold and skill and determination. We can finish out our Revenge Tour by getting vengeance on a team that has provided us with so many soul-crushing, program-busting defeats over the years.

Or maybe we'll shatter again. Humility is, after all, only a week away. Who knows? I don't. All I know is that, this Monday, I'll be watching the Dawgs play in a game I've only ever dreamed of them reaching before. I'll be watching some of the finest young men who have ever suited up for the Dawgs wear the red and black for the final time. We'll be led by senior leadership, freshman moxie, and coaches' enthusiasm. Whether the end of this final game results in our Kintsugi vessel looking like a shiny, brand new championship trophy or the Florida one that Orson Charles shattered with his magnificent tight end on a recruiting visit years ago, I'll remain immensely proud of this team and all that they've managed to accomplish during this unlikeliest of seasons.

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