Perfection, and the pursuit thereof, is a whore. I know.
My senior year in high school, our soccer team was favored to win both league (the toughest league in Northern California by a substantial margin) and North Coast Section championships. We'd accomplished the former my junior year, but lost 1-0 in the Final of the latter. We returned seven starters and started nine seniors, six of whom, including your truly, had twice won California State Championships with our club team.
We were kind of a big deal.
Through 17 games that senior season, we were undefeated, 16-0-1, with the lone blemish coming from a non-league draw with defending Central Coast Champions and regional powerhouse Bellarmine Prep. We had not even been scored on in our first seven games, had given up but a single goal in nine league games, winning all of them.
And we were a wreck. Because all anyone talked about was going undefeated. Our classmates, parents we saw at the grocery store, opponents. It was not like we hadn't handled pressure before. We had experience in dozens of high-profile games. But this was different, because anything short of a Section Title would have been, for us, failure. We'd all wanted to win it since were were ten-years-old and this was our last chance. Now, this extra burden of "perfection" had been heaped on our shoulders.
Our next game out, we drew 0-0 with our most bitter rival, Foothill, at home. We were outplayed and lucky to escape with the point. At practice the next day, tension was high and our coach, normally a mild-mannered Xs and Os guy threw one of our stars out of practice. He'd say later, "I was gonna can him."
Then we lost. To a team not nearly as talented to whom we ceded the first 30 minutes and two goals (the only game all year where we allowed more than one). We stormed back, assualted their net the entire second half, but only pulled one back. And we were devastated. Our coach reamed us on the bus home. Reamed us in the locker room. And we were unable to even raise a voice because everything seemed over.
We had four days until our next game and a funny thing happened. We could breathe again. That goal of perfection was gone and we returned our minds to the real goal. Later, our coach would talk about it in the paper, the transformation and the pressure. How we were just high school kids and dealt with "grades and girls and cars and money" and that because we were assumed to play at such a high level naturally, he was treating us by an unfair standard.
He was a smart guy.
For the rest of the season, he eased off the pedal. He made up with the star he threw out. Our practices were nothing but glorified recess. I mean, we'd been in the program nearly four years. We played soccer year-round. It's not like we needed work on fitness or tactics. So, for the last two weeks of the regular season, we fucked off.
We won our last four league games. We won the league at 12-1-1. And with the NCS tournament looming in a week, our Coach gave us four days off.
We went into the tournament loose, stormed through the early rounds (which were never much of a problem) and found ourselves in the Final against...Foothill. Our bitter legue rivals. The team who had beaten us in last year's Section Final.
This was the last game I'd ever play in high school. For the trophy I wanted most in my whole fucking life. And I knew exactly what a loss would mean. Failure. Yet...
The minute the final whistle blew in our victorious semi-final, I got this feeling. I'd always had nerves before Big Games, but never anything debilitating. I had none of that this time. I was, in a word, excited. I could not wait to get started. I knew we were gonna win. My Dad asked me for a prediction and I said, 4-0. A preposterous score, but not one I felt was bravado. I. Just. Knew.
It wasn't 4-0, though it could have been. We scored 70 seconds into the game. We hit the bar once, the post twice and their goalie stood on his effing head. But it was about the most comfortable 1-0 win in a Final that you could have. We destroyed them. Dissected them. Our goalie made one save, a lazy looper right at him. That was it.
I've been convinced, from that day, the result, our attitude, our belief, would have been different had we come into that match, that tournament, still undefeated.
Which brings us to the Patriots. It was obvious to me that they'd been feeling that extra pressure for weeks. They edged some mediocre teams, needed lucky breaks to beat Baltimore and Indy. Their talent edge carried them, as well as their ability to make the key plays, a characteristic of their team all season long. But that pressure dulled their edge. You could see it in their body language, in the way they abandoned their running game in the Super Bowl, allowing the Giant front four to pin their ears back. Illegal procedure penalties, more mistakes.
They knew that 18-0 meant fucking nothing if they didn't win #19. Their entire legacy depended on that single game. I guarantee their practices weren't light and happy. I'm certain the pressure valve wasn't eased, but tightened. They were all business, all grim faces, and all it took was one shred of doubt to topple their fantasy.
I'm not one for schadenfreude (except in the case of Jason Giambi). I even allowed, without rancor, that over the course of the season, Tom Brady had become a rightful peer of Joe Montana and anyone who knows me knows there is no higher praise I can dispense. And while I rooted for the Giants, while I'm sorely tempted to buy an 18-1 t-shirt (mostly to rile the Massholes, not out of disrespect for the team), I empathize with the Pats (though Belidouche can suck it. Long and hard).
They might deny the spectre of perfection was to blame. I know different.