April 1, 2011

Butler Madness At 30,000 Feet

It was a long Trade Show in Orlando. It was a great trade show, and a great time.

But it was a long trade show in Orlando.

If you know that “end of a Trade Show Week” feeling…

You know the absolute exhaustion.

You know the hangover.

You know the ability to sleep anywhere.

I had stumbled into Orlando International Airport several hours before my 8:42 p.m. flight home. I was trying to go home early on a stand-by flight, and avoid a layover in Atlanta. But I was going against all logic thinking there would be an open seat on a direct, spring-break-week flight home to Dallas.

But my outlook was I could wait at the hotel, or I could wait at the airport for a spring break miracle.

Well, odds and logic won out, and I missed any chance of an early flight, as everybody showed up to go home after spring break.

Imagine that.

I had no way of knowing that only hours later I would be so grateful that my stand-by wishes never came true.

At the time, all I could think of was my long layover in Atlanta, and worse yet, that I now had 3+ hours to kill in the Orlando airport.

So, I headed to the airport’s Outback Steakhouse Bar, and there I found all the obligatory Airport Bar staples.

I have to admit that during the early games of “The Big Dance”, and the older I get, I do a lot more of this, “just keeping an eye” on early tournament games.  I have even said out loud, in what I now know was just a getting old, getting very cynical, attitude as I said...”Call me when there’s 2 minutes left in the game, or 4 teams left in the tournament.”

With each piercing roar that literally echoed through the gates of MCO, I noticed these cheers coincided with anything positive that happened for the Butler Bulldogs as they battled the No. 1 seed Pittsburgh Panthers for a birth into the Sweet 16.

And as I walked towards my gate and near the bar in question, I noticed I was right.

 

It was a Butler crowd. And the folks in Butler t-shirts and caps were now three people deep outside this airport bar and around the HDTVs inside.

I stopped and watched a hoop or two over the shoulders of the Bulldog Faithful, and I even chuckled at the fact that they were now loudly chanting the arena favorite, “Defense! Defense!” each time the Bulldogs got back into their man-to-man defense. But it was still just the first half, and while I thought it was pretty cool to see these young kids cheering for their school,  I knew I wanted to get on my plane early.

Could I have been any more like the clichéd, no fun having, approaching-40 dude?

Little did I know, that just an hour later, I would be right in between this same Butler crowd, feeling 22 years old one more time, and falling in love with March Madness, every dribble of it, all over again.

Obviously, without this foresight, I headed to my gate and I boarded my plane well before it was scheduled to take off.

Only minutes before going wheels up, on what seemed to be an empty flight, the aisles were absolutely bum rushed with 20 or more young laughing passengers trying to find their seats.

And wouldn’t you know it…It was The Butler Faithful. These same kids had stayed in front of the TVs near gate 91 as long as they possibly could before our flight took off. And as they wrestled each other for window seats, making cracks about each other’s, well, everything…traveling habits, luggage, clothes and tastes of music, etc. I was brought back to those hilarious, “nothing’s sacred” days, just as I read all their caps and t-shirts a little bit closer.

That’s when it hit me, and when it was finally confirmed, as I saw the freshly used catcher’s mitts going into the overhead bins just above me.

This “Butler Faithful” crowd? This was the Butler Bulldog baseball team.

I learned they had just finished a 7-game Florida road trip. The second thing I learned as they took their seats right in front, and right behind me, was that this Butler team was in a palpable panic. Our flight was obviously scheduled to depart right in the middle of the second half of what was quickly becoming another March Madness classic for their Bulldog basketball brethren.

Right after our flight attendant’s instructions about how to save your life were completed, the much more important issue of which Sirius Satellite Radio Station the Butler-Pitt game was on took precedence.

“Channel 144!” I think is what one of the ballplayers yelled.

And immediately, pitchers and infielders alike rustled madly, plugging slick headphones and cool looking ear buds into the same place their parents had put slick cocktails and cool looking cigarette butts before they were born.

Either way, the whole Butler baseball team, one-third of the passengers on this flight, were now dialed into the live broadcast of the  Butler-Pitt game. Yours truly was not so lucky.  I was without headphones.

But what I witnessed in just watching the Butler baseball team as they listened to the radio broadcast, will be one of the most unforgettable March Madness memories I will ever have.

I will always see their young faces as they jumped up, down, on each other, into the aisles, and into the beverage carts.  And I will always hear the screaming, gasping, and cheering that went on during this back-and-forth ending, that was Butler vs. Pitt. 

Highlights from the last 5 seconds of Butler vs. Pitt have been replayed over and over now.  And so, you no doubt are aware that Butler’s hoop Dreams, within these final 5 seconds quickly became a nightmare.

And at this point The Boys of Summer and their March Madness at 30,000 ft. fell silent And I mean, deadly silent.

I heard one, grunted, defeated, whisper…“We just lost.”

You would have thought every Butler baseball player on the plane had just struck out at the same time in the College World Series. I was sick to my stomach watching the pain in these athletes' faces, as I saw them slouch in their seats, and as I was suddenly hearing absolutely nothing.

This was going to be the quietest flight ever now. Just the exact type of flight I was hoping for an hour ago, but now, it was for all the wrong reasons.

And then…

It was as if the pilot had just announced into the Butler baseball team’s headphones that our flight would not be crashing into a mountain, as these same sad Bulldog eyes opened wider than the yellow oxygen masks I’d swear were about to drop from the compartments above. Not having a clue as to what they just heard, all I heard was the Bulldog Baseball Team blurting out…

”IT’S NOT OVER!!”…”THEY FOULED HIM!!”…”THEY FOULED HOWARD???!!”

Then there was an excruciating long pause in the action again, and the silence was back.

But this was that exciting, anticipatory, nervous type of silence.

And with the hindsight of actual highlights, I now know this new cabin pressure coincided with Butler’s star forward Matt Howard, stepping to the line to shoot two Free throws. The score was tied 70-70.  And there were only .08 seconds left on the game clock.

And as Howard’s feet were on the ground behind the charity stripe, what the Butler baseball team was doing simultaneously in the sky seemed like it was pulled right out of Hoosiers. It started when sophomore first baseman Jack Dillon, leaned into the aisle and yelled back to his teammates,

“Lock it up boys.”

And with that simple instruction, the entire Butler Baseball Team locked arms at the elbows, and across the aisles, of Airtran Flight 856. For the next several minutes their arms were clasped, their heads were down, and their eyes were closed.

And there was not a sound…

Just a moment later, their silence and their linked arms were abruptly broken up as absolute pandemonium and jubilation erupted throughout the plane.

The Butler Bulldogs had done it. They won the game. They had beaten Pitt. They had knocked out a No. 1 seed.

And amongst the dumbfounded excitement, man hugs, huge smiles and spilled cokes, I realized the Butler baseball team had done it too. However, instead of knocking out one seed, they had replanted one. A seed that was immediately growing in me again, that will never die like it had, and that will forever be the lifetime reminder about school spirit, athletic brotherhood, and what March Madness is truly all about.

So, needless to say, I am definitely pulling for Butler during the Final Four.

But really, I’m just hoping their doubleheader against Milwaukee is rained out, so they can actually watch their Bulldog Brothers play in the Final Four.