What a long, strange trip it's been

Publish date:

My kingdom for some taxi receipts.

How do you know when you've waited too long to file an expense report? When the woman at a call-center in Bangalore informs you that "Your account is 71 days past due."

And so, on a recent evening, I made the lonely trudge to my office, there to confront the dreaded accordion folder, stuffed with receipts that long ago should have been taped to white sheets of typing paper (as per company policy) and sent to corporate headquarters. Wrestling these receipts to the ground, filling in the fields, I was reminded that ... it's seldom a good idea to drink the bottled water in one's hotel room.

I was also reminded of each and every trip from the most remarkable season I've ever covered for SI -- a campaign whose overarching lesson could be boiled down to such axioms as: "Be Afraid, Favorites. Be Very Afraid," and "None Of Us Has The First Clue."

Among the truths I held to be self-evident as recently as August:

• Colt McCoy belongs on everyone's Heisman short list.

• Michigan is the best team in the Big Ten, with Wisconsin a close second.

• The Fighting Irish? They won't be great this season, but they won't suck, either.

With these receipts serving as little mile markers for the '07 season, I decided to compose a column while preparing my expense report. Because, as Julie Andrews sings in one of her movies (not the one in which she appears topless): "In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun!"

Thereafter, "Every task you undertake, Becomes a piece of cake!"

Just as Appalachian State would be a piece of cake for Michigan on Sept. 1, the same day, according to my expense report, I paid $4 to cross the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. I was scheduled to cover Cal's game against Tennessee. What was I doing driving back to my house three hours before kickoff?

Obeying. En route to Berkeley, my phone went off. "Never mind Cal-Tennessee," my editor told me. "Have you heard about Michigan?"

New assignment: Reconstruct, from phone interviews, an account of App State's epic 34-32 upset of the Wolverines.

"We didn't see anything super special" on film, free safety Corey Lynch told me later that night. "They're athletes just like us. We respect 'em a whole lot, but we can play with 'em."

"We had nothing to be scared of," added Mountaineers quarterback Armenti Edwards. "We had nothing to lose, they had everything to lose. I was just hoping they'd would come out [on defense] with the same looks we saw on film."

Michigan obliged.

That was Edwards on ESPN2 last Friday night, eviscerating Richmond in a I-AA semifinal. In addition to rushing for an extraterrestrial 313 yards and four touchdowns, the sophomore completed 14-of-16 passes for 182 yards and another three scores.

Here is an incredibly gifted athlete in a system he was born to run. No shame in losing to those guys, I assure Wolverine partisans -- not to mock them, but to console them. Because a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

A three-month-old Amex statement reminds me that I returned from Lincoln, Neb., on September 16th via Omaha and Houston. (Got the USC-at-Nebraska assignment relatively late; it was tough booking flights).

If it took me all Sunday to get home, that was a small price to pay to witness what seemed, at the time, a watershed contest. By outrushing the Cornhuskers 313 yards to 31, 'SC made a definitive statement: Its ground game, often AWOL in '06, was all the way back.

Old CW: This wasn't just any defense, after all. This was Nebraska's proud band of "Blackshirts."

New CW: This wasn't just any defense, after all. It was the unit that would finish the '07 season ranked 116th in rushing defense. In retrospect, Nebraska did a decent job defending the Trojans -- for Nebraska. This was a group that gave up an average of 46 points and 525 total yards over its last six games.

Welcome back to Lincoln, Coach Pelini. Enjoy!

Watershed contest? Definitive statement? Not so much. Three weeks later, the Trojans lost to Stanford.

Here is a $19.31 receipt from Hudson Booksellers, one of the few things there is to like about Denver International Airport. En route to Baton Rouge on Oct. 1, I picked up The Great Deluge, historian Doug Brinkley's powerful account of Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath. (It's about Louisiana: I was covering the LSU-Florida game -- this expense is beyond reproach, no?) Losing myself in Brinkley's prose, I was both uplifted (by acts of heroism and courage) and infuriated (by failures of government) all over again.

Monster game in Death Valley: The Gators are coming off stunning, 20-17 loss to unranked Auburn. After getting Tim Tebow on the phone early in the week, I met his parents 90 minutes or so before kickoff, outside the 15,000-square foot "habitat" of Mike the Tiger.

"He's always been special," said Bob Tebow, of his son the quarterback.

"Of course, we think all of our children are special," reminded Pam Tebow, who was ticking off the unique gifts of each of her offspring when a liquored up Tiger fan interrupted.

"Nobody's messin' with you too bad," he slurred, after noticing their Gators jerseys. "I mean, this isn't like Florida ..."

After spying Pam's "My Son Is No. 15" button, he sobered up rapidly.

"You're -- you're Tim Tebow's parents?"

"That's right," said Pam, beaming.

"You're kidding," said the LSU fan, bidding them a feeble "good luck" before slinking away.

Even at this tense hour, Bob had things in perspective. A minister and missionary -- he runs the Bob Tebow Evangelistic Association -- he calmly noted, "This is a game. In eternity, we won't be talking about who won today."

James Carville would have disputed that point. Once the game started, Tim Tebow flat-out took over the first half, attacking the nation's top-ranked defense with a mix of quick-hitting passes and punishing runs. The Tigers trailed 17-7 at the half.

In the press box, I was introduced to a slick-bald, slightly wild-eyed LSU superfan who couldn't stop talking about Tebow. "I've never seen anybody do that to our guys," Carville marveled. "If they win this game, that sumbitch bitch should win the Heisman!" They didn't (LSU rallied for a 28-24 victory). He did.

Company policy forbids the expensing of parking tickets incurred while on Time Inc. business. My invitation to auditors of this expense report: Find the parking ticket. I found it under the wiper of my mid-sized rental outside the football offices at Texas Tech on October 15. In truth, 25 bills was a small price to pay for a prolonged audience with Mike Leach, whose Texas Tech team would take on red-hot Missouri five days later.

Over the course of a 90-minute interview, throughout which he chewed Red Man and studied cutups of Mizzou's D, Leach devoted roughly seven minutes to a discussion of the upcoming game. More pressing topics included:

• The status of his broken left elbow, fractured in a recent bicycling accident: "There's still an achy little golf ball in there."

• The down low on Jonny Wilkinson, star of England's World Cup rugby team (Leach, who played the sport at BYU, is a rugby fanatic). "He's not the best player in the world, contrary to popular belief. As good a player as he is, he's playing out of position. He's a fly half; I think he ought to be a center. He's probably their best drop-kicker."

"You know," he then remarked, embarking on the Leachian specialty -- the digression within the digression -- "drop-kicking's a little like the home run. You can't bank on it."

• How Tech's spread offense is similar to the wishbone: "The wishbone attacked the whole field. Wishbone gave everybody the ball. Quarterback got the ball. Fullback got the ball. Both tailbacks got the ball. Third and long, outside guy got the ball. Everybody got the ball. The wishbone's about distribution. So are we. Missouri's kind of like that, too."

Mizzou crushed the Red Raiders, 41-10. After losing two of its next three, Tech defined its season with an upset of Oklahoma, knocking the third-ranked Sooners out of the national title game. Leach is now a candidate to replace Karl Dorrell at UCLA. While I wish no ill on my friends in Lubbock, it would be highly entertaining to land Leach out here in Pac-10 country.

Another book receipt. Bring it on. They all help. After spending 20 minutes with the fascinating Max Falkenstien on November 15 -- he is the legendary, recently retired Kansas Jayhawk radio broadcaster -- I bought his book, A Good Place to Stop, in the gift shop at the Allen Fieldhouse.

There can be no debating the legitimacy of this expense: I sought background on the Kansas-Mizzou rivalry for that week's story on the upcoming Border War. I needed to look no further than page 23. Jayhawk player and coach Don Fambrough recalls a pep talk the legendary hoops coach Phog Allen gave to the football team. Minutes before the Jayhawks took the field against the Tigers, Allen concluded a surprisingly brief oration with this directive: "Now go out there and chew their [testicles] off!" According to Falkenstien, "Doc" Allen required that his players eat celery before games -- because "it was good for the eyes."

The good doctor taught several basketball classes at KU, and could sometimes be seen standing on a table in front of his students "wearing nothing but his skivvies." One theory held that he merely sought to show off his tan. "Doc had a great tan," ex-player Bob Timmons tells Falkenstien. "He used to play golf with his shirt off." In short: while previewing the game for all the marbles in the Big 12 North, I found myself wondering if Phog Allen had all his marbles.

In the season's least plausible Mega Game, third-ranked Missouri held off No. 2 Kansas, 36-28 -- a result the Orange Bowl committee conveniently forgot a week later, when it invited the Jayhawks ahead of the Tigers, who'd not only beaten them but finished the season two spots ahead of them in the BCS rankings. Jayhawks officials have since denied reports that Kansas slimed its way into the Orange Bowl by guaranteeing ticket sales. Either way, the royal screwing of Mizzou is Exhibit 74 in the case of College Football Fans in Favor of a Plus-One vs. the Hopelessly Flawed BCS -- a topic that arose, come to think of it, over sushi with my wife on a recent Date Night.

Where did I put that receipt?