By Michael J. Graham, S.J.
Christmas came to Xavier University six days early this year. Kind of. (As to that “kind of” part, skip to the end.) For December 19th’s first crosstown match-up between XU and UC since you-know-when came off without a hitch.
Oh, sure, there were signs in the student sections we could have done without. (Theirs: “Xavier girls still are ugly! Sorry, Mom!” Ours: “Where’s your conference?”) But the neutral site downtown at US Bank Arena produced a tournament atmosphere for the game, with dueling student sections, bands and cheerleaders. And although the plan was to split the arena into blue and red halves, you could see groups of people with mixed allegiances sprinkled throughout, which blurred and subverted the color scheme.
One of the interviews I did before the game was with Andy Katz of ESPN. He sat down with UC President Santa Ono and me just hours before the game. At one point the conversation turned to the suggestion made by some last season that we cancel the game and end the storied XU-UC rivalry. I told him that was never an option. This game does not belong to Xavier and UC. This game belongs to our entire community and it was critical this season to remind the nation what a great opportunity this rivalry is for the City of Cincinnati. This was a chance to show the nation who we really are.
A number of images from the night spoke to that point and remain with me even now:
• Having my picture snapped with Santa Ono as we presented a check for $50,000 to our local philanthropic partner for the game, the Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
• Their Bearcat, our D’Artagnan and Blob mugging together for the assembled paparazzi.
• Cheerleaders and dance squads from both schools performing together at various timeouts and halftime.
• Me introducing the UC President to our student session before the game and them greeting him with an enthusiastic “San-ta! O-no!” (clapclap! clapclapclap!)
• A stirring video of both teams visiting the Underground Railroad Freedom Center together some weeks before the game, shown at halftime on the Arena’s monitors.
• A UC fan who bought me a beer that I didn’t really want. But, oh well.
Even a sometimes acerbic local sports commentator made like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning after his long night with the Spirits. His column the next day was all benevolence and concord, scattering “peace on earth, goodwill toward all” with nearly every sentence. He captured the atmosphere perfectly and ended his piece this way: “The positivity permeated US Bank Wednesday night. There was enough for everybody. Xavier lost the game, 60-45. But not really. Not really.”
And I am grateful to many of you who watched the game and relayed to me just how positive ESPN’s coverage was as well.
Like anything that looks simple and straight-forward, a great deal of work went into the evening, and I am deeply grateful to our partners at UC, as well as our XU staff, who worked hard to make sure that our re-launch of the country’s best crosstown sports rivalry told the real story of our city, our schools and our student-athletes.
And I remembered something one of our Trustees said to me in the wake of last year’s game, as we prepared through working sessions, rehearsals, press conferences and Sunday morning news programs and the like, and then again on the night of the game itself. Bad things are going to happen from time to time, he said, and you can’t always control them. But what you can control is the story that will be told five years later about what happened after that bad thing. And so resolve now what that story will be and act now to shape it. I’d say we’re well on the way.
And now for the “kind of” part I mentioned above: I certainly would have preferred a whole game that looked more like the first half of the game. Again, oh well! But my hopes for that story in five-years’ time include our going 4-1. I tucked a request in my Christmas stocking to that effect for Santa—Claus, not Ono—and am hoping he smiles upon it. But I have to admit that I got the most important gift that I wanted: a rivalry renewed in a way we can all be proud of.
And here’s hoping that you can say the same—that what you got this past Christmas was the most important thing as well, whatever it was. Blessings to you and those you love best throughout this very new New Year.