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Rutgers football leaves lasting lesson for 2021

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The 38-10 loss in the Gator Bowl wasn’t the desired result, but something more important came from playing.

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - Wake Forest Demon Deacons v Rutgers Scarlet Knights Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

On the last day of 2021, Rutgers football reminded fans and people alike of the most important lesson of the past year. With a global pandemic continuing to evolve and impact our daily lives, a range of emotions for people across the world include frustration, anger, and even loss of hope that normal life will return anytime soon. Everything is more complicated.

With just eight days notice and facing a mile of logistical challenges, conditioning concerns, a depleted roster and little prep time, Rutgers football made the most of their unexpected opportunity playing in the Gator Bowl. The result was a 38-10 loss to No. 17 Wake Forest on New Year’s Eve. They didn’t play their best, but the experience gained was valuable.

It wasn’t pretty or well played. After being competitive in the first half, the issue was never really in doubt and ultimately Rutgers wasn’t even close to covering the 16.5 point spread. While winning is always the goal and was on Friday as well, based on the circumstances their performance should be examined through a different lense.

This Rutgers team reminded us all that if 2021 has taught us anything, it’s that you take the situation you are dealt with, face it head on and do the best you can with it. Or as Greg Schiano preaches, you “Chop the moment.” You don’t hide from it.

Whether it’s dealing with sick family members or your own health issues, having to return to the office on a more regular basis or choosing to change careers altogether, seeing family and friends less, or even acclimating back into normal activities, this past year has been challenging for many.

I was adamant when the news broke that Rutgers accepting an invitation to play in the Gator Bowl was a huge mistake. Between even being able to field a team, avoiding injuries, being competitive and even getting to game day with the obstacles that COVID-19 presents, I didn’t think attempting to play made much sense.

A big reason why is that I view the world differently now. I’m a father of a 1 and 3 year old. Protecting your children and teaching them life lessons is on another level now with COVID-19. Every day is a balancing act in showing them the beauty of life while shielding them from the horrors of it. COVID-19 makes that more difficult.

It’s why my first instinct was to protect Rutgers football from themselves. Of course, Greg Schiano, the staff and the players wanted to play. They are competitors by nature and would never back down from a challenge, no matter how daunting. I worried that based on the situation, they were doomed for failure and would be exposed to unwarranted and unfair criticism on the national stage. We’ve all rooted for this team and lived through the pain of seeing the program fail, sometimes in embarrassing fashion, only to suffer the wrath of negative perception. Playing a nationally ranked team on such short notice was a recipe for disaster.

I was wrong. This team proved that playing was the right decision.

Despite missing some of their best players, including Bo Melton, Isaih Pacheco, and Olakunle Fatukasi, in addition to others in the transfer portal and some recovering from offseason surgery, Rutgers gave Wake Forest a battle early on. They made them earn everything. Mistakes were made, including a half dozen offsides penalties and an interception at the goal line, that cost them dearly. The key was that this team put up a fight when it was fair to wonder if that was even possible. They didn’t look like a group who were solely embracing a free trip to Florida to soak up the sun and enjoy the good times.

The experience of playing in this game for the younger players will help their development long term. For the seniors who endured so much during this careers at Rutgers, going out playing such a high profile bowl game was well deserved. The bowl drought is over, which helps Schiano both with perception of the program and on the recruiting trail. Important gains were made from playing this game.

This wasn’t an embarrassing defeat that I thought it would be. It wasn’t particularly close, which I expected, but they played with honor and It was a moment to be proud of as a Rutgers fan.

There are plenty of keyboard warriors who disagree with that sentiment on social media, but they are missing the biggest point of all.

Rutgers showed that despite the obstacles in front of them, despite having little chance to win the game, they put their best foot forward and competed as hard as they could. They were limited and dealing with severe disadvantages, but they were not discouraged.

They faced an impossible situation head on and they chopped the moment the best they could.

2021 has brought many surprises to many people, including at a moment’s notice that suddenly changes or impacts lives in ways we’ve never dealt with before. There is no way to prepare for that. You are thrust into a moment you weren’t expecting or hoped to avoid and yet here you are. All you can do is navigate through the challenges presented the best you can. That’s always been part of life, but COVID-19 has made certain instances even tougher.

As a father to two young children, I’ve learned a lot through this pandemic and adapting to life on the fly is part of the new normal. Protecting kids from difficult situations is a natural instinct but preventing them from experiencing them isn’t always the right decision. Living is learning.

Rutgers football proved that all they needed was a belief in themselves and support from those around them to deal with a difficult circumstance. An unprecedented one. They might have failed on the scoreboard, but they won in how well they handled themselves and gained both valuable life and playing experience in the process. They made us proud.

As parents of kids and fans of teams, that’s all we should ask for.

The Scarlet Knights played together and for one another. It wasn’t the result they wanted, but fighting for it through adversity was the most important thing.

No matter how hard life has been for any of us, we have to keep fighting through it. Rutgers football reminded us of that under the hot Florida sun in the final hours of 2021. It’s what I’ll remember most about this team. Life comes at you faster than ever these days. Taking what comes with a belief you can accomplish whatever you want despite the difficulty you are faced with is what the biggest takeaway should be. Not being defeated by the challenge, but embracing it, however daunting it may seem or be. Surviving dark days leads to better ones.

For Rutgers football and for our world, let’s hope 2022 is a better year than the one that just ended. And if it isn’t, this team taught us what we have to do to get through it.