Alone, tired and bored, after football practice in the carpeted hallways underneath Wisconsin’s McClain Center, your mind can seem to shrink and expand inside your skull. Crawling backward and forward through the windmill-laden countryside of consciousness, your mind loses track of impatience and begins to contemplate social issues and other important fluff.
Alone is pleasant; it means the other writers have gotten their quotes and gone home, leaving you to wait for your subject in solitude. In a busy day filled with school, work and recreation, taking some time to reflect and relax can calm the soul.
It also means the player you need probably isn’t coming.
We’ve all been stood up before. Usually it’s a cute girl and not the Badgers’ third-string quarterback, but the pain is the same.
Access to Wisconsin’s revenue sports teams is strictly regulated by the school’s sports information department. College sports aren’t like pro sports. If you want to talk to Barry Bonds, he might tell you, “No” very impolitely. It you want to talk to Barry Alvarez, sports info will tell you, politely, “No” and hang up.
But, at specific times, you’re supposed to be able to talk to athletes and coaches.
It doesn’t always work that way. If a player chooses to walk behind the Red Wall of Silence and avoid you, it’s entirely possible. Ron Dayne perfected it; there are other ways to get into the McClain Center. But Dayne never had much to say anyway.
I asked a football player once what sort of things he wouldn’t divulge when talking with a reporter. The upcoming week’s X’s and O’s are one obvious answer.
“I’m not going to tell you what we’re doing,” he said. “If you guys put it in your story, then we’re f**ked.”
Understandable. But there is so much else to ask about, so much else I’d rather write about.
“If I’m not talking in a microphone I can pretty much tell you what’s on my mind.”
Off-the-record conversations are great. Drunk fans stumble into football players at bars all the time, and the athletes give them the time of day. But sit me on a sofa underneath the McClain Center with a microphone, and I become the enemy.
Weeks ago, I was under McClain chatting with some colleagues from another publication when Barry Alvarez strolled up looking like a beaten-in Rastapopulous, with great round sunglasses and a loosely buttoned shirt.
“What do you say boys?” Alvarez asked and went swiftly by.
The brief moment of casual conjecture by the coach subtly summed Alvarez’s long history of ambiguity.
An hour and a half later, I was still under McClain with my head down and mind crawling the walls. My interviewee had slipped through the back door for the second week in a row.