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A Tale of Two Homecomings

A trip inside the mind of an irrational Cleveland transplant trying to relate his hapless hometown to his much more successful alma mater.

Andy Lyons

When things happen in life, people naturally try to relate with their own past experiences, even if they have no clue what it’s really like to deal with the thing at hand.

That was my situation when Tom Jurich announced in January that Bobby Petrino was returning to Louisville to replace the departed Charlie Strong as head football coach. I’m a Louisville alumnus, but too recent a Louisville fan to know what it was like when Petrino left. I was trying to relate and understand the dynamics of Petrino’s return, but I didn’t know where to start.

The problem was that in my sports fanhood, my own experience that I would have tried to use to relate didn’t happen until this past Friday around noon. So here’s what I’ve been thinking about since this past Friday around noon…

I’m from Medina, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, where this LeBron James guy who’s been in the news lately used to play basketball. I grew up watching him put my championship-deprived city in real contention for one for the first time since I was a toddler.

Then, during the summer of 2010, right as I was preparing to take my talents to Louisville for college, he took his to Miami.

Everyone knows the story, but here’s a recap: I would go on to watch Louisville win a Sugar Bowl and a National Championship during my time as a student at Louisville. I even got to be on the same private plane as Jurich to go to the College Cup in Santa Barbara with the men’s soccer team during my freshman year.

Oh, and while I was going through my college years, my former hero apparently went through his, too. In the mean time, Cleveland wept and burned things, its former hero won championships elsewhere and its hometown team spiraled into despair once again.

Clevelanders are used to seeing things they love leave. The Browns left and won championships for Baltimore, Manny Ramirez left and won championships for Boston, LeBron James left and won championships for Miami. And so it goes.

I’m too young to remember the Browns leaving (which was probably the biggest travesty in Cleveland sports history), but I remember Ramirez, and LeBron hurt exponentially more.

Passionate fans invest so much emotion into their teams that when something happens to dramatically alter said teams, it takes a real toll. It’s not literally life or death, but the pain isn’t artificial either.

When I moved to Louisville, the passion the city has for its college team infected me just like Cleveland’s passion for pro sports did when I was little. And when a part of something you love leaves and makes the remainder a shell of its former self, it hurts.

That happened at Louisville after Petrino left, and it happened in Cleveland when LeBron left, too. That much, I could relate to. Steve Kragthorpe led the Cardinals to a combined record of 15-21 during his tenure, and the Cavs went a combined 97-215 post-Decision.

Both Petrino and James left their former teams and fan bases in an impossible spot.

And both came back this year.

Obviously, their situations are different. They’ve both been humbled by a certain amount of self-inflicted public vitriol, but for different reasons. Petrino nearly saw his professional and personal life crumble in one fell swoop, while James made one boneheaded decision to televise his free agency choice. There were different circumstances, but the consequences seemed similar.

I knew about Petrino’s past when he returned in January, and it did bother me. But I think it bothered me because my picture of him was one of a coach with considerable character issues who leaves frequently and hadn’t delivered a BCS victory since his Orange Bowl triumph at Louisville. Compared to Charlie Strong, the only Louisville coach that I really knew as a true fan, that wasn’t a favorable alternative.

Seeing the mixed reaction from life-long Louisville fans changed my opinion. Sure, there were some that didn’t want Bobby back for some of the reasons listed above. Then there were people who were excited, because they remembered just how good that Orange Bowl team was. And when Petrino spoke about coming back, there was something genuinely human and raw about the whole thing that made me believe him.

He was home, and he wasn’t just selling it. He was feeling it. It was real.

On Friday, LeBron James came home. There was considerably more frenzy surrounding it, but the gist of it was the same. There are people who still don’t like him, like there are people who still don’t like Petrino. But here he is, back home and humbled, ready to bring winning with him and stay for a while.

Being a Louisville fan and a Cleveland native, the more I read LeBron’s letter on Friday, the more I felt like I had heard it somewhere before. He was saying the same things Petrino said in January. And, like Petrino, I believed him.

For someone who’s dealt with (sports) loss my entire life, this felt good. It felt good to be able to relate and bring my eclectic fanhood full circle, convincing myself that these things all have something to do with each other.

It felt good to feel good about both Petrino and James on a personal, human level. They’re two men who are among the best at their day jobs, but who have also seemed to come back to their roots for some sort of higher calling that brings it all together. That makes it about more than sports, which is always more fulfilling to think about.

I guess all I’m trying to say is that this Fall is going to be fun in all kinds of ways. And I didn’t even get to Johnny Manziel yet.