ESPN's "The U": A Reflection

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All this happened, more or less. - Kurt Vonnegut

It wasn't supposed to go down this way.

After watching ESPN's latest documentary, The U, I was anxious and inspired to talk about my own memories of the Hurricanes. I may have dug too deep.

I wanted a streamlined article that summed up the movie with a few positive words and a cutesy picture. 500-600 words, max.

That's what it was supposed to be. Short, sweet, and polished. Not this. Nothing like this.

I couldn't find the picture I wanted to put up for this piece. It was of a mural my grandmother had painted on my bedroom wall when I was 9.  She'd painted Sebastian the Ibis punching through the drywall, his hand adorned with the four championship rings the 'Canes had amassed at the time. It was the centerpiece of my little sports world.

Somewhere in all of my moves, I lost it. Put it in a box and never saw it again. The mural was painted over when I moved in 1998. My grandmother died in 2002. Worsening neighborhood and Alzheimer's, respectively.

So I've spent the last two nights looking for it in every photo album and shoebox I could find. My mom pitched in. My aunt and uncle pitched in. We never found it, and the centerpiece of my article was lost.

I sat there surrounded by piles and piles of pictures and scraps, and mom and I got to talking. Talking about the Hurricanes. Talking about Miami. We spent the next five hours talking.

"My neighborhood was burning."

Liberty City, 1980. The film begins here, where Miami's racial tensions finally boiled over, and gave all the kids in the 'hood all the reason they needed to get out. 

"It was scary as hell," my mom said. "Your father worked down in Coral Gables back then, and had to drive through that neighborhood every morning. I was scared."

I imagine that's how America felt when the 'Canes first hit the national stage. The producers of the film dedicate a segment to the response the people in Coral Gables gave the UM players when they first set foot on campus - with plenty of shots of stuffy Anglo students and Masterpiece Theater-esque music playing in the background. The countering of one stereotype with another was hypocritical, but it didn't stray far from truth. My mother's own comments confirmed that.

"There was Alberto," she said. "He was dark, but Cuban, so they didn't want him anywhere. He'd have to go to Miami-Dade [Community College] speaking like a black man, and come into Hialeah speaking Spanish. He'd come to our house with his hands up shouting, 'don't shoot, carajo, I'm Cuban!'"

My mom told me about how my godfather had been a cocaine cowboy. She talked about how he wanted to get my dad into the business, and how he'd played lookout once or twice before leaving organized crime alone.

"Used to be that the cabinets were filled with two things: Cocaine and money stacks." She said. "There was money and coke and your godmother and I would be in charge of counting the two."

The film does right by capturing this dichotomy of cultures: The Hurricanes had been the liaison between an angry, segregated city and its vices. Oftentimes, the two intertwined. To me, the film succeeds by being the woman in the kitchen separating and sorting the vices from the money flow. The film holds nothing back in accepting this as part of the Miami story.

So too does it accept that these were not morally sound people, no matter the angle they're looked at.

"It wasn't any conspiracy or the media - they didn't do anything. We were bad boys."

The 'Canes were scummy through and through, and instead of shunning that image, The U embraces it, and finally pays tribute to one of the main reasons why Miami was so successful: People love self destruction, especially when it wins.

This was the Miami the guys at Rakontur Productions tried to capture. But how do you capture a time and a place and an attitude and package it just right so as to not scare off or insult those on the outside who had to put up with it?

With slick editing and an undeniable charisma. "Thug U" comes off more like Dennis the Menace than Scarface. Former players joke about stepping up to mafiosos and pranking Brian Bosworth and running amok in skullcaps with cadence. Clips are shown of the Phone Call scandal, the Pell Grant scandal, the fatigues, and the "Catholics v. Convicts" game -- and it's funny.

Leave it to Uncle Luke to tell the story. Leave it to Bennie Blades, and Randal Hill, and Alonzo Highsmith to give you the details. They don't hold back. They talk about hurting people in the 1991 Cotton Bowl. They call a two-time National Champion coach "a substitute teacher." They blame everyone from stadium architects to offensive coordinators to opposing cornerbacks for letting them dance in the tunnels. 

"You want a show? Oh we'll put on a show for ya."

It's here where the film really shines. Too many times I've come across people that saw Miami as a roving group of thugs. Finally, the thugs get their time to talk. It gives chaos a face and a voice. It doesn't validate their actions, or even present them in an ethically sound light. If anything, it gives the opposition solid ground to stand on. 

It does, however, humanize, and that's what the "Thug U" years had been lacking.

You see a drug lord, I see my godfather. You see a jail cell, I see the Orange Bowl.

When I was 7 I spent an entire quarter of football at the Orange Bowl picking up pieces of loose confetti and storing them in my cap, only to dump it on the head of the woman in front of me. My uncle laughed. My dad smacked my mouth. I'd learned that social norms were meant to be broken.

I was suddenly a hero and a villain (and a right pain in the a**). Such is life. Such is Miami. Such were the Hurricanes.

"And just like that, the party was over."

"So how did everyone get out alive?" I asked my mother.

"Everyone grew up, I guess."

The film ends just as abruptly as the party did. The Orange Bowl is razed, the thrashing at the hands of the Crimson Tide in the 1993 Sugar Bowl is omitted, and the hard work of Butch Davis in rebuilding the program is all but ignored. Davis, instead, is treated like the immigrant janitor left to clean up last night's mess in the VIP room.

It wasn't supposed to end like this. Not like this.

There's a sense of loss now, as if everything I knew is fading away. The older pictures in those boxes are washed out. The Polaroid's have gone blank. What was once a clear landscape shot now resembles a Rorschach blot.

I didn't want it to end like this. It's obvious the players didn't either. Or the city. Or the filmmakers.

But it did.

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