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This is the portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, as rendered by Raphael.

Baldassare was a merchant. He commissioned the painting for his family because, being an ambassador and man of politics in 15th and 16th century Italy meant two things: one, possibly being stabbed or poisoned, and two, being away for periods of time we would associate with a disappearance or unsolved murder. The painting could help his family deal with his absence when he was gone, and in his words "and thus cheat the long days."

Tonight's game will be the last college football game for months. Tonight, the last ember of this season dies just as the weather--unseasonably warm across much of the country--will likely turn cold, leaving you with the shards of memories to pick up and eight full months of reality to fill. Consider, for a moment, though, just how miraculous even a single game and the accompanying activities are:

Tonight, a player of relatively mediocre talent may, in a happy accident of firing synapses and quick twitch muscle fibers, burn his image indelibly into the memory banks of onlookers both real and virtual with a single act of fortuititous timing and kismet.

Twenty years later, he will view this on a clearer, as of yet uninvented video standard. His mind will label the image as foreign to him: leaner, lithe, and disconnected from the likely hectic memories he may have of the event, the catch, the fumble recovered, the blocked kick.

Tonight, 18-22 year old athletes will, in three to seven second bursts, apply the full focus of their abilities and years of practice to tasks which for many will forever remain impossible and completely useless to 99.99999% of the population. Specialists of specialists for little gain at this point save the joy of playing, they will amble and gallop like gawky three-year olds at Churchill Downs, each at a different point on the spectrum of their growth, their peak, their decay. Some may be high school marvels feeling the surge of competition drowning them where they once knew no peers; others may just be realizing their near-mutant status, only now stretching the frontiers of near boundless talent they have just begun to wield. Some may be the most singular of accidents: accidents of will, like Reinhold Messner, mere mortals with no special talents whose abrogation of the limits of pain, physical ability, and the limits of the possible have scraped them into a lowly third-string slot on the bench which they cling to like a throne.

Tonight, a few million people may pause in their scraping struggle for survival, buoyed by the benefits of a thriving economy and a few good decisions made by the contract writers for their particular society, and choose to vicariously enjoy a not insignificant dividend of sport: the vicarious thrill of risk. For millions of years, the buzz sport offers even to its viewers came with harsh penalties. To feel the hard-wired payoff of struggle, you might have to risk being skewered by a mammoth, drowning after a whale smashed your tiny boat to toothpicks, or dodging a blow whistling far, far too close to the head. Even vicariously, there were risks and costs: the wincing of watching a gladiator being eaten by a tiger, or the stray bullet as you picnicked a the battlefield. Tonight, a few million people will watch real, live simulated life struggle, moderated by rules and the silent agreement that no one on or off the field will really get harmed. Aside from a few dumpsters in Columbus, this will mostly stay true.

Much easier than hunting lions for a thrill.

Tonight, the dead and their memories will watch the game ticket-free: fathers, mothers, sons, aunts, uncles. They will be invoked in obvious and not so obvious ways, threads undone by life brought whole in the random and yet logical synergy of a single event. Reggie Nelson's mother.
Kirk Barton's father, who spent his final days in a University of Florida hospital. The ghosts of Woody Hayes, Eraste Autin. The father who took a son to a game for the first time, unsure of why he was doing it but unwittingly setting the foundations for one of the few types of bonds fathers and sons can have: silent, dislocated ones. Many will watch tonight because the dead brought them here. They, too, deserve mention. They, too, make this moment.

Tonight, college football will leave all of us with a silence. Bart Giamatti wrote of baseball: "It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart." Not so for football. This makes sense, this end; its finality and brevity makes it all the more precious. Distraction, as a human pursuit, remains scandalously underrated. It revives. It gives a purpose, a fantasy, a channel for impossible and unavoidable frustrations, a bond for the seeminly unbondable. It has real, savage, undeniable meaning on a level felt in the bones. In the heart. In the pounding of blood.

There is supposed to be a final game. It has to come. All that will remain is the image to help you in a moment when the walls seem too dull, the strangers too distant, and the moment too bland to survive. And thus you cheat the long days. The memory, over time, can be almost enough to keep the color in things. And when the memory begins to fade, it's time to begin anew. Football keeps its promises, and with good reason: it makes very few to keep. In fact, nothing's promised but its return, its end, and the sound and fury in between.

The rest is up to tonight.

Go Gators. Beat Ohio State.