By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It was so much easier earlier this football season, the season that was going to be the final one at West Virginia University for offensive guards Jeff Braun and Jeff Jenkins.
That was how they had always pictured it being — easier — and ending with a championship.
It has to be that way for seniors because, you see, find themselves caught in a strange position, facing retirement age at 21 or 22, maybe 23.
True, for a lucky few who will continue their athletic careers into the National Football League, it may only be a free agent year, but for most that is more a dream world than reality. In truth, after five college years you are looking at maybe never again playing the game of football.
The senior year was supposed to be your year, and when it started 5-0 with Geno Smith completing everything he threw and opponents unable to stop anything, it was turning into the glorious season they had pictured.
Then came a loss at Texas Tech. No sweat, a bump in the road.
Next a loss at home against Kansas State, a tough loss to take, but that was the nation’s No.2 team.
But when a very average TCU piled on a third straight loss at home, everything about the senior year was changed.
“You realize at this point that (winning) the Big 12 is out of our reach,” Braun would admit.
“Those things would all have been nice,” Jenkins added. “You couldn’t have told me eight games ago that we would be sitting here not 8-0, but we’re not.”
Indeed, a conference title and a BCS bowl, to say nothing of the national championship game, are off the dream list.
These are things that are universally wished for by seniors, to go out a champion, to get something like that Orange Bowl ring that last year’s group now proudly wears.
Goals change with four games left and a 5-3 record.
“Now we want to get to a bowl game, and each game we win will be a better bowl game,” Braun said. “They say the Big 12 bowl games are pretty good. Right now we have four games to increase what bowl game we go to, to get to a better place.”
In truth, he doesn’t even know which are the lesser bowl games for the Big 12, because the focus had never been on that. This was going to be the championship season.
“It’s all about pride,” Jenkins said, when asked what he is now playing for. “I’m still going out and busting my butt every day, practicing and trying as hard as I can and trying to keep winning games if that’s what God allows.
“It’s a pride thing,” he repeated. “We still can go to a bowl game. It’s about pride and becoming a better football player.”
Then he added another thought, an interesting thought.
“You learn a lot about people in these types of situations,” he said.
This was something Braun had referred to in an earlier, separate conversation, this character thing that is bared in moments of crisis and disappointment.
“I love this game more than anything in the world,” Braun said, indicating you have to know and accept that is not a perfect world in which it exists. “Losses happened. You’re not happy with it. You don’t want it to happen, but it does.
“If you are any type of player or person who loves this game, you will get back to work. Ultimately, you’ll make yourself better and that, in turn, helps make a team better.”
Yes, you mourn the loss of the championship season for a while, maybe even a whole day, but one of the two teams on the field each time is going to be the loser, and that’s the reality of life. What matters most then is what you make of it from there.
“You come in Sunday, and you’re mad. You don’t like what you see, but what you have to do on Sunday night is get over it and learn from what you did first of all,” Braun said. “If you aren’t learning from the mistakes that you see on film that you have made on the field, then you’re not going to get any better. So you have to learn from it,” Braun said.
“On Sunday, you have to close that chapter. Right now, we have to look forward to Oklahoma State. That is what you have to do. You have to get better on the practice field and carry that over to the game.”
It isn’t like WVU hasn’t faced this kind of adversity before while these seniors were here.
“Before coach (Dana) Holgorsen got here everyone thought we had the worst offense in the world, so we’ve been here before,” Braun said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@bhertzel.