When I was in graduate school at the University of Illinois, I taught undergraduate chemistry for a couple of years. To be more precise, I taught introductory organic chemistry for non-chemistry majors.

You might ask, why on earth would a non-chemistry major subject themselves to the horror that is organic chemistry? And that would be an excellent question. Let’s just say that there are some majors that require O-chem for misguided reasons related to hygiene and sanitation. For example I had a hotel management major who nearly burst into tears of frustration every time she came by for office hours. But I digress.

Since this was a class that was generally a) boring as hell and b) outside their major, it was difficult to really motivate my students. I told stories, drew cartoons on the board, did everything but tapdance in front of the blackboard, but there were some students that were just there to take up space and there was no way I was going to reach them.

Part of the class was a lab section. These labs were not rocket science. In fact, if you showed up on time with the two or three pre-lab questions answered, you got about 25% of your points right there. Nevertheless, I had a couple of students that would show up habitually late, and habitually unprepared.

One, in particular, was a huge guy that played on the football team. He almost never spoke, and overall did fairly poorly in the class. I vividly remember taking him to one side in the lab and basically pleading with him to show up on time with the prelab questions done. “Dude,” I said “Just write SOMETHING down. As long as it looks like you opened the book and read through the lab I can give you some points for it.” He mumbled something and went back to his bench.

A couple of years later, the Fighting Illini had been invited to some post-season bowl or another, and I was watching the game with some friends. The camera was following some Illinois player zigzagging across the field, and his name flashed up on the screen in big yellow letters. My jaw dropped. It was the big guy from my lab section.

It set me back on my heels. This guy couldn’t manage to show up prepared for class, whereas I was a doctoral candidate at a prestigious institute for higher learning. And yet, he was on national television, with his name in big letters, while I was trying to figure out how to make each meager paycheck cover expenses. It really made me think, about a lot of things. Like the priorities our society has, and how we define success, and how I would never, ever have my name in big yellow letters on national television.

I hadn’t thought about that guy in years, but today I had a strong sense of deja vu. The Oregon State Beavers are the College World Series Champions, and as part of the celebration they brought the team into Pioneer Courthouse Square. The square was packed with Beaver fans, and periodically the roar from the crowd would intensify, crescendoing off the nearby buildings like the rumblings of a tsunami.

And I pondered the fact that I will never know what it is like to be given a police escort into a crowd of adoring fans, fans who pour out their approval and admiration like that. I am not in a profession that rewards success that way. In fact, the only way I could ever possibly attract that much attention would be while wearing an orange jumpsuit and being led away to my trial for bilking senior citizens out of their pensions.

What must it be like for these young men, at the beginning of their lives, to have such a reception? I can’t imagine it. I hope they treasure it. And as much as I wistfully wonder what it would be like to have that, I really don’t begrudge them this moment. They earned it. They are the best collegiate baseball players in the country, and that’s worth something.

So, even through I am still enough of a curmudgeon to stop and wonder at the importance that we as a society place on these gladiators, it won’t stop me from congratulating them for their achievement.

Go Beavers.