I’m not sure that the profundity of this entry will be as significant as its length, but I feel like chatting.
In some forty hours and change from the time of this writing, the first kickoff of the latest installment of what I believe is the Great American Tradition will take place. I intentionally decline to use the word “pastime” as I think that word is entirely inappropriate for an activity that does far more than give us a way to excuse minutes and hours. To those who care – and in my part of the world, that means “to everyone” – college football shares a position very near the center of life, and very near the top of the list of “important things.” In my part of the world, that list looks something like this:
1. God (optional, but strongly encouraged)
2. Family (optional, but a good idea)
3. Country (optional, but anything else will get your ass kicked)
4. Georgia Bulldogs
I have heard it said before that spirituality is a belief in something, and that religion is a belief in a belief. In terms of college football, I don’t mind saying that I am more or less a religious nut – a card-carrying, blindly loyal, “ohm”-ing, KoolAid drinking member of the cult with secret aspirations to one day be sergeant-at-arms. But why I am that way has changed with age, and – for better or worse – becomes more intense with each passing year.
Like many of you, I was raised on college football. I thought for many years as a kid that I understood the religion. I knew that the young men who were playing the game were generally not playing for money. They had real desire to win, and usually played as such.
I knew of the old stadiums, older stories of late game heroism, rituals of pageantry and superstition, and legacies that were honored by sons of sons of players who wore leather helmets and rode trains to the bowl game (back when there was only one). There are very interesting stories of tradition and family at almost every school.
I knew a few of the quirks that lent a uniqueness to many of the universities where football was played. There were the schools with weird mascots (A nut? A tree? What's a wahoo?), one school with three mascots, the school that Jesus himself believed in, the college that had the old coach with the thick glasses (and that was a long time ago!), the school whose name started with “M” but had a “U” on it’s helmet, the houndstooth hat, some school that always touched a rock, and a dog that sure seemed lazy to me (Now I think he's "regal.").
The authenticity, traditions, and unique character of college football are the attractions for many who love the game. They were for me as well, and were a big reason that I preferred college football to any other sport to which I paid attention when I was rather young.
As I sat as a freshman on my first day in the marching band, I remember that understanding beginning to change. I remember the chant of the Georgia fans in Williams-Brice Stadium one week later, sarcastically welcoming South Carolina to the conference at the end of the game: “SEC!! SEC!!” I remember trying to figure out if it was okay for me to say that yet, since it was my first game as a Bulldog. I eventually did, and it felt pretty damn good to be a part of it.
That was 1992. On subsequent Saturdays in that and subsequent years, I would buy into my school a bit more. As the stadium began to feel like home turf, I began to use the word “we” when discussing the football fortunes of my school. I would allow a loss on Saturday to ruin the following Sunday and Monday. I would begin to become distracted from all of the other matters of the world for five months out of the year, because football season at the University of Georgia had something to do with me. I began to feel that I owned a little piece of the tradition and a big piece of the future of that program, and it brought my understanding of the religion to a new level. A Georgia victory was a personal victory, and a Georgia defeat was a personal defeat of the worst type. I had ownership.
Eventually, I would become more involved in the activities of a Saturday than I had ever anticipated that I would. Though I will skip the details for a degree of privacy (though if you don’t know and you look back far enough, you can figure out what I’m talking about), my livelihood eventually came from Georgia football. Needless to say, the ownership I had as a student was only amplified. Not only was I attracted to the game as a sport, engaged by the substance of the game and its contributors, and tied to the activity by a personal feeling of possession; my every waking hour was now significantly affected by the results of a Saturday. I had gone from one who respected the religion, to a curious visitor, to a parishioner, to a priest.
As you may know, I eventually decided that there were other matters in my life that needed attention. I left the situation on excellent terms and moved away from Athens. But I have never left the faith.
I sat tonight contemplating what it is that drives that religion now. While some of the old factors remain, things have changed (the greatest tradition of all!). Though I do still think about Georgia football much of the time, it most certainly doesn’t dominate my life the way that it once did. Yet, my deference to it seems not to have weakened at all.
When I think about why that is the case, I come up with a few answers. But there are two reasons that I think will last until I can’t get out of bed anymore.
One is that those fall Saturdays are wonderful temporal landmarks – events which we can correlate with a memory of who we were at one point in time. Perhaps a better way to say that would be to say that, at some point, gamedays become sort of mile markers for our lives.
This Saturday, I believe Farrie B still will be pregnant with her second child. Many years from now, she will remember the day in that context – largely because she can’t drink, but she will remember it nevertheless. I remember Marshall ’04 because I had ruined one of the best friendships I had ever had the night before. I remember Auburn ’01 because it was the night when Dwight went off on the band, and it was starting to become apparent that something was going on (the next 13 months would completely suck). I remember Florida ’99 because of whose ass I tried to cover the night before. I remember Auburn ‘95, because I had my head buzzed the week before (and it was windy and cold for a bald boy).
This Saturday, old friends will meet each other’s children for the first time. This Saturday, someone will be praised for how much weight they have lost since last fall, or talked about behind their back for how much they have put on. Someone will show up to this Saturday’s game and will see people he loves and trusts for the first time since the divorce. Someone will have tripled her net worth since last fall. Someone will have to break the news that, “Daddy isn’t doing well and doesn’t have very long.” Someone will arrive in Athens this Saturday, and his friends will meet his girlfriend for the first time. Afterward, they’ll say, “I’ve never seen him that happy.” This Saturday, someone will go to their first college football game ever. Someone else will go to their last.
The second reason for this religion's stickiness brings two borrowed thoughts to mind. The first is paraphrased from a Bulldog whom I can’t identify. He basically said that Saturdays were less about football and more about “our way of doing things versus their way of doing things.” The second comes from Tom Jacks0n speaking to the band last November. He explained, “Being a part of a great institution is one of the most important things we can do in life because institutions outlive us.”
As much as we love to stress the importance of individual achievement, independence, and self-reliance, those of us who are happiest are those who belong to something that requires and returns a bit more than the Columbia Record Club or the body of holders of the Kroger Plus Card. When we have a stake in something and we are near other people who have similar stakes in the same thing, I think we become a less significant part of a greater thing. Whether you think this is cool because it feels good or you realize that this is like the “self-transcendence” at the top of Masl0w’s Hier@rchy of Needs, it is a beautiful phenomenon that goes beyond the need to “belong” somewhere. You fulfill the need of working and feeling as part of a “we” rather than as an “I.”
You may think I’m taking this too far, and I frankly don’t care. It makes no sense to me that this activity would engender this level of loyalty – especially considering how frequently it takes away from those who love it! – on the basis of sport alone. It’s more than a game, and it will be as long as the stewards of institutions realize that it is more than a game and foster its contributions to the lives of those who participate. This contribution, of course, is the true mission of universities. Right?
On the other hand, there are few things I love better than watching a safety hit a ball carrier, watching the ball carrier stand up and shake it off, taking a sip of my Jack and Dr. Pepper, and saying “Dude!” It’s just much cooler when there is someone else sitting next to me sipping their drink who says and means, “I know!”