Best seats in the house

Best seats in the house

It’s been a tough week to be a football fan. The Saturday morning sports section was filled with stories of domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault. Add to that, a report released earlier in the week stated that one in three former NFL players experience various forms of brain damage.

For the past month, I’ve been traveling to some of the country’s biggest college football destinations: South Carolina, Georgia, Notre Dame, Iowa. Beneath the camaraderie and pageantry, these settings offer glimpses of a darker culture. Football at those schools is not just a game – it is integral to the social and economic wellbeing of the entire region.

In this environment, the pressure to win can skew the values our universities pledge to uphold. Coaches lose their jobs over a handful of losses but receive a slap on the wrist when their players are caught cheating. Multi-million dollar practice facilities are built while financial aid scholarships are cut. These actions do not in themselves lead to the off-field issues that flooded the headlines this week, but they help create a dangerous culture that both professionalizes college campuses and encourages an attitude of winning at all costs.

In search of an alternative football narrative, I drove an hour and a half northwest of Minneapolis to an 1,800 student, all-male, division 3 school in the middle of nowhere. Far from ESPN cameras and HD scoreboards, I found something you don’t see a lot of at the bigger schools: perspective. At St. John’s University there are no million-dollar luxury boxes; there are no cuts to the roster; there is not even hitting at practice. Football is important, but not essential. When the game ended with a St. John’s loss, there were no drunken fistfights, no boos from the crowd, no calls for the coach’s job. The man I watched the game with, the father of the Johnnie’s star receiver, simply turned to me and said, “Well, it was a beautiful day for a game.” While the rest of the football world was mired in controversy, life in Central Minnesota remained unchanged. Maybe this is what college football should be.

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“Hey a**hole!” A middle-aged man with a wraparound mustache, a 1994 Iowa Hawkeye sweatshirt, and an “I can kick your ass” expression stood a few rows above me. The subject of his “greeting” was a twenty-something next to me dressed in the cardinal and gold of Iowa State. I tensed, wondering if I should step in between the two. Suddenly, the mustached-man’s face broke into a huge grin. “Congratulations!” he exclaimed, shaking the bewildered Iowa State fan’s hand.

On the field below, sophomore Cole Netten had just connected on a 42-yard field goal to give the Cyclones a 20-17 victory over Iowa, their third in four years.

A loss on a last-second play to your in-state rivals can be tough to take. It can be even tougher when it’s your first loss of the year and to a team that you were heavily favored to beat.

Leaving the stadium, I feared that the evening in Iowa City would be a depressing one. The mustached-man’s smile after his “congratulations,” however, gave me pause. Maybe the famous Midwest kindness extends to football too.

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I spent this week in Iowa, covering the Iowa-Iowa State game. When that game ended Saturday afternoon, I settled into a seat at a local bar to watch the remainder of the games on the college football schedule. I watched South Carolina upset Georgia, LSU pummel Lousiana-Lafayette, and Notre Dame hang on against Purdue. At some point during my viewing, a score update caught my eye: USC 17, Boston College 14. “BC’s only down 3 to the #9 team in the country,” I thought to myself.

I paid my bill and set off to find a television where I could watch the game. Contrary to the popular belief, Iowa City is a happening place on a Saturday night. Even after a last-second loss to their rivals, Hawkeye students and alumni were in full party mode by the time my quest for the BC game began.

Turned aside by block-long lines and unwilling to pay a cover charge, I ended up at a local burrito chain that had the game on a TV in the corner. The place was packed with drunk college kids and out-of-place thirty-somethings, but I didn’t mind. I propped myself against the back wall and turned my attention to the game.

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ND Stadium

I should start by pointing out that despite my best efforts to remain unbiased in the games I visit, unbiased reporting was not an option on Saturday. My grandparents met at Michigan. My Dad and his four brothers went there. My brother and eight of my cousins have gone there. I grew up singing “The Victors” and always assumed I would spend my college days in Ann Arbor. Though I ended up at a small school in Massachusetts, my Michigan fandom remains as strong as ever.

“Wait, do you even go here?” a senior girl who I’d been standing next to for the entirety of the fourth quarter asked me. My cover was blown. For the past two hours I’d endured a fan’s worst nightmare; standing in your rival’s student section while your team absolutely implodes. All in all, I thought I had done a pretty good job of hiding my misery. As the game wore on, the students around me got rowdier and rowdier. The fourth quarter was basically the pre-game to the night’s festivities. The Notre Dame band moved away from their traditional marches and began playing sing-a-longs like “Sweet Caroline” and “Every Time We Touch” by Cascada. The students posed for pictures during plays on the field. They danced and hugged and discussed plans for the evening. Throughout, I had managed a few smiles and even croaked out a few lines of song.

Now, I couldn’t bear it any longer. One of the greatest traditions at Notre Dame occurs after the game. Win or lose, after shaking hands with their opponent, the team walks to the Northwest corner of the field to the student section. Together, 100 or so players and 10,000 or so students put their arms around one another and sing the Alma Mater. Around the stadium, the vast majority of the 80,000+ crowd joins in as well.

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South Carolina

“We’re taking off – I’ve got three classes and a paper due tomorrow.” Sean, a heavyset 18-year-old freshman told me. Eyes downcast, he hoisted himself to his feet and trudged down the steps of section 302 towards the exit. Managing to muster a bit more enthusiasm, Deonte, a fellow freshman wished me well and followed his new friend.

Below, Texas A&M was putting the finishing touches on a 52-28 beat down of ninth-ranked South Carolina. The loss snapped an 18-game home win streak for the Gamecocks and spoiled hope of an undefeated season.

Despite the departure of several key starters from last year’s team, including JaDaveon Clowney the first overall pick of the NFL Draft, Gamecock fans went into Thursday’s game convinced that 2014 was their year. Three straight 11-2 seasons had raised the bar in Columbia. “We’ll see – I mean we lost a lot of players, but Dylan [Thompson, the South Carolina quarterback] has led us to big victories before,” one student told me when I asked about his team’s chances of winning the SEC title.

Sean and Deonte believed in the hype. A few minutes before kickoff, I asked Sean why he chose South Carolina despite its relative distance from his home in Virginia. Without hesitation he replied: “For this,” gesturing to the field below. Deonte smiled and nodded his agreement.

No one could deny the energy of “this.” By 6 o’clock, the stadium had filled to a capacity crowd of 80,000 plus, and the noise was near deafening. Everyone was on their feet, white towels waving, teeth clenched. Eight months of anticipation was finally over. Football was back.

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IMG_0902By 10:30 PM, a small crowd had begun to form on the steps of the South Carolina statehouse. Groups of older Texas A&M alums milled about, smoking cigars, laughing, swapping stories of their 1000+ mile journey from East Texas. By 11, this group was joined by others – A&M students who had made the trip, a few South Carolina fans prepared to defend their state’s honor, a handful of curious observers, iPhones in hand. By 11:15, the television cameras had arrived and a squadron of state troopers took their positions around the Statehouse courtyard.

The Midnight Yell Practice was fast approaching, and with it, the start of the 2014 College Football season.

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