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.
By this point, the second half had begun. The score on the TV read: BC 21, USC 17. A few minutes later, freshman Jon Hillman punched in a one-yard touchdown to give the Eagles an 11-point lead. “Holy crap,” I said to myself. “They might actually pull this thing out.”
I lived in Boston for two years after graduating from college. Like most Boston transplants, I can’t really claim to be a BC fan. Over the course of two years, I made it to exactly one game. But here, 1200 miles away from Alumni Stadium, I felt the pull of fandom. I thought of the people I knew at the game: my girlfriend’s parents and Uncle. I thought of how excited they must be. I thought of the students – people who, for the most part, were quasi-football fans at most. I began texting people from back home, telling them to turn the game on. Something special was happening.
I’ve spent the past three Saturday’s in decidedly football towns. In Georgia, I watched the game with a thirty-year-old who took medication before the game to ensure he didn’t hyperventilate at intense moments. In South Bend, I watched grown men become giddy over the sight of a football player.
Boston could not be more different from these places. Last year, running back Andre Williams rushed for over 2,000 yards and finished fourth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy. He could have taken the T from Boston College all the way downtown and gone unnoticed. Even if he had worn a name tag and a BC football sweatshirt, most onlookers still would have had no idea who he was.
Boston is a baseball and hockey town. When the Eagles upset Virginia Tech last year, the stadium was half full because a crew race was taking place at Harvard.
Perhaps it’s that ambivalence towards college football that made last night so special. As I watched, I saw something that is missing from the big-time football schools I’m visiting: surprise.
People go to school at Notre Dame or Georgia or South Carolina in part because of football. They expect every Saturday of the fall to feel important. They expect to be a part of something great, something timeless. The expectation of greatness takes away any chance of serendipity. Losses are devastating and wins are routine. Satisfaction at these schools is nearly impossible because even after a big win, fans are already looking to the next week.
As the game wore on and the possibility of BC winning became a reality, people in Boston weren’t conjuring up images of a trip to the playoffs. They were relishing in the moment. The players, who for the most part were passed over by the power programs, were jumping up and down after each play. When the cameras showed shots of the sidelines, you could see them dancing on the benches, rallying the crowd. The student section was pure hysteria.
“This is fun,” I thought. That’s a word you don’t hear a lot at the big schools where football is more of a religion than a game. I pulled out my phone and checked how long it would take me to drive to Boston: 18 hours, 37 minutes. I felt myself longing for the place I’d left. Not out of homesickness, but because what I was watching on TV was what I’d traveled the country to find. The essence of college football was on display Saturday night and in the most unlikely of places. It was in the look of pure joy that covered the faces of the BC students and players. The opportunity for a sporting event to excite and unite people.
There weren’t the traditions of the Big Ten or the craziness of the SEC. I’m honestly not even sure if all of the BC students knew the words to their fight song. But, on this night it didn’t matter. Here was a group of people brought together out of some far-fetched hope that maybe, just maybe their team, which had lost to unranked Pitt the week before, could keep the game close against the mighty Trojans. The program, most famous for another hopeful play – Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary to beat Miami – answered that hope and gave people in Boston reason to rejoice again.
When quarterback Tyler Murphy took a final knee to seal the victory, thousands of fans poured onto the field to celebrate the improbable. Halfway across the country, I walked out of a burrito shop and smiled.
Photo credit: Lee Pellegrini