Now that students have returned home for the holidays and stadiums have shut down for the winter, I find myself looking back at my season in college football. In 16 weeks, I went to 19 games across 15 different states and 10 different conferences. Along the way, I met bricklayers and farmers, school teachers and CEOs, soldiers and local politicians. I sat in on radio shows, attended campus rallies, ate countless dining hall meals, and spent many a night in the back of my car. My goal was to explore college football’s place in America, to understand the game’s impact on our culture, and to, in turn, understand our culture’s impact on the game. In many ways you could look at my journey as a search to answer a simple question: why do people care about college football?

Each week, I wrote articles about the communities I visited, relating stories about the people I’d met and the culture I’d witnessed. Focused as I was on the present, I rarely had an opportunity to write about the places I’d left behind. But, as I traveled, I started to feel connections for these places. On Saturday afternoons, I’d find myself searching d3football.com for St. John’s score updates or scrolling through ESPN for previews on South Carolina, Texas, or Iowa.

In this article, I’m offering a week-by-week look back at trip – a summary of my destinations followed by a discussion of what happened to the team after I left. I hope you enjoy!

 

Week 1 – #21 Texas A&M 52, #9 South Carolina 28: The college football season began for me on a balmy Thursday night in Columbia, South Carolina. Coming off of three-straight 11-win seasons, the Gamecock faithful entered Williams-Brice stadium that night expecting big things. Folks I met talked about a berth in the SEC championship game as a minimum for success. Most were focused on a trip to the inaugural playoffs.

The 2014 season officially begins

The 2014 season officially begins

That night, I sat with a pair of freshmen – Sean and Deonte. They had each decided to come to South Carolina in part because of the opportunity to be a part of SEC football. They had grown up watching big games and had planned their visits to campus around football weekends. Before kickoff, they were as excited as I imagine they’ve ever been in their lives. They had to pinch themselves to believe their eyes – 82,000 screaming people, a top-10 ranked team, a nationally televised game – and they were a part of it. Unfortunately for my seatmates, their feelings of triumph were short-lived. Upstart Aggie Quarterback Kenny Hill ripped the South Carolina defense apart, throwing for 511 yards and three touchdowns en route to a resounding 52-28 victory.

As Sean and Deonte left that night, I wondered whether their visions of grandeur would ever come to fruition. South Carolina has never been a consistent national power. Maybe the Texas A&M game was a sign of things to come – a new normal of mediocrity.

As it turned out, the loss to Texas A&M was the first in a series of disappointments for the Gamecocks. After three straight wins, including a thrilling 38-35 victory over then-number 6 Georgia, South Carolina lost four of their next five games. An overtime win over a subpar Florida team and a victory over South Alabama made the Gamecocks bowl eligible, but a season-ending defeat at rival Clemson solidified a sense that this was a down year in Columbia.

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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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