Baseball is America’s Pastime. The sport became entrenched in Americana long ago, and has earned the right to carry that moniker.
Still, there’s something especially…American…about a college campus on football Saturday. Describing the feeling to someone who has never experienced it proves challenging. How does one describe opening a favorite childhood gift on Christmas morning and convey the appropriate energy? It’s not easy.
American wouldn’t be America without its distinctive traits, fostered geographically. Likewise, each campus has its unique scene and traditions, reflective of the region.
As the sport’s standard bearer, it’s only fitting the Southeastern Conference also have the most celebrated fan base traditions. In 2011, Charles Pierce wrote an outstanding column for Grantland.com, detailing his time at a tailgate before the Ole Miss Rebels tangled with the LSU Tigers. It captured the essence of what makes college football fandom such a uniquely American distinction.
In a place like Oxford, even when the team stinks and the program is literally falling apart, empty Saturdays are unthinkable. Outside, in the country at large, there is a terrible feeling of fragmentation, of things coming apart. In a place like Oxford, they have a long, sad experience with what can happen in this country when things fragment and get out of control. That is why the tailgate is important. It is a community that is reliable without necessarily being hidebound, a kind of continuity that is not necessarily anchored to the bloody past. It is what they mean when they talk about home games.
The few hours spent at a tailgate and inside the stadium momentarily erase the political ethos, the class and creed differences that divide us the other 160-some-odd hours of the week.
That Oxford was the locale of Pierce’s column is especially pertinent. Ole Miss football was once the backdrop for a sad and regrettable time in our country. The ESPN 30 For 30 documented this in the 2012 film, Ghosts of Ole Miss.
For Ole Miss football to become the backdrop of and reason for so many different people coming together just a few generations later speaks to progress. There’s still much to be done nationwide; we can always be better to one another. But it has to start somewhere, and why not at Saturdays on The Grove? Or on other campuses around the country?
In that sense, and despite all its oft-pointed out problems, college football is representative of an ideal America.
I grew up in Pac-12 country, a different end of the spectrum from the SEC. That might be the one thing on which fans of either conference can agree. My football fandom was cultivated through Dick Tomey’s Arizona Desert Swarm teams. I attended UA during the worst era of the program, when John Mackovic was head coach and the only cause for optimism as every loss mounted was that basketball season was nearing.
And yet, my friends and I would make our way down University Avenue on game day, past the now-defunct Fat Tuesdays bar where fans of visiting No. 2 LSU shouted “Tiger Bait!” at us, to the Old Main fountain. For afternoon kickoffs, we dunked our shirts into the waters of one of the campus’ most iconic landmarks.
A year later as a beat reporter covering the program, I followed the Wildcats to various Pac destinations. Among them was USC, where the Trojans were national champions and drawing 94,000 into the Coliseum.
Standing on the hallowed turf where Heisman Trophy winners, Hall of Famers and countless All-Americans plied their trade filled me with awe.
One of my formative football experiences was actually an Arizona State Sun Devils game. In 1996, I attended the ASU – USC game — a game that went two overtimes. That win helped propel the Sun Devils played for the Rose Bowl and the national championship a few months later.
The unbelievable atmosphere could not undo years of Lute Olson Basketball Camp attendance and following Desert Swarm; I wasn’t about to trade in navy-and-red for maroon-and-gold. But I was left with an unforgettable Saturday, and an appreciation for one of the best Western teams of my youth, including a star player who represents ideals all Americans champion.
Pat Tillman was an All Pac-10 selection for the ’96 Sun Devils, and an All-American in ’97. He was given the title “All-American” for his play at linebacker, but truly earned the distinction a few years later when he walked away from NFL riches and fame to fight for the country.
Football has something of a tradition of players moving from the gridiron to service of the country. Like Tillman, participantss in the 2001 Army-Navy Game went into combat against terrorism after the Sept. 11 tragedies. Participants in the 1942 Rose Bowl were heroes in World War II.
Others still benefit the nation in different ways, like former Villanova wide receiver Matt Szczur and Penn defensive back Dan Wilk donating bone marrow to those in needs.
These acts account for just a fraction of the good players have done away from the gridiron. It’s not playing football that makes these people admirable — recent events have proven the folly of propping up athletes simply because they can play the game at an exceptional level. Rather, it’s what they do off the field that makes them admirable. Football is simply a catalyst.
Ultimately, it’s still just a game. It always will be nothing more than a game, no matter how many billions of dollars of revenue it generates. But through that game are representations of what it means to be American.