Grits, Glitz, and Gridirons: The Case for College Football
It’s almost impossible to understand it if you weren’t born into it. There’s a learning curve for those who weren’t, and the truly cynical among us will never quite grasp what makes it so special.
It’s an acquired taste for the rest, the progression from that first Natural Light you drank in high school to the pretentious craft brew you swig while grilling burgers today. For some, the warts are too big to appreciate the beauty. To others, the entire scene is a melange of absurdity too weird to comprehend.
To me, college football is the greatest sport on Earth. It’s the ultimate social gathering for the everyman -- a piece of Americana that serves as both a microcosm of, and an escape from, everyday life.
Tailgates and Truths
I went to a small Mississippi public university of about 16,000 students. It’s the same one my parents attended: a tiny campus with verdant oak trees dangling their branches like crooked witches fingers across lush green space, looked over by the administration building’s patina dome that serves as students’ North Star. This was not an SEC school, nor was it a blue-blooded college football program, but the sport defined the university’s existence for me and for practically everyone else who attended and didn't go home for the weekends.
Southern Miss was known as a scrappy giant killer in those days. It still is, especially to those who looked up from the history books to watch its two-star recruits take down an SEC team on the road last season after falling behind 35-10 in the second quarter. The university has plenty of attributes, from its polymer science department to its all-encompassing arts programs, but college football was king at our place.
“Did you know Southern Miss was the last school to beat ‘The Bear’ before he retired?”
“We had 18 straight winning seasons.”
“Brett Favre threw touchdowns in this very stadium.”
As a tour guide on campus in my final year, the most emotional stop was usually the concrete stadium known as “The Rock,” where kids’ eyes lit up like the scoreboard on Saturday nights as I walked through the stadium’s most historic games and moments.
This is college football at its finest. The sport gives the little guy a reason to cheer; to hold his (or her) head high and punch back at those with more money, more resources, and more advantages. Other sports mimic an egalitarian system that both rewards failure (the Cleveland Browns pick first in the NFL draft for a reason) and sets a standard that all must follow. Everyone plays by the same rules in the NFL, with the Patriots and Panthers spending money within a confined cap and choosing whichever players they want in the draft.
College football, on the other hand, mirrors the real world.
There’s a hierarchy involved. Clemson now routinely entices the best athletes with its office slide and putt-putt course, and the poorer programs fight over their scraps at the bottom come signing day. Not everyone is equal. You’re forced to work around the inherent disadvantages, cling to the advantages you have like a madman, and then compete against the very same schools that rake in millions more. Sometimes, they’ll even pay you for the opportunity to beat up on you.
It’s a strange affair, but one unique to the sport.
College football allows us to act on our tribal instincts in the most intimate way possible. Your connection to your team runs deeper than region or chance. You walked the same halls that the quarterback did, and ate the same starchy meals in the cramped commons room as the star running back. Your English 200 notes were the same as his (unless you went to North Carolina, that is).
College football gives the South a reason to be prideful, allowing us an opportunity to be first in something other than adult obesity rates. It forces us to act out insane traditions, from throwing toilet paper in trees, to screaming like a pig farmer with 72,000 other people. It showcases the best part of sports, with an emphasis on camaraderie and sensory enjoyment. (Tailgating is an experience, not an event.) It’s become the only acceptable reason to wear houndstooth in public.
College football is live animals on the sideline, with LSU’s Mike the Tiger stalking the opposing players as they leave the tunnel, to Colorado’s buffalo, Ralphie, who sprints onto the field before each game. It’s the sweat that sticks to your back as you glide past a sea of tents looking for the perfectly cooked meat to snag from a stranger who will smile and tell you to take two plates. It’s a drumline humming in the distance like a swarm of bees, subtle at first before reaching a crescendo as it marches down a brick pathway filled with memories.
It’s the difference between an Oregon crowd stuffed with painted faces and bright green “O” sweatshirts at Autzen Stadium and an array of starched-white Georgia polos between the hedges at Sanford Stadium.
It’s the Ramblin’ Wreck of Georgia Tech, and the poor undergrads of Cal crammed atop Tightwad Hill overlooking Memorial Stadium. It’s trophies of eggs, pigs, and bells, handled like Monet paintings by gloved administrators before being lifted high into the air by dirty fingers on a muddy field.
It’s a sliding scale of elation and heartbreak.
It’s impossible to fully explain.
It’s the best sport in the world, and it’s finally back.