My birthday was on a Thursday this year. And folks all over the country were celebrating. Not because I turned 49, but because it was the first day of college football season.
I’m not exaggerating. I promise, as I scrolled through my Facebook news feed, the number of birthday wishes I received were equaled to or surpassed by the number of people who were marking the beginning of the holy season in the Southeast. There were numerous small businesses shutting down mid-afternoon and bringing in bar-b-que to mark the day they’d been waiting months for. People were leaving work early, or hopping on planes as they began their pilgrimages to the game. Honestly, down here in the South, the beginning of college football season is bigger than Christmas.
And I’m not talking about a small number of rogue fans. I can count on my two hands the number of people I know who are seriously engaged with the current presidential election cycle. However, I can count on one hand the people I know who are not college football fans. And by fans, I mean hard-core, flags-on-the-car fans.
Now, I have to acknowledge I do live in the heart of one of the most successful college football conferences in the country, the Southeastern Conference. I also live on the Mason-Dixon Line of one of the most intense and frequently beyond-comprehension college football rivalries in the country: Alabama and Auburn.
Even after being here over 20 years, I’m still amazed at the intensity of this rivalry. I know we often toss the words crazy, nuts, and insane around lightly. But honestly, those words apply to this historic clash. They might even be an understatement.
And then there are the urban legends. Like the fans who were livid when National Weather Service broke into an Alabama-Auburn game to alert viewers a tornado was bearing down on them. Honestly, there are too many colorful stories to recall.
Truth is, when you live in Alabama, you are either for Auburn or Alabama. It’s just that simple. In fact, when someone asks you who you pull for, if you were to respond something like Oklahoma, they’d look at you like you were an alien. Like you’d just crawled out of an egg-shaped spaceship with rainbow suspenders on. Here you’re either Tide or Tiger, and you’re dead-dog serious about it.
Nope, we don’t care where you actually went to college. You live in Alabama now and you have to choose. So what’s it going to be? Alabama or Auburn?
It’s not just the Southeast, mind you. My mother lives in Oregon and there are lots of people there who quack like ducks. I grew up in Middle Tennessee where many residents’ blood runneth orange. And I’m sure folks in Austin, College Station, Columbus, South Bend, and Tallahassee would swear on their family Bible their devotion to their team is unmatched.
Some families just have long-standing traditions of being for one team or the other, perhaps as a result of some distant connection to the school. I’ve known many angst-filled teenagers who decided to rebel against their parents by cheering for the “other” team. And many parents who’ll just say the kid “turned out bad” because of it.
What I find curious is, and I can only base on my unscientific observations here in Alabama, you don’t have to actually have attended the school to be a dyed-in-the-wool fan. While many of the fans are former students, some of the most zealous fans have never set foot on their team’s campus for anything other than a ballgame. But their devotion to their team is as powerful and true as anyone who walked across the stage at the university.
So why such passion about a game almost none of us have played, being played by players we don’t know and will probably never meet, who play for a school we didn’t attend?
Maybe we desperately need a distraction from the stress and trials of everyday life. Maybe we need to lose ourselves ten weekends every fall in the pageantry and energy that is college football. Maybe we want to associate with something successful, and feel the rush and accomplishment of victory. Maybe college football fills some deep psychological void in our lives.
Or maybe we enjoy the camaraderie with fellow fans, like the tailgate gatherings or saying “War Eagle” when you see someone wearing Auburn colors. Maybe we get warm fuzzies from knowing the name of Auburn’s pre-game-soaring eagle, or the significance of a box of laundry detergent and a roll of toilet paper. Maybe we love the thrill of sitting down on a Saturday night, glued to the television, to watch something so incredibly unpredictable and exciting, and yet so immensely personal.
Maybe all this brouhaha isn’t rooted in some dark psychiatric need after all. Maybe, just maybe, we love college football because it’s just so darn much fun.