(The optional, but recommended, musical accompaniment)
It almost becomes a cliche of sorts. One football blogger starts the new season with, “Why I love football,” the others chime in with talk of Saturdays of days gone by, and we all move on to the games. The tropes are all hit - including the ability to completely ignore the parts we don’t like and don’t want to admit we actually like - and all of the feel good moments are celebrated with unabated feelings of cheer.
Which, honestly, I have trouble doing year in and year out. While I absolutely love football - and specifically college football - each new season I ask myself, “is this worth it?” Compounding issues with amateurism, increasing numbers of scandals that continually make your stomach churn worse each time, coaches covering up rape, and the reality that - yes - this is a violent game that might be hurting people in much the same way that gladiators hurt each other for the masses in times we saw as ‘brutal’. So what’s the point?
Well, the point is, we all come back. More importantly, I come back.
And hey, for all of the bad stuff in the world, I would like to offer a story...
My mother was not what you would call a football fan. She grew up in central Kansas, the daughter of two wonderful followers of the Mennonite faith - not necessarily tradition, though. She was also legally blind, which in hindsight, probably made investing in fandom difficult. My mother was also the kindest person in the entire world and somebody who would help anyone because it was the right thing to do. She loved her children, and she always tried to do best by us.
As an awkward, very socially inept youngster - and someone who stuck out as the adopted Korean child in an extremely not-Asian area - it was painfully obvious that I would need some help getting cajoled into finding friends. At first the thought - my thought - was that I could use my intelligence. As someone who learned to read at three - noting also that I peaked educationally at eight years old - I went about learning subjects I thought the kids in my neighborhood would like. You know, things like ancient Egyptian archaeological sites (you can thank my sister for that poor thought process). This plan was a flawed plan.
As mothers tend to do, mom made it her mission to help me out. Understanding that I would require a special brand of socialization, mom began the long process of making me a football fan.
Now, the reality is that my mom herself was only married into Nebraska football fandom. My dad might have been Arkansas-born, but he and his family were Nebraska fans. They had grown up on Bob Devaney, the years of Tom Osborne’s failings, and rose and fell on every near miss National Title. Mom, by default, shared this new paradigm with my dad and this understanding of partaking in the experience mattered.
So in much the same way that you might teach letters of the alphabet to a child, my mom began teaching me teams in the Big 8, positions on a field, and players that were on the team right now. Again, looking back, she had no idea what we were talking about most of the time, but it was an important moment in my life. We would watch - or generally more appropriate, listen - to games and the information slowly came to life. I went from being completely ignorant of the sport to an expert in the sport.
And, most importantly, it did help me make friends. Being able to relate to others when you feel - and look - different than everyone else is hard, but having a shared experience of, “did you see that game on Saturday?” changed so much for me. That magical season in 1994 culminating in the dashes to the endzone by Cory Schlesinger will forever be etched into my brain. So too will the images of my mom, thick glasses and a smile, praying for the players to do their best out loud. Honestly, my mom was the best.
Eleven years ago, my mom lost the battle to cancer. She fought against the brain tumor, surgery, and everything else ugly that goes with that, for the better part of two years. I was just starting college at that time and the suddenness of life hit me like a brick wall. My friends had moved away, and I was left with this strange feeling of incompleteness. But, there it was every Saturday in the Fall. A release of sorts. Me and dad would watch every game together and for a brief few hours - even when mom was just in bed fighting - we all had a chance to forget that there were things we couldn’t control. We could just root for the home team and enjoy a game that we would talk about with other friends and family.
Today marks the beginning of a new season of football for most college football fans and for however many hours each of us spends watching games, there will be stories like mine. Yes, there are flaws in the sport - and really system - that need to continually be held under the microscope. Despite that, it is also an opportunity to look at what sports can do. For me? Well, for me it will be a chance to feel like life is starting to become normal again - despite being in a new state - and when I talk to my dad on the phone next, it will be like we’re back in our little house in Kennard, Nebraska.
So let’s not get caught up in the cliche of football being without faults, and let’s not rush to say there isn’t good there too. Instead, let’s celebrate the camaraderie, the shared experience of gameday at the stadium, the conversations and get-togethers. Let’s continue to speak out against the bad stuff too. Oh, and let’s eat some food and drink some drinks while we’re at it.
The cliches may sometimes get us down - misplaced patriotism, Americana, crack of the helmets, etc - but the real reasons we watch are always deeply personal. So when football starts today, I’ll be excited. This is why I watch football. I’m ok with that.