For someone like me who has the pleasure of working on Saturdays during football season, the game day routine isn’t the same as it was in college. It isn’t even the same as it was in that awkward time right after college when I still didn’t think of myself as a fully functioning adult.
Back then, there were hearty breakfast sandwiches, mind-numbing Penn State cheers, and lots of Yuengling. These days, there are still the breakfast sandwiches, but the cheers have been replaced by that one alumnus who notices my Penn State hat while I’m walking through Manhattan, and the Yuengling has been replaced by glorious, glorious coffee. Instead of big-screen televisions, I deal with ESPN’s streaming site that somehow isn’t as good as the one from five years ago. It’s the one aspect of technology that has gotten worse over time, which is pretty amazing.
At least being in the office means that I still get to follow the action as it happens. There are other benefits, too. When Penn State was destroying its very first Akron of 2017, I didn’t feel obligated to keep watching when the score was 35-0 at halftime. In the second Akron game, I was content enough with the final score and didn’t realize that the Lions gained fewer yards than its inferior opponent until later. The third Akron game got out of hand so quickly that I didn’t find out about James Franklin’s field goal faux pas until it was already old news. Seriously, who even stayed with that game long enough to turn a late timeout into a story?
A wedding in late September meant that I had to record Penn State’s Big Ten opener against Iowa and watch it later, but that turned into a bust when the game unexpectedly became one of the season’s most exciting. The first three hours of the reception passed without issue, but then a barrage of text messages and comments by guests who decided to start following college football that day forced me to spend the remainder of the event catching up on my smartphone. Yes, it would have been awesome to watch Juwan Johnson’s game-saving catch live, but I did save myself the aggravation of watching Penn State nearly collapse in a game that should not have been so close. I guess that made up for the second Akron game in which the Lions won by 19 despite losing the first down battle by 10.
Perhaps the worst part about following college football without other college football fans is the “glass case of emotion” feeling you get when the game is on the line and you feel like throwing up, but everyone around you feels nothing. At work, there are other sports fans, but most of them went to colleges like SUNY Oswego and Rutgers, and so they mostly care about the professional ranks. That’s great and all, but the misplaced quest for parity by leagues like the NFL and NBA has turned losing into a winning strategy while rivalries fall by the wayside. Just look at the last week of the regular season in college football compared to Week 17 in the NFL. In one circuit, we’re talking about which teams should rest their best players. In the other, it feels like the fate of the universe is on the line.
One side effect of America’s love affair with the NFL — America is still very much in love, despite all the negative press that the league has attracted lately — is how players get media attention based on their professional prospect status. Just look at how Saquon Barkley was treated this year during a campaign that ended up coming short of Heisman Trophy worthiness. He’s a wonderfully versatile tailback who can turn any ordinary run into a show-stopping highlight, but when it came to Penn State’s offense, the real star of the show was Trace McSorley. The quarterback was solid all year long and capped off his best ever season with a great performance in the Fiesta Bowl to lead the Lions to a signature win over Washington. And yet, when it all ended, the player being interviewed on SportsCenter was Barkley, who had a pretty quiet game aside from one spectacular touchdown run.
It’s not as though Barkley isn’t one of the best Penn State players in history, but he gets a little too much credit for the team’s success compared to the guy who’s touching the ball on every play. I’m certain that Barkley’s status as a “can’t-miss” NFL prospect plays a role in that. He’s someone that is worth investing in for ESPN and other media outlets, as opposed to someone like McSorley who will probably fall to the wayside after his college career is over.
As joyful as this second straight 11-win season was, telling fans of other programs, “Yeah, Barkley’s great, but just look at our wonderful quarterback!” was a little frustrating. Just like getting stuck in the office for Penn State’s two dramatic losses against Ohio State and Michigan State in late October and early November. Staying on task can be difficult with the season hanging in the balance, but at least afterwards there was work to distract myself with instead of schadenfreude from all the Twitter “haters.”
The Lions made some big plays in those two games, and either could have resulted in a win had one or two things broken differently. However, we also learned that Penn State’s young pass rushers Shareef Miller, Shaka Toney, and Shane Simmons weren’t good enough against the toughest offensive lines. Without pressure on the quarterback, a pass defense that looked so solid against Indiana and Northwestern turned into the team’s greatest weakness.
2017 wasn’t devoid of fun despite the hectic work schedule. I took off during the Northwestern game for Comic Con and even got to “We Are” a guy while hunting down rare Pokemon cards at the Javits Center. A late start time for the Michigan game meant that I got to watch with my college friend while packed into a midtown bar. It would have been pretty uncomfortable if we weren’t doing so much winning at the time.
So I didn’t watch every second of every Penn State game this season. Everyone’s experience is a little different, from the hard-core fans in the stadium every Saturday, to those who are trying to follow their team from another country. No matter how we follow our teams, it’s that sense of caring and community we get from these football programs that makes it all worthwhile.
I hope everyone’s 2018 season is as filled with as much emotion and weirdness as my 2017, even if you don’t get as many wins.