Inside Sport - - ANATOMY OF A CHAMP -

Back in 1999, when my son Austin was just three years old, we found our­selves in Room 218 in a La Quinta Inn in Ba­ton Rouge, Louisiana, on a swel­ter­ing June night.

He pulled a foot­ball jersey and a pair of foot­ball pants out of his suit­case and care­fully placed them on the ta­ble. Only he knew why the next morn­ing would be so spe­cial.

In the morn­ing, I started to feel his ur­gency.

“We have to get to the game,” he said. “What game?” I asked. “The game. They’re wait­ing.” “Who’s wait­ing?” “My team-mates. They can’t play with­out me.”

He had cre­ated in his mind an elab­o­rate sports ta­pes­try that in­cluded op­po­nents, ref­er­ees and fans. I was faced with a daunt­ing chal­lenge: I some­how had to fin­ish the fan­tasy.

Looking back on it now, I’m amazed I came up with the solution so quickly. It was about five miles south, smack-dab in the mid­dle of the en­chant­ing cam­pus of Louisiana State Uni­ver­sity: Tiger Sta­dium, then a 79,940-seat mon­u­ment known as “Death Val­ley”.

There was no game that day — I had to con­coct a story about a can­cel­la­tion due to some play­ers suf­fer­ing from food poi­son­ing — but he did meet some LSU play­ers in the locker room and gazed in won­der­ment at the pur­ple-and-gold jer­seys metic­u­lously folded in the equip­ment room. And it was the be­gin­ning of a sav­age jour­ney into the pul­sat­ing and pas­sion­ate heart of col­lege foot­ball.

It has taken us to 45 sta­di­ums, in­clud­ing the seven largest in all the land (Michi­gan, Penn State, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Ten­nessee, LSU, Alabama) and a few that wouldn’t have been suit­able for a high school game in foot­ball-rich Texas. We have thrown the ball to each other on turf once ruled by leg­endary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes and been brusquely ush­ered off turf at Texas A&M that they con­sider to be a sa­cred “me­mo­rial”. We have cheered along with 107,000 at Penn State un­til our voices were stripped raw and we have wept in si­lence at a me­mo­rial just out­side Vir­ginia Tech’s Lane Sta­dium hon­our­ing 32 killed in the 2007 mas­sacre.

Over my 37-year sports-writ­ing ca­reer, peo­ple have asked me, “What is bet­ter? Col­lege or the NFL?” Count me among the 85 per­cent who chose the col­lege game in a na­tional news­pa­per poll.

There are too many rea­sons to list. The sim­ple an­swer? Pas­sion and tra­di­tion. It’s the pas­sion of alums who are emo­tion­ally in­vested in a school where they spent the most ex­cit­ing years of their life and of stu­dents who are goofy, en­er­getic and have no idea how pow­er­fully they are mak­ing mem­o­ries they will cher­ish. It’s the tra­di­tion of the Clem­son play­ers roaring down The Hill after rub­bing Howard’s Rock, the bald ea­gle cir­cling Auburn’s Jor­dan-Hare Sta­dium be­fore the game and land­ing ma­jes­ti­cally at mid­field, and Ole Miss fans — the men in col­lared shirts and the women in sun dresses — tail­gat­ing at The Grove and chant­ing, “Hotty Toddy!”

Want to know what’s re­ally ironic? My son has landed at LSU 17 years after we made it the first col­lege cam­pus he ever stepped foot on. He’s al­ready in fullthroat mode over the visit of the de­fend­ing na­tional cham­pi­ons Alabama to “Death Val­ley” on Novem­ber 5. I don’t think I want to know what he’ll do be­fore, dur­ing or after that game.


The LSU foot­ball team basks in the old col­lege try.

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