COLLEGE VS NFL
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.
COUNT ME AMONG THE 85 PERCENT WHO CHOSE THE COLLEGE GAME IN A NEWSPAPER POLL
The LSU football team basks in the old college try.