Clemson will kick off today and I will begin actively loving this team. I fell in love with football before I fell in love with a team. I fell in love with football on Nov. 1st 2008, GameDay was broadcasting from Lubbock and Texas was playing Texas Tech. I don’t remember what I was doing earlier that day. I don’t even remember when I started watching the game. What I remember, what is burned into my mind, is Graham Harrell getting the snap with eight seconds left, down one, and looking to the left sideline. I remember Michael Crabtree going up, and against seemingly every law of physics not only making the catch but shrugging off a Texas cornerback. I remember the stadium exploding. I remember logic and language failing, leaving a feeling that I can only ever really articulate as "holy shit." In that moment I was hooked. I’ve been hooked ever since.
I was not raised with college football. Pretty much everything before 2008 is known to me only as history. I didn’t see a live game until I was a teenager and the first game I saw was… well Notre Dame lost to Connecticut. I spent a lot of time just watching, never really feeling like I belonged to any fanbase. The closest team to me was Northwestern, but even young I knew I wasn’t going to become a Northwestern fan. My parents went to Illinois and Syracuse, neither cared for college football and the only Illinois game I ever recall watching (the 2008 Rose Bowl) turned me off them for good. I eventually sort of fell into Notre Dame fandom, and I went with that, because I was a drifter in this sport and everyone seems to have to belong somewhere. Sometimes that felt right. Sometimes it didn’t.
I know this sport is flawed. You probably do too. Concussions threaten the very concept of football, and the science seems to get grimmer every year. Players are not compensated nearly enough, and the NCAA uses an outdated shield of amateurism to avoid paying the people taking the entirety of the risk. TV networks can carve up conferences and things change all the time. Everyone is cheating. Every single team is almost certainly doing something sketchy, and punishment only comes years later, punishing players and people who often had literally nothing to do with the crime. This isn’t new. We cannot love college football truly without facing it and in some small way trying to fix it. This sport may never be fixed, and that’s ok, there is a nobility in attempting the impossible for the sake of doing something. Every time I watch a game there is some moral justification at play. I don’t know if there will be college football in thirty years, all I know is it’s here now and I’m going to enjoy it and try to do whatever it is I can to make it right. Maybe I’m just a delusional part of the problem, maybe most of us are, I’ve long since accepted that.
I know I missed the first half of the greatest game I ever watched. My family and friends and I were out to dinner, so I had put it on record. I remember sitting down on the couch with my best friend and my father and watching it unfold in awe, skipping commercials all the way until the last few minutes of the fourth quarter. To this day I do not understand how Auburn was not blown away. I remember Auburn calling run plays as frantically as possible, defying everything everyone knows about two minute offense. I remember Nick Marshall flinging what seemed like a doomed pass to Sammie Coates. The camera panned out of frame and that feeling from 2008 was there again. Alabama came back, getting within range to try a field goal and then the impossible happened. I have never, in any sport, seen or felt anything like what I felt when I saw Chris Davis Jr. catch that ball and take off. My words fail me, I can only leave the play to do itself justice.
I finally feel like I belong in a fanbase, even if I’m rooting for a school I’ve never seen. Clemson is twelve hundred miles from the house I spent the last thirteen years in. It’s further than that from where I will lay my head tonight. I’ve only been to South Carolina once, and it was time I can barely remember, spent near the coast. I won’t be enroll until January, and you know what? I feel part of something. I like this, whatever this is. I don’t know whether I am chasing or fleeing anymore, there are enough carrots and sticks to frame it as either but neither is entirely true.
I think a lot. I think too much and I cannot turn my damn brain off. In my head things do not stop moving. I process things quickly and once processed I begin looking for the way that this all will cave in on me. One thought leads to the next faster than I can control and things spin out of control until I’m huddled on my couch trying not to cry because it feels like the room is collapsing around me. Even if I avoid that extreme the worry is always there, lingering in the back of my mind. It’s been like that since I can remember. I think part of why I’m so attracted to this sport is because it’s one of the few places where the riot in my head every single day is externalized. Each play is a sort of anarchy, and in that anarchy I find some of the only peace I’ve ever known. In the moments I talked about above, there were no thoughts, there was no worry, there was quiet.
I have always slept best in vehicles. I know that sounds strange but I’m hoping someone else who can’t quite keep their brain under their control will understand what I’m saying. Someone who knows what it’s like to drive to get lost and get back because when you see something new you’re too focused on it to be worried. Someone who has put on snow pants and boots to wander suburban streets in blizzards before the snowplows come. Someone else who knows what it’s like to need to move because it’s the only way the world outside seems to come close to matching your mind. Someone who, in the infinite emptiness of watching thunderstorms roll into an empty part of the city on a summer night, thought it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to die now. To fade into the background and become that night, not think about it, but be it. If you were to do that, I would understand. The storm clouds shone orange and purple as the sun set through the shimmering heat of the city.
Some people who meditate claim they are able to find peace in chaos. Chaos is the peace I’ve known. That’s why I’m here.
This is an amazingly imperfect mess of a sport. That is a feature, not a bug. Yet I am here. I love this sport because damn the ethics, damn the anxiety, damn every single thing beyond this moment because when there’s football I’m watching something beautiful and wild and chaotic that I will never see again. In those seconds I am alive and happy and the world is ok. I hope Clemson wins every game this year. I hope our unproven offensive line pulls it together and a rebuilt defense comes out swinging. I hope records are set and trophies are won. But more than that I hope something happens this year, in any game, that you or I or anyone sees that makes them remember why we love this sport. It is an unfair game played by incredibly talented young men and in that framework miracles and mistakes happen equally. I hope you see something that makes you feel alive. I hope something happens that sets off that dopamine that keeps all us coming back. I hope you see why I love this sport past any rhyme or reason. I hope something takes your breath and logic away, leaving only feelings, curse words and awe.
And go Tigers, go Tigers till the last damn whistle blows.