Playing the Field- a Football Fan without a Team
By Mat Nickovich
I am a college football vagabond. I drift from team to team, player to player, conference to conference because of a deep-seated unwillingness and inability to devote my fandom to a single team. Some say this failure to settle makes me a college football slut, but I disagree.
One year it’s the spread option, the next it’s “Fun-‘n’-Gun.” From Stoops to Miles, Shoelace to a snake named Jake, it is difficult to pinpoint a singular reason why I am a fan without a team. However, after some aimless drifting and rounds of psychological self-evaluation, the dust has settled and the terror level dropped to blue. I have narrowed down my failure to commit to the following reasons:
My university did not have a football team
Specific to individuals who attended school at an institution with a Division I football team, college is the most opportune time to form a fandom. Memories of tailgates, last-second field goals and Sunday mornings where your freshman self wakes up wearing only an inflatable replica of a coach’s headset do not exist (at least, two of those three memories don’t exist.) Saturday afternoons had nothing to do with dotting an ‘I’, holding court on The Grove, or stirring any echoes. Instead, we collectively revisited the actions of Friday night, took up residency on the hodgepodge collection of couches and recliners and engaged in the art of recovery.
In recovery, the remote control allowed us to peek in on the multitude of games. With no obligations to any contest, we searched for the best game.The back-and-forth, settle-for-the-best method proved most beneficial on October 17, 2005. Both the USC vs. Notre Dame and Penn State vs. Michigan games came down to the final plays in a matter of moments. Fandom did not shackle us to any game, so we watched The Bush Push and the final play of Penn State/Michigan. Saturdays were not about watching our favorite team’s national title hopes disintegrate in front of a national audience. They were about wearing down the remote’s flashback button like a teenager watching late night premium cable.
No hand-me-down programs
Fandom can be a sordid hand-me-down from generation to generation. How many sad-sack Cleveland Browns fans exist solely because Pop-Pop saw Otto Graham play? None of my grandparents attended college. Nor did any of them live in or near college towns, so the allure of bright stadium lights and entrancing edifices did not enrapture them. My parents did not go to universities with a football team. No “live with this team, die with this team” mentality existed. The exception came on select Saturday mornings when my Dad’s only plea was “I’d love to see those (expletive deleted) from Notre Dame get destroyed.” Rest assured that specific ideology trickled down to the next generation.
Bereft of positive familial influence, I was left to investigate on my own. The task was arduous, made all the more difficult because:
Chicago claims no college football team as its own
With apologies to Illinois, Northwestern and Notre Dame (due to its ineptitude the past 20 years) Chicago is a professional football city. Any Bears news, no matter how irrelevant the injury or minuscule the free-agent signing, dominates the local football chatter. College football is relegated to second-tier status, even in highly successful years for the local programs. It didn’t matter if Notre Dame beat Michigan. Chicagoans centered their concerns on Jeff Graham’s ability to get out of his break.
In the midst of wandering, I’ve been occasionally smitten. Steve Spurrier’s Don Rickles/ Rowdy Roddy Piper routine is highly entertaining, especially when it provides the right serving of vitriol for the easily-irked Tennessee and Georgia fans. Reggie Bush’s ability to make defenders miss, outrun a defensive back on a fly route and turn the corner on a linebacker amazed me. All things considered, he should have been compensated for the entertainment he provided college football fans.
The 1994 Penn State Nittany Lions caught my attention with a roster loaded with future NFL players like Kerry Collins, Ki-Jana Carter, and Kyle Brady, but the program’s subsequent years were marked with the type of offensive constipation unique to the Big Ten. Plus, the distance between Happy Valley and Chicago was too far for me to receive an ample dosage of Penn State news. Looking back, I should have called their defensive coordinator for tickets.
The 2010 Auburn team that completed a 24-point comeback versus Alabama in the Iron Bowl highlighted a season of intrigue and envy directed at Cam Newton. His ability to play through a season rich in (deserved) accusations gave the well-wishing college football optimists another reason to bury their head further in the sand. Sleaze, accompanied by a mega-watt smile and unrivaled athleticism, was never easier to root for.
Plus, there are Oregon’s uniforms, Russ the (interim) Bulldog, Purdue’s Breakfast Club and the Twelfth Man. They provide that little extra something in a sport filled with a bunch of little extra somethings. You must forgive me for I cannot choose one team to pour all of my love, faith, hope, half-baked ideas, and fanaticism. My failure to choose is a product of my environment and upbringing. College football presents a number of delicious, enticing storylines each season.
Playing the field never felt so annually invigorating…and disease-free.