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Wednesday, 21 August 2013 13:31

This must be the place

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art placeThe floor below me began to shake.

For a moment, the idea of the structure collapsing seemed plausible. All around me, thousands of people were screaming, thrashing their arms wildly with manic looks on their faces. It was Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga., and I was partaking in my first Southeastern Conference (SEC) football game.

 

Football runs deep in my family. My father, uncles and cousins played it at Peru High School, a storied pigskin program in Upstate New York. My Aunt Cheryl was also a cheerleader on the sidelines each Friday night. In fact, my Uncle Barney actually played for legendary Coach Buddy Ryan at the University of Buffalo in the 1960s before Ryan held a long career in the NFL (Ryan’s son Rex is the current head coach for the New York Jets, while Rex’s twin brother Rob is the defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints). 

To my father’s dismay, my high school (Northeastern Clinton) didn’t have a football team, and he often threatened he would “transfer you out of there and make you a quarterback at Peru.” Regardless of not participating on the gridiron (though I was a runner and basketball player), my love for football grew. I learned by watching, whether it was through television or at a Peru homecoming game.

Being a lifelong Dartmouth College football fan, my father would take me to their games each fall in rural New Hampshire. There was something truly captivating about the smell of apple cider, trees bursting with foliage, the sounds of cowbells and whistles echoing across the Ivy League field as you bundled your jacket a tad tighter against the chilly northern winds.

It wasn’t until college that I became a “football fiend.” Although I’d been cheering on my beloved New England Patriots throughout my youth, attending Quinnipiac University in south-central Connecticut took that passion to a whole new level. With roommates and colleagues from New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore, football was a way of life for these folks – whether it was a professional team or collegiate powerhouse. Every Saturday and Sunday most of us would be glued to the screen watching an SEC showdown or AFC East division race.

And then came the women. Maybe it was the sports fan circles I was running around in, but I found myself dating femme fatale football freaks. There was the Philadelphia Eagles girlfriend who screamed at the television during a touchdown, and yelled even louder when they again failed to make the Super Bowl, which was often. Then there was the New York Giants girl who I swore bled “blue and white.” When we first met and eventually discussed football, she casually stated, “Patriots fan? Well, that’s too bad, but at least you aren’t a Dallas Cowboys fan, so I guess we can go on a date.”

When I moved to Western North Carolina last year, I knew I would be smack dab in the middle of the college football world. All of those immortal matches and longtime rivalries seen on television would now been viewed in person. I soon found myself with tickets to the Tennessee Volunteers versus Georgia Bulldogs game in Athens. 

Pulling into Athens on game day, I had never seen so many people packed in such a small city. I also had never seen so many beautiful girls, all southern belles in red dresses and cowgirl boots. Football, southern sunshine and cute girls. What more could this boy ask for?

Sanford Stadium literally shook during every big play or touchdown. Traditional songs, chants and movements echoed back and forth with a deafening roar. I felt like I was in Mad Max’s “Thunderdome.” It was bewildering and exhilarating at the same time – SEC gridiron at its finest. Georgia eventually won, 51-44, in what turned out to be highest-scoring game ever between the two conference rivals.

I later got an opportunity to cover Western Carolina University against the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. “Like a cavalry charging across the Great Plains, Alabama awoke Saturday morning ready to claim victory,” I wrote. “Flags were hung proudly off the back of pickup trucks and minivans, waving furiously in the warm breeze heading to the stadium. Tailgates were pulled down, and grills fired up. It’s game day, and in Alabama, that means all eyes are on the Crimson Tide.”

WCU was trounced 49-0. It was a heartbreaking loss, but an incredible learning experience for the budding program. For myself, reporting from the stadium press box in Tuscaloosa, surrounded by the likes of ESPN, Sports Illustrated and NFL scouts, only reinforced my deep passion for the game, and why I keep coming back, game after game, season after season.

WCU opens its 2013 football season on Aug. 29 against Middle Tennessee State in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Their first home game will be on Sept. 14 versus The Citadel in Cullowhee. www.catamountsports.com.

 

 

Hot picks

1: Asheville Wine & Food Festival heats up Aug. 20-24 at the Edison in The Grove Park Inn.

2: Strung Like A Horse performs at the Water’n Hole Bar and Grill in Waynesville on Aug. 24.

3: A book discussion and organic treats will be served by author Fred Bahnson at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sylva on Aug. 26.

4: Smoky Mountain Folk Festival will be Aug. 30-31 at the Stuart Auditorium in Lake Junaluska.

5: The Barefoot Movement plays the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad Depot in Bryson City on Aug. 24.

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