I have to confess something.
I was a high school football player from a small private school that posted its best win-loss record in ten years my senior year at 3-7. A 6′ even, 220lb starting left tackle, I wasn’t good enough to walk on at the local community college, which was okay since I was going on academic scholarship to a major 4-year school…Mississippi State University. MSU football had a few good years back in those days (mid-nineties to early-aughts), but nothing special…more often than not, they were fair-to-middling with occasional shots to be more than that but had served its share of stints at the bottom in the intervening years.
This was hard to take, being a former player with a losing teams in high school going to another school with a below-par football program. It was particularly bad in that the famous University of Alabama was the next closest school (just an hour drive), home to what is arguably the greatest college football program in history. Even That School Up North had a history of championship teams. There are MSU fans where I live, but they’re matched and possibly outnumbered by the Bama and TSUN people. Even in my family, my dad was a big TSUN fan, and my brother has had an angry love for the Tide for most of his life. So I developed had a defense mechanism for handling this: self-deprecation and negative prediction. “Oh, they’ll just give the game away.” “They looked better than usual today.” “Nobody really expected them to win that one.” “Hey, that’s Mississippi State for you.”
That’s some soul-destroying stuff. Football is an unofficial religion of the South, and it has been for years. Because professional football for many years was a nonentity, the high school and college game have been the foci of the weekly observances. Sure, the Saints and Falcons have their adherents (there’s less love for the Titans, Bucs, and Dolphins here, I’ve found), and for years the Cowboys and Redskins were the closest teams to the region and gained followings, but here the SEC is the end-all, be-all for many fans. And if your team can’t hack it, it’s hard to take.
Meanwhile, my old high school, which always had decent teams and coaching but were too small to contest with the talent in the other district schools, went to 8-man ball and are multi-year state champions. Our local community college, East MS Community College, are multi-year national JUCO champions and on-track for another one this year.
Just now, the program from my alma mater, the Bulldogs of Mississippi State University, just made a case for why they should be ranked #1 in the nation. And all I’ve wanted to do–for the last hour–is cry.
I couldn’t enjoy the game at all. 21-0 in the first quarter? It was a fluke. 28-13 at the half? They’ll find a way to give it away. 28-20 in the third? See, they’re returning to form and quitting. After all, they’re playing Auburn: masters of the unlikely comeback, defending SEC champions, and runners-up in the 2013 National Championship Game…who beat us last year with an unlikely last-minute drive.
None of that happened. Despite the miscues, bad decisions, and come-and-go play, State was the better team today. They proved they could hang with the best of our conference: the best conference in the nation.
It’s just now hitting me. A couple years ago State was 7-0 going into Tuscaloosa but got mauled by Alabama. Hopes were dashed as State fans were reminded to know our place. Dan Mullen had come in, telling all of us to believe, and we did, but the faith was shattered once again. But now…now, it seems like the claim he made when he came to Starkville–you may not remember, that he would lead MSU in the SEC championship–may just be in reach. And, with it, a possible national championship berth.
I’m wrestling with that old, ingrained tendency to expect failure at the drop of a hat. But I’ve noticed something about the fans in the stands lately: instead of charging the field when they get a big win, the crowd just cheers louder, ringing the cowbells harder, because they expect excellence.
I’m not there yet. I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop. But, right now, I’m happy, and I’m proud of my school’s team, and, by extension, my connection with my school. I always thought such was just another irrational joy…but maybe it never was to start with. Football, in the end, is just a game. But winning for a change may be putting things back in their proper perspective.