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August 26, 2008

Yeager: Nothing beats this time of year

For a great many Americans, this is the best time of the year. True, most of us love Thanksgiving, and some of us persevere through the hurly and the burly of December with our love of Christmas intact. And the young and the superhuman may even revel in the coming of the New Year.

But for raw anticipation and a sense of child-like giddiness, many of us find it is impossible to beat the onset of college football season. It brings about the same sensations we experienced as pre-teens toward Christmas. Christmas for full-grown men (well mostly full-grown, and mostly men), that is the ticket.

Why does the approach of college football quicken the pulse, enliven the senses, and stake a claim to the sinew of our soul like no other phenomenon? I think nostalgia, tradition, and memory are the kernel of it all. And for that reason, the passion for college football probably grows keener, if also more mellow in a sense, the older one gets.

College football, perhaps like no other institution in American society, is steeped in lore, tradition and history. From the first college football game, an immediately post-bellum contest between Princeton and Rutgers, to the present day, college football has cultivated its legends and kept alive its ghosts.

The names are legion and they evoke reverence from the initiates of the college football experience. Rockne, Red Grange, Glen Davis and Doc Blanchard, Parseghian, Bear Bryant, Ernie Davis, Staubach, Herschel Walker, Sammy Baugh, Doak Walker, Hayes and Schembechler. The ledger of the immortals is well nigh endless. Actually, it is endless because new names are added with each passing season.

And embedded within this pantheon are myriad smaller constellations of great ones who cohere around individual colleges and universities. For this reason, college football is not just vast and overawing, it is intimate and personal.

Each of us as, college football parishioners, know well the names of the luminaries who have flashed across our local gridiron. As Red Raiders, we can recite the names without effort. E.J. "Double Tough" Holub. Donny "The Golden Palomino" Anderson. Dave Parks. Gabriel "Senor Sack" Rivera. Zach Thomas. And Wes "The Natural" Welker. What's more, most of us have seen most, if not all of these players perform.

And the cycle does not end. It only grows richer. Names like Graham Harrell, Michael Crabtree and Mike Leach are eligible for enlistment in the shrines of our mind. Perhaps one or more of them will scale such heights that they will vault beyond the local firmament and find a place within the hearts and souls of college football fans in Happy Valley; Athens, Georgia; Knoxville, Tennessee; Madison, Wisconsin and Palo Alto, California.

But, of course, it's not just the individual players and coaches who bind us to college football's past, even as they enmesh us in its present. There are the great teams and the great games. And the great plays... the miraculous, the exuberating, and the heart-rending.

Where but college football is a game decided by a kickoff return on the last play, that features five laterals and the final returner weaving through a marching band and belting a trombone player?

Where, but in a college football game, does a pint-sized quarterback named Flutie slay the Goliath that was Miami with a last second Hail Mary to somebody named Gerard Phelan, and in the process, cement his name in American history?

Where, but in college football does a rag-tag team coached by Jerry Moore jump up and tie Eric Dickerson, Craig James and the No. 2 squad in the land, only to have it snatched away by a cross-field lateral on a kickoff return that goes 91 yards for the decisive score?

Moore, incidentally, would exact his revenge on the Fates by leading an afterthought of an Appalachian State team into the Big House of the Michigan Wolverines and authoring one of the greatest upsets in American sports history.

And it is that time again. The nights are getting cooler. The drumbeats and the brass of marching bands can be heard in college towns from the Pacific through the Heartland and on to the Atlantic. In preparation for the great autumnal rite, Americans of all walks of life are planning their tailgate parties, breaking out their football apparel, and anticipating the walk across the alma mater campus toward the kickoff that will plunge us all back into the frenzy. Back into history.

What memories will be etched, what new legends will we witness on the morrow?


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