The joy in the pain in the game

Soundtrack to this post:

Years ago, I was in the stands at a Georgia game with my friend Bill. Georgia did something stupid on the field. (This was during the Ray Goff era, when the list of stupid things Georgia did on the field could not have been contained in the Oxford English Dictionary.) Bill said a couple of very bad words and slammed his hand on the metal bleachers. There was a long pause, and then he looked at his hand. It was red and throbbing and I swear it was making a WOMM WOMM WOMM noise like in the cartoons. Without a word, he left and headed up the steps. A few minutes later he came back with his hand wrapped in ice. Neither one of us said anything. Sometimes you have to play hurt.

College football is the greatest sport because people FEEL it more than any other. This is partly because college football happens among college students, who are more likely to tear down the goalposts when their team wins and burn couches on the street when their team loses. (West Virginia fans are liable to do either one, for either reason, and it doesn’t have to be game day.) But even nonstudents are tied to college teams, through place or pride or family, in a way fans of other sports just aren’t. The big losses knock you down like a stroke. The big wins mist the air with champagne.

I had never felt sorry for Nick Saban until I read the GQ story where he complained about winning his latest national championship because it cost him a week of recruiting. It sounds weird to say this about one of the most successful coaches in the history of college football, but Nick Saban doesn’t get college football. He’s an incredible chef who never tastes the pizza.

What I’ve come to understand about college football is that the hurt and the happiness serve the same purpose. What matters is the depth of the feeling, and college football digs down into it all the way to the waterline.


My friend Mike is a crazy Alabama fan. His brothers Peter and Tom are also crazy Alabama fans. They are all smart and decent men when it comes to any subject other than Alabama football. Mike believes that every single college football star from another school, up to and including Red Grange, would rather have gone to Alabama. I had never watched an game with all three of them until the 2010 South Carolina game. Alabama was no. 1 in the country, but South Carolina ran out to a big lead. I would describe the mood in the house as “someone ran over the dog.”

All three brothers were calling and texting family and friends, complaining about the refs and the play calls and Steve freaking Spurrier. In the midst of all this, Tom got a call from a friend in Birmingham. The friend was wearing his lucky Alabama shirt, but the Gamecocks were laying such a whipping on the Tide that he had decided to take it off. At that very moment, Alabama scored. Tom screamed into the phone: “YOU PUT THAT F—ING SHIRT BACK ON!!”


Most of us know, in our hearts, that college football is indefensible. We refuse to lift up the corner of the rug because we know what’s under there — academic fraud, financial shenanigans, booster corruption, all dependent on unpaid players who break their necks (sometimes literally) for the game. Yes, you would love to wake up every morning as a college football player at 20. You probably would not like to wake up as an ex-player at 50.

But we all make compromises in life, and one of mine is to love college football, not just for how it makes me feel, but BECAUSE it makes me feel.

We are one day into the season and we’ve already had a spectacular game. Ole Miss and Vanderbilt had just about wrung each other out by late in the fourth — the Rebels were up 32-28. Vandy receiver Jordan Matthews took a brutal (but clean) hit on a catch over the middle. He went down to his knees and threw up prodigiously. He went out for a couple of plays. He came back in. On fourth-and-18, he caught a pass for 42 yards. Vanderbilt scored on the next play and led by three with 1:30 left.

Two plays after the kickoff, Ole Miss’ Jeff Scott scored on a 75-yard run.

After a facemask penalty on the next kickoff, Vanderbilt had the ball at midfield with just over a minute left. Matthews came back out with the offense. On third down, a catchable ball skipped off his hands. Ole Miss intercepted it and that was the game.

The camera followed Matthews off the field. He came to the sideline, his helmet still on, and buried his head on his coach’s shoulder.

In every spectacular game, someone has to lose. Joy, shake hands with pain. And bless college football for both of you.














2 thoughts on “The joy in the pain in the game

  1. Pingback: Featured Fellow: Tommy Tomlinson – Nieman Storyboard - A project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard

  2. I saw Maze in 1981. One of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.

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