Thursday, February 28, 2008

My Clubs, Part Two: Throwball/Gridiron/Helmetball/American Football

First, let me just say that as an American who didn't grow up in a soccer-loving household, and DID grow up in the South, American football was almost pre-determined to be my first sporting love, and it was.

I was never really one for organized activities as a kid, much preferring to go play games with my friends in the street or the yard, but when I was younger my parents did insist that I do one organized sport per year. at 5 and 6, I played soccer (the last soccer uniform I ever wore was the shiny silver and black and collared shirt of the Collierville Animal Clinic... totally blowing away the green tshirt I wore the year before for the Hawks, by the way). At 7 and 8, I actually did Track and Field, the highly individual nature of the sport severely stretching the limits of what my parents were trying to do by telling me to play on a team, but I'm pretty sure my blue ribbon for the 100 meter dash and my red for the baseball throw are still in their attic. 9 through 11 were "full-kit" gridiron, and while I never did quite feel at home with Football players (and coaches), I was hooked on the game itself. I was from Florida, but living in Tennessee, and so I settled on a couple of Miami teams: the NFL Dolphins and the NCAA's University of Miami Hurricanes. Eventually, though, we moved back to Jacksonville and I grew into the "right" clubs for me, as I matured (or didn't, as the case may be).

Jacksonville Jaguars: I am now a proud Texan, and will raise up little Texan babies who will probably root for the Cowboys like their mom, and that's okay, I understand the intertwining of sports and community. But as for me, I am from Jacksonville, a city that has no particularly good reason to have one of 32 NFL teams, but somehow does, and I will not give them up. Like Tim Parks in the Italy essay in the very good book The Thinking Fan's Guide to the World Cup, the one thing I hold onto having moved away from the place I grew up is the sports team, because sports provides a disproportionate return on investment in terms of staying connected to one's place of origin. I prefer living in Texas, I will always live in Texas, and I rarely if ever call myself a Floridian when I can call myself a Texan, but it's okay, Jacksonville, because I still love our Jags. I still remember the day when I heard that our little town had landed a BIG TIME team. I was full of pride of place that has never quite left me. If the small-market Jaguars were ever to become someplace else's Jaguars, I doubt I'd ever watch another NFL game.

University of Florida Gators: My alma mater. Of course, don't ask me to SING the alma mater of my alma mater, because I don't know it. I've only been to one game in person, and I left at halftime because it was a blowout and no one would let me sit the hell down (hmm... perhaps I won't be joining the FC Dallas supporters' section anytime soon). Frankly, during college, I mainly associated the football team with missing classes, getting arrested, and keeping me from being able to drive ANYWHERE on homegame weekends because 60,000 alumni and fans flooded into Gainesville and clogged everything up. I often rooted AGAINST Florida when they were favorites, because I have always had a soft spot for underdogs. Hell, one time I specifically took all the french fries from the buffet at the dining hall by my dorm because I knew that was Steve Spurrier in line behind me and might have wanted some.

However, there were two cases where I always, always ALWAYS rooted for the Gators: Postseason bowl games against Yankees and the FSU game. To this day, I still chuckle when I imagine the cute little Big 10 and Big East schools thinking they know how to play College Football; actual results show this to be an unfounded prejudice, but college football fandom is not rooted in sanity, much less proper analysis. It is as severe a tribalism as exists in American sport.

This tribalism is exactly why I now root for the Gators EVERY game they play. It was a small incident, but it tapped into half-conscious, primeval social patterns that I was powerless to resist. I attended graduate school at a school whose sports teams are rivals of the Gators, and once, upon being asked by the person at the bookstore checkout counter where I did my undergraduate work, I answered, and the reply came, dripping with disgust, "Then why are you HERE?" I was taken aback, but quickly realized that when it came to this subject, there was only one tribe I would truly and completely belong to, and I embraced my destiny.

Texas Christian University Horned Frogs: Of course, one of the few ways one might join a new tribe is to marry into it. That is how I came to call the TCU Horned Frogs one of my teams. It is true I will never be as much a Horned Frog as I am a Gator, but at least they're both reptiles, and has a name ever so successfully combined whimsy and menace as "Horned Frog?" My wife is a (very) proud TCU alum, we got married on TCU's campus, and TCU is a spunky underdog that doesn't care what people think about its colors or mascot. As one of the schools thrown out with the bathwater when the old Southwest Conference collapsed in on itself, Frog fans take delight in the successes of the team, especially against the bigger schools that abandoned it. Those successes don't always come, but when they do they are sweet.

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