DANIEL VAUGHAN: In praise of college football

At long lost, our annual national nightmare is over. The calendar has turned to September, and college football has returned to our lives. While football long ago surpassed baseball as America’s national pastime, college football is the perfection of our national pastime. It exemplifies everything great and crazy about the United States of America, and it’s great to have it back.

The National Football League is great too. The very best athletes in the country competing at the highest level are spectacular to witness every week. But the NFL has limited cities it covers, and it is a professional league. You’ve got to prove you can make it at that level, and staying there is no small feat.

At the collegiate level, more than 3,000 young adults are playing football on scholarships. It’s a large cross-section of the young adult population and the country. What’s even more fun is that nearly every state and city in the country has a college team they can claim as their own. The local fanbase matters and has sway.

Every state and team has its local legends and rivalries that matter to them. The 2022 season witnessed a return of the Backyard Brawl rivalry game between West Virginia and Pittsburg University. It’s a matchup and rivalry with more than 100 years of history behind it, but it hadn’t been played in the last eleven years.

ESPN’s coverage set a spectacular scene between the rabid fanbases of both schools, cheering on a renewed rivalry. Players were excited and talked about how they’d tell their children and grandchildren about playing in that matchup for years to come. The game itself featured ridiculous scoring and lead changes, with West Virginia losing by mere inches on a last-ditch throw into the endzone — requiring a full video review.

One of the fun quotes from the ESPN article:

Former coach Dave Wannstedt, who delivered the greatest upset in the history of the rivalry in 2007, spoke to the team on Thursday in what M. J. Devonshire called, “one of the greatest speeches I ever heard in my life.”

“Coach Wannstedt said, ‘Somebody is always going to be legendary. It could be you. When he said that on Thursday I was like, ‘Why not me?’ I was excited it could be me.”

He’s right. Someone could be the hero on any given Saturday (or Thursday). You don’t always have to be the best athlete on the field or the most prepared. Sometimes it’s just about meeting the moment when it arrives. Players are on a team working together, but individual heroics still happen.

That’s on the high end of the sport. There’s the opposite end, and I don’t just mean losing. In a late Thursday matchup involving SC State and the Univesity of Central Florida, SC State’s punter made a big mistake. He was on the field to punt. Before he did that, he started running for the first down, but just before he got tackled, he decided to kick the ball. The problem was that he was already several yards downfield past the line of scrimmage, resulting in a penalty.

It’s the kind of mistake I’ve never seen in all my years watching football and punting. The move cost his team penalty yardage, and he’s now nationally known as the kid who did that in a game.

Watching him on the field and seeing him dejected at the mental slip-up he had in front of everyone, you felt terrible for him. His coaches and teammates worked on picking him back up and pumping him back up. Because that’s the point, one bad play may stick out for a long time in memories, but the game has more snaps. He’ll get another chance to prove himself.

It’s these points that are built into the American psyche. Anyone can be a hero on any given day, and even at your worst moment, there’s still a chance for redemption. In a country built by immigrants who failed or got rejected elsewhere, these kinds of lessons in sports are essential to hold dear. Anyone can fail, but also anyone can make it.

That brings me to the last point about Americans and college football: we love a good underdog story. When a big-name school loses to a small school, everyone loses their minds. It’s a big event, and suddenly a nobody school, team, or player can rise to the top out of obscurity, all for defeating Goliath.

We watch these games as they tell a story about what we believe as a country. Hard work, practice, teamwork, and more can create a better life for us and others. Sure, highly credentialed schools pump out better athletes, but the underdogs have a shot too.

And the central truth about college football is that you never know when chaos will hit the standings. When you think you’ve got all the teams figured out, chaos ensues, and the rankings get tossed out the window.

Here’s to another college football season. I’m grateful it’s back, and I’m glad to enjoy it with you all.