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COMMENTARY

College Football Fans Possess Passion, Love

September 01, 1996|DAVE KINDRED | THE SPORTING NEWS

Over lunch at a sports bar the other day, I had the great good fortune to speak to a man whose hard hat plays "Rocky Top," the touchdown anthem at the University of Tennessee.

Joe Ross wore orange and white bib overalls, an orange and white T-shirt and orange and white sneakers over orange and white socks. I am told, though I can not confirm this and will not confirm this, the man also wears orange and white underwear.

Old enough at 55 to know better, but at 55 forever young, Ross is a machinist at an aerospace manufacturing company. On gorgeous Saturday afternoons this fall, Ross will leave the real world behind and head for Knoxville. There he will wear his orange and white hard hat over an orange curly wig.

"There's no money involved, and that's what people love about college football," he says. "The players aren't playing for a million dollars. You see NFL guys 100% for their money. The college kids play 100% because they love the game and they love their teammates."

Such a crowd for lunch.

Marjorie Waggoner had an alligator on her hairdo. Or maybe it was a ball cap with a stuffed gator on top, one of those things where if you pull a string the gator's arms start clapping. As Joe Ross dressed out in Tennessee's colors, Waggoner came in the orange and blue of the University of Florida, her alma mater of 30 years ago.

"After you graduate from high school," she says, "you go away from home for the first time. If you go to college, the college becomes your family. It's both your family and freedom. You get caught up in a carefree time. You want it to never end."

So she's a Gators football fan who drives a car she calls the Gatormobile because it has assorted permutations of gators all over it. "This way," she says, with a kid's smile, "I get to be a coed forever."

The first time Khaled Sakr left his home in Egypt, he came to South Carolina to spend his senior year as a high school exchange student. The next year he enrolled at the University of South Carolina. It was 1983, the best season in Gamecock history.

"The first game I went to, I had never seen anything like it," Sakr says. "To think, a 72,000-seat stadium in a place as small as South Carolina. And they all were stomping their feet when the band played the theme from '2001: Space Odyssey.' The players came running onto the field, and all the cheerleaders--I was hooked."

So he stayed in America. He entered business school at South Carolina for two years of post-graduate work--and two more years of football. When a six-month business internship in New Jersey threatened to interrupt his Saturday habit of Gamecock games, Sakr and his wife, Shereen, got in their car and drove 1,500-mile round trips to Columbia.

As to why fans care so much about college football, Sakr, now a bank vice president, says, "Because college people play for the love of the sport. You don't see holdouts like in the NFL. And the beautiful thing about college football in America is, during games, no one looks at race. You see people of all races cheering together. You see racial unity."

Jeff Ereckson is a young stockbroker who understands what college football means to folks in the South. "It's a religion down here," he says. "Saturdays, we go to college football games. Sundays, we go to church."

During his days as a Florida State student, Ereckson worked as the Seminoles' mascot, Chief Osceola, a familiar figure in paint and feathers astride the horse named Renegade.

"And I've got a letter from Bobby Bowden saying he's saving a spot for my 2-year-old son to be a future Chief Osceola," says Ereckson, a father well pleased to have provided so well for his son.

I'm telling you, such a crowd for lunch. Herschel Scott, 75, first saw a football game at the University of Georgia in 1929. His current streak is 380 consecutive Georgia games, every one for 34 seasons now. He'll show you his business card: "Mr. Bulldog: Football Talked Anytime! I've Seen Them All!" And he carries a photograph of his tombstone with the Georgia Bulldog logo etched into granite above these words:

Bulldog born and Bulldog bred

Here I lie, a Bulldog dead

You've gotta love these folks.

Less passionate people may believe college football is different from the pros only in degree. But try telling that to a man who has prepared his tombstone with Bulldog verse. And anyone whose hard hat plays "Rocky Top" goes to a football game for reasons that transcend reason. I didn't keep track of how many times my lunch companions mentioned the word "love."

Yes, college football fans are fabulous people, the men handsome as a cloudless day, the women more beautiful than sunrise at the beach. The children of these fabulous people are fabulous themselves, each boy and girl exhibiting traits of inherited genius.

Yes, bless 'em all for the ways they enrich this world, not the least being the very true fact that their passion makes a sportswriter's job necessary.

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