This post is sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 2011.
It's not always easy to highlight the moment when you "became" fan of a certain team or a certain league. But there's always that moment or series of moments when we go from being "a fan" to being a fan -- to truly caring about what happens to a team, to living and dying with each win and loss -- heck, each first down or incomplete pass.
Here, as best as we can figure out, are ours.
cocknfire: I was an SEC fan -- of a sort -- long before I was a South Carolina fan. I considered myself an Auburn fan through high school; the only Auburn fan in an Alabama family no less. (It was either a strange sort of childhood rebellion or, more likely, the fact that I really liked Tigers when I was younger and if I remember the story correctly a friend of the family bought me an Auburn shirt early in childhood.)
Most of the games I watched, though, were the Iron Bowls. That's because it was impossible, no matter your age, to not watch the Iron Bowl if you lived in Alabama. There are plenty of jokes about states where one of the first questions someone asks you after meeting you is which team you cheer for -- in Alabama, it's absolutely true. You choose sides because you have to.
But by the time it was actually time to enroll in college, I was living in South Carolina and looking to enter journalism. I spent most of my energy on two nearby colleges that had solid journalism programs: South Carolina and (as much as I hate to say it) Georgia. Coming from a just middle class family, financial aid won out, and I attended the University of South Carolina.
I'm glad I did. To an extent, South Carolina "fits" with the teams I cheer for in other sports: the Cubs, who have not won a World Series since before any of my grandparents were born; and, more recently, the Falcons, who have not won a Super Bowl ever and until last season had not had back-to-back winning seasons in almost 45 years of existence.
So I went to South Carolina as, at best, a casual college football fan. I attended a game during the disastrous, 1-10 season in 1998 -- it was Arkansas, and I remember two things: (1) sitting in a relatively empty part of the stadium; and (2) watching the Gamecocks lose very badly. I don't believe I attended a single game during the 0-11 season that followed; I saw a difference at the time between following a losing team and following a hopeless team, and South Carolina in 1999 was a hopeless team. I did watch the games on television when a network for some reason broadcast them.
When I went home for Labor Day in 2000, South Carolina had lost 21 straight games. They won that weekend, defeating New Mexico State 31-0. This was a team that had lost to Marshall, East Carolina and Vanderbilt -- twice! -- over the last two years. I missed a good bit of the Georgia game -- a friend of mine almost had to physically drag me to a late lunch, meaning I didn't even catch the first part on TV -- and returned to my dorm room expecting to see how badly the Gamecocks were losing. Instead, they were accepting the generous donations of Quincy Carter to the "Break South Carolina's SEC Losing Streak Foundation." (More on that later this week.)
By that time, I was pretty much hooked. I didn't miss another home game that year, then helped cover a few games for The Gamecock the following season. By then, I loved the sport and the league. I was no longer a fairweather fan, following the Gamecocks through the 2002 and 2003 seasons, in which they went 10-14, almost as well as I had during the 17-7 Holtz Era. (Funding issues kept me from attending many games.)
But those first couple of years were an exciting time to be a fan in the SEC. Steve Spurrier was still at Florida, and his clashes with Phil Fulmer's Tennessee teams had national implications. Nick Saban was taking over at LSU, Tommy Tuberville was getting things started at Auburn and Mark Richt would soon be coaching at Georgia. The league was anything but boring, if it was ever boring to begin with.
And once I figured that out, there was no going back to just watching the "big" games. By then I had realized that there are no small games in the SEC.
- - -
Year2: The story of my fandom goes back before I was born.
My father attended the University of Florida in the '70s, the last truly mediocre decade of Gator football. That didn't keep him from catching the college football bug, though. A few years after graduation, he and a couple friends bought a block of lower bowl end zone tickets a year before the 0-10-1 debacle that was the 1979 season. Nevertheless, they've kept those same seats to this day.
It was on those south end zone bleachers where I got my first taste of college football live in person: November 18, 1989 versus Kentucky. I was four years old and don't remember a thing, but I still have the ticket stub to prove I was there. I've attended at least one Gator football game every year since.
As you can probably imagine, my parents indoctrinated me as a Gator before I even made it to Florida Field that day. Attending that game was merely the official culmination of a process that had already started. In my formative years, I learned the words to "We Are the Boys From Old Florida" before I learned the words to the national anthem. There were times when my closet had more Gator shirts than non-Gator shirts. I'm pretty sure there even was an occasion or two when I played a Little League game early on a Saturday before making the trip from Orlando to Gainesville for a Florida football game.
I formally became a Gator in 2003 when I enrolled as a freshman in the Warrington College of Business. I spent my first three years in the marching band, something that allowed me not only to see five other SEC stadiums (plus the old Orange Bowl in Miami) but get paid for doing so. I loved nearly every minute of that, with only a couple of exceptions. It really helped to deepen the fan in me to get out and see how other folks did things beyond the realms of Gainesville and the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. I did the basketball band my final full year, which gave me the opportunity to see the 2007 Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. I highly recommend going to see later round tournament games if you can.
Florida football now is one of the few remaining links I have to my early childhood. I don't live in the state I grew up in. I'm not in contact with anyone I knew in elementary school. My love for baseball has almost completely lapsed, and I no longer start days with Cocoa Puffs or Cinnamon Toast Crunch. The excitement of cheering for the Gators remains.
I've been spoiled rotten by the success Florida's had during my lifetime, but like I said, it traces its roots to some of the darkest days of the program. Hopefully if I ever have kids to pass it down to, they won't ever know anything different than what I have so far.