Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Joining The Big Blue Nation

The 37 Year-Old College Football Virgin's Retrospective on UT @ UK; November 26, 2011

SEPT 19th, 2012-Being a baseball guy through-and-through, I'd never been to a college football game.

Actually, I'd never been to ANY football game, other than a few high school games here and there.

I'd watch college games from time to time on TV, along with a random mix of NFL and CFL games, but never had any real interest in going to see a game live. That all changed last year.

Around October, give or take, I ended up winning quite a lot of random stuff in a charity auction. Lots of liquor in gift baskets (which I gave away; not much of a drinker), some UK stuff signed by some of their basketball players (example: a thermal coffee mug signed by Josh Harrellson...really), and a pair of tickets to the UK-UT match-up at the end of November. Neat.

My first thought was to give the tickets to my parents, who I was convinced would love the chance to go see a UK game, first-hand. I was wrong. Mom couldn't have cared less, and Dad was more than content to stay home and watch it on TV. I guess I would have been, as well, if I had a 46” flat-screen on which to watch it.

Anyway, with no other options but to sell them, and keeping in mind that these weren't exactly Bears-Packers tickets I had in my hot little hand, I decided to go and take some pictures while I was there. If nothing else, it would be a good way to help round out the ol' portfolio with something other than baseball shots.

These were pretty good seats, as it turned out; Section 130, Row 13, and nearly on the 50 yard line. A great spot to find yourself in, especially if it's your very first live college football game. As I entered through the concourse, the sights and sounds from which is drawn the mythology of college football overtook my senses, as if I were suddenly a part of the elaborate process.

My sentimentality instantly overtook me. The electricity was readily apparent; it almost seemed that the spirit of the tens of thousands of fans in the stadium was a part of the steel and concrete that surrounded us. I can't remember experiencing anything quite like it before that day. Granted, it wasn't the Super Bowl. But you'd never have known it by the thunderous cacophony of “C-A-T-S! CATS, CATS, CATS!” which echoed throughout the stadium, from each section and every man, woman and child.

The experience before the game even began was stunning in terms of the spirit and passion of every member of the cheerleader squad; the spiraling, spinning flags of the heralds who bore the colors as if they were the harbingers of a great and terrible army; the horns and drums rising in unison to announce the coming of our champions on the field of battle. All had its moment, its place, its definitive function: to enthrall, to excite, to bring to crescendo the voices of a small city's worth of passionate supporters as the first shots of the war are fired.

I had considered consulting the box score for this game in order to add some statistical notes, but this post isn't about stats. This post is about what I felt. That's what's important; it's the whole point of being a fan, I think.

Anyway, I had the opportunity to watch an emergency quarterback lead the team against a Tennessee squad that was expected to steamroll the obviously weaker Wildcats and not only hold his own, but virtually hold the offense together for the entire game. This was absolutely the quintessence of ball control and conservative play-calling, and there wasn't really a point in the game in which this approach didn't work for UK. With Morgan Newton and Maxwell Smith both injured, Matt Roark was forced to make his first start as a quarterback in this game and essentially made sure he was protecting the ball above all else, even to the exclusion of actually throwing it from time to time. He made only 6 pass attempts the whole game for a total of 15 yards; to put that into even deeper perspective, his longest completion was for (you guessed it, maybe) FIFTEEN YARDS. That's it. So the Air Force took in this war from the sidelines and left the fight to the Marines, so to speak. Interestingly enough, Roark led BOTH teams in rushing with 124 yards. For a little more perspective, that's more than UT had as a team. As a TEAM. Not too shabby, huh?

The defense was not necessarily dominant, but then again they showed no weaknesses in either stopping the running or passing game. Of note to me was LB Alvin Dupree's leaping block of a 46-yard FG attempt in the 2nd quarter. Winston Guy ran wild with 14 tackles (2 for a loss) and half a sack. Team defense against the run held UT to 61 yards rushing total. For the whole freaking team. Again, not bad. Danny Trevathan and Taiedo Smith, along with Dupree and Guy, stifled a UT offense that appeared visibly shaken at times (and for good reason, I think).

Kicker Ryan Tydlacka punted 9 times in this game as well, with two of them topping 50 yards (including a punt of 60), and averaged 43.6 yards/punt. I've always liked players who made significant but quiet contributions to their team, and special teams players are under-appreciated, in my opinion. A kicker like Tydlacka can change a lot of games.

By the 4th quarter, the stands literally started to quake under my feet, as 59,855 fans slowly lost their ever-loving minds:

The noise was near-deafening. Somehow, a ruptured eardrum was the last thing on my mind, as I found myself joining the auditory assault. I screamed, I yelled, I got primal. I let my inner caveman run free. And it was exhilarating.

When the last few seconds ticked off the clock, I witnessed 100 yards of emerald turf dissolve into a sea of UK blue in the time it took to blink. Once. The fact that no one was injured in the stampede from the stands is nothing short of miraculous, but it was at least indicative of one simple truth: every single UK-loving fan in those stands had one thought on their mind as that clock expired, and that was “take the field!”. It was the single most massive ad-libbed bum rush of any football team I've ever personally witnessed in any format. And yet, it was as well-behaved as you could ever expect a predominantly college-aged fan base to be.

On, On, U of K...
As I left the stadium, I could not have scripted my first college football experience any more perfectly than it was, that day. It was actually a far more significant game than I had originally known:
  1. This was UK's first win over UT in 27 years. Twenty-seven.
  2. Coach Joker Phillips was a senior on that 1984 team that last defeated UT. That's a long time between wins over an opponent.
  3. The loss cost UT a Bowl appearance.
  4. Roark was playing QB for the first time since HIGH SCHOOL. (Correct me if I'm wrong, here)
On top of everything else, it was 61 degrees and sunny. Perfect football weather.

As I sat and pondered what I had just witnessed, I couldn't bring to mind any other experience to which I could compare it. In the grand scheme of things, it was just a game; just another football game on another given day in another season.

But for UK, for the fans, and for me, it was something else. That je ne sais quoi is something which, entering a brand new UK football season, I still struggle to define. I guess you had to be there. I'm glad I was.

Now it didn't turn me into SuperFan where it comes to college football. But now, it isn't 'just another game' anymore. Now, I know what it means to be a member of the Big Blue Nation.

And on November 26th 2011, I applied for citizenship.  

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