It's been a rough few months.
Penn State—as a football program, a brand and an institution—suffered severe damage at the hands of the NCAA and public opinion. Joe Paterno died broken and disgraced, and his longtime assistant Jerry Sandusky was sent off to prison, ostensibly for the rest of his life. NCAA sanctions ravaged the program, leaving the door open for mass transfers and culling the scholarships to an FCS-esque 65 for the next few years. It's arguably the worst punishment the NCAA has ever handed down.
Elsewhere, Heisman finalist Montee Ball was assaulted and hospitalized as he walked home one night, and the Iowa running back position remains a kiss of death. Concussion symptoms claimed the career of Minnesota tackle Jimmy Gjere, Nebraska tackle Tyler Moore walked away from the game for at least a season due to undisclosed personal issues and star Purdue linebacker Dwayne Beckford was just kicked off the team after the latest in a string of arrests.
I went through my own upheaval too. I lost my job, watched my family get smaller and sawed myself off at the roots for a transplant in Chicago. It's a neat city, this Chicago. Maybe one day I'll get used to it. Doubtless, many of you had even worse offseasons. My sincere sympathy if you did.
And now the season's finally here. Something that, for at least one day a week until January, we can throw ourselves into and watch our favorite players do what they're on campus to do.
College football is a lot of things to a lot of people. It's a few people's livelihoods, an escape for most and a source of pride, envy, joy, anger, contentment, depression, community and division for anyone who's even halfway emotionally invested in it. We watch, either from the bleachers or our living rooms, but our involvement only begins there.
The sport inspires people to do wonderful things. The players and coaches at the powerhouse programs are, by and large, achievers at a level that far surpasses even the best one percent of the best one percent. And sure, you can watch these guys play and think, "I could be doing that if I worked out eight hours a day starting when I was in middle school." Yeah, but you didn't.
And so you watch.
College football inspires many of us to follow the teams on road trips, to make weekend trips of our own if we're either no longer where the team plays or we'd never been there to begin with. Some of us raise funds for charity in the name of the sport, some of us donate impressive sums to the university and/or athletic program in the name of the sport, and some of us spend our spare time and energy trying to raise and help train a young person as he chases the dream of the sport.
We pack the stands and live and die with the team, and when the biggest moments of those players' lives happen, they're our biggest moments too, and when the wins are so magical that we can't even stay in our seats, we rush the field as fans. Not as white fans, black fans, male fans, female fans, queer fans, straight fans, religious fans, non-religious fans, Republican fans, Democratic fans or independent fans. We are all just people. We are all just fans.
And so we watch.
The sport inspires people to do terrible things. Every week, it seems there's another black eye related to the Penn State scandal—to say nothing of the evident actions of so many who never would have given Jerry Sandusky the leeway to operate as a child molester if he hadn't also been Jerry Sandusky, famous Penn State coach.
The sport invites people to harass and physically assault those who aren't wearing the right colors in the right cities and neighborhoods. People commit acts of inhumanity both large and small and legitimize it as just part of "being a fan." It's an outlet for so much ugly behavior that normal society won't ordinarily allow, and like it or not, some people need that.
And so they watch.
But one thing we can all agree on is that for as slavishly, hilariously devoted college football is to its rules and regulations, that rigid framework allows for an absolutely enthralling sport to thrive therein. We spend minutes on end watching replays to see what part of a player's body hit where on the field to figure out if a call should stand. The fields are all 120 yards by 53 1/3 yards, the end zones are all 10 yards long, the goal posts are all 18 feet and six inches apart and the first down chains are all 10 yards long, right down to the inch. The clock counts off four 15-minute periods.
At the stadium, every play is reduced to a familiar, monotonic recitation of the ball-carrier and the yardage by the announcer. Everyone claps for a rush of four yards on first down, whether it's a carry by the good guys or an achievement of the defense. The name of the school the home fans show up for always stays the same, and the longer the uniforms look the same too, the happier everyone is about it.
Oh, but once we're in that framework, magic happens. It can happen on any play of the game—especially in college football, where so few defenses are capable of controlling that entire sacred acre of play (it's actually about 1 1/3 acres, but we digress). Here, Denard Robinson and Braxton Miller run the same fields that Tom Harmon and Hopalong Cassady once did, and they do so just as brilliantly.
Here, in this highly restrictive and regimented system of play, Montee Ball can put up points the way only Barry Sanders ever did before. Taylor Martinez and the Nebraska offense can dazzle fans with a triple option that's as well-oiled as it once was with Eric Crouch and Tom Osborne in charge. Wisconsin can crush all those before it with a bruising ground game. Purdue can air it out the way we only used to see in those wacky WAC games back in the '80s. Northwestern can use one player in so many different ways even the ironmen of pre-WW2 football would be impressed. And Bill O'Brien can walk out onto a field that's been the territory of one man for nearly half a century and show Penn State fans what a 21st-century offense looks like for the first time.
Here, the Hail Mary hangs in the air and the entire game flies with it. Here, it's 4th-and-1 and you can kick for the tie or go for the win. Here, pads crack for 60 minutes. Here, defense is a way of life. Here, the dreams of the weak-willed die off and blow away like so many maple leaves on campus as the bitter winter creeps in.
Here, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin play Big Ten football.
And we'll be watching.