Can you feel it? It’s the opening week of the 2008 college football season!
In New Orleans we have four seasons: Mardi Gras, Crawfish, Football, and Christmas. For me, football season is like the other three seasons all rolled into one.
I can already feel the air getting thinner. The scent outside is changing from the aroma that comes from steam rising off the concrete after an afternoon squall, and it’s being replaced with the smell of barbecue, gumbo, and whiskey...I guess it’s called “bargumskey.” It’s hard to describe, but trust me—it’s a welcome change.
In the distance you can hear the faint sound of a marching band practicing. The campus went from looking like a ghost town to bustling with activity almost overnight.
The previews are out, the gauntlet has been thrown down, and you catch yourself daydreaming about this weekend’s tailgating menu more than what would be considered a normal amount. Our cares are slowly melting away, and all seems right with the world.
Yes, my friends, this truly is the most wonderful time of the year!
Rather than opening up the season with a run-of-the-mill team, conference, or national preview, I wanted to start with a personal reflection for the fans. Of course I’m grateful that my favorite season has arrived, but I’m even more grateful that we have made it through another offseason without a major tragedy.
One of the worst sports-related tragedies to occur in the United States happened in 1970, when an airplane carrying 37 members of the Marshall University football team, five coaches, and many prominent boosters crashed while attempting to land during a rain storm.
The university considered discontinuing the football program until the student body, led by a few surviving members of the team, convinced Marshall officials to field a team in 1971. While many people in the Marshall community were understandably reluctant, they came out in great numbers to support the new team.
In their second game the Thundering Herd, made up of mostly freshmen and walk-ons, came back in dramatic fashion to beat Xavier as the clock expired. It was reported that people stayed in the stands for over an hour after the game crying and comforting each other.
Marshall fans had no doubt sought many avenues to help them cope with their grief, but it was “the game” that caused them to confront their emotions head on, and together they found a way to start the healing.
On Sep. 11, 2001, the American people witnessed the deadliest attack on U.S. soil at the hands of radical extremists. The nation froze, trading was suspended, sporting events were cancelled, and our military was on full alert. Many Americans wondered how our mighty nation could have become so vulnerable.
Two weeks later, on Sep. 25, 2001, Yankee Stadium reopened for the first sporting event in New York since the attacks. The Yankees may not have known how much they meant to their city until they walked onto the field and saw the faces of the fans, many of whom were likely smiling for the first time in weeks.
The players joined members of the NYPD and FDNY on the field during the pregame ceremonies while a giant American flag covered the outfield. There was hardly a dry eye in “the house that Ruth built” as the crowd chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!” If only for a moment, a baseball game made us feel normal again.
On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed in to the Gulf Coast with the force of a nuclear bomb. My city was destroyed after the levee system breached and Lake Pontchartrain spilled into New Orleans. Thousands of lives and billions of dollars in property were lost in the blink of an eye.
My LSU Tigers were preparing to host the Sun Devils of Arizona State on Sep. 10, but word came down from Baton Rouge that the players had walked off the practice field. They could no longer remain on the sidelines while military helicopters brought in the dead and wounded from New Orleans to what would become the largest triage unit in U.S. history inside the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
The Tigers crossed the street and began unloading supplies, signing autographs for terrified children, and volunteering themselves in any way they could. They realized that they were more than just an elite football unit—they were human beings first.
LSU officials quickly realized that the usual 125,000-plus who pack the Baton Rouge campus would interfere with relief efforts, and there would be no way they could allow the game to go on as scheduled. Before they had time to put together a list of alternatives, the ASU athletic director was on the phone offering to move the game to Tempe.
Arizona State University turned out to be the classiest institution I have ever witnessed, and they rolled out the red carpet for the LSU football team and their fans. The LSU message boards were flooded with invitations from Sun Devil fans who were offering to open their homes to complete strangers should they want to make the trip.
Many also donated airline miles to assist in the purchase of plane tickets so that LSU fans could escape from the madness for a weekend and cheer on their Tigers. It was the most moving show of sportsmanship I have ever been a part of, and it burned college football deeper into my soul. Sun Devils, we will never forget it.
Most recently, on Apr. 16, 2007, the Hokie Nation of Virginia Tech was the unfortunate victim of the deadliest massacre by a single gunman in American history. The psychotic murderer, whose name I won’t mention because he doesn’t deserve to be remembered, killed 32 people and wounded many others on the Blacksburg campus.
It was a long, painful summer for the Hokies as they were forced to walk past the hallowed halls of the grisly scene and feel the fear all over again. But on Sep. 1, 2007, Lane Stadium became the site of a mass healing as the Hokie community gathered for their home opener.
What was initially a somber memorial for the lives that were lost erupted into an emotional firestorm when the first few notes of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blasted over the PA system. The sellout crowd unleashed a collective roar that was heard throughout the college football world. The fear had turned to hope, and the Hokies went on to a remarkable season.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the following week marked the Hokies’ first road trip of the season to Death Valley in Baton Rouge. Normally, a visiting team in Tiger Stadium is treated to the roar of a live Bengal Tiger parked in a cage outside of their tunnel, only to be followed by an even deeper roar from the 93,000 fans who consider it their job to inform the visitors that they are indeed far from home.
This time it was different. Knowing what the Hokies had been through, and also acknowledging one of the premier class acts of college football in head coach Frank Beamer, the most rabid fan base in America got on their feet and gave a standing ovation to the confused but relieved Virginia Tech players. I guess there is a first time for everything.
The healing power of sports should not be dismissed. I am not qualified to speak intelligently on effective therapeutic methods or to explain the effects of grief counseling, but I do know that something as simple as a football or baseball game can bring people together and, if only for a moment, give them temporary relief from their problems.
I first heard the term “escapism” from legendary singer and Gulf Coast native Jimmy Buffett. He uses the word to describe the effect his music and concerts have on his fans. For most people who are chained to a desk for 40 hours or more per week, the smooth Caribbean sounds that accompany Buffett’s melodious tales of boats, beaches, and bars allow people to transcend their everyday lives, if only for a moment.
The same can be said for sports. As we begin the long awaited 2008 football season, we should pause to reflect and be thankful that the offseason was free of tragedy, and that we can enter this season with pure hearts.
Take a deep breath and let it sink in. Football season has arrived folks, so let’s forget about all that ails us...if only for a moment.