Whether you’ve got diehard team spirit for your school’s football team or have never watched a game in your life, the magnitude of college football fandom cannot be denied. That’s why, ahead of the College Football Playoff, we teamed up with ESPN to explore how college football left a lasting impact on one woman’s life. Read ahead for more, then check out the Playoff yourself, Saturday, December 29 on ESPN.
Until autumn of the year I turned 21, I’m not sure I had ever watched a college football game. Some people inherit the college teams of their parents or their city, but not me. I grew up in Canada, where college football doesn’t exist — at least, not in the American way where it seems entire cities adopt college football teams as their own. But when I was 21, I got into the University of Southern California and everything changed.
It’s an understatement to say I was terrified to uproot my life and venture from Edmonton, Alberta — a quiet city on the Canadian prairies — to Los Angeles, California. When I got accepted, my parents and I sat around the kitchen table in shock.
“Why are you crying?” my dad asked me. “This is a good thing.”
There would be so many great opportunities at an American school, he told me. Think of the networking, the school clubs, the college football. At the time, we didn’t realize just how big college football was at USC, but the thought of “American college football” sounded momentous in and of itself. It felt like something you had to experience at least once in your life, up there with seeing Big Ben in London or eating croissants in Paris.
I wasn’t going to turn down an opportunity to be part of it all. So just a few weeks later, we packed up the family van and my entire family made the three-day trek to drop me off at school.
Arriving in L.A. was a complete culture shock. I’d vacationed in the States growing up but didn’t fully appreciate the fundamental differences between our two cultures, which were only accentuated by the fact that I was boarding in a sorority house on Greek row. It felt a little bit like living on a movie set.
I didn’t know a single person in the entire city; I’m actually not sure I knew anyone in the entire country.
I forced a brave face while my family helped me unpack. But when they were gone, the loneliness set in. I didn’t know a single person in the entire city; I’m actually not sure I knew anyone in the country. How do you start off in a place where you know no one? My strategy became going to the movies by myself. Sitting in a dark theater obscured the fact that I was alone.
It’s safe to say my social life was not off to a great start. The loneliness gripped me every time I had a spare moment to myself. I felt guilty for moving so far away and leaving everyone I loved. I wondered what my family was doing without me and if my dog would still remember me when I came back.
Still, I didn’t want to give up and take the loneliness lying down. I was determined to make my first semester a success. And as luck would have it, there was a friendly, chatty girl named Lauren living down the hall from me who managed to make friends with everyone, even me. She was also a boarder at the sorority but had transferred a semester before me. If I was living in a movie, she was the knowledgeable best friend who swooped in to pull me out of my tailspin. Perhaps the most valuable tips she dispensed were about football.
According to Lauren, I needed to quickly get season football tickets, buy a game-day outfit, and, most importantly, learn the fight song — she sent me a video link for practice, which I blasted in my room when no one was home. I was determined to fit in on my first game day.
I still had no idea just how big college football was at USC, but it was starting to become clearer. “I won’t assign a group project this weekend,” my English professor told the class the Friday before our first home game. “It would be terrible of me to try to make you meet up on a game day.” My classmates sighed, relieved. I, on the other hand, silently judged them for not putting in the effort.
Some parts of campus were such a tightly packed mess of cardinal and gold that you could barely wind your way through.
On game day, as we neared campus — several hours early as per Lauren’s direction — I could already sense the energy of the crowds. USC on game days became the gathering place for all of Trojan nation. Some parts of campus were such a tightly packed mess of cardinal and gold that you could barely wind your way through. I suddenly understood why we couldn’t do a group project on a game day.
What I remember most about that first game is Lauren pulling me through the throngs of people from tailgate to tailgate, arriving at the center of campus just in time to hear the marching band play the fight song. You couldn’t imagine an experience more antithetical to sitting in a dark movie theater alone.
Social psychologists who study the way sports impact our lives say that identifying with a team lessens feelings of loneliness, depression, and alienation. Research also shows that college students who identify with an on-campus team tend to feel more connected to the entire campus, not just other fans. I understand this completely, because at that first home game, under those bright lights, I experienced it myself.
Being in the student section for a game was like nothing I had ever been a part of. I was madly trying to memorize everything that happened, so I could tell everyone back home. As far as I could make out, there was some crazy cheer that resulted in girls being thrown in the air. This in addition to a host of other chants Lauren was trying to get me to memorize, including the many times Trojans have to hold their fingers in the air in a “V” for a victory sign.
At some point during the game, I stopped saying 'they better win' and started saying 'we’d better win.'
Nobody sat down once for the entire game — and it wasn’t even a playoff game or anything special. More importantly, everyone seemed to know what was happening on the field. My football knowledge was elementary, but the students around me did their best to kickstart my education. Still, I can’t even remember who won that first game. What I remember is that at some point during the game, I stopped saying “they better win” and started saying “we’d better win.” I stopped thinking, You guys have a lot of crazy chants, and starting thinking, We Trojans sure get into it.
After the game, we stopped for messy, bacon-wrapped hot dogs in the rose garden on our way home. “This is an L.A. tradition,” Lauren told me between bites. I sat on the sidewalk beside my new friend, devouring my hot dog and contemplating that: a new tradition. Traditions are one of the fastest ways to feel at home. I had just found my first new one in L.A. As a bonus, it came with bacon.
Thanks to Lauren’s advice, I purchased the football season tickets. So I got an entire semester of bacon-wrapped hot dogs, tailgates, and football cheers. Even if it took a while to find regular friends, I knew every weekend I could count on becoming part of a community.
Two degrees and a thousand bacon-wrapped hot dogs later, I’m a sports writer; I’ve traveled around the globe covering world championships. What I like most about sports is what I learned from college football. It’s not really about who wins the game. More than anything, it’s about being together.