THE RETURN OF THE RELIGION THAT IS FOOTBALL

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…College Football begins this week. I know there were two games this previous weekend and Charleston Southern played a great game against the defending FCS champions North Dakota State but this is the week the big boys “get after it” beginning with USC East and Vanderbilt…those are the big boys aren’t they? No I actually pull for USC East when not playing Clemson. The weekend will conclude, for me, when the Clemson Tigers dismantle the Auburn Tigers…War Eagles…Plainsmen…whoever the hell they are and on paper Auburn may need to employ them all. Glad we don’t play the games on paper. I love this time of the year when Southern Baptist, Methodist, Catholics, Atheist, Buddhist, Muslims and all other religious sects come together to worship at the altar of football. Instead of my God is better than your God, it’s my team is better than yours and the games get settled on the field.

I’m not the first to compare football in the South to a religious experience but that is not going to stop me from talking about it as a religion. It is just different and better in the South. There are a few cathedrals to the gridiron gods throughout the rest of the country but those don’t compare. I just don’t think Buckeyes, The West Coast Condoms or Irish Elves can display the trappings for the football sacraments as well as those teams south of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of New Mexico. Tailgating, bands with majorettes, cheerleaders…welllllll now, I might have to give the nod for cheerleaders to Oregon. I don’t like the Green and “Yaller” but the cheerleaders wear so little of anything there’s not a lot of it showing…Green and “Yallar” I mean.

I began my worship of football with limited prior knowledge of the game except for front yard pickup games, college football Saturdays and pro football Sundays and probably most importantly being picked last during recess pick-up games. Today it sounds like a lot of exposure to the game but this was an era before cable and satellite receivers, internet connections and Wi-Fi hotspots. The only collegiate games were aired on a distant ABC channel that only came into focus when atmospheric conditions were perfect. Even with perfect atmospheric conditions, the teams always seemed to be playing in a black and white snow storm. The pro football game of the week, which truly was the only pro football game of the week, usually involved the very bad Washington Redskins until the playoffs began. Then I could pull for YA Tittle and the New York Football Giants. At least I got to see Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer play. There were also syndicated play by play versions of games played by the then Baltimore Colts and the Fighting Irish. The Colt’s replays were hosted by Chuck Thompson and the Irish by Lindsay Nelson, whose voice still plays in my head and would explain why a Methodist boy from South Carolina became “somewhat” of a Notre Dame fan. The recess pick-up games are too painful emotionally to even go into, and I really don’t know how I avoided becoming a mass murdering serial killer.

I would become “football born again” at a Clemson game in the early Sixties when invited by a friend to go with his family to watch his brother play at Death Valley. At the time George Sutton was the most famous football player to come out of tiny Indian Land and I wanted to see him play. I guess that is when I became a full-fledged Tiger fan and began to worship before the altar that is Tiger football. It was not the cathedral it is now but it sure did beat the heck out of Indian Land on a Friday night. I even got to meet the “pope” of the gridiron Tigers, legendary coach Frank Howard.

I have memories galore associated with football. Most were happy and not blasphemous but there are a few…mostly revolving around practice… which to me were at best akin to the self-flagellation practiced by certain religious sects or, at worse, hell on earth. On the practice field behind the gym where we did all of our drill work, morning worship began with the fog evaporating from the copious dew that transformed our heavy elastic and cotton practice gear into individual saunas as our exertions increased. After “Down-Ups,” “monkey rolls” and “Bull in the Ring” our practice uniforms were wringing-wet and ten pounds heavier. We were also a bit bruised. By the time practice was over, the field had dried out so “Sahara-like” that the only place more arid was the inside of our mouths. During those days there was no time limit to practice and water was withheld to make you tougher. Coaches can’t do that now and I am glad. We were kids who grew up without air conditioning and spent our summer days outside working or playing because it was actually cooler there than inside our homes. “You chaps get outside!” shouted by my grandmother was the order that kept me “acclimated.” If you did that to a kid today he would simply die from heat and dehydration. Even though we thought we were dying, it was just a form of heat “castration” …from sweating our balls off! I remember nursing on the edge of a bloody sweat-soaked towel in hopes of getting a single drop of moisture.

Time limits, unlimited water hydration and lighter, less water absorbent uniforms have changed the “sacraments” of football since I played and since I retired from coaching football. For the most part I think they are good changes although it is sometimes hard to recognize the game today as the one I played as a boy. Bull and the Ring along with Oklahoma drills have been outlawed as has using the head as a weapon since we have become more concerned about safety. Do I think our brand of football was tougher? Most assuredly! But I don’t guess “three yards and a cloud of dust” was nearly as much fun as the new version. Parishioners have embraced the new version and still cheer that “My god is better than your god!” no matter how many times the ball is thrown. Congregations have swelled at the cathedrals throughout the nation – not just in the South. Even our most conservative “ministers” are throwing the ball all over the field and the participation of “acolytes” has definitely increased. Still I find myself worshipping at the altars of Georgia Tech or the service academies that still run the option, at least when they are not playing the Tigers in the much improved cathedral known as Death Valley.

Good luck to all area football denominations, not just the Tigers and Gamecocks. The Paladins, Terriers, Blue Hose, Mounties and Indians…I mean Wolves. These, along with others, give us plenty of reason to celebrate and demonstrate our Southern gridiron faith…faith our team will complete the season successfully both in wins and over the devil himself…our in-state rivals.

For more unique life stories by humorist Don Miller visit his author’s page at http://goo.gl/lomuQf

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