Sunday, September 4, 2011

For love of the game

Yesterday, for the 51st year, by my count, I journeyed to my favorite college town in America--Lawrence, KS--to take in the opening of the college football season at my alma mater, the University of Kansas.

To be a football fan at Kansas is, well, hard to explain...or justify. We Kansans have reveled in the glory of some of the best to ever play the game--Gallopin' Gale Sayers; John Hadl, who was an All-American both as a running back and then as a quarterback; John Riggins, the middle brother of the wild Riggins clan; Nolan Cromwell, the best athlete I ever saw, who came to Lawrence from tiny Ransom, KS; and more recently, Touchdown Todd Reesing, the small kid nobody recruited, from Austin, TX, who only walked away as the most prolific quarterback in the school's history and the engineer of the most unlikely season in KU history, which was capped by a BCS bowl victory in the 2008 Orange Bowl.

We Kansas fans have also suffered through more than our fair share of ignominy. We've had the messy exit of Mark Mangino; the 39-year losing streak to Nebraska; a loss in the 1968 Orange Bowl due to having 12 men on the field on the final, clinching play; and years when we put an embarrassing product on the field and lost to teams such as North Dakota State, San Diego State, Kent State and other "directional" schools.

Yet, yesterday, just like I've done for all these years, I put on my crimson-and-blue gear, loaded the car with tailgate supplies, and set off for "the Hill," four hours ahead of game time.

I owe this love of the college game to the man who first took me over to KU those many years ago--my father. And, it was my dad who I called this afternoon so that he would have my eye-witness report on how the team looked.

My Dad is grayed, stooped, and battling a variety of health concerns. The topic of college football in the fall, and basketball in the winter, is just the antidote, though, to cheer him up. He had to quiz me about the young Jayhawk running backs, and, of course, regale me with how that 1961 backfield of Hadl, Curtis McClinton, Doyle Schick, and Bert Coan was "the best I've ever seen;" lament that the radio broadcast missed one of the touchdowns due to a commercial; and ask "what are we going to do about that defense?"

When I, with Dad and Mom, would drive the 45 miles to Lawrence, we'd park on a side street, unfold our old lawn chairs, and eat the sandwiches Mom had made--our 1960s version of a tailgate. The four-block walk to the stadium would be over brick-lined sidewalks and through fallen leaves of orange and brown. As we got closer to the stadium, students would be hawking game day mums for the ladies and pennants and caps for kids like me.

The stadium experience is far different now. There are big screen scoreboards in high definition. Hospitality tents dot the Hill which formerly, back in the day, was packed with those vying for a view of the game, but without paying for a ticket. I don't park on a side street anymore--I join the regulars in Lot 50 as a parking pass is now part of the price of season ticket admission.

What stays the same is the love of a fall Saturday in a beautiful college town, watching a sport played by young men wearing the colors of my school. My father exposed me to this game, explained the "X's and O's," and, most importantly, taught me what it means to be a fan. You see, in his eyes, a true fan is one who is always there--not only for the glory years of Reesing, Hadl and Riggins, but also for the years where success was measured by beating Kansas State and/or Missouri and hoping for off-season success in recruiting.

I will be forever grateful to my Dad for sharing his passion for this game with me. The sport is tarnished with the various off-field scandals and conference realignment talk dominating the sports pages but one thing remains constant--when they play between the lines, those representing our schools are galvanizing alumni and fans and giving us all hope for a taste of something special...and a chance to remember our own "best backfield we ever saw."

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