Southeastern Louisiana University cinched their conference championship tonight. It was really fun to be there and be a part of the celebration. My friend Gretchen and I showed up at the tailgate at around noon. The game started at 3 PM, and, as usual, in November it was 8o something degrees. We sweated all afternoon until the sun went down, and then, we froze to death in 68 degree temperatures. I don’t know why my body is processing the weather the way it is, but what used to be hot is now cold to me. We spent part of the afternoon shopping in the University Bookstore trying to get something gold to wear. Then, we headed over to the Former Football Players tailgate.
I never really got to experience college football. I had a job in the Sports Information Department, and my task on football nights was to keep the official scorebook. Seated in the press box with my boss, Larry, I penciled in yardage gained and loss, first downs, interceptions and fumbles and otherwise interpreted Larry’s screaming monologue detailing the events of the night. At halftime, as the student worker, I passed out some awful white bread, ham and mayonnaise sandwiches to the media. While my fellow co-eds were having the time of their lives, cheering in the stands and sipping on whiskey, I was working to the tune of about $3 an hour. By the time I left the press box and walked down the stadium steps to leave for the night, Strawberry Stadium’s lights were out, the field was vacant and the night was done.
I remember watching from the press box as former players would go out onto the field at halftime, and I didn’t really think much of it. Here were these old guys still showing up at a small town football game on Saturday night. In the ignorance of youth, I thought that the moments of college were just the beginning of something greater and bigger that would make being at Southeastern pale in comparison. Why would those old fogies be spending their Saturday night back here?
I started this blog because I began to realize that it’s not the big headlines in life that are important. It’s the small headlines, the stories – the moments – the everyday adventures that mean the most to me. The moments that touch my soul are the ones that involve emotion and sentiment. I was really touched today by the legacy that the Former Football Players group is creating. A couple of the younger former players had killed an alligator and made a sauce piquante. (Ah … they didn’t kill it at the tailgate.) I was devastated when I walked up and they were scraping the bottom of the pot to put a few tablespoonsful on a plate of potato salad. All around me I could hear stories being told and shared laughter about times past. The sentimentality was palpable.
Southeastern discontinued football for a number of years, so there is a gap in its football history. The unfortunate side effect of this is that some momentum was lost in building a legacy. What I’ve learned about football teams from being around my former classmates is that they have a unique bond that is pretty difficult to duplicate. Many of these men were born and raised in small towns across the Southeastern United States. They were big fish in a small pond when it came to football, and most were not the biggest fish. The really big fish went to the big schools like LSU, Alabama and other Southeastern Conference Schools. I had brothers that played football, and it was a lifestyle. They were on the field for two-a-days long before school got back in session in the deep south scorching heat of August. They had to love the game to stay committed to it. While others enjoyed the football games and socializing, the players played their hearts out. For my classmates at Southeastern, they ended up doing it all over again at a small college. I can only imagine what it might be have been like for them.
In high school, they went home after practice and games, but in college, home was with their team. Not only did they show up on campus long before the student body, they lived together, ate together, practiced together, played together and partied together. That’s a lot of togetherness for a bunch of testosterone-driven young men. Most showed up on campus as country boys and left four years later as young men. It was where they grew up. And their family – their team – sweated with them in jerseys of green and gold. As a woman and definitely never a football player, I can’t imagine what that kind of closeness feels like. I was close to my friends in the dorm, but I didn’t work with them. I certainly didn’t get out on a field and sweat and learn new skills and get the heck beat out of me. I didn’t show up on a line on Saturday night with the whole town watching and compete. I didn’t share the thrill of victory nor the agony of defeat. I can’t imagine what that kind of bond would be like. And, I certainly can’t imagine what it might be to leave it.
I talked with my old boss, Larry, about why he still works with this group of former players in putting together tailgates when he could be retired. He tried to act like it was because he gets paid, but I finally got him to admit that it was really a labor of love. He had heard complaints over the years from former players that the only thing the college wanted from them was their money, and he really felt the connection and the value of former players went much deeper than that. He wanted to be a part of something that was of value for the former players. The younger players I talked to were engaged with this alumni group because they felt they had something in common with the older guys. They had all played for the same team. Don, one of the former players from my generation, said that the game had changed, the new guys had 3 sets of jerseys instead of the one he had, but they all played the same game. The game connected them across age, culture and time.
I sat down next to Ormando right before I walked over to the stadium, and I asked him how long he’d been coming back. He said he’d come the first time a couple of years ago and a couple of times last year. He’s finding himself coming more frequently now because he’s afraid if he misses a game, he’ll miss somebody he wants to see. I got this visual of this tailgate being a hub for these guys. I get the feeling this is sort of “home” for them. And, the players that are holding this together and making this happen week after week are creating a space for those that are ready to come back. As I’ve caught up with each one of them that I knew, each one came back for a specific reason at a specific time, and they were so happy to see the faces of their boyhood waiting for them in Friendship Circle. It would have been really sad if no one had been there to greet them.
At the end of the game tonight, part of the student body flooded onto the field to congratulate the players. The band played our alma mater led by a player who had jumped up into the stands to lead the band in a moment of celebration. Video-taped congratulations played on the scoreboard. Former players on the field congratulated tonight’s heroes. I walked away thinking of how that moment is a memory in the making. The young people probably naively think that this will be one of many evenings like this in their lives. Those of us who are older know that some things only happen once in a lifetime. Some of the best moments are the ones that are spent in youth when there is nothing to worry about. There’s nothing but a field, a score, Saturday night lights, an evening ripe with celebration and the sweet taste of victory on your breath. One day these players will long to tell the story of tonight’s conference win. They will be balding, middle-aged, in need of dropping a few pounds and sporting a few scars. I hope the former players tailgate will be there …. waiting …… with alligator sauce picante and potato salad ….. with open arms …. with laughter and memories …… for their homecomings ……one by glorious one.
BTW … there’s one Thursday night for the Nicholl’s game… y’all come on by!