A Sense of Where You Aren't
In looking at colleges, I knew that I wanted to stay close to home and study at a first-rate journalism program. I got both at the College of New Jersey, and I have no regrets about my choice. But part of me wonders: What if I had gone to a bigger school, like USC or Texas? I know it wouldn’t have helped my game. Even with TCNJ’s two girls for every guy ratio, my college experience was bereft of boobs. That failure had nothing to do with locale and everything to do with shoddy self-confidence. (Rebuilding it was a kind of inexpensive version of graduate school.) A party-centric campus filled with long-limbed, open-minded coeds would have done me little good.
But it would have been nice to have a team that belonged to me. As much as I love the Mets and the Knicks, I don’t have a real connection to them. I didn’t work for either organization; neither did any friends or family members. No one passed along a love for those teams like it was a prized heirloom. When you root for a college team, you root for your own history. This school made me the person I am today. Or you’re rooting for your state or your hometown, both of which define us despite our efforts.
The College of New Jersey had its rivalries, but it was hard to get crazed over Division III programs, especially since half the campus fled by Friday afternoon for mom’s cooking or for a significant other’s pad. My parents went to college purely for utilitarian purposes. Both commuted and had no interest in sports. My dad had more pressing concerns. He worked full-time and, as a native of Buenos Aires, had to adjust to a new language. I grew up in central New Jersey, which was Rutgers territory. The campus was hardly in my backyard and the school—its teams were mediocre at best during my childhood—didn’t set the state’s sporting scene.
It’s a different story elsewhere. Down south, the University of Georgia and the University of Florida football teams have enjoyed a bitter rivalry dating back to 1904. The two teams have played every year since 1944. It’s a big deal. When Florida native Joe Creamons accepted Georgia’s scholarship offer, Creamons’s father didn’t speak to his son for three months. Veteran TV sports reporter Julie Moran said that the atmosphere in Jacksonville, where most of the games take place, “never was duplicated at any college football game I ever saw or worked on.” Robbie Burns, a lifelong Georgia fan, rescheduled his wedding so it wouldn’t coincide with the long-running tilt.
According to Burns, one play—“the greatest moment in Georgia football history”—defines the annual contest: the last-minute touchdown pass from Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott in the November 1980 game. The 93-yard play prevented Florida, a program on the rise, from winning its first SEC (Southeastern Conference) title. The touchdown preserved Georgia’s undefeated season and contributed to its first national championship. Burns’s self-published book, Belue to Scott!, focuses on the game and that famous pass. The slim effort—128 pages of oral history over twenty, photo-heavy chapters and an appendix—belies its superlative reporting. The author doesn’t just borrow from old newspaper articles or offer hokey memories. Burns acquires insights from spectators, players and coaches from both sides, and even the game’s referees. He recounts the history of the programs—Florida was striving for legitimacy; Georgia, tired of coming up short, wanted a national championship—and its fans. We’re never hunting for significance or a reason to care.
The shortness of Belue to Scott! is even an asset; everything included here feels necessary, allowing Burns to highlight the heartache and elation in one game. The expressions of joy were explosive. Tony Barnhart, now with CBS Sports, was so excited over his alma mater’s victory that he accidentally smashed his hotel room’s lamp. The hotel manager, a Florida State fan, forgave Barnhart after the young reporter admitted he was rooting against Florida. After Florida’s breakdown—some players got complacent, taunting Georgia during that last, fateful series—defensive tackle Dock Luckie learned to never let his guard down. “Before I go to sleep,” he tells Burns, “I leave one eye open before I close the other one because I want to make sure everything is alright.” Wayne Peace, the losing Florida quarterback, still can’t let the defeat go: “Now that I’m old, fat, and bald, you definitely remember the hurt.”
Though not a perfect book, Burns captures the raucous, almost orgasmic thrill of attending a game that’s a cultural event or the key component of a person’s identity. Strangers to this phenomenon (like myself) will finally understand what that’s like; others will eagerly anticipate the day their team storms out of the tunnel and plays for something that matters. The feeling belongs to a region, but it’s something everyone craves.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in Bucks County, PA with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.