College Football and Its Fans

I have acquired, in spite of myself, a temperamental aversion to fandom. Recursive affinity for one’s own affinity for something, whether it be for a politician, a band, or a beer, seldom ends well (nor, I suppose, does a recursive affinity for one’s own temperamental aversions. But let’s not get too meta). Among the fans that have always piqued my particular suspicion were college football devotees, especially those middle-aged and older men who invest their emotional capital in a rotating roster of young athletes.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not one of those academic scolds who resents the cultural and bureaucratic dominance of university athletics. I agree with every word of Alex Massie’s encomium to college football. I just always believed that the grownups who schlep their folding chairs and propane grills to every home game ought to have something more worthwhile to do with their time and enthusiasm. Pouring such loyalty into an artificial tribe seemed symptomatic of otherwise empty lives.

Then I got to know my late father-in-law, whom we buried in West Virginia last Monday.

My wife’s father was the son of Byelorussian peasants, both of whom emgrated as children and moved to the West Virginia coalfields. His family and their peers rode out the Depression in a transplanted version of Slavic village life that gracefully combined small-scale corporate paternalism, unionized wage labor, and agrarian self-sufficiency. Like most immigrants of that generation and since, my father-in-law’s own father regarded education as the key to American meritocracy. His three sons worked accordingly hard, excelling in class and in athletics.

My father-in-law’s high school football career was distinguished enough to attract the attention of scouts from Virginia Tech, who recruited him and awarded him a full scholarship. The three-hour bus ride to Blacksburg was, at the time, as far as he had been from home. He told me once about arriving at school, stepping off the bus with his cardboard suitcase into a crowd of other football players, many of whom even had their own cars. His class discomfort must have been apparent, since the coach visited him that night and told him privately that no matter their different backgrounds, everyone starts from the same place on the practice field.

Now, in any movie about a plucky sports hero, this is where the strings come in. The bromide about sports as egalitarian wonderland is a tired one, but that’s because it’s been so true for so long. For my father-in-law, football not only opened the doors of American prosperity, but it dissolved the class antagonism that might have held him back once inside: he became the first football player ever to complete Tech’s engineering program in four years, and graduated with distinction.

Unlike many who “got out” of the coalfields, he returned to the mines and spent his career in the business. His combination of technical skill and managerial talent helped him rise through the ranks to senior executive positions. Notoriously tough and hard-working, he used persuasion and example to instill safety as the dominant ethos among his employees. By the end of his career, he could recount by name some of the miners whose lives he had saved, and could honestly boast in a dangerous industry that nobody had died under his authority.

All through his career, he remained passionately loyal to Tech football, even through the dark years when, according to his recounting, “you couldn’t give tickets away.” When I married my wife, I married into her family’s seats on the fifty yard line just a few years before the Michael Vick era. We rode to games in the same station wagon, emblazoned with the Hokies’ godawful colors of maroon and orange, that she had grown up tailgating from. As I learned more of her father’s biography, and as he plied me with fried chicken and team spirit, I grew gradually less leery of loud grown men in bright orange pants. Over the years, we made a few trips out to the house where he was born, watching the forest slowly reclaim it. The mountainside village, like all the coal camps, had withered in place, leaving a bleak reminder of what a football scholarship had allowed him to escape. Not every football fan can explain his allegiance in terms as dramatic and sympathetic, but I now try harder to give them all the benefit of the doubt.

A few years ago, my father-in-law was diagnosed with an incurable disease whose effect is best described as gradual asphyxiation. The grueling progress of the disease wore away his fullback’s frame, much of his sense of humor, and left him on portable oxygen around the clock. Even then, he managed to attend every home game (he lived about an hour away) until the night of his death. The Hokies won, 23 to 13.