In case you weren’t spending your New Year’s Day morning watching the Gator Bowl on ESPN2, let me sum up: The mighty Wildcats of my alma mater, Northwestern University, swatted down the Mississippi State Bulldogs for their first bowl victory since the 1949 Rose Bowl. Also in 1949? My mom was born. NATO was established. The World Series saw the New York Yankees beat Brooklyn. So, you know, it’s been awhile.
When I began my college career, however, Northwestern hadn’t even been to a bowl since 1949. It was a tough slot, being a selective private school wedged among the huge state universities of the Big Ten. The football stands were sparsely populated of a Saturday, the students taken to entertaining themselves by having marshmallow fights and using our higher test scores as justification to chant derisively at the opposing teams (“That’s alright, that’s okay, you’ll all work for us someday.”) Victories were so rare that a goalpost was uprooted and marched into Lake Michigan pretty much every time we got a win.
But my freshman year, something strange happened: we started to not suck. It wasn’t a winning season or anything, but after three victories, we had to stop tearing up the field every time. The very next year, we went to the Rose Bowl.
I wasn’t good at college. I did fine academically, but I didn’t take advantage of the freedom and foolishness like a normal American teenager. Northwestern’s motto is “Quaecumque sunt vera,” meaning, “Whatsoever things are true,” and I was probably a little too hung up on truth at the time. Even at 17 years old, I knew what was reckless, what was careless, what was probably not a good idea. The mistake I made, however, was thinking that all those things were also pointless. Now more than twice that age again, I can see that some recklessness might have done me some good.
The closest I came was on those Saturday afternoons at Dyche Stadium, bundled up against November lake gusts, cheer-screaming with my classmates for Schnur and D’Wayne and Darnell, dancing along with the marching band to stay warm. As I watched the game in Jacksonville this week and saw today’s students doing all the same things (well, except for freezing their asses off), all those numb-toed, sore-throated hours came spinning back to me. When Coach Fitzgerald choked up in the post-game interview, I was right there with him, because I knew he remembered those Saturdays, too - he was our star linebacker during those shockingly triumphant seasons.
People say “we” in reference to their athletic teams, but for the first and last time in my life, college represented a point where I really felt camaraderie between myself, my team, and other fans. The players weren’t distant celebrity figures. They were the guys I met during visits to my big sister’s dorm, then the guys in my sociology class, then the guys asking my roommate out. They were kids and we were kids and watching them play was exhilarating and a little terrifying because it made us realize how fast it was all going by.
Time has taken that fear, but also some of that excitement. Is there ever another phase in our lives like that? I’ll never be the person who says college days were the best time of my life, but I can see now that it was a time like no other. I know all those students who were at the Gator Bowl – the ones on the field and the ones in the stands – have finals and frat parties and (if they’re not like me) a few hangovers to get through between now and graduation. A lot of it will blur together and someday, 15 years from now, they may have trouble remembering the names of their dorm-mates, let alone their senior thesis topic. But maybe, on one wintry afternoon, the sound of the fight song will bring it all back, and they’ll smile to remember who they once got to be.