It’s in the Blood
Examining the ire of college football fans and why Noles love to hate Gators—and vice versa
The only thing Americans agree on is that we don’t agree on much of anything. Cat people look askance at dog people, craft-brewery hipsters sneer at Bud Light drinkers, Star Trek aficionados think Star Wars lovers need to get a life, United Methodists find Southern Baptists just a shade too literal in their Biblical exegesis, and the country remains deeply torn between those who prefer a vinegar barbecue sauce, those who will ingest only the mustard-based variety and those who are prepared to fight for the tomato–brown
Things get even worse when it comes to politics. Democrats despise Republicans as race-baiting, Republicans treat Democrats as plague carriers. Bernie Bros still refuse to believe that Hillary Clinton beat them, while the Bushes have practically sworn a blood oath against House Trump, and Trumpeters blame the media and the elites and the immigrants and the elite media immigrants.
Social commentators and professional jeremiad writers act as though the country’s fragmentation is new, to which I say: Where have y’all been?
College football has been proudly dividing Americans since 1869, when Rutgers played the College of New Jersey—later known as Princeton—and won 6–4. There is no hatred like football hatred. In 1893, the University of Georgia and the Georgia Institute of Technology took the field against each other for the first time. Georgia fans threw rocks at Yellow Jacket players during the game, which Tech won 28–6. The Bulldogs still sing “Glory, glory to ‘ole Georgia, and to hell with Georgia Tech!” The Jackets counter with the even less friendly
So then it’s up with the White and Gold
Down with the Red and the Black
Georgia Tech is out for a victory
We’ll drop our battle axe on Georgia’s head, CHOP!
Michigan and Ohio State have loathed each other since 1897; it seems legendary Buckeye coach Woody Hayes wouldn’t even utter the word “Michigan,” referring to it as “that state up north.” Clemson and South Carolina began their long series in 1896 but had to suspend it for a few years after the 1902 game, when a three-day riot broke out. The Gamecocks beat the Tigers (coached at the time by the great John Heisman) 12–6, but the real trouble began when SC fans started parading around with a poster of a victorious rooster pulling a tiger’s tail. Outraged, Clemson cadets marched to the enemy campus with swords and bayonets. A bloodbath was prevented by the concerted efforts of preachers, cops and coaches.
Texas versus Texas A&M, USC versus UCLA, LSU versus Ole Miss, Notre Dame versus anybody—we call these “rivalries.” Yeah, like the Sunni and the Shi’a are “rivals,” the Romans and the Visigoths were “rivals” and Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were “rivals.” More like blood feuds, vicious grudge matches. During the 1894 game between Harvard and Yale, nine players had to be hauled off the field: some bleeding, some concussed, one in a coma and two who got into a fistfight. Partisans of Mississippi State and the University of Mississippi have been known to impugn each other’s Christianity. In 2010, Ole Miss Rebels seem to have planted rumors that the MSU head coach was a Scientologist. In retaliation, MSU fans posted an online video juxtaposing the riots in 1962, when Ole Miss integrated, with a hooded Klansman and a modern-day frat boy drunkenly hollering racial slurs while the University of Mississippi band played “Dixie.”
Then there’s the Tide and the Tigers. A fan named Harvey Updyke became so unhinged by Alabama’s loss to Auburn in the 2010 Iron Bowl that he drove from Tuscaloosa to Auburn and doused the town’s Toomer’s Corner oak trees with a fearsome herbicide. These two live oaks were much beloved by the War Eagle Faithful, who were wont to festoon them with toilet paper in celebration of their victories. When asked why he killed two blameless trees, Updyke explained, “I just have too much ’Bama in me.”
And some people still think college football is “only a game.” Football has never been “only a game” in the Midwest, the South or especially, God knows, in the state of Florida, which, according to SBNation, ESPN and the rest of the sports-industrial complex, produces more top-drawer college talent than anywhere else, even Texas.
I was born and raised in Tallahassee, identifying myself as a Seminole before I was quite clear what one was, before I understood that I was a girl or redheaded or a Presbyterian. When I was eight years old, my daddy died—right at the beginning of football season. Naturally, I inherited his season tickets. Some families, shocked with grief, would have given up football. Or ignored it. Not us. My parents had been cheering for the Seminoles since 1949. It was culturally mandatory: football on Saturday, church on Sunday. Besides, my mother wanted a date to the game against the University of Florida. In November 1967, we traveled with my godparents across the Sewanee down to the hostile town of Gainesville, down to where the world was orange and blue, to where the Gator frat boys mocked us, yelling, “Girls’ school!”
Some history: Before the Civil War, the juvenile versions of the University of Florida and Florida State were twins, the seminary east of the Sewanee and the seminary west of it. In 1905, the Florida Legislature decided that the college in Gainesville would be for white boys only, the college in Tallahassee for white girls only, and the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College for black students. That changed in 1947—for the white people anyway. Both UF and FSU went co-ed. Men invaded the campus of the old Florida State College for Women, and within about five minutes put together a football team, named “The Seminoles” by a campus plebiscite (“Tarpons” and “Crackers” were other mascot possibilities), and demanded to play the Gators. UF, longtime members of the mighty Southeastern Conference, reacted as if a back hills sharecropper had applied to join the country club. It took three years of negotiations, the threat of legislation and the intervention of Gov. LeRoy Collins to finally force UF to play FSU in 1958. The Gators won almost all the games in the first ten years. “Never, FSU, never!” they’d say.
They shouted “Never, FSU, never!” that afternoon in 1967 as we sat huddled with the other Seminoles at Florida Field. Then, they stopped.
FSU won 21–16, the first time a Seminole team had beaten the mighty Gators in their own house. The adults jumped up and down like puppies. My godfather said he hated that my father wasn’t there to see it. But for me, joy was, as Mark Twain says, unconfined.
I got my first taste of the pure, identity-fired rapture that comes from your tribe, who are virtuous, noble and fearless, vanquishing the tribe from down the road—who had behaved like complete and utter jackasses. After that, I was hooked on the blood rush and the tackle lust of the game—even if I was only in the fourth grade.
People like me say they bleed garnet and gold, or crimson and white or orange and blue or orange and green—physiologically unlikely, but then we don’t say we are “fans” of the Bulldogs or the Longhorns or the Wolverines or, God help us, the Horned Frogs; we talk as though we actually belong to those species, as in: “My daddy is a Bulldog, and I’m a Bulldog, but my sister went to school in Oregon and now she’s a Duck.” We are who we are because we aren’t those jerks over there in Knoxville or Ann Arbor or Starkeville or College Station or Tempe.
College football divides the universe into Us versus Them, validating Us and dissing Them. That’s the whole point. Those of us who love the game are citizens of a psychic fiefdom, a country with invisible borders. You might belong to the Auburn Family or the Wolfpack. I live in the Seminole Nation—which is ridiculous, because there’s a real Seminole Nation, populated by real Native Americans. I’m appallingly white; they’re descendants of people who refused to surrender to the genocidal Andrew Jackson, who tried to run them out of Florida.
In college football, nothing is too trivial to fight about. At a bachelor party last April, a Mr. Everett L. Beauchamp IV took exception to the comments another guest made about his UF shirt, tried to fight the guy who disdained Gatordom, chased the guy in his truck and shot at him. According to the police report: “Shortly before 3 a.m. uniform patrollers found an impaired Beauchamp and his vehicle after he drove into the LSU Lakes at East Lakeshore near Stanford Avenue.”
It should be clear by now that the love of college football is a form of madness, a mental disorder that often takes hold in childhood. There’s no rational reason FSU and UF should despise each other so extravagantly. FSU and UF have a great deal in common: both red brick Gothic conglomerations set amidst the oaks of North Florida, both big state universities in smallish towns. Seen from space, Tallahassee and Gainesville look a lot alike. Yet Seminoles will tell you that there’s something fundamentally wrong, wrong at the cellular level, with Gators. Gators will tell you there’s something fundamentally wrong, wrong in the DNA, with Seminoles. Everybody’s correct. But as we limp through this unedifying election season, it might be worth clinging to the evident truth that politics is temporary—presidents come and presidents go—but college football is forever.
Unless the concussion thing gets so bad that we have to send the game the way of bear baiting, venatio (gladiators versus lions or elephants) and Viking skin pulling.