What’s It Like Following A College Team?
There is always a deterministic sense of following hometown teams. I would guess that the majority of Cal fans are also Bay Area fans (or SoCal counterparts), and their emotions fall and rise with the As and the Giants, the 49ers and the Raiders, Warriors and Sharks. You associate with these teams earlier, it’ll always carry more weight. But there’s also been a traditional sense of distance you feel with these athletes. They’re pros, and they’ve already obligated themselves to something higher; we’re just amateurs watching from the stands, second-guessing our prognostications and re-defining our expectations.
For most college fans though it starts much later. Unless your parents are diehard alums, you aren’t born with the burden. It starts young. Unless you’re a school steeped in tradition, where the bandwagoners flaunt the colors and hate on each other like the posers they are, you almost certainly have to end up attending the school to stick with them.
I only have one hometown team (the Bills), and the joy I’d have for them to win a Super Bowl would be ten times what it’d be like to see Cal make a Rose Bowl. But it’s the team more so than the players that give me pride; although individuals, more than in any other sport, a team wins the title. It’s a collective spirit that drives the enterprise, a common pursuit of one goal that outweighs fame and fortune.
In college, except for the teams with so-called tradition and history, it’s something deeper–they’re our guys from the beginning. We can relate to the players because we share a common experience of entering through one place. As I begin my passage through and out of Cal, I can only stare at wonder at the work they must put in. They’re my damn age, and I have enough difficulty getting out of bed every morning. These guys are hauling ass to practice almost every day for half the year. There’s no incentive to this other than love for the game and the dreams of what lie beyond. And over 90 percent of them will never touch the NFL; their Personal Destinies lie elsewhere.
How many of them have the skills to get to the next level? Who can incorporate their game to benefit others? Which quarterbacks show the flexibility to develop their game? Which running backs are physical enough to handle the monstrous NFL linebacker? Which defenders show a knack for being at the right place at the right time? Who can follow their coaches while still displaying their own ingenuity at the same time? We ask those questions about Aaron Rodgers now, as he saddles into the position a legend once occupied.
More importantly, we contemplate the potential, the possibilities of what these individuals can do for fifteen weeks, what they can prove to their teammates and themselves. The characters change with every season, but they don’t get any less colorful or spectacular to watch. It’s like watching that first episode of Band of Brothers, and seeing everyone coalesce into a unit before shipping off to war. What they’re getting in college is basic training before parachuting into Normandy a few years later. They’re only at the start.
And the individuals around them reflected the personality that talented individuals reflect in their outward persona. Win or lose, they were an intriguing bunch that stayed out of the Fulmer Cup mix. Marshawn was just Marshawn, a character who exploded with potential and Applebees runs. There were the silent warriors like Mebane and Rulon Davis, leaders by example and by experience. Greg Van Hoesen and Daymeion Hughes earned their colors on and off the field–literally. Joe Ayoob continues to pursue the dream of making it one day, in spite of the vitriol he experienced during his time here.
There was DeSean Jackson, modelling himself into an unstoppable video game character for the next generation of Madden lovers. You had Robert Jordan, who could have been a star for perhaps any other team in the conference, but opted instead to be that steady second/third option on a team that went much further. Desmond Bishop wore his cleats to grade school; still holds onto them today. The list goes on and on. Everywhere you looked you could find individuals who played for the game without forgetting they had lives beyond it.
Well, except for Steve Levy. He might be an asshole.
What made me love Tedford’s Bears is they infused style into their play. There was always the potential for something crazy to happen. We developed a craving of the immeasurable and the unforseeable. During the dominating 2004-2007 run (ending with the Oregon State defeat), when the Bears went 33-9 it was less a matter of whether we were going to win and more a consequence of how we would win. It was an unshakable confidence, that either our running backs would take it, whether our playmakers would deliver impressive plays, whether our defense would flex their muscle and get the stops they needed. Sometimes it all came together, sometimes one element would step up more than usual, but 4 times out of 5 it’d produce victory. We’d comeback late, we’d blow teams out, we’d shut offenses down. And then we came back the next Saturday and did the same thing all over again.
And that was the saddest part of last year’s slide. Somewhere along the way style got lost and the players began fending for themselves. The O-line began missing a few more blocks than usual. The defense, a makeshift band racked up by injuries, crumbled. Longshore gimped around heroically No more of Jackson dashing around for glory, when he realized. Even the Hawk wasn’t flapping his wings as much as he used to. Once the style left, they became just another team, not the Bears that I’d followed so vigorously the past two years. And it brought out the worst in the fan, the players, and the coaches. It was a cataclysm that everyone wanted to escape.
So we’re beginning again, another season rift with possibility and promise. We begin anew, with a new cast of characters ready to usher in the next age of Cal football. One where the glory of past Bears diverge into the pathways laid out for them in the pros. One with a new set of amatuers rising to the task of leaping to glory.
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