By Justin Brouckaert
You insist that it you had gone to another Big Ten school, if you had gone to that other Big Ten school, it would have been too difficult to convert. You could have never bought that T-shirt, funneled through that stadium, loosed those letters from your mouth. This isn’t a matter of rivalries, but of principle. You were never really a Michigan Man, even though you were a Michigan Man. In reality, the school you graduated from capped its stadium at just under 10,000. The night you covered your first college football game for your school newspaper, Michigan drew 114,804 in its first ever night game, a 35-31 thriller over Notre Dame. Even though you couldn’t be excited about it like you used to be, even though you couldn’t be loyal to more than one school, to a school with which you had no ties, you knew there were simply some things geography had its way with. You know there were some rivalries you had to honor, some allegiances you couldn’t break, no matter how flimsy. You knew you’d need some space to be converted. You knew, you always knew, sooner or later you’d have to leave home behind.
Like the difference between studying roads and driving them, the realities of SEC country leave you feeling more disoriented the closer you get, even despite all you thought you knew. Here you get Vanderbilt instead of Penn State, Florida instead of Purdue. You pause, recalculate mileage & state capitals, study logos & colors. You ask your friend whether you want Georgia to win or lose, and she says she doesn’t know. You learn the alignment of the conference, the east and the west, the new geography of this pointed heart-shaped distortion they show on the 24-hour Doppler, always eighty plus and sunny or pouring rain. Someone on TV says there’s no such thing as an easy SEC matchup. Someone on TV says something about SEC speed. Your confession is this: whenever you watch football on TV now, you are always only watching how fast the safety closes, how quickly a linebacker plugs a hole. You are only ever thinking how it looks the same. You stream the Michigan game on your laptop, watch the Wolverines struggle against Akron to the final play. Later, you watch Alabama and Texas A&M in a shootout. You watch Vandy take South Carolina to the fourth quarter. You ask your friend who her favorite team is. She says, “I just hate everyone who isn’t us.”
In Michigan this would be obscene, these hordes of girls in black dresses and cowboy boots stumbling along the railroad tracks to the stadium. In Michigan they would be wearing leggings, but this is not Michigan. This is October in South Carolina, and October in South Carolina means 89 degrees. It means you learn for the first time that hoodies are just a little bit Midwestern, that in the South even a pair of khaki shorts looks out of place on game day. It means you realize you’ve never used the phrase “hoodie weather.” In Michigan you tailgated in coats and hoodies and jeans, held beers in mittened hands. You think of your single student tailgate lot with fondness, with just a small amount of pity as you get lost in Columbia searching for this one lot, this one lot amid a city of many. When you finally arrive, fraternity brothers will be playing corn hole and wearing sombreros. They will bring couches in their truck beds, mix peach vodka and orange juice, crush beer cans on their foreheads. You will sweat six beers through your T-shirt an hour before kickoff. The sun will beat and brown your neck. When two bros ask you, very politely, if you want to shotgun a beer, you will have to decline: for amid all this strangeness, all this heat and stickiness, all these dresses and boots and police offers blocking off roads, this one thing reminds you far too much of home. It reminds you so much of home it hurts.
You sit in the student section. You jump to Sandstorm, steal a rally towel and wave it. The campus newspaper writes often about fans leaving games early. Writers pen editorials chastising students for not realizing how lucky they are, and you try to keep yourself from laughing out loud when you read them in public. You try not to judge them so harshly for their adorable concerns. You take your undergraduate student section and you place it in this one. You place it again. You take your undergraduate stadium & stretch it wide and tall, add vendors and tunnels and porches and rails. You jump to Sandstorm. You realize that when you thought about the SEC, you only ever thought of it as a concept. You thought of it only as ‘Bama over LSU, 21-0, a game you watched mid-winter at a mid-Michigan bar. You watch the Gamecocks score 21 points in the first half, and you watch Kentucky answer with seven. At halftime you move down five rows. The student section thins, but only a little. Later, Steve Spurrier will thank the fans for staying past halftime, for making lots of noise. You remind yourself that this is probably expected. You remind yourself that students everywhere tire easily of being told what they are supposed to be.
You are a sucker for a team that can’t hold onto a lead—always have been. You tell yourself it doesn’t matter that Kentucky is only 1-3. You tell yourself this is the SEC. You tell yourself Michigan was only up seven on Minnesota at halftime. You remind yourself that this is the only part of your life where you allow space for drama. You remind yourself this is the only part of your life where you allow yourself to scream. Kentucky pulls within one score in the fourth quarter, but South Carolina closes them out. It would be too easy to call it an ugly win, but the truth is, not all of it was ugly. It simply wasn’t easy, is all. The fans stay to the end and walk out happy. Afterward, you think of how the Gamecocks got stuck with two bad calls, a touchdown that wasn’t a touchdown and a penalty that shouldn’t have been. You think of how you roared in disgust with the rest of the crowd. You think of how you turned to your friend and said, “That’s just a bad call. I’m not saying that because I’m a fan, I’m saying that because it was bad.” You think of how you tried to explain that your disgust was objective, untainted by fandom. You tried to think of ways to prove this. You try to think of reasons you should.