x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

NCAA football: huge crowds and high passion

Professional sports may dominate in most of the world, but in many parts of the United States it is the college game that attracts the most loyal supporters.

Dwayne Gilbert's motorhome was parked, unoccupied, for several days in its reserved spot near Sanford Stadium at the University of Georgia. Gilbert's beloved Georgia Bulldogs football team open their season today, and stationing his vehicle in close proximity to ground zero kept him emotionally connected in the days leading up to the blessed event. The clash today with Louisiana-Lafayette will be the 424th consecutive Georgia game Gilbert has attended. That is every game, home and away, for 35 seasons. The retired law enforcement officer is 83 years old, and has been an avid fan almost since the leather-helmet era. "I don't hunt, I don't fish and I don't golf," he said. "This has been my passion through the years." Such fervour is surprising, given this factor:

He never attended the university. College football's huge popularity in the US is rooted in support from graduates of each school. But it thrives because those degree-wielding fans are complemented by tens of thousands of others with less direct links. Notre Dame, the country's most legendary programme, is noted for its nationwide fan base, adherents whose only shared background is Roman Catholicism - and the blue and gold of the Fighting Irish.

Most fans, though, are like Gilbert, and become attached to a team based on geographical affinity. He has lived in Georgia his entire life, and he loves football at all levels. The one in the middle - between high school and professional - is his favourite, and he adopted the Bulldogs as his team in 1948. The University of Georgia belongs to the 12-member Southeastern Conference (SEC), the gold standard for college football. SEC games have been the best-attended of all college leagues for 12 consecutive years, averaging 76,288 fans per game last season.

That is almost 8,000 more than the average attendance in the professional National Football League, where 32 teams drew an average of 68,420 fans per game. The zeal with which American southerners approach college football is partly explained by the absence of NFL teams in the south until the mid-1960s, when expansion brought in Miami, Atlanta and New Orleans. With no professional team to rally around, football fans latched onto college teams - even if they had never set foot in one of the classrooms.

Rabid enthusiasm is hardly limited to the south, however. Four teams, all in other regions of the county, eclipsed average crowds of 100,000 last season - Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State and Texas. Attendance last season at the 120 colleges in the top tier of competition - which includes mid-sized schools with tepid backing - was more than 34 million, an average of 45,545 per game. While television viewership of the NFL is unparalleled in American sports, the college football TV audience continues to grow. The major conferences have deals with networks that are more valuable than ever, and ratings for the 34 post-season bowl games soared eight per cent last season even as fans complained about the lack of a playoff tournament.

Football aficionados who prefer the campus version cite elements such as marching bands, school songs and mascots, none more esteemed than Uga, a bulldog that prowls and growls on the sidelines of Georgia games. The death of one of the dogs - Uga VII expired last year - triggers statewide sorrow and a careful process to select a successor. In fact, no canine has yet to pass muster, so an interim Uga will fill in this season.

College football maintains many such traditions that may strike followers of the pro game as corny. At Clemson, whose stadium is deliciously known as Death Valley, players headed towards the field pause at a pedestal to pat Howard's Rock, named after Frank Howard, a former coach. It is believed to imbue the Tigers with mystical powers. At Florida State, a Seminole Indian riding a horse named Renegade plants a flaming spear at midfield just before the kick-off of each home game.

At the University of Southern California, home of the Trojans, the band's drum major stabs the 50-yard line with his sword. At Oklahoma, the inciter is the Sooner Schooner, a horse-drawn covered wagon. At Georgia Tech, it is the Ramblin' Wreck, a 1930 Model A Ford. At Ohio State, it is the dotting of the i (in the word "Ohio") by a member of the marching band. At Colorado, it is the running of Ralphie, a buffalo. (No costume here; he is the real deal.)

Rivalries are another appeal. While fans of the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings may dislike each other, the animosity does not come close to the intense feelings in rivalries such as Michigan-Ohio State or Texas-Oklahoma or California-Stanford. Samuel P Chandler, an attorney and a University of Kentucky graduate, got a taste of his alma mater's rivalry with the University of Tennessee at age 10 with his father. This landmark season will be his 50th in a row attending the Kentucky-Tennessee game.

He persists even though his father is long deceased and his Wildcats have lost 25 consecutive games to their rivals, the longest stretch of futility in the country. "It is something that brings order to one's life," Chandler said. For Kentuckians, where basketball is king, the college preference carries over to the winter sport. The Wildcats' following is almost cult-like, accompanying the team by the thousands to road games.

No rivalry in any American sport compares to Duke and North Carolina in basketball, which is intensified by the closeness of their campuses, about 13 kilometres apart. Hundreds of Duke students have been known to line up two months in advance for tickets to the North Carolina game, forming a tent city. (Yes, the rules allowed them to break away from the queue to attend classes.) Alumni often explain their druthers with a variation of this quote: "Nobody ever graduated from the University of Green Bay Packers."

Those who are not alumni, like Gilbert, are just as passionate about their chosen schools, even if the initial connection was pure happenstance. Gilbert enlisted in the Marine Corps shortly after completing high school and said he delighted in watching military teams play on bases in the South Pacific. Returning home with his appetite for football whetted, he became a state trooper. Gilbert remembers the day when he became infatuated with the Bulldogs as if it were last month.

"November 17, 1948," he said. Assigned to direct pre-game traffic outside the stadium, Gilbert later ducked inside and caught Georgia beating rival Georgia Tech. "It kind of grew on me from there," he said. "I told my sergeant to keep putting me on [traffic] patrol." Gilbert soon began sitting for full games alongside a friend with season tickets. His election to county sheriff, a prestigious position, opened the door to privileges. He drew closer to the program, dropping in on some practices during a time when the rules made boosters welcome.

Since his consecutive games streak started in 1975, Gilbert has put in long-haul-trucker miles to travel to Georgia road games. At first, just he and his wife would drive. (Their divorce in 1980, incidentally, was unrelated to his embrace of the Bulldogs. "She enjoyed it as much as I did," he said.) The travelling party eventually expanded to eight, with Gilbert at the wheel of his Winnebago caravan. One season, when Georgia played three consecutive road games, Gilbert turned the schedule into an adventure, spending all three weeks on the road.

Next month, a cross-country journey for a game at Colorado - about 2,400km - will break his long-distance driving record, now held by a trip to a bowl game in El Paso, Texas. Gilbert has flown to only two games. For one, he had no viable option - a bowl game in Hawaii, which he attended solo. "My wife wouldn't watch a football game on Christmas Day," said Gilbert, who has since remarried another like-minded soul.

His health has cooperated, though not without a scare. Gilbert discovered internal bleeding in the restroom at a game last season. He endured until the last play, of course, then was unable to walk to his car.An ambulance carried him to a hospital, where he stayed for three days. The following Saturday, he was back in his seat at Sanford Stadium, singing, "Glory to old Georgia ?" More recently, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. But with a clean bill of health, it is still half-speed ahead into this season."I used to holler and fuss at 'em," he said of the Bulldogs. Now his 83-year-old legs do not allow for jumping up and down.

Gilbert has patronized the state's professional team, the Atlanta Falcons, over the years, but it never captivated him. "There's not a whole lot of devotion to the [NFL] teams from the players," he said. "It's too much about the money." College football, he said, "just suits me better". The Bulldogs suit him best, even though he earned his degree at Georgia State, which just began a football programme this season.

"Georgia is almost like my school," he said. "Wish I'd graduated from there." sports@thenational.ae