The University of Montana’s library now stands on the grounds of the original Dornblaser Field, the unpretentious, stone-and-ivy stadium at the base of Mount Sentinel.
College football certainly is not the same game I discovered on that Saturday afternoon 50 years ago, cheering for the Montana Grizzlies against British Columbia. So much has changed, making the sport barely recognizable.
I love it, anyway.
Detailing all of the problems with modern college football could fill this section. The facilities arms race on campuses, athletes’ off-field behavior, exorbitant coaches’ salaries and television networks that dictate kickoff times are just some of the issues that plague the sport and may never be fixed.
I’m not overlooking any of those flaws, just accepting them as part of the package. The sport is outgrowing amateurism, turning into a huge business operation and threatening to destroy the collegiate model of athletics. Yet at its core, the game retains everything that made watching the Grizzlies so much fun for a kid in the mid-1960s, even if the home team usually lost.
I love the campus scenes, the passion on the field and in the stands, the buildup to kickoff, the strategy and the rhythm of the game — how one play can determine an outcome, and you never know when that play will occur.
Maybe too much of that naïve child’s outlook still lives within me. Or perhaps spending 50 years with a revolving series of attachments to 15 schools at various levels and locations where a father and brother have coached — from Oregon State to Boston College, from South Dakota State to Texas A&M — has warped any reasonable perspective of college football’s relative value.
I’m comforted in knowing I’m not the only one who cares about this stuff.
Enabled by my own profession, I’ll spend four nights in the coming week watching Utah, BYU, Utah State and Gary Andersen’s Wisconsin team play in front of roughly 250,000 fans. Those folks undoubtedly have spent as much time as I have pondering some combination of these questions:
Would transfer quarterback Kendal Thompson overtake Travis Wilson as Utah’s starter? Would BYU’s Taysom Hill become a more efficient passer? Would Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton resemble his old self in his return from a knee injury?
Some people, including the more reasoned member of my household, would say that questions of greater importance face our society. She would be correct.
But looking back over 50 years of college football, I find so many moments that have rewarded and reinforced my level of devotion.
That’s the impact of this game. It bonds and divides us. It thrills us and breaks our hearts. It reveals us, bringing out our best and worst qualities. It inspires and disappoints us. Without it, life wouldn’t be the same, would it?
The day after Thanksgiving in 1999 resonates with me. A week after 12 students died in the collapse of a bonfire stack, Texas A&M hosted Texas. I’ve often relived that day: Doves and balloons are released into the sky before kickoff. The visiting band plays the Intermezzo from Carmen at halftime. The Longhorns take a 16-6 lead in the third quarter. Matt Bumgardner catches the go-ahead touchdown pass for Texas A&M. Brian Gamble’s recovery of Major Applewhite’s fumble clinches the Aggies’ 20-16 victory.
Watching the documentary video, I always know what’s coming next. Still, every one of those scenes moves me every time. The best day of my life? No. The most memorable? Absolutely.
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