For me, Labor Day weekend always means the start of football. Every few years or so, pro football will kick off its regular season on the Sunday before the holiday but, more often than not, Labor Day is exclusively tied to college football. Tomorrow and Sunday will bring an unusually tasty menu of big games between traditional powers: Alabama vs USC, Clemson vs Auburn, Texas vs. Notre Dame. I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.
My love for college football started when I was 11 years old. That was 1982, Herschel Walker’s Heisman Trophy-winning season, so I naturally became a devoted Georgia Bulldogs fan. Nobody told me at the time that the Bulldogs would not return to the Sugar Bowl for another 20 years after that season. Maybe I would have chosen to root for Alabama if I had been able to peer into the future.
As the years passed, my football obsession grew. On Labor Day weekend of 1984, my father and I were invited to go water skiing on a friend’s boat at West Point Lake. I didn’t want to go. It was the start of college football, and I intended to plop myself on the downstairs couch, eat popcorn and watch games all day. I finally agreed to go to the lake after my dad dug up a tiny little transistor radio so that I could listen to the action of the Georgia-Southern Miss game.
The Bulldogs had a young, inexperienced offense that year, and Southern Miss was pretty good. The game was back-and-forth between the two teams. As we rode in the boat, watching my friend glide in and out of our wake on his slalom ski, I held the radio to my ear and sweated out the final minutes of the 26-19 Georgia win. I remember that the Dawgs’ Kevin Butler (who went on the play for the 1985 Chicago Bears) kicked four field goals in that game. I went home that day sunburned and happy.
Looking back, it probably seemed odd that a 13-year-old boy would prefer to listen to a football game on the radio rather than swim, water-ski and wrestle on the lake’s muddy shore with his friend. Even now I have to shake my head at the number of gorgeous fall afternoons I spent indoors watching football games on TV, regardless of whether the action was SEC, Big Ten, ACC or the NFL. At a time when I was crossing that uncomfortable void between boyhood and adolescence, televised football and other sports were something I could count on every weekend. I might be carrying a D-minus average in Algebra, I might be afraid to talk to the girl sitting in front of me in seventh period, but there was always a chance the Georgia would rise up and beat Auburn on Saturday afternoon (they usually didn’t, though).
Football doesn’t mean as much to me now as it did then, but I still enjoy watching the games, even with all the money, corruption and other negative things swirling around big-time athletics. As the great Alabama coach Bear Bryant once growled, “I do love the football.”