It was September of 1996. I had been at Michigan State University (MSU) for about a month. I was walking from the bus stop to the Engineering building as usual when I noticed a huge crowd of people in a parking lot. It was rare sight here and I was both scared and overwhelmed by the sight. On close observation they were chugging beer from cans and flipping what seemed like raw meat on a grill. I was later to learn that the grill was called a barbecue and the folks that were gathered in the parking lot were “tailgating”, essentially enjoying themselves before a big football game! This image never left for me years and still stays with me after having acquired a different connotation.
That image also sort of defined the personality of a football game for me; people with huge bodies and sometimes big tummies, hitting each other. I was quite shocked at the rashness of the game, which seemed to lack finesse similar to barbequing in the parking lot. I obviously was looking at it from the lens of cricket, since that is a sport close to my heart. So football only struck me as anti-cricket, which I felt was a lot more technique driven. So I committed several heresies of avoiding the “Super Bowl”.
My cricket obsession occupied my free time. Before I realized, there were only 2 months left before graduation. There was peer pressure to watch at least one football game at the stadium. So I, along with some desi friends joined the masses that teemed into the stadium and watched a game. It never occurred to me till then that this game was so popular. In fact I had ignored its massive presence. Lansing MI, home of MSU, a small, sleepy town with 40,000 students, suddenly had a full stadium with 75,000 people! This daunting crowd watching the game struck me as a surreal experience! I can’t recollect if I watched the game or the people. And I just didn’t understand the game at all.
Soon after, my brother decided to go to the University of Michigan and it shocked me that he took to football like fish to water. I couldn’t understand his liking for the sport, because unlike me, he never really watched a lot of sports growing up. I then consoled myself thinking that it was because he was 6’2” and 200 lbs that he probably related to it. By then I was used to hearing football idioms like “punt to someone else”, “carry the ball” or “having a first down” and so on. I had realized by then that football was an important facet of communication, a language which was more familiar to my brother than to me, because he felt a natural affinity for the game. This sparked a bit of interest in me and when on a Sunday he asked me to accompany our dad to the games, I leapt at the opportunity. More over, the tickets were free! Believe it or not, this stadium was even bigger than the MSU stadium. This was a game against Ohio State University (OSU), who U of M had a big rivalry with, and that day, there were 108,000 people at the stadium which was a record. And this time I gave in to the excitement. I remember my late dad telling me to tone down my support for OSU as he felt it could be ‘life-threatening’! He thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle though, along with me.
The move to San Diego took away my hesitation to involve with football. A more “white” neighborhood with highly social neighbors brought a lot more exposure to non-desi activities, including football. What really got me committed to the game was fantasy football. It made me follow performances of teams that I would otherwise not care to follow. I ventured into it as a way to know my neighbors better; little did I know then that I was entering a long-term relationship with the game!
I was mesmerized by the athleticism of the players, their swiftness, technique, endurance and by the sheer unpredictability of the game! It is an adrenaline rush, unlike in any game of cricket that I had seen before. Watching the Rose Bowl two years back, at my alma mater with my FIL and BIL, at the same stadium where I refused to ‘get to know’ football was one of the most magical experiences of my life! In that very stadium I was rooting for MSU; I was in a frenzy like the crowd which had overwhelmed me before. I couldn’t believe that I had changed!
And, so the love affair continues. The real dangers of football in terms of concussions and mental disorders nag away. But, when the action starts, all that is forgotten in the sheer excitement and adrenaline rush associated with this most violent of sports. It is hard to explain why I like it. Maybe it appeals to a ‘baser’ me or may be it is the sheer awe for the players and my realization that I could never be one of them even if I wanted! Long live football!