I have lived in Tennessee for less than a week. Last weekend we moved there from Illinois, my residence for the past 12 years and the passionate home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears. I grew up in Minnesota, in downtown Minneapolis, just down the street from the Metrodome, where the Vikings and the Minnesota Golden Gophers played football. So for the past 30 years I have been around football and watched grown-ups don the jerseys of their favorite players, paint their faces, and holler themselves hoarse rooting their teams on to victory.
But all that fervor I experienced in the Midwest can’t touch what I have so far encountered down South, even in our small neighborhood outside of Nashville. Take a 10-minute stroll and you’ll see license plates, flags, window decals, bumper stickers, and all forms of clothing representing the Georgia Bulldogs, Vanderbilt Commodores, Kentucky Wildcats, and Florida Gators—and all of them under the ubiquitous orange neon glow of the Tennessee Volunteers.
I’ve long heard it said that people in the South “take their football seriously.” Well, that’s an understatement. No soccer fan in England or Brazil can surpass the football passion of American Southerners. Here, it’s not a sport or a hobby; it’s a culture.
I usually scoff when I see such overblown expressions of devotion to a team. I am a fan, a dedicated one, too, but I am not one of those people. I take pride in my level-headedness (with the occasional TV remote toss for good measure) and thoughtfulness about my team and sports in general. These folks are rabid, though. They literally wear their loyalties where all can see, and so do their pick-up trucks and homes.
In short order, though, I came to realize I am wrong to react that way. It is judgmental, arrogant, and blind. In being a snob I failed to recognize something important: football matters here. It matters like nowhere else I’ve ever seen. And such a deeply rooted thing in a culture and in people’s lives can become an open doorway to me. Recognizing what people love and are invested in will help me relate to them and get to know them better. Instead of spurning the passion, I would be wise to try to understand it, at least as much as a Yankee can.
Names like Aaron Murray, A.J. McCarron, and Jadeveon Clowney need to become part of my vocabulary. It wouldn’t hurt if I studied up on traditional rivalries like “The Battle for the Golden Egg” or “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” Such players and traditions, for better or worse, shape life for millions of people. So it’s worth it to get over my pride and invest in the local culture, because it’s those lives that really matter.