As a sports fan there is nothing greater than the environment surrounding a big event. Unfortunately and too often, we fail to realize the setting we’re blessed with as we cheer desperately for our teams to win, letting our biases and ignorance blind us. I just don’t see how the “winning is everything” philosophy applies to us as fans. It is fun to watch our favorite teams succeed and bring our schools pride, but after a loss, it isn’t our hours of hard work that seems to have gone to waste. Screaming until we are hoarse is great, but if we don’t appreciate the atmosphere around us, we miss the point.
I have never found more fun in my life than I have this past football season as a student at LSU. Nothing is better than spending an entire Saturday in the SEC. LSU played so many thrilling, competitive games, but my favorite games this season were both losses. This may seem like a ridiculous claim to make, but upon much reflection, I will firmly stand by my opinion. Although the end results were depressing, the atmosphere surrounding these two games were so superior to all the others. So much in fact that it numbed the losses.
The first game I speak of required a little road trip. On a Friday afternoon, I piled in my heavily used Toyota Camry with three friends and started driving east. Fourteen hours later, we rolled into Gainesville, Florida. At 3:00 AM you may think the night (now Saturday morning) was over but it wasn’t. We stayed the night on the floor of a hardcore Gator’s apartment. Before bed, there was A LOT of trash talking flying back and forth. The banter was a great way to turn in for the night when sleepiness finally got the better of me around 4:00 AM.
Not much later (or at least that’s what it felt like), we woke up and headed to campus a few hours before the game. Gator fans received us with mixed feelings. We hadn’t walked fifty yards, when someone rolled down his car window to shout profanities at us. However, a couple hours later we were tailgating with some Gator fans who fed us well. When 2:00 PM rolled around, we headed for the stadium and that’s when I realized I was in the middle of something special. I had lucked into the luckiest ticket in the stadium. I was sitting on the 50 yard line on the first row. I met the Governor of Florida and shook Bobby Jindal’s hand, and the game hadn’t even started yet. As the stadium filled up and the game kicked off, I was blown away. Sitting on the first row meant that all the noise in The Swamp was funneling right down to me. My ears were ringing for all four quarters. I couldn’t help but marvel as over 90,000 Florida fans did the Gator Chomp in synchronization; it was truly a chilling sight. When Florida took the lead in the second half I feared that my previously ringing ears were going to both suffer ruptured ear drums. As I stood and watched LSU struggle to even get back in the game, I couldn’t help but awe as one half of the stadium screamed “BLUE” while the half I resided in, responded even louder, “ORANGE!” This cheer carried on for a couple of minutes. Unfortunately, it was the Florida fans that continued to find reasons to cheer the rest of the game. I was sad when my team lost, but I was blown away by the experience. I was forced to listen to thousands of students sing “It’s great to be a Florida Gator” as I tried to fight my way out of the stadium. I hate the Gators and probably more than ever after the ridicule I took after the game, but I loved every second of it. Ben Hill Griffin Stadium gained a fan that day.
I thought nothing would trump my road trip to Florida during my freshman year and perhaps for the rest of my time at LSU. After all, what could possibly beat almost sitting on the field, on the fifty yard line, in one of the best stadiums in the nation? When November 3 rolled around and Alabama traveled to Baton Rouge, I realized I could not have been more foolish. The morning of November 3, I woke up to the sound of my alarm at 4:45 AM. I grabbed a shower and headed across campus to get a good spot for College Gameday later that morning. At this point of the season, I’d already seen a pretty incredible home game when the South Carolina came to visit a few weeks earlier. However, I couldn’t help but notice that this day was different. This game was truly special. At 5:00 AM, all was quiet and it was still dark, but I just sensed something incredible was going to happen. As I walked toward the heart of campus I noted the staggering amount of tailgates already setup. I even saw a few men knocking back some beers together hours before the sun even begins to think about rising. I then fixed my eyes upon Tiger Stadium. The lights were on, the very same lights that these two juggernauts would go to war under fourteen hours later. It was truly eery to think how raucous Death Valley would be later that day as the fog seemed to billow from the lights. It truly was the calm before the storm.
When I got to the Gameday set, there were already several hundred Tigers and a few Tide fans in attendance. As the sun came up, the campus was finally starting to buzz. The Parade Grounds slowly started to fill up with people bearing all sorts of funny signs and wearing all kinds of eccentric gear. During filming, the crowd was AWESOME. During commercial breaks, Scott Van Pelt, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstriet, and the rest of the gang turned around to interact with the fans. When the experts made their picks and Corso donned the Alabama headgear, the whole Parade Grounds rang out with “TIGER BAIT” chants! It wasn’t even lunchtime and I was already having a blast. I found myself walking around campus marveling at the sheer amount of people on campus.My afternoon was well spent tailgating and taunting Alabama fans.
Before too long, it was almost game time. Getting to the game over an hour early would normally yield great seats. Not this time though. My friends and I climbed a long way before we finally were able to sit down. Everything was more grand about this game. Singing “Calling Baton Rouge” with 93,000 of your best friends is always great, but thirty minutes before playing Alabama doubles the excitement, maybe even triples it. I love my school but I would never say I get chills singing the Alma Mater. That day I did. As the players came out, the noise was truly deafening. It remained that way all the way until the end. If Texas A&M is the home of the 12th man, LSU was home of the 12th, 13th, and 14th men that day. I became more transfixed by the people filling the stadium than the game.
As the game went on it was hard to believe LSU was losing based on the stats and from the noise of the crowd. When Zach Mettenberger found Jarvis Landry for a touchdown to take the lead, the decibel content reached a place I don’t think I’ll ever encounter again. I was immediately showered with coke, alcohol that managed to find its way into the stadium, and with the yellow towels given out before the game. I honestly could not have cared less. The atmosphere I thought was incredible before had become truly unbeatable. Until the last few seconds of the game, I’ve never heard sustained noise so loud. I thought I might be hoarse for the rest of my life. The closer the game got to the end, the student section still found a way to become increasingly louder than the play before. When TJ Yeldon scored what proved to be the winning touchdown, I’ve never seen the life sucked out of a place so fast. I’ve never seen more jaws dropped nearly to ground level. When the clock read 00:00, I’ve never seen more heartbroken fans. As people filed out in disbelief, I just sat there absolutely dumbfounded with my friend David. I looked around and saw many people were doing the exact same thing as us. The heartbreak was truly an indicator of the amount of love held for a team that fought harder than anybody I’ve ever seen lose a game. The team had done just about everything right and the fans had too, but somehow LSU came out on the losing end. When I sensed that something incredible was going to happen earlier, I was right. Unfortunately it was Alabama that came up with the magical drive.
Normally after a game, people go out and celebrate, but after this game, there were a lot of people that went home to reflect. When I got back to my dorm and thought about it, I became enlightened. The loss would hurt for the remainder of the season, but there would be another Alabama game next year. However, I don’t know if the atmosphere would ever be that great. My sadness turned into appreciation that I had gotten to see one of the best games ever played in Tiger Stadium. I then realized that the last three games I went to were all top ten match-ups in arguably the two loudest stadiums in college football history. I had seen Florida and LSU battle it out in The Swamp, South Carolina come to Baton Rouge, and then Alabama come to town after an away game and a bye week. Out of those three, the two most exciting games were losses. They sure did sting, but man were they sweet. Rather than continuing to mope about losing the two biggest games, I began to smile because I got to see them firsthand. I got to take in everything that college football should be about, and I’m only a freshman. The overall experiences were so much greater than the pain of the losses.
Next season make it your aim to appreciate the environment you’re blessed with. I hope all my fellow Tigers realize just how good we have it in the SEC. I would challenge every LSU student to go to away games when they can. Go to Georgia and see a game between the hedges. Go to Alabama and HATE their fan-base with a passion, but soak everything up inside of Bryant-Denny Stadium. When a fan laces you with insults or when someone invites you into their tailgate, love every second of it. When Florida and Texas A&M come to town, walk around campus and stop at different tailgates. Talk to some older Tiger fans and let them tell you about games from their day. Try making it to a game sober enough to soak in the environment. Look across the student section during different cheers. Take photos and videos. Enjoy the moments even when the outcome isn’t so great. The results of games may fade but the experiences will last long after stats and score lines are gone. 50 years from now, I will not be able to tell you the scores of the Alabama and Florida games that blew my mind. However, I will be able to tell you what it was like to “Tiger Bait” Florida’s cheerleaders as they walked by and what it was like on campus the day of the Alabama game. As a fan, winning and losing still has value, but the experience is everything.