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The thing about college football is that it’s not about college football

College football returns across America this weekend. Here’s why it matters too much to so many.

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The most important thing to know about college football is what happens on the field is merely a narrative device, a reason for a party, or a way to move money. That’s why we’re here, there’s truly no other reason.

Of course the sport is often beautiful, we’ll get to that. But it exists because it’s America’s most tribal, fanatical activity. Yes the denizens are free to choose a tribe, but with the NCAA’s transfer portal becoming a more important part of the game each day, we’ve crossed an important threshold: It’s now easier for a player to change teams than for a diehard fan to do the same.

Abandoning your tribe or alma mater means the relationships that go with it die as well. A piece of your heart is as required as the financial “gift” to the fundraising entity that allows you to buy season tickets. Those that drive the sport don’t merely watch college football. The love and hate they feel is familial; from the word for family, because that’s what your tribe is.

There are levels of college football fandom, but the ties they bind are much deeper than any other sport. You can ask people at my tailgate “how’s the team look this year?” and you’ll get answers that range as wide as the potent potables on offer.

“I hope we’re good! I like it when our team is winning.”

“Not sure about this new quarterback, but hope we can find a way to surprise some people.”

“Our depth at offensive line is awful, and these kids were recruited to spread instead of AirRaid concepts. Plus this new 4-2-5 when we haven’t recruited a kid over a 3-star at Sam in years is gonna be a disaster.”

But those three answers have known each other for decades. Their parents often went to the same school, and in turn so will many of their children. They’ll share a beverage together, meet up at a local joint the night before several road games this season, and discuss their families and friendships and memories from their time in the dorms to that new daycare teacher everyone doesn’t like.

And for those of us in the South, when someone mentions a rival school, they may do so only with the withering disdain only a Southerner can provide via vocal inflection. “I hope they rot in hell” or “bless their heart” are the only tones allowed. All forms of moderating are invalid.

And that’s why the players and coaches will come and go from your tribe, and you simply cannot. There is no transfer portal for this much of what it means to be you. Sorry, that’s just how it is.

I am unapologetic in saying some of the beauty of this sport is in its corruption. Football is the most American of games because it’s barely played anywhere else, and also because it’s baked in an equal mixture of patriotism and opprobrium as the rest of our society.

These 13 people choose who plays for the national championship based on whatever criteria is needed to reach the desired outcome. Sure they throw a professor and a former player and coach on there to make it look like they’re speaking from a place of considered rigor. But the majority are collegiate athletic directors, and they are here to protect the money. Because it’s always been about the money, and it will always be about the money.

This year for the first time players actually have some agency over some of the money, so hopefully the century-plus of black market dollars and exploited labor starts to wane. But the new rules to regulate such activity will still be brazenly flouted, because this wholly academic enterprise has never lived up to the honor code of any institution participating.

SMU literally had a payroll. Ole Miss paid players but dared anyone to say otherwise. Booster grease isn’t going away, but maybe we can stop dropping bills in bags now. It’s about time the talent got a cut of the cash and a 10-99, but the more creative types on message boards will still try to find ways to give their tribe whatever advantage can be gleaned. Above board or below.

Nevin Shapiro and Teapot Dome. It’s rollling baby and Bill and Monica. Woody Hayes and Preston Brooks. There is no sport as American as this one, because this sport is everything about America.

You don’t see this level of devotion and passion and stickiness and obsession in the NFL, or any other American sport. There are some soccer leagues abroad that can get to this level, but that’s it. And when it reaches these limits, the culture overrides what happens on the field.

Because the games are merely a conveyance for those watching it to celebrate, grieve, and bond with those they’ve known most of their lives. And most do it in ways that are all but eternal.

The 12th Man. Toomer’s Corner. The Iowa Wave. The Vol Navy. Fireball and weed. Bear Down. Being a guest of another tribe is sometimes the best part, as the hospitality extended by your hosts will often overwhelm you. Just as you will do for your guests when they make an expedition to you. Except for your rivals. They can find their own damn beer.

You can watch Metallica at night in the hills of Virginia, or House of Pain in Madison or John Denver in Mo’Town or the March On or any of 100 similar spiritual experiences, but you can’t truly feel them unless you’ve been there. And since there’s only 15 weeks a year when these treasured traditions happen, and your team plays on 12 of them, no one ever completes their bucket list in full. And that’s ok.

If you find beauty in chaos, this is the culture for you. Because no sport that has ever existed does it better. David pulls out the slingshot with alarming regularity.

On most of those 15 Saturdays, you will see something that takes your breath away. Because when she’s good, she is simply spectacular.

And sometimes it’s so beautiful even in its unrelenting stupidity.

There’s exactly two kinds of college football social media: Your smartest friends making jokes and memes whilst inhaling 14 hours of coverage from their couch on a Saturday, and those in the DM’s of 15-year-olds trying to get them to come to their school.

The first group has made college football infinitely better the past decade. We can only hope the second will someday wear the sunglasses they don in their avatar from a prison cell.

The first group lives just as much for 3-2 final scores as 77-76 final scores. Make friends with those people in your tribe. Because they are the ones that view it through this insanity through the correct lens.

I’ve been to games with Alabama and Auburn, but have no real connection to either school. But this might be the most amazing sporting event of my lifetime.

All of college football is preposterously overanalyzed and over-postulated, often by those rumor-mongering intentionally with ulterior agendas. But no state does that better than Alabama, where a lack of pro sports means you can have a conversation about whether Roll Tide or War Eagle has better pulling guards on RPO actions 365 days a year.

To have a game that means so much end that way, with the air as thick with narrative as humidity on a warm Fall evening .. there’s nothing like it. Absolutely nothing on earth. That moment was felt by those in attendance in a way you’ll never understand if you don’t love this sport.

And when it’s not your team, you can’t help but think about how you’d feel if it was yours. You know the joy and the pain because you’ve been there. I’ve been to that heaven, and I’ve lived through that hell (that’s me standing on the sideline at the 20 as my soul leaves my body). And my team has never won anything.

Both those moments will be with me until I am no longer. This marvelous, maniacal, debauched, fraudulent, sublime enterprise is as much a part of who I am as the hands that type this. For all the heartache and pain and awful takes about offensive coordinators from my dearest friends the last 20+ years, I would absolutely do it all again. In fact I can’t imagine not doing it, because it’s such a part of my narrative I cannot begin to imagine what being an adult would be without it.

I chose my tribe, and they chose me. And for better or worse I’m not transferring before I leave this mortal coil. Because the piece of my heart I’d leave behind is so big, there wouldn’t be enough for the rest of me to keep going.

And if you want to feel in ways you didn’t know or think you could, surrounded by those you love where the game on the field is just the conveyance for what really matters, I hope you find your tribe too.