I awake to the hideous sound of my alarm, followed immediately by the thought, "why did I set an alarm?" Just after that synapse fired, the rest of the system shut down immediately, overwhelmed by a wave of pain that moved across my brain, acting like a siren sweeping through a hallway. Seconds later, my phone goes off -- it's my roommate (and cousin!) warning me that her parents (who naturally double as my aunt and uncle) are coming in to the apartment in a second. My mouth opens and I try to respond, but I can only produce silence. Another attempt earns only a squeak. I take a second to process my inability to speak and end up yelling "OKAY" if only to get the words out. My throat feels like like I smoked the entire cigarette allotment for Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price.
I didn't smoke the previous evening, however. There was something much more addictive flowing through my blood stream: school pride.
For all of the benefits of professional sports (better athletes, nicer facilities, flashier presentations, higher stakes) there is no touching the connection a student feels to their college's athletic program. Last night, I attended "Red Hot Hockey," a bi-annual event held at Madison Square Garden where my alma mater, Boston University, winners of the 2009 NCAA national championship, played Cornell, in a nostalgic throwback to the 1970s when the rivalry was "red hot" and Cornell's hockey program was nationally relevant.
There I go again.
The entire evening, it felt as if I disparaged the Cornell hockey program to just about every graduate from the school from 1994-2005, at loud volumes, so as to blanket as many Red supporters as possible (time wouldn't allow for a series of person-to-person conversations). Even though I graduated from BU in 2008, and I have watched about two games this season, the event still took on life-or-death stakes for me and the thirty-odd graduates I enjoyed the festivities with. We are now full-fledged adults: among us are married couples, mortgages, employment at actual jobs that can't be fulfilled by writing two papers every ten weeks. So why do we care so much about what some anonymous teenagers are doing on a rink hundreds of feet below our upper deck seats? And why do I proudly degenerate into a lunatic at each and every event like this?
My time at BU and my hockey fandom are intrinsically linked. After I received my red "Class of 2008" folder (with letter of acceptance carefully ensconced), I naturally took to AOL Instant Messenger to tell the world that I was, in fact, attending BU (read: that I was attending any school at all, at that point). Seconds later, I get a message from former Inclusive writer Ryan Lambert saying that my hockey team is shit and I'm going to have a tough slog next season. Not really the "congratulations!" I was hoping for. That set off a chain of events that ended at orientation about two months later, when I returned to New Jersey safely ensconced in a BU hockey sweater.
The process of applying to schools is a lot like dating in high school: you put yourself out there and hope to god that the other party likes what they can teach you how to succeed in the future, when it counts. Rejection comes, often times plainly stated (USC Film School's rejection letter pointed out five reasons with graphs and charts why I had no business applying there, was as honest as it was painful). But when you get accepted, it's a feeling you remember, something you cherish. And in some way, maybe out of pure thanks, you tacitly accept that school, too; its faults, its successes, its legacy, and your part, no matter how small, in shaping that legacy.
With that comes the best way to show that identity, outside of wearing the copious free t-shirts handed out around town: through supporting your school's sports teams. To cheer for the hockey team is to, in essence, cheer for yourself. When I go to a Giants game, I happily applaud the number of professionals who wear that jersey with pride because they are paid to do so. They work hard to win, for themselves, for their family, for their teammates, and for the fans, most likely in that order. For all their words about "the fans" they are merely employees of one company out of about 29 others. They could easily work for another employer, and play to another fan group, and not much would change.
I've spent years supporting the Giants. I've gotten up on Saturdays at 7:30 AM to watch LiverpoolFC play a scrub team fit for relegation in the middle of the season. I've gotten half-season tickets for the Devils for the previous two years, watching nearly every game played. I easily watched 160 of the New York Yankees' 2009 season and happily participated in the championship parade through the Canyon of Heroes.
But none of these teams ever wanted me. They'll take my allegiance, my money, and my time, and hopefully, in turn, they'll give me results on the field to be happy about. And that's great.
Athletes in college (as I refuse to call them the demeaning title of "student-athlete") are one of us, just better. They attend the same classes, live in the same dorm rooms and on-campus housing, eat the same lousy-to-good food, attend the same basement parties, and drink the same cheap beer and vodka. The line between the athlete and the spectator, the fan and the idolized, is marginalized. I'll always remember walking into three players, quite literally, on the street on campus. There were no butterflies or pangs of shock; just the realization of how short one of the players is. They said, "hey," I responded in kind, and we went out into the night as four college kids are wont to do on a Friday. Then we returned to our more normal positions the next day: them excelling on the ice, and me cheering them on from afar.
A big faux pas in sports fandom is daring to associate yourself with your favorite team, dropping the much-reviled "we" when discussing their play. In college, however, the identity of the team is almost less important as compared to the institution itself, its reputation, and its denizens. We snootily looked down on UNH because their students are sadly attending a state school. Of all the indignities. We mocked their fans with "the wheels of your house go round and round, round and round, round and round / the wheels of your house go round and round 'cause you're white trash" because the area around the school was of lower income. We pointed out every mulletted man in attendance (and there was no shortage) and mocked them heartily. And then we made fun of their hockey players, presumed to be idiots (why else would they go there?). Finally, it became about the game at hand, cause it was the reason we were there and they were playing directly in front of us, right?
So last night, when a Cornell kid walked by and yelled "safeeeety schooooool!" it hit. Not because of the implied nature of him being smarter than me, but that they ran down my school, the school that brought me in, nurtured me, gave me a great experience and a fantastic education (oh, and took $180,000 but whatever). Essentially, he called my girlfriend. And when we play Boston College in the Beanpot and they score a goal, that's about 5,000 people in unison pointing at my mom and laughing at her. Or if we lose to UMaine, that's like someone cut my Dad off and flashed him the finger.
Each time you run down my school, you run me down as well. Make that collective and you have a student section. Make that larger, call it "nationalism," and you have the makings for World War I. In our school we find our identity; in our sports teams we have our army. Losses are not just strategic failures, they're systematic weaknesses that show the failings we have in ourselves shown for the world at large to mock. It's about defense and insecurity, hopefully building toward something.
Boston University gave me an identity, a place in the world that I can always return to, a community that is far-reaching and everlasting. Wearing that jersey while walking around the world's most famous arena is a reminder of that. I'll always be a part of something and, for those four years, I'll always have a direct representation of that time through the hockey team.
That's why no life function, save for weddings and the birthing of children, will match the feeling I had, laying on my back on one of the Verizon Wireless Center's walkways, with one finger in the air, celebrating BU's national championship win. It was also about validation, a promise kept by wearing the same jersey I had purchased in good faith five years earlier, now coated in cheap beer spilled by some of my best friends who I wildly grabbed and hugged and kissed and screamed both at and with. My experience at the school didn't disappoint; neither did the team filled with my former classmates.
So while I can't physically say it right now, know that I mean it. Thanks, BU, for everything you've given me.
Photo courtesy of Pam Bechtold / Facebook