Have you ever had a crush?
You know, you meet someone who you believe is the greatest person you’ve ever met. You spend all your time thinking about that person, and maybe you get the courage to ask them out. Or maybe not. Sooner or later, though, that crush fades into existence and you move on.
Unless, of course, that crush isn’t on a person, but a thing … like football.
Like many of you, I developed a crush on football as a kid, and I’ve never let go. Growing up, I played whatever sport was in season, but in the fall, it was a little different. If I wasn’t playing in a sandlot game, I was throwing the ball around with friends, or I was watching college games on Saturday and the National Football League on Sunday.
Then there was Monday Night Football, which, at the time, was one of the television events of the week. I remember my dad letting me stay up past my bedtime long enough to hear Howard Cosell narrate Halftime Highlights. The game — and the highlights — were always a big topic of conversation the next day at school.
If you are looking for a YouTube rabbit hole to go down, type in “Howard Cosell halftime highlights”. You won’t be disappointed.
Football was even my first foray into sportswriting. Well, sort of. Prior to Super Bowl XIII in 1979, my mom suggested keeping a scrapbook with all of the newspaper clippings about the game. Then I recorded the television broadcast on a cassette player, adding my own analysis along the way.
Just in case you are wondering, yes, despite only having five channels at my disposal, no cable, no Internet, no cell phones, no social media, I grew up in the greatest era of human history.
I’m not alone in my crush, of course. It’s why football is the most popular sport in the country, and second place isn’t even in the picture. It’s why we tailgate, invite friends over and even go out in nasty weather to support our team.
And then there are Friday nights. I grew up in a small town in central Illinois, Metamora, that has a rich history and tradition of high school football. On Fridays in the fall, more people would attend Metamora Redbird football games than actually live in the town itself.
That goes on all over the country. We don’t do that for any other sport; we don’t invest ourselves in anything else that way.
That’s why football is what brings us together. When the pigskin is teed up and the game gets underway, we are all united in our support for our team. Whether that’s a game at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, which becomes the third-largest “city” in the state on game days, or cheering on the 18 kids that make up the roster at Barrow High School above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, we are united.
We are currently in the midst of one of the biggest pandemics of the last 200 years, but we are still playing football. That’s what it means to all of us, and on Wednesday night, the NIU football team will run onto the field at Huskie Stadium to play its first game of the year.
I’ve covered NIU football off and on for 20 years. In fact, I covered several games Head Coach Thomas Hammock played in. He was really freaking good, by the way.
I’ve seen how the community comes together for Huskie football, and it’s fitting that their first game this year comes after one of the most divisive Election Days I’ve ever seen in my life. We need football right now.
Of course, it’s going to be different. I’ll be covering Wednesday’s game against the University at Buffalo, but outside of the program’s family and friends, we’ll be the only ones allowed in the stadium. The game will look different, feel different, and sound different.
But it’s still football, it’s still MACtion, that wonderful time of the year when Mid-American Conference teams play weeknight games on national cable television. That hasn’t changed.
Let’s do something awesome Wednesday: let’s come together for NIU football, and show your support for the squad. Watch the game on TV, post things on social media, and do your best to be as involved in the game as you possibly can.
It’s been a tough year, one of the toughest years of all of our lives: But let’s make Wednesday the start of something, let’s use it as the harbinger for coming together and healing.
Football has facilitated that healing before, and I’m convinced that it can do it again.