February 02, 2009
An offseason compendium of college football's small pleasures.
Despite their occasionally militaristic overtones, by global standards, organized American sports are fairly genteel: We don't use animal carcasses as a ball, for example, or as target practice. Sometimes, with retractable roofs, artificial turf and overwhelming sound systems, whatever primal connection sports can still be said to have with nature is lost completely. If not for the bombastic fireworks against the sky at halftime, I would have sworn last night's meticulously manicured and choreographed Super Bowl show was unfolding indoors (when I say choreographed, of course, I mean the event, not the game).
Only one major sporting culture accommodates, much less celebrates, foul-smelling and possibly injurious beasts. Even among college sports, football alone maintains huge, glorified, bewildered creatures, all of them capable -- theoretically, anyway, physically -- of biting, clawing, bucking, trampling, goring, swooping upon or actually devouring humans, then puts them in the middle of tens of thousands of people screaming at the top of their lungs, sometimes accompanied by cannon fire, ringing bells and shotgun blasts. We love them because, trainers and choreography aside, they are what they are, which is animals, and not always in on the script: Ralphie runs amok. Smokey defends himself. The Sooner Schooner throws the Ruf/Nek Queen, who may or may not be going commando. The docile-looking Bevo has a long history of violence and property damage. If you think Mike the Tiger isn't sizing you up for the day he finally breaks free, you are wrong. These are the kinds of symbols people can really rally around, as opposed to, like, a towel.
But the work here is not done: If buffaloes and tigers can be managed, the limit isn't even in sight. Not until they get grizzlies on the sidelines at UCLA and Cal; set loose a wild, snarling pig in Arkansas; assemble a lineup of blood-spurting frogs outside the visitor's locker room at TCU; barter Terrence Cody for a half-deranged circus elephant to lumber onto the field ahead of Alabama; construct an on-field pit from which Mike the Tiger emerges at random moments, "Gladiator" style; and reserve a corner of The Swamp for an actual swamp with at least one live gator -- "Best leave those end zone fades a little short, kid, if you can help it" -- will the potential of the genre begin to be fulfilled.*
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* I know what you're thinking, but no badgers, wolverines or even gophers in Big Ten country. Gators and elephants are one thing, but besides not being all that impressive, visually, mustelids are not to be trifled with.