Are You Ready For Some Football?

My first ever college football tickets. Go Dawgs!

Many of us, myself included, have it pretty easy. And so it’s been interesting to see what people’s “Corona/quarantine” breaking-points have been. For some, who I believe are VERY pampered, it came early: “I don’t know when I’m going to be able to travel internationally again! I had so many countries I wanted to visit this year.” Cry me a river.

For others, it was “All my favorite restaurants are closed!” to which I thought, “Whoa! You have way too much expendable income” slash “Learn to boil water.”

For others still (and now, we’re moving to friends outside academia), it was “The NBA playoffs were postponed.” [Though they’re on again as of the writing of this post, and though players make millions a year…having been to Disney World relatively recently thanks to math competitions, I can tell you it’d take at LEAST $500K to convince me to isolate myself indefinitely in ‘the Magic Kingdom.’]

I started my quarantine/isolation on March 9. It took almost six months for me to have a similar #firstworld breaking point.

My breaking point is college football, or lack thereof.

No questions asked, college football is my favorite sport. Happily, typically as a faculty member I get to watch games for free or at a discount depending on how good the team/division is.

How I watch games…with a martini and a cheeseboard. Who says pigskin isn’t classy?!

Some of it, I’m sure, is where and when I grew up. My mother is Big 10, and my dad is ACC (and not a Clemson or FSU fan so…he’s really just a masochist). I went to UGA. But back when I was a kid, instead of a 2-3 week playoff, ALL the big bowl games were held on New Years Day. And it was one of my favorite days of the year. We’d start watching football right after the Rose Bowl parade, and ironically New Years (and not New Years Eve) was one of the few days of the year we’d stay up ’til midnight. Watching football. We also had an open door policy that day. Friends would stop by when they could to watch games. We’d place bets (shhh) on the outcomes. The only “rule” was everyone had to be in PJs.

College football to me means friends. It means relaxation. It means fun. It means letting loose. It’s a special thing.

Why am I talking about this on a math blog? Because football has actually helped me SIGNIFICANTLY in my math career, and life. Here are just a few positive moments I’ve had, all because of college football:

Football at Carnegie Mellon. And that one kid staring point-blank at the camera…wanted someone to be there.

(*) The easiest connection is with students. Especially first-semester freshmen. They are scared, and don’t know what college is like, but most of them know football. In calculus sequences, especially, I’ve had football players in class. Having a professor who wants to go to your games makes them red with embarrassment but still kinda happy (which as my diff eq students at Carnegie Mellon learned was a double-edged sword. My alma mater was red and black and the bulldogs. Their alma mater was red and black and the scotties. I was the only person there screaming, “Go, dawgs!” every time they did something positive, which apparently should have been “Go, scotties!” At least I was dressed appropriately.).

Even the kids in the BAND get excited hearing you like going to football games. I’ve literally been invited to a game by a tuba player.

Having a professor who realizes what a football “team” is and what it means also is important, as the Navy kids showed me. They invited me in the fall to a practice, and in the spring when I went to one of their teammate’s funerals (long story, sad story, but the student was NOT mine and that’s NOT the point) one of my football players wrote to thank me for supporting them.

Football humanizes me in a positive way to my students—especially those who are not math majors, or who have not declared. It helps me learn about THEIR personalities. Just saying in the five minutes before class on Friday, “Alright, what are your picks for the Oregon/USC game?” I’m telling you will do wonders (especially if you can back it up with W/L records, etc.).

(*) My favorite big-girl math college football story…I was at a local weekend conference, and the two plenaries (who, not to give too much away, were from Harvard and Boston College which is henceforth how I shall refer to them) were seated in the row behind me. It was a Saturday afternoon—I was missing football for math talks. Kinda. In-between presentations, I would refresh Sports Illustrated to check scores. During the talks (honestly, in part since the plenaries were behind me) I closed the laptop. Anyway, in one break, Boston College said, “How’s BC doing?” Without even thinking about who I was actually talking to, I responded, “This is Sports Illustrated and the top 25. I’m going to have to search the bowels of the internet to find anyone interested in THAT game!” He returns smack, we start talking football, he leans over my shoulder (in a totally appropriate and non-creepy way!) and we start a legit interesting, non-math conversation. Harvard starts to feel left out. He tries to join with probably the only bit of college football data he knows. He asks if the Harvard/Yale game is on. BC and I say in unison, “NO!” and keep talking.

I’m not sure if either of these plenaries remembers who I am. But I bet at least one of them remembers the experience. I used to have an argument with a friend in grad school about this. So many grad students during dinners and meet-and-greets with plenaries “suck up” (my words) dropping what math papers they’ve read, and who else they’ve met. He took this approach. And in his defense, there are some plenaries who really do only like to talk about shop (#Harvard) in part because that is basically their life. But there are quite a few—I’d bet, even the majority (#BostonCollege)—who when it’s not “math time” like talking about other things. Who actually have outside interests, and who appreciate being treated as a human and not as some braniac idol. And that’s my approach.

The sports bar that changed my life.

(*) Beyond professional, let’s talk (ever so briefly) about my personal life. My students know that I don’t have a TV, which they somehow also think is a major problem. Anyway, by late September of my first year there, my Navy students had made me promise I’d watch “their” game. Since I couldn’t stream it on my laptop, that Saturday I literally googled hours before kick off “Sports Bars Near Me.” I went to the closest one, armed (in case the game was bad) with a novel and a New York Times crossword puzzle. Both are people magnets, by the way (more the crossword than the book). Still, that was one of the more important days I’ve had since moving here. I met my best non-math/local friend that day. I met my accountant that day (who I’ve also recommended to multiple colleagues, and they sing his praises). I found my dentist that day (the office is next door to the bar). And I probably would not have found any of that if it weren’t for football, if it weren’t for my students knowing I loved it, and if I hadn’t made that promise to watch their game.

And those really are just my top three moments.

So I’m very sad college football will not be around. I’m sure I’ll get over it. In the grand scheme of things, I know that if that’s a main complaint of mine, I have a really good life. But I still worry that I will miss a certain connection with others because of it. I encourage us as mathematicians to protect, to keep sacred, those non-mathematical loves of ours that make us human. Especially during these times when so much is being cancelled. It will help us all in the long run.

While he probably was talking about the other football, let me end with a Terry Pratchett quote:

The thing about football–the important thing about football–is that it is not just about football.

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