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On college football: Being a fan

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Loving this sport has never been more difficult.

John Schneider - SB Nation

I live in Astoria these days. Archie Bunker lived here too—if you’ve ever seen All in the Family. Historically, it’s a Greek neighborhood, and you can still get the best Mediterranean food this side of the Atlantic here (apologies to Souvlaki on College Ave.). Today, it’s bustling with families, who have been here for generations, and young professionals, priced out of Downtown and Brooklyn. 30 Ave, right down the street, has some of the best food and drink in all of New York. It’s even somewhat trendy.

But it’s not that trendy. Astoria doesn’t have the brownstone architecture of a Park Slope or Bed-Stuy, the endless sea of eateries of the East Village, or the peace, quiet, and greenspace of the Upper West Side. Though after being here for a while, it just feels like home. I’ve found my local spots, I’ve figured out the subway lines, and I know the street grid like the back of my hand (not an easy feat in Queens). I don’t think about what could be better, or what I’d change so much. I like it here.

We’re a long way from Blacksburg—9 hours by car, to be exact. During the thick of the pandemic, Blacksburg, the mountains, Virginia Tech, my college years felt worlds away. Watching Hokie football used to be a communal experience—we’d all gather in North and East for home games, and in apartments or study lounges to watch the road games on TV. It was so strange, turning on the games by myself, 500 miles away, watching games with no fans in the stands.

Being locked at home, for many of us, turned passions into obsessions. We had so much room to contemplate. I’ve thought a lot about VT football this past year—a disappointing year, both on the field and on the trail. It left a lot of us questioning what it all meant, where the program goes from here, whether there’s a point to caring about any of this.

In many ways, it does feel like we’re a program at a crossroads. That’s the most exciting time for a writer, though. I mean, not that I don’t want us to go 12-0 every year, but it’s in these moments of transition, when the path forward is so uncertain, that we’re able to see the present with clarity. I’m incredibly excited to start writing here at Gobbler Country, to share my thoughts on Virginia Tech sports, and on life in general. Let’s go.

***

Ever hear the mid-range jumper is dead? It’s been a common refrain in modern basketball—layups and threes bring the most points per possession, so it makes sense. Shoot those, limit all other attempts. But there’s something so intoxicating about watching a player use all the moves in their bag and find the smallest bit of space to fade away from 20 feet. Down the stretch of every Lakers game I watched as a kid, it felt like Kobe never missed when he pulled up from the right baseline. He did, a lot, but who cares. We remember the tough shots, the impossible, superhuman feats of nature. Those moments are what inspire us, not True Shooting Percentage, not Box Plus-Minus, not VORP.

There’s an argument that beauty arises most in imperfection.

If you’ve never been to New York, it’s probably not what you expect. Everyone thinks of the bright lights in Times Square, the iconic skyline, and the investment bankers barking at their phones on Wall Street. But New York is dollar pizza, independent restaurants, bustling streets where you can go blocks before seeing a chain store.

We have our corner bodegas—they’re tiny with narrow aisles, but somehow, they never run out of everything we need. Many even have a deli where you can order almost any sandwich known to man (try a Chopped Cheese one of these days). Others have cats patrolling the aisles, looking out for pests, and in general, just acting cute for us passers-by. In most places in America, small grocers have been taken over by the chains, by the supermarkets, by the Wal-Marts and Amazons of the world. But bodegas are still here, hanging on, precisely because New Yorkers want them to be.

It’s funny, that divide. There are parts of the city that feel like the beacon of American capitalism (whether that’s a good thing I’ll leave up to interpretation), but we also have neighborhoods that feel like they haven’t changed in decades. Stuck in time, but maybe not for the worst.

***

Is it weird to feel nostalgic for something you barely experienced? I guess that’s a stupid question—there are plenty of Gen Zers wishing they lived in the 70s, “when music was good.” But who wants to be that person?

I started following Virginia Tech football around 2007, started watching every game in 2009, and by 2013 I was a diehard fan. I grew up watching games with my dad, an alum himself, who was jaded even when we were on top. He would always tell me “We’ll win 10 games, but in the big games, it’s not going to happen.” To be honest, there haven’t been many big games since I started watching, and in recent years, no ten-win seasons either.

Moments still stand out, though. The win at Ohio Stadium. That crazy Independence Bowl. Beating West Virginia in FedEx. The 6 OT UNC win. Last year’s NC State game was awesome, even with barely any fans in the stadium. Watching the O-line create holes for Khalil Herbert for the first time, watching our aggressive, pin-your-ears-back defense smother the Wolfpack after weeks of delays is an experience I’ll never forget.

I remember the Marshall game in 2018 so vividly. I woke up late that day—it was overcast and I was tired, both from whatever I was up to the previous night and from that disappointing season. We beat Florida State, then lost to Old Dominion. At the Thursday night Georgia Tech game, I’m pretty sure the Yellow Jackets scored a touchdown on every possession through three quarters. We had scheduled the extra game purely for bowl eligibility—pretty embarrassing after how promising that year started. I really did not want to go. But my friend pleaded with me to join. When I finally dragged myself out of bed, took the bus to Lane, it hit me: This would be my last home game as an undergraduate student. The game was uneventful—we won pretty handily, but I’ll never forget being a student in North that one last time.

It’s easy to call the past decade of VT football a disappointment. To lament the time and energy we’ve all invested into a mediocre program every fall Saturday. But there will always be moments that matter. I just think we need to remember that.

College football isn’t what it once was. Recruiting wasn’t on the internet. Teams like Texas Tech, West Virginia, Missouri, and Kansas State had been at the top of the sport. Every game mattered, and nothing was a formality. Even the Hokies had legitimate national title hopes in the past. It wasn’t that long ago, but it feels worlds away.

Nowadays, there are ten or so teams—and that’s pushing it (it might be more like two or three)—that enter the season with real stakes. The Alabamas, Clemsons, and Ohio States of the world. As national recruiting has become the norm, and high school scouting more comprehensive, no one falls through the cracks—the best players go to the best schools. With the money flowing into college football programs, the top programs have facilities and brands that no one else can compete with. There are far fewer inefficiencies in the system.

VT thrived on winning in the margins: We played starters on special teams. We developed overlooked, speedy (and often undersized), raw athletes—many from the state of Virginia—into impact players. Virginia Tech was the fastest and meanest team that no one wanted to play. ESPN fell in love with our fans on College Gameday, and the raucous entrance to “Enter Sandman.” In the 2000s, we felt like a college football power.

But were we ever really? We’re 1-32 against top-five teams. Even when we were winning ten games, there were a lot of empty calories. The ACC was… below average until Clemson and Florida State got their act together. The conference isn’t good now, but it’s better, and we haven’t risen with it. We’re competing with the Pittsburghs of the world in the middle of the Coastal. Eventually, most programs began emphasizing special teams. Other schools raided Virginia for top talent. Spread offenses exposed our lack of size and stopping the run.

You could argue, and make a decent case, that our time at the top was only temporary—a product of a system where scouting was imperfect and programs with prime resources were incompetent and set in their ways. We had the chance to capitalize on our success, to become one of those top programs that middle-of-the-road teams aspire to be. But we didn’t, and once the schools with built-in advantages wised up, there went our window.

***

I guess the lesson here is that nothing stands still. College football changed faster than the Hokies could keep up. In New York, few neighborhoods are untouched by the forces of gentrification. Even if it’s slower in some places, it’s always coming. Go to Williamsburg, Brooklyn sometime. You’ll find an old neighborhood littered with large, unimaginatively conceived monstrosities that the yuppies and hipsters call luxury apartments. Hell, these days, it’s even coming for Bushwick.

Even bodegas that we love are slowly closing down. Might Target be an objectively easier, more convenient shopping experience? I suppose. Could I get the same onion bagel with bacon scallion cream cheese at the Turner Bruegger’s that I do at George’s Deli down the street? Probably. But I’m not sure. Sometimes, I do consider what life would be like in other neighborhoods (or even other cities), but every time I walk past George’s, I think to myself, “there’s no way I’ll find a better bagel anywhere else.” I know it might sound ridiculous, but George’s is my bodega, and there’s a certain magic to that. It’s hard to fathom some chain ever replicating that.

We need to stop and ask ourselves: Are all these changes, ostensibly to make life easier and more efficient, actually making us happier? I just don’t think so.

The most important thing is to stay present. The past is full of both amazing and tragic memories, and the future has endless possibilities. It’s easy to long for the good old days, to lament our greatest regrets. Equally so to live in the clouds, dreaming of what could be (or dreading it). The present lasts one moment, then it’s gone. But in a world that’s changing so fast, and not always for the better, living in the now keeps us measured.

Giannis Antetokounmpo said it best after a Bucks finals win this year:

Giannis won’t be a top-ten all-time player—there are too many holes in his game—but of everyone currently playing, he’s the closest spiritual heir to Kobe. Their games could not be more different, but they both have that gift of shaking off the past. It doesn’t matter how many 20-footers Kobe bricked, or how many free throws Giannis leaves short. You can still count on Kobe to hit big shots down the stretch, or Giannis to slam the game-sealing breakaway dunk.

That mindset is one we should all take. Have no expectations, enjoy life, and give every day your best. Stay in the moment, and don’t get caught up in implications.

***

You probably think it’s the Hokies’ success that I’m nostalgic for, and I guess I am. But VT has had big wins, played in big games in pumped-up atmospheres since I’ve been a die-hard. College Gameday even came to campus for the Clemson game my sophomore year.

What I really wish I experienced was college football that was simple. When we were happy after a win, sad after a loss. Before the internet forums, before the Twitter discourse, before being a fan came with such existential dread.

I feel more bullish on this year’s squad than most, but we probably won’t win more than eight or nine games. I don’t expect Fuente to be fired unless we miss another bowl game. Most likely scenario? Seven wins, a bowl game, and offensive staff changes. I know, to a lot of you, that feels like a waste, especially in a sport where the rich continue to separate themselves from the pack. Even worse, you might see it as accepting mediocrity.

Sometimes I wish we could give up that image of the empty trophy case and just enjoy the games together. I think we’d all be happier—and have a greater perspective—that way. It’s just such a strange contrast—giving up hope to be hopeful. I get it—all that angst from fandom comes from a place of hope, of promise. That deep belief that somehow, someway, we can do it. We can claim the ultimate prize. Right now, I’m just not so sure. Maybe in a different context, with a different structure, we could, but that’s a story for another time.

But even if we’re really mid, there will still be great moments, once-in-a-lifetime experiences to look back on. Virginia Tech football is a beautiful thing. I’ve had amazing experiences and met great people because of it. Ultimately, I’m just grateful to be a part of this community and to be able to share my thoughts and perspective here. I promise I’ll be more concise in the future! I just had a lot to get off my chest (I’m sure you can relate). Maybe I’ll see some of you at Lane this year.

Stay tuned for part 2: How I’d fix the college football playoff.