Love the Playa and the Game! Surviving Rival Saturday

Oh, man.  I know this little ditty is going to make a few folks ‘round these parts a little crazy.

No!  Don’t scroll away!  It’s not about politics.  It’s not about some pressing social issue we’ll never agree to disagree on anyway.

It’s…it’s…it’s about Rivalry Saturday.

There, I said it.

I have my helmet on and I’m going in:  attempting to try and tackle the mother of all touchy topics – college football.

So, let’s huddle.

Having lived a spell in Canada where NHL is king, and having a sister who’s a devoted NY Giants fan, I realize there are plenty of folks who depend on professional sports teams to make or break their moods.  After all, it’s not often you can entice a bunch of men to don cheese hats, save for selling out completely to their beloved Green Bay Packers.

But there’s something about college football that takes crazy to a whole other level.   And when you throw in that one Saturday each season when rival schools face down one another, I imagine aliens watching from another galaxy might give up invading if they had a mind to do so.  Why bother?  We’re just too weird.

I think you cannot truly appreciate college football Rivalry Saturday unless you live in a rivalry state.  It’s the one weekend (well, not counting holidays and Election Day) that pits family members against one another.  It pulls friend and neighbors apart and has rivalry state governors talking smack and placing weird bets in advance of the big game.

If you’re into that sort of thing, Rivalry Saturday offers a smorgasbord of grudge fests:  Alabama-Auburn, Ohio State-Michigan, Wisconsin-Minnesota, Florida-Florida State to name just a very few amongst dozens of others, all deviously designed to divide and boil the blood of true college football fans across the fruited plain.

Of course, I am most familiar with the University of South Carolina-Clemson University (or Clemson-USC because who comes first also matters to many) death match. The Palmetto Bowl as it’s called, dates back to 1896 and is one of the oldest and longest consecutive running college football rivalry showdowns in the United States.

In South Carolina, it takes courage to offer any observations about this game because you know going in you’re going to offend 50% of your audience – chances are probable someone you birthed or married.

But this being South Carolina, I have found there’s something more insidious even than picking a side and declaring unto it till death you do part.

Neutrality, my friends, is far worse.

Native South Carolinians view it as totally suspect.  Weak.  Possibly even evidence of a carpetbagger in their midst.  The locals know who authentically, by birth, bleeds orange or garnet.  They’ve got their eyes on everyone else.

A quick glance at our state history and you see neutrality doesn’t play well here.

This ain’t no Switzerland.

Heck, even the Bible holds a warning: “Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”  (Revelation 3:15-16)

Yikes!  The Bible doesn’t mention anything about tailgating at the pearly gates but it’s enough to make you wonder.

Look, the bottom line is, if you live in the Palmetto State, you better pick a flag.

So eventually I did.

When Dabo Swinney came along with his compelling, only-God-can-do-this life story, followed by our son’s decision to attend college there, I became a Johnny-come-lately, pretty huge, Clemson football fan.

Which brings me to last Saturday’s big rivalry game.  Despite living in South Carolina for almost three decades, I’d never attended a USC-Clemson game and so this was really a check off the old bucket list.

In all those years it was always so much fun to read and hear about the hyped-hate leading into the big game.  Certainly from fights on the field and around the stadium, to coaches engaging in verbal smack downs, there were tense moments (and some arrests) so I’m not sure what I was expecting when I got there, but it wasn’t what I got.

What I saw was a mesh of orange and garnet, friends and families, often from opposing teams, hanging out – enjoying (or bemoaning) the game – together.   I saw no blood or outward signs of bruising – and I would have.  Jackets were off.  It was pretty warm out.

I know. I know.  Easy for me to say.  I wanted Clemson to win.

But even the players seemed to be more about respect than rivalry.

It was embodied best, I think, by Gamecock running back Tavien Feaster who said it was “joyful” playing against his old teammates.  Feaster, a Clemson graduate, played three years with the Tigers, before making the decision to spend his last year of eligibility playing for the in-state rival.

Clemson’s Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables said that Clemson was focused on keeping the Gamecock’s talented running back “out of the endzone” because “once you change jerseys in this state a line is drawn.”

If the Tigers did a good job keeping Feaster out of their endzone, they wanted to make sure he has a forever place in their hearts.

“It just reminded me that it is bigger than football.  And football is a great thing,” Clemson running back Travis Etienne said as the two exchanged game jerseys and posed for photos afterward. “Without football, I would never have met Tavien Feaster and just the relationship we have built the two years that we were together, it’s unbelievable.  We will be friends for the rest of our lives.”

And there was this:  Following the wonderful example set by other USC opponents, Clemson fans stood with Carolina fans at the start of the third quarter to raise three fingers for mental health awareness in honor of QB Ryan Hilinski’s brother who committed suicide.

And that’s what makes sports so special.  Even a muchly-hyped rivalry game has more potential to bring us together than divide us.

Even as we root for different teams we still stand and cheer for the same things – exciting plays, great executions, points scored, challenges met, expectations exceeded, and the athletes and coaches that make it all happen and share their gifts with us.

The Hilinski family shows us through football how sacred life is and how level is life’s playing field – no one, but no one, escapes without deep wounds.  They remind us that after four quarters, we’re back in this thing together and provide a game plan for how God can use even the worst tragedy to bless others.  (Check out Hilinskishope.org if you want to know more.)

There are some values, some common concerns it seems, in which even the most steadfast rivals can stand united.

As a young TV news reporter, Christy mistakenly drove the bad guys away from the crime scene. If you're looking for a funny and inspirational speaker for your next event - contact Christy at bodychekessentials@gmail.com or 803.908.7630. For information click HERE.

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