Monday, September 17, 2012

Encounters With the Superfan

By Corrie Trouw

Two weeks ago, I made the trek back to my alma mater to see Urban Meyer's debut as Ohio State head football coach. It was a humid, overcast day made even stickier by the typical throng of fans on campus for game day. Freshmen in their first weeks away from home sported fresh-from-the-bookstore official jerseys, while older fans wore a mix of off-brand team gear and time-faded lucky t-shirts.

As I made my way toward the stadium along Lane Avenue, a familiar figure emerged from the scarlet-clad sea of humanity. His white cowboy hat and cape were unmistakeable, but it was his Kool-aid red mustache that confirmed his identity. I was standing face-to-face with Buck-i-Guy.

A split second after recognizing the omnipresent OSU fan, my brain searched for the appropriate reaction. Cell phone picture? Heckling? Spirited High-five? (Clearly man has not adapted his fight-or-flight response to the 21st century.)

Still puzzled, I shuffled through the crowd to my seat, but some part of me was haunted by that visage of superfandom. Is Buck-i-Guy a better fan than I? Should I care? And most of all, why in the name of Vic Janowitz would anyone do that every Saturday for three months?

Jerry Seinfeld famously joked that sports fans root for laundry, but nowhere is that truer than in college football where players have shorter shelf-lives than presidents. And considering that most of us experience these players no more than 14 times in each of those years, the relationship is especially short.

But the college football fan-player relationship is strangely intense. The players' decisions to come to our schools are causes for celebration, rumors of practice exploits titillate us, and their best moments bring many of us to outright ecstasy. In extreme cases, it even causes a few to wear cowboy hats, capes, and, yes, dye their mustaches. To those outside sports fandom, it must seem bizarre.

A week after my trip to the Horseshoe, I watched OSU's second game against Central Florida at home on TV. I had the game on as background noise while I did some work when Joey Galloway, the former Buckeye wide receiver and new ESPN color commentator, revealed something that floored me. Galloway told the national audience that he saw the Ohio State Marching Band's "Script Ohio" routine for the first time that day.

The OSU band is one of the most famous college bands in the country, even getting a shout out from Jim Tressel after the Buckeyes won the 2002 national championship. They perform their gradual march into a script formation of "Ohio" before or at halftime of every home game. Somehow one of the stars of recent Ohio State history had missed one of the core traditions virtually every Buckeye fan has seen in person or during broadcasts. The version of Ohio State football Galloway knows did not include a core piece of tradition from the version so many Buckeye fans love.

All of this brings us back to the red-mustached celebrity I walked by in Columbus two weeks ago. For most of us, three full months of obligatory Saturdays spent getting dressed up, fighting traffic, and staying in one place for hours is a lot to ask of our closest friends and family, let alone dozens of young strangers and a handful of grumpy workaholics. But for superfans, this is a calling.

On the surface, superfans like Buck-i-Guy seem like attention-seeking reality stars. They create a persona that gets them on TV, and in their own minds, they become a part of their team's game day experience. Really, we should pity them.

But on the other hand, who are we to judge the enthusiasm these men (shockingly, they're almost exclusively male)? If Joey Galloway's perception of OSU football is significantly different from mine, why shouldn't Buck-i-Guy's? The college football experience varies wildly, and there is no way to say anybody's is best.

We may not understand these self-made superfans. What, exactly, do they get out of the excessive investment of their identities? I have no idea, but I'm glad they are around. For all of their strange attempts to implant themselves into gameday tradition, there is something comforting about knowing someone takes these games more seriously than you.

Saturdays in the fall are special to college football fans of many shades. Does it really matter why?

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