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Friday, September 14, 2001
Updated: September 21, 2:06 PM ET
'Unimportant' games define us in important way

By Geoffrey Norman
Special to Page 2

Editor's Note: Geoffrey Norman is working on a book about college football in the state of Florida. Each week during the 2001 season, he will send a letter to Page 2, in which he will try to make sense of the personalities, events and peculiar culture that make up Sunshine State football.

Dear Page 2:

Steve Spurrier
Steve Spurrier and the Gators will have to wait for their showdown with Tennessee.
No games Saturday.

For a while, it looked like Florida-Tennessee might still come off, in Gainesville. The SEC, with that gift for nuance and defiant disregard for the sensitivity of others that has often characterized the South, announced that its teams would go ahead and play this Saturday. They would, however, send a check for $1 million to help out with the rescue efforts in New York.

Many people wondered just how they would feel, watching a college football game while 1,500 miles away, fellow citizens were still making pitiful, desperate calls on their cell phones from beneath the rubble. Would a million be enough? Would any amount? Mercifully, we will not have to find out. Under pressure, the SEC reversed itself. There will be no games in Florida this Saturday.

This is the weekend, then, that might have been. The state of Florida was (in the most metaphorical sense) to have been invaded. Searching the archives of my football memory, I can't remember anything quite like it. Five of the Top 10 teams in action, against one another, in the same state on the same weekend. With the sixth team in the mix being ranked No. 13.

Three great games, all of them with national championship implications. Like thousands of other aficionados, I had circled the date on my calendar with a kind of lascivious anticipation.

  We make a big thing out of the unimportant things, because that is how, ever since the Greeks, we have celebrated life. It doesn't take dying out of the picture, but it beats cultivating martyrdom and a vision that is all hate, martyrdom and death. Between stoning some adulterers in the village square and howling for the Gators down in the Swamp, it doesn't seem like much of a choice.  
 

You didn't have to know much about football to know that the three games they were going to play in Florida on Sept. 15 would be big. You could see that before the season even opened. And by last Sunday, everything was in place and the fever was on. Miami was ranked No. 1 and playing Washington, which was ranked No. 13 and coming off a victory over Michigan. Miami lost one game last year -- to Washington -- and it cost the Hurricanes a chance to play Oklahoma for the national championship.

You had the feeling, once Miami had dusted off Rutgers last Saturday, that this might be the pivotal game of the Hurricanes' season. A win over Washington would redeem something and give them that sense of inevitability they would need going to Tallahassee in October

Florida-Tennessee has become one of those SEC rivalries where football is a stand-in for other things. This game is an outlet. It is one of those rivalries where the emotions are nearly primitive in their intensity.

Florida fans delight in condescending to the Tennessee people almost as much as they enjoy seeing their boys beat the guys wearing the orange jerseys. They tell Vol jokes like the one about what has 200 legs and three teeth? Answer: the first row of the Tennessee student section. Or the one about how you know that the toothbrush was invented in Knoxville. Answer: because it's not called the "teethbrush." In the week when they are getting ready to play Tennessee, the war cry among Florida fans and players is "bring on the hillbillies." Tennessee has to take it, because the Gators have owned the Vols lately, winning seven of the last eight.

Ken Dorsey
Ken Dorsey and the 'Canes had the game with Washington circled on their calendars.
Still, the game always has serious football implications -- both teams come in looking for an SEC championship, at least, and maybe even something a little bit grander than that. Tennessee and Florida both won national championships in the '90s. Florida is ranked No. 2 and Tennessee No. 8.

Finally, in the evening, it was going to be No. 6 FSU against No. 10 Georgia Tech.

And this game, the last of the three, was the most imponderable. FSU has never lost to Tech since joining the ACC in 1992. Has never lost an ACC game at home. Hasn't lost any games at home since Miami beat them there in 1991 in one of the famous "wide-right" games (more about that in another letter).

But this game had a kind of feel about it. FSU had been the program of the '90s. Nothing but 10-win seasons. That remarkable home record. The national championships, the two Heismans. But empires decay and even great leaders get old. Bobby Bowden is 71, and the Seminoles looked vulnerable. FSU lost three wide receivers to injury and started the season with a redshirt freshman quarterback who had never thrown a pass in a college game. The defense starts six sophomores. The schedule includes Florida and Miami, as always, and two very good ACC teams -- Tech and Clemson.

Tech, everyone said, would be the test. Tech at home. Sept. 15, at night, after those other two, very big, games down in Miami and Gainesville were already over.

So much good football, Lord, could a body stand it?

  Several of the terrorists, it seems, learned to fly airplanes in Florida, and one can imagine how it must have boiled their blood to witness, say, a Florida-Tennessee game. The young, robust women with so much bare skin showing. The prosperous, ample boosters with bourbon on their breaths. The color and gaiety. The loud, profane, vulgarity of it all.  
 

Well, now we'll never know. The games were postponed, and even if they are all rescheduled for the same day later in the season, which is unlikely, it won't be the same. By then, all six teams will certainly not be undefeated and still playing with a shot at the national championship. It won't be a young season and everything will not still be possible.

Too bad, then. It would have been a memorable football weekend. One more of life's might-have-beens and regrets.

What is lamentable, of course, is not that the games have been put off, but the reason for their postponement. They were only football games, after all, and as we have been properly reminded, over and over these last 72 hours, games aren't that important.

This is so dramatically, self-evidently true, however, that I wonder if we might not be missing another point. While the games might not be that important, they are still pretty damned important. And it is, paradoxically, their very unimportance that makes them so important.

The fanatics who attacked Washington and New York hate us. Hate the West and all it stands for. Hate us as the great Satan. We are infidels and pleasure seekers. Our culture is rich and hedonistic and corrupt, while they are pure in their hate and their asceticism. The fundamentalist view (Islamic or otherwise) is intolerant of pleasure, prosperity, games and freedom. It views life as a barren passage between the now -- where the tribal struggle is between the anointed and the damned -- and the hereafter, where martyred terrorists will live in glory. Life is, literally, us and them.

Gators fan
Our passion for college football is the type of thing that our enemies hate abut America.
This bleak, pinched, hierarchical vision cannot abide the West's love of games and the sort of festive atmosphere that surrounds them. For one thing, games are fundamentally democratic. The fastest runner -- not the best-born prince -- wins the race. And the games celebrate the body in the here and now, not the spirit in some paradise where martyrs go after they have taken out a building full of people just getting down to a day's work.

Several of the terrorists, it seems, learned to fly airplanes in Florida (their own countries being too primitive to have those kind of schools), and one can imagine how it must have boiled their blood to witness, say, a Florida-Tennessee game. The young, robust women with so much bare skin showing. The prosperous, ample boosters with bourbon on their breaths. The color and gaiety. The loud, profane, vulgarity of it all.

All those things that those of us who love -- irrationally -- college football find so seductive ... those same things would have fired those killers' rage.

It is easy to say the games are unimportant in the big scheme. Almost everything is unimportant in the big scheme. In the West, we make a big thing out of the unimportant things. We make a big thing out of women's fashions, automobiles and football games, and a lot of other unimportant things.

We make a big thing out of the unimportant things, because that is how, ever since the Greeks, we have celebrated life.

It doesn't take dying out of the picture, but it beats cultivating martyrdom and a vision that is all hate, martyrdom and death. Between stoning some adulterers in the village square and howling for the Gators down in the Swamp, it doesn't seem like much of a choice.

Football -- the games -- aren't that important. True enough. Not this week end, anyway.

But next weekend, it will be back to business -- and the games -- as usual.

And that is good. Because the games, in their unimportance, are very important. They could even be a matter of life or death.

Sincerely,
Geoffrey Norman