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The game we love

11/16/2004

IRVING, Texas -- And on the 19th day, we came to Texas.

What better place for the Football In America tour to end than in the home digs of America's Team? What better venue for the valedictory visit than Texas Stadium, the game's mecca in a state that can lay legitimate claim to being the capital of the game?

From the grass roots (high-school playoff games) to the ivory tower (Dallas Cowboys), this stadium is the ultimate place to play in the ultimate football republic. This is gridiron ground zero.

Throw in John Madden and the trip is complete. Boom! Pow! Telestrate us outta here, John.

We've been gone awhile on this errand to connect with America's chinstrap soul. When we set out in late October, the country was on Daylight Savings Time. John Kerry still had a shot at the White House. The Miami Hurricanes were undefeated. And Steve Spurrier was a lock to return to Florida.

Much has changed in 19 consecutive days of watching football. And much has been learned.

Ten essential gridiron truths gleaned on the road:

1. It's a small world, but a big country.

The game is the same everywhere. You can close your eyes and smell grilling meat anywhere from Fresno to Foxboro. You can see the same formations and plays, hear the same cheers and postgame clich├ęs, anywhere in America. You can travel about anywhere and still feel at home watching a game.

But on another level, the experience is as different as clam chowder and pulled pork.

Some places -- like the SEC schools -- are all about winning. Some places -- like Lafayette, La. -- are all about having a good time, regardless of the score. And some places -- like the Georgia Tech library -- hardly even notice there are football games being played.

Some places -- like Boise -- come alive when the mercury dips into freezing territory. Some places -- like Florida -- thrive on heat and thick air.

The common themes are always there. It's the context that changes from address to address.

2. Every college band in America plays "Crazy Train."

Hope Ozzy is collecting royalties.

3. Nothing taps the inner adolescent like football.

In 19 cities across thousands of miles and four time zones, there was one constant: Outside of every stadium, footballs flew through the air. People were playing catch.

They threw the football in a vacant lot in the dark in Chicago. In the freezing air of Minneapolis. In the mild air of Raleigh.

Kids played games of tackle on the grass in Fresno and Stillwater. Adults played on the asphalt at The Meadowlands. Fathers threw the ball with their sons. And daughters.

Do you see baseball fans playing catch outside of ballparks? No. Basketball fans throwing bounce passes to each other in the parking lot? No. Boxing fans punching each other in the head outside of bouts? No.

Football fans come to the games to play. If they're not throwing the football, they're playing other games while tailgating. Tossing bean bags into holes in Oxford, Ohio. Using toilet seats for horse shoes in East Rutherford, N.J. Beer pong in Raleigh. Ring toss in Minneapolis. Foosball in Boise.

4. "First down" cheers have saturated the nation.

The novelty is gone with those audience-participation, "Good for another ... " chants. Save the applause for touchdowns, please.

5. The energy and passion of the paying public are unlike anything else in American sport.

One game a week. A handful of home games a year. It's what differentiates football from basketball, baseball or hockey, and it's what drives football fans to turn these games into the highlight events of their social calendar. People live for these handful of games.

And they expend a startling amount of energy -- whether it's a MAC game on a Tuesday night or "Monday Night Football." No fans bring more heat into the stadium with them than football fans.

6. The pro game and the college game are distant cousins.

With the encroachment of corporate sponsorship into the college level (hello, Papa John's Cardinal Stadium), the lines are blurring between the two. But there remains a difference between a "franchise" and a "program."

The game still is much more corporate in the NFL. At Gillette Stadium in New England, the huge banners honoring the franchise's best players come with a price: Stanley Morgan, brought to you by Oral-B; Pete Brock, brought to you by UBid.com; Ben Coates, brought to you by Aquafina.

And the game is more cookie-cutter in the pros. Nobody does anything radically different on offense and defense from anybody else, whereas college football remains a kaleidoscope of variations.

There's blue turf here, the run-and-shoot there, the Flexbone over there. There is seemingly no limit to the offensive schemes, defensive schemes and color schemes in college ball.

7. More people own motor homes than you think. Visit any parking lot on a football weekend and you'll understand that RV salesmen are doing OK.

8. The gusto level can be thrilling. And a little bit frightening.

Combine the massive alcohol ingestion that goes with all-day tailgating and the rampant testosterone of male-dominated crowds, here to watch a violent sport, and you have a supercharged atmosphere.

Most games walk on the edge of excess. Some games tumble over the edge.

Monday night tumbled over. The stage was set when a group of Eagles fans allegedly were caught smuggling alcohol onto their flights from Philly to Dallas. On Friday.

Fights erupted all over Texas Stadium, as Eagles fans overran the joint and their team overran the Cowboys, 49-21. Good thing this game was played well past the kids' bed times, because it was for mature audiences only.

9. We saw games kick off from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Regardless, the fans are going to be there. They're going to be there early. And they're going to be cooking some form of pig. It's the law.

10. What happens before the game and after the game is often just as important as what happens during the game.

Fans arrived at 5 a.m. to smoke swine for a 9 p.m. kickoff in Lafayette. They tailgated until 1:30 in the morning -- in the bitter cold -- in New England. The clock was never a constraint. Football games -- be they college or pro -- are as much about winning and losing as they are about bringing family, friends and strangers -- just as long as they wear the same jersey. Be it under a tent or a tree, in a bus or an RV, next to a lake or an interstate, tailgating camaraderie is king.

We began this series by quoting H.G. Bissinger, who wrote the seminal sports book, "Friday Night Lights." We quoted the scene he described about the fans of Odessa Permian High School, here in this very state, welcoming their Panthers onto the field -- as Bissinger wrote, "their boys, their heroes, upon whom they rested all their vicarious thrills, all their dreams."

So we physically end where we thematically began, in the state of Texas. Where football, on all levels, is still carrying our dreams.

-- Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com.