Friday, September 9, 2011

"If God's not a Tar Heel, why's the sky Carolina Blue?" (First Football Match)

September 2011

I’ve lost my virginity. My American Football virginity I hasten to add… Attending my first ever American Football match (UNC vs James Madison University) at the massive stadium here at UNC was an experience that will stay with me for a long time. The excitement, the heat, the volume of the crowd was incredible. It also made me realise how much of a big deal college sports is here in the USA. A Tar Heel is someone who either goes to UNC or supports them. It’s the name given to the varsity sports teams that represent the university. The most famous Tar Heel of all time? Michael Jordan. Yep, the world famous basketball player graduated from UNC. How cool is that?!

In case you didn't believe me!
It’s amazing how into their sports people get here. The famous Carolina Blue (basically baby blue for you who don’t know) is worn by a large majority of those on campus, and around Chapel Hill. Whole shops are dedicated to the selling of UNC merchandise, with anything from t-shirts to dog bones bearing the UNC logo (yes, you read that right – your dog can be a Tar Heel dog!). On the weekend before classes started it was rather overwhelming to see all these people decked out in baby blue, with shorts, t-shirts and caps bearing the UNC logo or slogan. And that was just the parents!

The UNC marching band

Everyone wearing Carolina Blue!

It’s a strange concept seeing so much support and loyalty to a university, coming from a background where it hasn’t really existed, unless you were representing the university in a specific sport. Indeed I feel more loyalty towards my UOTC unit than university back home. I guess it is the pride in ones college that has contributed to making it such a beautiful place. There’s very little litter around the campus, and donations from former students mean buildings can be maintained and facilities improved. The fact that a massive 60,000 stadium exists to show college football – not professional, but college, indicates the crowds that are drawn to support their fellow students representing their college. I honestly cannot ever see the same ever happening in Manchester – personally I don’t think there is enough pride by students in their university at home, and this is reflected in so many ways. But maybe that can be attributed to the pessimism that as a whole, us Brits have in much greater abundance that the Yanks. No one in the UK wants to be seen as the overly competitive one, or the keeno wanting to show off. Yet here in the States, and certainly at UNC, this seems to be encouraged. It is an interesting cultural difference to notice. 

It is also amazing how the locals to Chapel Hill and surround areas get behind the Tar Heels as well. The Chapel Hill campus was full of families of supporters on Football day, with roads closed and houses displaying signs offering a parking space on their drive for anything up to $50. As I (think) ive mentioned before, in Chapel Hill all the road signs around campus are in Carolina Blue (instead of standard green) and display the UNC logo upon them. Even the emergency services are decked out in blue instead of red here. Even shops and businesses get in on the act displaying Tar Heel flags and banners in their shop windows and on their adverts. To be honest, being a little sceptical, I reckon some of that is purely for marketing purposes as Chapel Hill is a big college town, but it is still something to behold. That would NEVER happen in Manchester!

Anyways, the game. It was immense. We started off by ‘tailgating’, which is basically a term used for eating a drinking before a game starts. Apparently it originates from people rocking up and having BBQ’s on the tailgates of pickup trucks. These Americans think of everything! My tailgating experience started on the grass outside the dorm where a BBQ was going and burgers were being served (no beer though with the stupid 21 rule here). So I ate my burger and chatted to some people, and then left to go and have a drink off campus. Obviously. The girl’s house where we had been a few times before was the location of the ‘casual-drink-in-the-sun’ tailgate event, with Pat turning up as well as some other internationals. Beer pong (think most people have heard of this game) was in full swing when we arrived, and another game called corn-hole was getting set up. Corn hole involves throwing beanbags into a hole set into a board. Easy you might think (as I naively did too), but it isn’t in any way shape or form. The winner is the team to get to 21 first, but you lose any points the other team gains per round. (I didn’t get it the first few time either…) So it takes a while to win. Especially playing in the searing hot sun. Needless to say, because Pat had me on his team we lost against Lexi and Jess (Lexi was definitely cheating though!).

Playing beer pong

The bros

The game started at 3.30, and the stadium was pretty full. Hearing the chants and shouts of the crowd was awesome, as well as the 300-400 strong band located in ‘The Tar Heel Pit’ (the student bit of the stands). And ‘daim’ (inject some Southern drawl there!) they were loud! Having absolutely no idea as to the rule of Football (I tried watching the Super Bowl the season before but gave up in confusion) Pat had to explain to me everything. Even why play had stopped (ad breaks – even college sports have succumbed to commercialisation). This was also a new experience for me and the other British guys (I’m not allowed to say English anymore because Fiona’s Scottish). When play stopped these ads were played on the big screen at either end of the pitch. One was of famous Football players from UNC saying things like ‘I’m blah blah and I’m a Tar Heel’, and ‘I’m so-and-so and I am and always will be a Tar Heel’, at which point the crowd would go mental. And this was all done to dramatic music and the peoples on the screen were dramatically lighted with dark shadows etc. Another one was various sports players saying something along the lines of ‘we will rush you and beat you, for I am better than you and you should know it’ Again with dramatic music and lighting. The ad would go ‘but when its all over I will pick you up, shake your hand and nod approval to you. Because this game is about respect. And as a Tar Heel I respect you, my rival’. And again the crowd went wild. It was sure surreal to see! Me and John just looked at each shaking our heads and felt very English not joining in with the crowd… Bloody Americans!


The huge crowd

Enjoying the game and sunshine!

The game itself was good to watch, but I found myself being drawn more to watching the crowd and the action around the pitch. It appeared to me to be more of a spectacle than just a game. There were numerous groups of cheerleaders doing various dances etc and the two team mascots running around causing mayhem wherever they went. The match was won 42-10 by UNC, and I have to admit that I really felt like a Tar Heel whilst watching the game.  It was really amazing watching the game and getting into the spirit of it. However, I will never admit that in person, because real football (that’s Soccer you Americans!) is much better, and rugby is waaaay better too. Though I have to admit I’d much rather be taken out by a rugby player than an American Football player – some of those tackles looked painful!

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