When the clock struck midnight before New Year’s Day, I’d never watched a Rose Bowl from start to finish. I’d seen the iconic opening shots of those hazy mountains in the late afternoon sun and I had watched a few plays, but I hadn’t stuck around. My flimsy excuse is that I grew up in New England, where college football doesn’t matter the way college football is supposed to matter (read: very much and on an almost spiritual level). The NFL has always been my jam.
That changed Jan. 1, 2018, which will henceforth be known as Charlotte’s Day of College Football Reckoning At Long Last, Hallelujah, Praise The Lord.
It starts around 2 p.m., when I turn on the Outback Bowl. Ryan Nanni, my SB Nation colleague/the internet’s #FryinNanni, is dressed up like a giant fried onion on national TV (long story) and I don’t want to miss my opportunity to make fun of him on Twitter. I don’t watch the game between Michigan and South Carolina very closely because I’m distracted by the fact that the grown man I work with is wearing a shiny red bodysuit; an unwieldy, multi-tiered foam girdle; and has a bucket shaped like a bowl of dipping sauce strapped to his head. He performs beautifully and makes us all very proud.
The bit of the game I do pay attention to is fairly enjoyable, however, so I keep the the bowl games on as I go about my afternoon. As I fold some laundry, I hear the strains of a Sia song, and look up to see that ESPN is playing a kind of pump-up montage before the Rose Bowl. I start to feel a tingling anticipation.
I watch the players take the field. UGA’s coach Kirby Smart runs out there, too, and ESPN zooms in on him. I decide that in 2018 I’m going to wear a visor, polo shirt, and khakis, and speak in vague phrases like “we’re just thinking about the next game” to see how long it takes before a school offers me a job.
Oklahoma’s Heisman-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield was apparently sick with some sort of flu this week, but he looks pretty healthy right now. He must be feeling better. I wonder how many bottles of DayQuil he’s mixed into his water bottle. Party on, Wayne.
The sound of cadets singing the national anthem fills the stadium as fighter jets roar over it. I get chills at kickoff. I can’t believe how much I’m feeling. This seems like it matters. I find the expectation on the players’ faces deeply moving.
Oklahoma executes a masterful drive, scoring with a swift and ruthless precision that blows me away (Mayfield is good at football — I’m not sure if any of you knew that). Georgia answers with a touchdown of its own. I’m pretty sure this is the best game I’ve ever seen, and we’re only in the first minutes of the first quarter.
Mayfield throws up a “surf’s up” hand gesture, and Rodney Anderson threads the needle between two UGA defenders so beautifully that I suddenly think I’m a Sooners fan. But then Roquan Smith tackles an Oklahoma guy and I’m certain I’ve been saying “Go Dawgs!” since birth. Touchdowns fly back and forth, and by the end of the half I’m pretty convinced that both teams might score 70.
The game is fast and fun, but every once in a while something decidedly unprofessional will happen to remind me that the college game is more human than the NFL — like when the Sooners leave a hole big enough for nine Sony Michels to run through.
The halftime marching bands are incredible. The choreography is so intricate, and involves so many people that I think the schools must use incredibly advanced technology to map it all out (update: they kind of do.) People dance in the stands as band members play their horns and bang their drums and raise their batons. Honking pomp and glittering circumstance.
The advertisements playing for SEC schools during commercial breaks make college look so fun that I want to go back and enroll at a real football school. I didn’t go to one, and I feel the loss of something that I never had.
By the third quarter, Georgia appears to have finally realized that teams from their state should just always run the damn ball. I’m convinced Smart didn’t actually speak to players in the locker room, but instead just played T.I.’s “Bankhead” very loudly. That’s the only way to fire up a group of people to this extent. They look ready to kick down doors.
Mayfield is intercepted. Maybe his DayQuil is wearing off? Smart looks like he may be having an out-of-body experience as the Dawgs pull ahead after being down by as many as 17 points. But then Steven Parker scores a touchdown and Oklahoma is back on top. AND THEN UGA TIES IT UP AGAIN!
I’m stress-eating Thai food at this point. I’m sweating. I’m laughing. I’m tweeting. I’m short-circuiting. I’m obsessed with the Rose Bowl. I want to move into the Rose Bowl. I am a rose. I’m made of bowls. My hands are footballs. I’m laughing again, uncontrollably now, as we go to overtime for the first time in Rose Bowl history.
What did we do to deserve this? I love that moment when you realize you’re watching a sports game become legend — when you witness something you know people will talk about for years to come with can-you-believe-it-I-still-can’t levels of awe.
The game is tied 48-48 in double overtime. I want to stay suspended in this glorious moment of intense anticipation forever. Freeze me here, without a winner and without a loser, when everything wild is still possible, before anyone’s heart has broken and no one’s dreams have yet come true. Make this my Groundhog Day.
UGA blocks a Sooners’ field goal. And then Michel takes off, running the ball for Georgia, and — oh, my God, he’s juking defenders, he’s running, he’s still running, he’s going to run forever, he’s going to do it! He does it! He scores a touchdown! Georgia wins! They won! The game, the best game in the history of the world, is over. I’m elated for the Dawgs and devastated for the Sooners. I can’t look at Mayfield and I can’t look away from Michel. I didn’t have a horse in this race, I just didn’t want the race to end.
I’m emotionally drained. I have been reborn like the new year. I am now the biggest college football fan to have ever walked the Earth. I’m sorry it took this long.