MAXWELL:  Southerners love their football season

8/29/2001 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Soon, nights will cool, marching bands and cheerleaders will perfect their routines and excitement will infect the bleachers, often turning sane men into rabble-rousers.

For me, this is the best time of the year: It is football season.

Having played the game in high school and college, I love every aspect of football.

This year, I have a special football connection: My nephew, Rodney Gray, is the new head coach at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, one of the state’s perennial Class 6-A powerhouses.

Westerners, Midwesterners and Easterners love football. But the South is where football, especially college football, is worshiped. Down here in Dixie, football is king.

Nationwide, TGIF means Thank God It’s Friday. In the South, it also means Thank God It’s Football.

“Football mania” is the term that best describes the year-round mass psychosis that grips Southern towns _ Athens, Auburn, Baton Rouge, Blacksburg, Bradenton, Clemson, Columbia, Gainesville, Knoxville, Little Rock, Miami, Oxford, Tallahassee, Tampa, Tuscaloosa.

Hunting, fishing and stock car racing are worthy distractions. In many small Florida towns, such as Chiefland, High Springs, Live Oak, Newberry, Palatka and Williston, community pride is directly tied to the number of W’s and L’s the hometown football team racks up each season. In short, pigskin prowess is matter of honor.

As a native Floridian, I am smug about football. After all, Florida football fans truly are fortunate. Each of our three major football programs, for example, has been national champion at least once during the last 10 years. And, as in most other years, the Gators, ‘Noles and ‘Canes are in every poll’s top 10 for 2001.

And something else: One of the nation’s fiercest and oldest rivalries between traditional black schools takes place in the Sunshine State when Daytona Beach’s Bethune-Cookman College and Tallahassee’s Florida A&M University face off in their annual classic.

Along with their counterparts in Texas, Florida high schools attract college scouts the way pollen attracts bees. If a Northeastern coach wants a running back with rocket speed, he salivates over Glades Central High School in tiny Belle Glade. This campus on the muck is “Scatbackville, USA.”

Scholars have long recorded the South’s obsession with the gridiron. In his article “Geography of Sports,” Oklahoma State University professor John F. Rooney Jr. writes that “though football is a national game, the ability to play it well is inordinately concentrated in the South.”

Because the Land of Cotton is obsessed with the sport, it sends more players to college and to the National Football League than other parts of the nation. Many men in the South groom their sons early for pigskin careers.

Many social critics worry about the region’s obsession with football. University of Iowa professor Benjamin K. Hunnicut argues that the game, like many other pastimes, reflects regional values and characteristics that crave so-called “blood sports and militaristic games.”

Earlier this year, while visiting the Paul W. Bryant Museum at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, I fully understood Hunnicut’s reference to “blood sports and militaristic games” in Southern life. Football was, and is, the way that Southerners subconsciously compensated for the failure of the Confederacy.

To this day, Southerners love whipping “damned Yankees” and other outsiders. The other football conferences hate playing the Southeastern Conference. When Southerners run out of outsiders to beat up on, they decimate one another, often knocking themselves out of contention for the national championship.

For the record, the SEC’s 12 programs had a record nine teams in bowl games last year. With several teams returning at least five excellent starters on both sides of the ball, this year also looks like a bowl bonanza for the SEC, a prospect that further stokes Southern pride.

“Friday night in the autumn is the time for a major Southern ritual occasion,” writes James M. Gifford of Appalachian State University. “Football is the center of a complex cultural event involving more than players on the field.”

Football is, at least for many boys and men, an instrument of psychic survival in the Old Confederacy. We in Florida know we are in football heaven. A tough, competitive game is just down the road in the next stadium.