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Smoke from the grill, hot chocolate, stinging cold air, the crunch of … football pads? Yeah, it’s definitely fall. Forget changing leaves and cuddling up with a book, football fans everywhere should agree that autumn is the best time of the year for a completely different reason.
I wasn’t always a football fan. My mom hated sports, but from time to time we’d sneak in a game on a lazy Sunday afternoon if she wasn’t around. I’d watch with clinical disinterest, choosing to root for the team playing whichever team my brother wanted to win. During one such game, the Denver Broncos played the New England Patriots. In typical fashion, my 4-year-old self decided that the Pats were my team because orange is ugly. And for some reason, that choice has stuck in varying degrees of seriousness ever since.
I didn’t understand or actually care about football until high school. As a member of my school’s marching band, every other Friday or so was spent under the bright stadium lights playing pep songs for a lackluster team. Though the team sucked, something about these football games that spoke to me.  Through seeing old alumni wearing their ancient letterman jackets, feeling like a part of American high school mythos and falling under the spell of a small town rallying around a shitty team, I learned the game. I started paying attention to the game, the score board, the announcer and the refs. When we traveled to the Coliseum to play with the USC Trojan Marching Band during a game, I didn’t spend my free time wandering the stadium, I spent it with my eye trained on Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart.
Throughout my freshman year of high school, the first year of my football education, I read Patriots recaps and watched as many games as I could manage. I kept up with the scores and standings, right on through to the 2004 Super Bowl where the Pats beat out the Carolina Panthers 32-29.  It was the first Super Bowl game that I ever watched entirely, and for me, it had been the most exciting game of all time. There was no name more hallowed than Bill Belichick.
Exactly a month earlier, the Trojans had won 28-14 against the Michigan Wolverines at the Rose Bowl. This was the first year I didn’t turn off the TV the second the Rose Parade was over. I didn’t know about the sticky terrain of the NCAA, I didn’t know about bowl game suspensions, I didn’t even know how they chose which teams from which conferences to play in the bowl games. I didn’t even know that the Rose Bowl wasn’t the be-all, end-all college football event of the year. Gator Bowl? Sugar Bowl? Orange Bowl? To me, the Trojans and Pete Carroll were the best college football had to offer.
And isn’t that the magic of falling in love with a team? You may love the team closest to you. You may love the team your entire family cheers for. Or you may have just caught a game on TV by chance and maybe that team showed you something that made you feel instantly and indescribably attached. For the first few years, your team can do no wrong. If they struggle their way through a game, if they get too confident in the playoffs and lose to an underdog, or if every NFL fan in the country believes that your team is full of cheaters, it doesn’t matter to you.
It’s when the honeymoon phase is over that a real football fan is born. The moment you find yourself screaming at the TV because the left tackle didn’t prevent a sack or the moment your team loses to the Buffalo Bills and you’re actually embarrassed (c’mon, Pats, what was that?) is the moment you’ve made it. It happens around the same time you feel personally betrayed when a friend is a fan of your rival team.
And you’ve definitely made it when football rituals become a part of your week. If you’re crazy like me, you can pray your own (semi-sacrilegious) little football prayer on game day. Regardless of your team’s region, don your best Southern accent (because God only listens to football prayers if you sound like you’re from Texas, it’s a fact!) and say something like this:
“Dear God, I lift (your team) up to you on this beautiful Sunday (or Monday!), lord. I pray that you see (your team) to victory. May they tackle with strength and lead with bravery. Strike down (your opponent) so that they will lose with shame. Amen.”
And when times are getting tough heading into the third quarter, a little emergency plea to the heavens can’t hurt either.
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