This one hurts.
There’s no question 2020 has been a wild ride for the sports-event industry. Since mid-March when the COVID-19 pandemic began in earnest, each event cancellation and postponement has been a gut punch at worst and disorienting at best for sports organizations, the destinations that host their events and the fans who love their sports. The Indy 500 in August? The Kentucky Derby in September? The Masters in November? While it’s been dizzying to keep track of, thank goodness those events are still possibilities even if they’ll look quite different.
But of all the events rescheduled, canceled or otherwise affected by the pandemic, the announcement that the Big Ten and the Pac-12 will cancel college football this fall has been the hardest for me personally so far. For me, the fall is defined by college football. And college football, more than just about any other sport, is personal.
I spent my college years in Boulder, Colorado, rooting for a Buffaloes team that was at or near the top of the polls for my campus experience. As a member of the marching band, I followed the football team closely for a variety of reasons. Sure, I loved the team and the game itself. But the prospect of travel with the band was also in the mix. Road trips to Lawrence, Kansas, or Stillwater, Oklahoma, for what then were Big 8 matchups were as exciting to me as the bowl games I got to attend in Miami or Phoenix.
My experience worked out so well that during my time watching the team and playing drums in the band, I got to meet an awfully cute tuba player. After graduating, we stayed close to each other and close to the program, enjoying our fall Saturdays in Boulder watching our Buffs. When we got married 20 years ago this summer, we held the ceremony on campus.
A Trophy Made for Fans
In the years since, CU’s teams didn’t have much for us to cheer for. We cheered anyway. After our son was born, we eventually brought him to the games as well. He liked kicking around the fall leaves on campus before the players kicked off at the stadium.
And when Colorado joined the Pac-12 in 2011, we had a new reason to celebrate (and not just for the current band members who now got to take conference trips to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and other seemingly exotic locations). My younger brother is an Arizona State alum, meaning we suddenly had a built-in rival to play each and every season in the new Pac-12 South.
Like all good rivalries, we commissioned a trophy. So while the teams may have no idea, there is a lot at stake one special Saturday each fall. The Colorado/Arizona State Nabholz/Unck Memorial Cup Presented by Vincent’s Pizza (named for our favorite obscure players at our respective schools and with an imaginary multiyear corporate backing from the local pizza place where we grew up) gets to stay in the house of the winning family — either his in New York or mine in Colorado — for the year until the next game. The Colorado-Arizona State game may never be on any pundit’s national radar, but it is on ours, circled on the calendar each and every fall. The winner gets the glory; the loser gets an alarmingly significant UPS bill.
Unfortunately for CU, the Sun Devils pretty much owned the series from the start, winning the first five straight. But in 2016, as part of an improbable run to the Pac-12 South title (and their best year since our college days), CU won the game and the trophy came home to us. That first glorious offseason, we brought it to the mountains. We toured it around Colorado. I brought it to the top of Folsom Field with the help of a former co-worker who now works in the athletic department and posed our trophy next to Rashaan Salaam’s Heisman and with CU’s 1990 national championship trophy in the school’s athletics center — all the great collegiate trophies in one location at last.
Colorado has won the game the last two years as well, and the trophy has been with us ever since. Last season we even staged a victory parade on our cul-de-sac as our neighbors — none of whom had any stake in the game — got to learn of the rivalry. There was a grand marshal riding in a convertible, wagons used as floats, kids on bikes. And there was a tuba player and a drum player leading the parade with their instruments while their CU-loving kid took photos of the ridiculous spectacle.
That’s the passion behind sports events. You don’t have to play the game to appreciate everything that comes with it: The pageantry, the experience, the collective experience. These are the things that are lost when we lose events.
An Old Rival
The collective experience has never felt more real than it did at another game played in Boulder last year that we attended when our old Big 8 rivals Nebraska came to visit. To ensure we got in the stadium for that game — Nebraska’s first visit to Boulder in 10 years — we bought a season-ticket package. As only the Nebraska faithful can, fans there did the same thing, buying CU season tickets for just the one game to see their team play as well. We’d been to Nebraska-Colorado games plenty of times. But with the long delay since the Cornhuskers’ last visit, Nebraska fans were ready to return. I’ve never seen anything like it. Over half the stadium was red (I’d guess as much as 60 percent) and they were in their seats an hour before kickoff, as we were as well. When Nebraska went up 17-0 nearing the fourth quarter, it looked hopeless for our Buffs.
But this is why we love sports. CU woke up, tied the game and won in overtime, 34–31, when Nebraska’s kicker missed his field goal attempt. When our then 9-year-old son saw fans young and old storming the field, he asked if we could, too. Yes, of course.
That afternoon was one of the most enjoyable of my life, watching ecstatic people on the field, including an older fan next to us kneeling down in delight, arms raised to the heavens, his smile as wide as the seating bowl. I took this photo of my wife and son leaving the field after we stayed and sang fight songs till we couldn’t sing any more. To me this photo represents the best of the live sports experience. You don’t need to see their unseen, satisfied faces to know what’s happening here as they walked off the field. You don’t need to see my smile behind the camera. This is what it’s all about, for the fans anyway. And this is what hurts so much about the prospect of no such experiences this fall, at least for my team.
Shifting to the Spring
We’ve lost a lot of sports in 2020, more than even I can comprehend as we’ve chronicled the past few months in SportsTravel. We’ve also been heartened to see so many events start to come back, from the youth level to the professional leagues. But the decisions by the Big Ten and Pac-12, among many other sports organizations, shows that there unfortunately remains a great deal of uncertainty in the weeks and months ahead.
And for me, this one hurts.
While painful, I also believe it was the right decision. Sports mean many things to many people, but the safety of the participants should always come first. In the case of the Big Ten and the Pac-12, their leaders believe it’s safer to wait, which is hard to fault. It appears some college football programs may try to make a go of a fall season, including Nebraska, which is ready to play even if their Big Ten colleagues are telling them no. For a team that has sold out each of its home games since 1962, I respect their passion and desire to play, especially if they truly feel they can do it safely. If the other conferences feel they can play safely, I don’t fault them in their decisions either. And there is no denying the impact these games have on their host communities, both economically and socially.
For our team and the rest of the Pac-12, hopefully there will be games this spring in Boulder and on campuses around the conference. If that comes to be, we’ll walk around campus marveling at the green leaves sprouting from the trees instead of kicking the colorful ones that have already fallen to the ground. We’ll wear T-shirts and shorts instead of fleece jackets and ski hats. We’ll cheer just the same even if it won’t be the same. We’ll be happy for whatever we can get.
And hopefully that beautiful trophy will be ours to keep around for even longer under legitimate circumstances when CU beats ASU. The chance to play for — and even to lose — the trophy is sweeter than getting to keep this absurd piece of hardware simply because COVID-19 continues to disorient our world.
To me, it’s a symbol of what we still have to look forward to experiencing.