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An Ode to Homecoming and College Football

by on October 06, 2016 5:00 AM

"No great thing is ever accomplished without a sustained background of deep feeling. This is the intangible, imponderable underlying motive, the heart interest of college athletics. The only analogy I think of is love of country."—Amos Alonzo Stagg, 1927

A deep feeling analogous to love of country -- can anything more accurately describe what Homecoming means to Penn Staters? Here and at other schools around the country Homecoming is a reminder of what makes college football unique.

There is no Homecoming weekend for the Steelers, Yankees, Celtics or Red Wings like there is for Penn State, Ohio State or Notre Dame.

It is a rite of autumn. Summer is past, the leaves are changing and nostalgia is thick in the air as we return to that place we’ll always hold in our hearts.

Homecoming is a time to recall our time in college but it is more than that. There is magic in the air for alums and students alike. Homecoming unites us in memories with classmates but also in moments familiar to alumni across decades who walked the same ground.

While much has changed much also remains the same.

Penn Stater Sam Vaughan wrote For you were there when the place was young — or younger — and so were you. That’s part of the dream-like quality. It’s always young at Penn State… a place that everyone is glad to get to, glad to get away from, and can never leave entirely or recapture.”

That is the bond. We never leave our Alma Mater completely because it becomes part of our DNA.

As we have grown so has the game of college football that brings us home this weekend. College football grew quickly from a single game between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869 to prominence on the campuses of America’s most prestigious Universities.

By the 1890s it had exploded as described by author F. Scott Fitzgerald “For at Princeton, as at Yale, football became, back in the nineties, a sort of symbol. Symbol of what? Of the eternal violence of American life? Of the eternal immaturity of the race? The failure of a culture within the walls? Who knows? It became something at first satisfactory, then essential and beautiful. It became the most intense and dramatic spectacle since the Olympic games.”

Essential and beautiful…..

The game now blends elements of force, speed and grace. For a nation formed by armed revolution and kept united by civil war football held an appeal to a nation that had fulfilled its “manifest destiny” yet still longed to see competition in the face of daunting challenges. Short of war itself, football became the proving ground for generations of young men to display courage both physical and mental.

It grew up before television and radio. Its gospel was spread by the printed word of talented scribes; its history and mythology written poetically, forming the legends of the game. It became a uniquely American spectacle with a sporting pageantry unsurpassed in our nation.

While the NFL is now football’s global franchise it never captured the regional and tribal passions and traditions of the college game. At its heart The NFL remains an entertainment business. It goes back to what Stagg said about “sustained deep feeling.”

Stagg also wrote “The spectacle is as much a part of college football as the game itself, and the spectacle is the spontaneous product of the campus. It is youth, incarnate, dramatized.”

“Youth incarnate” is exactly what sets it apart. The players will always be young men, our teams always rooted in the campus we walked, where the best memories of our romantic youth reside.

But the college game is changing. Big money has made the game richer financially but threatens to weaken it in our hearts.

Almost as much as wins and losses the media covers issues of money, business and more money; television contracts, rising ticket prices, apparel deals, coaches’ contracts, buyouts, paying players, players unionizing.

Those storylines are written in prose reading like legal briefs or lines on a ledger sheet. Accounting terms and legal contracts never inspired anyone like the poetry of a dramatic epic played out in the fading sunlight of a late-autumn Saturday.

When those discussions eclipse the tradition and drama we have lost something.

In college football, traditions developed over time and rooted in the hearts and souls of the people who hold them dear. Tradition isn’t born from a hashtag term on social media. Tradition can’t be force-fed from a marketing department.

Traditions begin organically, sprouting from seed that fell in the right place at the right time and grow over time.

Homecoming is one of those great traditions, a celebration of history with bonfires, parades, a football game, a pint at your old favorite bar, and a nip in the air that reminds you of a time that is gone yet seems still so near your grasp.

It is a Friday night at the parade on an evening best described by author Wallace Stegner a chilly Octoberish smell of cured leaves rose from the ground, the indescribable smell of fall and football weather…..”

As you return to your Alma Mater for Homecoming, breathe in the smell of fall and football weather. Recall moments past in the sunlight of happy memory. This is part of your life’s poetry, your youth incarnate, your heart swelled with the deep feeling that makes college and college football unique in life and among our nation’s sports.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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