I’m studying at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign right now, which has been ranked by The Princeton Review as the top party school in the U.S. While I’ve been to board game nights, a department potluck, and reading groups (with wine!), I’m not sure any of those activities really influenced the Princeton evaluation. But, then again, this school’s supposed party scene is not the reason I came here.

UIUC has many fine qualities, including one of the largest libraries in the States. It is also part of the Big Ten; however, our football team, the Fighting Illini, has been struggling. Fortunately, football is not the reason I came to this university either. Nor would I have ever considered spending a Saturday afternoon watching big men in tights crash into each other had not a close friend bought tickets to one of the first games before I had even started packing up my books to move down here.

So, a few weeks ago, while I was reading Shakespeare, my friend prepared a twenty-slide Powerpoint presentation on the basics of this facet of American culture about which I am completely illiterate. This crash course right before the first live football game I would ever attend prepared me, more or less, to begin deciphering the sport: I learned that a touchdown is worth six points (not seven, which I had originally thought), that the defense and the offense of the same team are never on the field at one time, that the offense has four chances to move the ball ten yards toward their end zone (which changes throughout the game), and that the formation of the players is part of a strategy that actually exists. As we walked over to the pillared, imposing stadium, I was confident, for the first time in my life, that I would be able to piece together some method out of this madness.

What I was not prepared for, though, were all of the distractions. Sure, I saw the players, but there were so many other things to look at: the band! the cheerleaders! the student section with its posters! the fireworks! the fans! the baton-throwing girls! I promptly forgot about the formations I had learned. When my friend checked in on my comprehension, he found me counting the tubas in the band (twenty!) or watching the cheerleaders flip or trying to make out the message the student section was attempting to spell. Then, I would have to look to the giant screen to see the replay of what had just happened. With a second chance, a new perspective, and my friend’s patient explanation, I would be back—for a moment—in the game.

Even with the screen, though, I couldn’t catch the nuances between the plays, and I’m afraid in terms of football itself I might need remedial tutoring. However, I did witness an outpouring of talent and the results of hours of rehearsing that I hadn’t known were going on while I was studying under the lofty ceiling in the main library reading room. The baton girls never missed one toss, the cheerleaders flew in-sync, and the band—several hundred strong—was in-time and in-tune, at least to my untrained ears. Now, when I peddle home past the fields where the brass section, the flag girls, and the football players are practicing, I look and listen differently, with attention and new amazement.

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