We saw the first one after we got on the highway, when still 2 hours away. The car passed us going 70. Their blue flag flapped crisply behind them. It was a little sun faded, the orange letter “I” not as sharp as it had been when new.
The signs of the faithful increased the closer we got. Here a bumper sticker, there another flag, occasionally a motor home festooned for major tailgate action. A stop at a gas station an hour away, and I counted 7 other people bedecked in neon orange t-shirts. Parents? Alumni?
The town is awash. The streets, the sidewalks, the parking lots filled with tailgaters; everywhere you look you see the color scheme du jour. Those not in orange or blue are the exception. Foreign exchange students, hustling to the library despite the fact that it is Saturday, and game day, are among the minority. They are out of uniform.
Little boys wearing the blue jerseys of their favorite players toss the football with their dad behind the family’s pop-up tent. Girls wearing orange ribbons in their hair, babies in matching diapers come to the stadium in the arms of their mothers. These are the young graduates, remembering their wilder days, and raising their kids up with a belief in these fine, old traditions. They are secure in the knowledge that they, too, will someday have a home here.
Scores of parents stream in to the game. Some are alumni and some, like us, use this day as an excuse to spend a few hours with our babies, now embarking on their college journeys. The orange shirt is the dress code; the game ticket is the cost of admission. It, and the bill for dinner for our kid and whatever new friends are parentless today, is a small price to pay for the chance to see her.
An elderly couple leans heavily on one another as they hobble into the stadium. Their orange and blue has the faded, well-pressed look of long use. Perhaps they met at this very stadium – he, just back from the war; she, a shy coed away from home for the first time. They have come back through the highs and lows of their lives. Their steps are tentative, shaky in their orthopedic shoes. This may be their last season. But they are damn well here today, and by God will keep coming as long as they are able!
Students fill the end zone, a solid block of orange. Freshmen play follow-the-leader at this, their first game. They’ll learn to “whoo” when their team gets a first down, to gallop when the band plays The William Tell Overture, and a dozen other little quirks of “our” school. They will remember these things for a lifetime. Eventually they, too, will arrive for game day in their orthopedic shoes, but they will still remember, and rise to sing the school song.
We come to Champaign as they are coming to countless campuses all over the country. Because it is game day – the start of the college football season.
It is the first game, and we are all coming home.