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I grew up in Pittsburgh, so naturally I am a Steelers fanatic, and unless I happen to marry a star player of another team, they will never be tied for first place. Growing up in Pittsburgh, Steelers culture is just a part of life; it permeates everything. When I went to college in Nashville, Steelers football even kept me in touch with my family since I called them several times a game.
But when I moved to Nashville, I went from a football-crazy town to a football-huh college: Vanderbilt University. To say Vanderbilt students were apathetic about football would be generous. I was there from 2001 to 2005 and in all four years I felt that if we won three games per season, it was a winning season.
Vanderbilt has perennially been at the bottom of the SEC. While places like Florida got Tim Tebow and competed repeatedly for the BCS Championship, Vanderbilt never got the big names or made it to the big games. So I think it is a marvel when a Vanderbilt football player is drafted by an NFL team.
Academics are supremely important at Vanderbilt—even for star athletes. To give you an idea, one rumor used to be that the SEC kept Vanderbilt in the conference solely because its football graduation rate helped bring up the average graduation rate for all SEC football teams.
It’s not really possible for Vanderbilt football players to just pick the easiest or introductory courses, because it’s not often clear what those are. My two hardest classes were a graduate-level math course called Nonlinear Optimization (from which I still suffer nightmares) and an Introduction to Sociology class. There’s just no way to easily skate by.
To the one Vandy grad who is reading this who wants to comment that many Vandy football players major in Human and Organizational Development (i.e. the supposed "skate-through" major), I’ll remind them that the players still had to go to class and do the work.
When a classic joke about the Vandy football team is: “Why are the Commodores like possums? Because they get killed on the road and play dead at home” and people laugh and nod their heads in agreement, I find it inspiring that players can overcome that much lack of faith and encouragement, and still manage to get good grades and play well enough to reach the NFL.
A Turning Point
The most memorable game I’ve ever been to was during my junior year of college when we played the University of Kentucky (Nov. 15, 2003) at home. I was sitting with my boyfriend at the time and his family in the Kentucky section (which really extended to almost the entire stadium), and purposefully wore a Kentucky-blue windbreaker over my Vandy t-shirt because I didn’t feel like being commented to during the game.
Yet an astonishing thing happened—we started winning. Our quarterback threw two touchdowns and suddenly it was 14-3 at halftime. Now for me, since we never won, leading the game at half-time was almost as good. That’s no exaggeration.
Then the third quarter began and suddenly we scored another touchdown. UK copied us, but then our quarterback threw his fourth touchdown of the game, and everybody was like, what? Vandy’s leading? It’s 28-10 over UK? How is that possible?
But everybody knows that Vanderbilt blows their leads in fourth quarter, right? So don’t get too crazy about an 18-point difference. Then something miraculous happened: the VU defense only gave up one other touchdown! And as the final seconds wound down, my boyfriend and I started wading through the dead silent UK fans to reach the student section.
And all the students there stormed the field. It was our first SEC win in three years and our first home SEC win in five. It took us that long to just beat another SEC team and we did it 28-17. So we stormed the field; students were running around flying everywhere, people climbing on both goal posts to tear them down, people shouting, screaming, crying, and just plain jumping for joy. Finally! We had won!
Once the goal posts were torn down the mob of students picked them up and paraded them out of the stadium and down the four-lane highway in front of Vanderbilt while the cops stopped traffic for us. We took them up to our Alumni Lawn and celebrated around them.
I have always wished I had stuck around to save a piece of a goal post when maintenance chopped them up.
We won only two games that entire season, but this was one that mattered. It felt like it had legitimized us. We had finally taken a step, albeit a small one, toward reclaiming some respect in the SEC. It was the most memorable football experience of my life so far; it gave me hope.
Now, five seasons removed from that game, Vanderbilt not only had a “winning” season (superb by standards when I was there), but they were selected to a bowl game and won. The Vanderbilt Commodores actually won a bowl game, and over Boston College no less. I get a kick each time I think of it.
And do you know who the quarterback was in the UK game? Jay Cutler.
During my college years, even when the football team was playing a big traveling school, the student section was mostly empty. With games at 11 in the morning, the consensus from the student body seemed to be "Why go? I was up late last night and want to sleep in. Besides, we’ll lose anyway."
I haven’t been back in a couple years, but I sincerely hope that mentality has now changed.
While I was in college, indifference was the best you could hope for with the majority of the student population and football. Even my senior year, even after we started winning a few games a year, I think my friends and I only went to a few games. Though now I wish I’d gone to more, of course.
But I can only speculate as to how disheartening that must have been for the players—to see how little their school supported them even as they strove to keep us from the basement of the SEC.
In Cutler’s time at VU he began instilling a hope that we could win—a real hope, a real expectation that maybe this year was the year we make it. While I was there it was like the student body slowly awakened from a long slumber. Or from the grave.
Slowly, we realized we were alive—we didn’t win many games, but we did win some. There was a chance now that we could do it
I pray that now there is a hope that we can win—not just a fool’s hope either—and that the students currently at Vanderbilt get themselves invested in the game because it’s worth it.
I hope the students party all Friday night, get up early, and party some more before cheering themselves hoarse at the game. I hope the student enthusiasm will spread to the football team and encourage them even more, both on and off the field.
When Jay Cutler was drafted by the Broncos, I was ecstatic—finally! A Vanderbilt player I knew of in the NFL—that was awesome! I could cheer for the Broncos as my second team, because they had a Vanderbilt graduate and, as a bonus, one whom I had cheered for.
And now Cutler is with the Bears and lo’ and behold, there are three others there with him! Plus, along with Cutler, Chris Williams, Earl Bennett, and Hunter Hillenmeyer, the Bears just drafted D.J. Moore, and with a handful of Commodores on one team, I can hardly contain myself!
Many scoff at or are skeptical of Cutler’s last three years in Denver and about his ability to achieve that level of success that signifies "elite."
But I am not.
From my time at Vandy while Jay Cutler was the quarterback, I saw a young man of 19 will not just his team to win when winning seemed impossible, but to will his disinterested school to care about winning and to keep on winning after he’s gone—all the way to the point where the team wins a bowl game five years later.
It is a feat which takes a determination and inner fire that will just not quit. I shake my head at the critics and think that they have no idea what he is capable of.
Some people question next year for the Bears, Cutler, and the other Vandy grads, and I think of the experience of constantly working to reach that top pinnacle in the midst of so much apathy and in the face of "superior" SEC teams, and all I can say as a new Bears fan is: bring it.
P.S.: In case it’s not obvious, the Bears are my new No. 1 NFC team (and my No. 2 overall, of course).
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