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Posted: Friday August 29, 2008 6:11PM; Updated: Friday August 29, 2008 6:11PM

The Convert or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the game

Story Highlights
  • Allison Kostka didn't know the difference between the NCAA and NAACP
  • At Syracuse, her sports-loving friends forced her to give football a chance
  • Now, after graduating, she finds herself longing for a game at the Dome
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Some Syracuse fans live to display their school spirit and cheer on their team. Allison Kostka had never been one of those people.
Some Syracuse fans live to display their school spirit and cheer on their team. Allison Kostka had never been one of those people.
Jerome Davis/Icon SMI

By Allison Kostka, special to SI.com

This weekend, college students all across America will be gearing up for the one event they have waited months to see: the Gossip Girl season 2 premiere. Additionally, the college football season kicks off this weekend and it makes me more than a little sad to know I won't be in the crowd when my alma mater's team takes the field tomorrow afternoon.

Just four years ago, this would not have been the case. Despite living in a household with a father and brother who were both rabidly obsessed with sports, I never developed any aptitude or interest in athletics while growing up. Signed up for T-ball in first grade, I was quickly banished to left field, where I spent most of the game picking dandelions, oblivious to the balls that would occasionally come rolling past my feet. As a spectator, I was even more apathetic. In elementary school, I won a pair of tickets to a Bruins game from a drawing I had entered at a local video store (no doubt without actually reading what the contest was for). "Who are the Bruins again?" I asked my brother, who immediately confiscated the tickets on the grounds that anyone from Massachusetts who could ask such a question should consider herself lucky to avoid being tried for treason.

Things didn't change much in the years that followed, in spite of outside pressure. My high school had an intense rivalry with a nearby school; a rivalry, I should add, that was something like that between a hammer and a nail: we nearly always lost. It made no difference. On game day, at least for the big-ticket sports like football and basketball, the bleachers were packed with ecstatic, fanatic spectators.

I was not one of them.

In my entire high school career, I only attended two football games. Both times I went solely for the purpose of taking pictures for my school newspaper. Both times I left when the camera ran out of battery at halftime.

So it is hard to explain exactly why, when I enrolled at Syracuse University in the fall of 2004, I decided to spend some of my hard-earned graduation money on season football and basketball tickets. When people, or at least people who knew anything about sports, heard that I was planning to attend Syracuse, our conversations tended to go something like this:

Sports enthusiast: "You're going to Syracuse? Great sports school! You know they won the NCAA tournament last year?"

Me: "Really? Erm ... good for them."

I had no idea what the NCAA was and had never watched a single college sporting event in my life, but if there was ever a time to start, this seemed to be it.

Unfortunately, my first few weeks on campus were more than a little overwhelming and a social life about as hard to come by for me as identifiable dining hall food. The tickets went virtually unused for the first two months of school (with the exception of a disastrous Parents' Weekend experience, when I once again left at halftime) and I began to regret the investment.

This continued until homecoming, when an acquaintance from my floor invited my roommate to the Big Game and, homesick and desperate for friends, I shamelessly tagged along. It was the first time in my life I had sat through an entire football game and while it wasn't exactly love at first kickoff, something about the excitement and collective school spirit drew me in. As I sat in the student section, surrounded by hundreds of kids wearing everything the school bookstore had to offer and screaming at the top of their lungs, I started to feel like I was a part of something for the first time since I had started school.

As the generous hand of fate would have it, my roommate and the acquaintance from my floor became two of my very best friends for the next four years of college. And for all of the things that we had in common, there was one thing that set them apart: they were both zealous, unyielding, diehard sports fans. And they made it clear: If I wanted to spend time with them on Saturday afternoons in the fall, football would be part of the equation. That was the offer, take it or leave it. For the most part, I took it.

To their credit, my friends were relatively supportive of my burgeoning interest. They patiently answered my questions and explained the technical aspects of the game. They smiled indulgently at my stupid comments. They hid their eye-rolling when I got bored and started making origami boxes out of fliers left on the bleachers.

For my part, I tried to be a model student, learning the difference between touchdowns and touchbacks and not whining when they insisted on staying until the last second of the game, even when we were trailing by 20 points and everyone else, even the guys who had covered themselves in orange and blue body paint, had already left the stadium.

My sports education continues to be a work in progress. I still sometimes mix up the NCAA with the NAACP. I still occasionally refer to uniforms as "outfits" and use phrases like "We were fouled upon." I still spend minutes at a time staring vacantly at the 40-yard line instead of paying attention to the game.

It's been nearly four years since that fateful homecoming game and I'm proud to say that while sports still sometimes baffle me, they no longer bore me. Sports have been as much a part of my college experience as Facebook-stalking and 2 a.m. pizzas and I'm more shocked than anyone by how much I'm going to miss them.

This will be the first time since freshman year that I won't be on campus for the football season and I'll be the first to admit that doesn't bode well for the future. I still have a hard time sitting through televised sporting events. Removed from chanting crowds and the intoxicating aroma of sweat, greasy food and beer, sports lose nearly all of their charm for me.

But get me back in the Dome years from now and those feelings of friendship, of belonging and of warm beer being spilled on my shoes will all come pouring back. I may have been a reluctant fan, but I'm a fan nonetheless and distance will only make my heart grow fonder.

So good luck to the Syracuse football team in its season opener tomorrow. Here's hoping the Orange linebackers manage at least one two-point conversion for a first down at the line of scrimmage. Or something like that.

Allison Kostka is a recent graduate of Syracuse University. She's an avid recycler, makes a mean macaroni and cheese and honestly did once say "we were fouled upon."

 
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