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Postcards from College Football America: Five days, four campuses, three games and a memorial

Fans walk outsideCanvas Stadium in Fort Collins, Colo., before the annual rivalry game between Colorado State and Wyoming for the Golden Boot Trophy. (Autumn Parry/For The Washington Post)

REDONDO BEACH, Calif. — Hopscotch from Alabama on Tuesday to Indiana on Wednesday to West Virginia on Thursday to Colorado on Friday and to the edge of the Pacific on Saturday, and hear the sounds of college football in late October 2018.

In Mobile, Ala., they epitomize the hope of a freshly hatched rivalry 149 years after Rutgers and Princeton started this nutty football habit. In West Lafayette, Ind., they illustrate how football’s capacity to unite a community remains peerless by yards. In Morgantown, W.Va., in an era when college athletes explore their geographical mobility as never before, they ring of youthful ingenuity and self-reimagination. In Colorado, they show the beauty of long-standing contempt.

In California, they speak eulogies of love, tribute and devastation.

“I think this rivalry will be really good in a few years, but it’s really young,” one Damascus Luton said in Mobile.

“A rush of emotion that’s almost indescribable,” one Aaron Banks said in West Lafayette, where he somehow manages his days as an industrial engineering student, a backup quarterback and student-body president.

“That’s one thing where David is so valuable, because he can play all” the receiver positions, one offensive coordinator, Jake Spavital, said in Morgantown.

“The noise. The hitting of the pads. Just the smell. Honestly, just the smell. The cannon shoots, there’s a smell. There’s a kind of a kettle-corn smell, you know, late October. It’s a Cloud Nine feeling for me. That’s what I live for. That’s why I love this game,” one Andrew Wingard of Wyoming said as he reminded that everyone ought to meet a tireless free safety with long, blond hair.

“I think we all can agree that for the first 25 years of his life, he simply overachieved,” an older sister, Camille Ellison, said from a lectern in Redondo Beach, soon adding, “What I want to share today, though, is about the last six years of his 31-year life.”

New rivalry in Alabama

In Mobile, it had rained around midday, and the bleachers at the storied Ladd-Peebles Stadium, home of the Senior Bowl, still felt slightly wet. Troy played South Alabama in one of those funky Tuesday concoctions of football and television, of the trade-off between television attention and sparse crowds. Troy brought about a dozen busloads of mostly students the 144 miles from one Sun Belt Conference rival to another, and filled one end zone with the verve generally found in 38-17 road wins. The crowd thinned from its original 25,878. Kids leaned over the front-row railing and chatted up South Alabama’s Jaguar mascot.

Troy toiled in Division II in 1990, went I-AA in 1991 and to the top division in 2001. South Alabama’s first season was 2009. They have played each other seven times so far as they aim to construct a future. Troy’s roster teems with 59 Alabamians, South Alabama’s with 56, and Mobile itself teems with talent, its citizens often able to reel off lists of those raised in the area and employed in the NFL.

It’s the state of Alabama, so these second-tier dreamers dwell in the unforgiving umbra of Alabama-Auburn.

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“Older Troy fans probably did pull for Alabama or Auburn and then Troy, because we weren’t playing at the same level,” Troy Athletic Director Jeremy McClain said. “Our younger fans don’t feel the same way about that. I think there’s a pride that comes with people saying, ‘Are you an Alabama or Auburn fan,’ and you say, and my kids do this, ‘I’m a Troy fan.’ ”

“I guarantee you,” said Randy Gould of the stadium board, “somebody that’s here that went to South is going to know somebody here who went to Troy.” It’s underway, budding, hopeful of a long future, aiming to elbow into the bloodstream.

Renewed passion at Purdue

Long since entrenched and cemented have been the identities of Ohio State and Purdue, so when one smashed the other, 49-20, on Oct. 20, and when it wasn’t the usual one doing the smashing, the night emblazoned itself upon Purdue brains. When that same night managed to add the presence in the stadium of Tyler Trent, the newly famous 20-year-old Purdue student stricken with cancer while winning with spirit, the night blossomed further still. When an entire stadium chanted, “Cancer Sucks” in support of Trent in his wheelchair, literally the entire world could have understood.

“You didn’t think it could get any better, and it kept getting better,” said Rebecca Schneider, the sports editor of the Purdue Exponent, which has counted Trent as a sportswriter. “And then he [Trent] was in the postgame, and I turned around and I saw [quarterback] David Blough, in the back. And I saw him, and when he saw Tyler he just had the biggest smile on his face, and . . . he went up and spoke to him, and it was like, ‘We just beat Ohio State, and this is still getting better.’ It was just unbelievable. I don’t think there will ever be a more perfect night of sports, of Purdue football, or Purdue in general.”

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They had just felt something rarefied, something about human collaboration, something that would permeate the Purdue campus for days even if Purdue isn’t showy, so a Wednesday evening on campus seemed like a Wednesday evening on campus, with no outward expressions of 49-20. But it lurked in giddy minds. Professors put on projectors the Purdue Exponent with its headline, “No. 2 Who?” (a reference to Ohio State’s ranking). Banks, that rare president-quarterback-engineering student, reported “definitely a rush of emotion that I haven’t felt before.”

Memory banks had gone brimming, until Schneider, whose feelings for her school exceed adoration, recalled being on the field afterward and “being pushed, and not being able to control my body,” and said, “I’ll always know that feeling,” and, “I’ll never forget how that night looked, and how it felt,” and everyone knew football still could pull off all of the above.

Stars on the move at WVU

By Thursday night in West Virginia, when Will Grier shipped pretty touchdown passes of 25 and 65 yards to David Sills V during West Virginia’s 58-14 win over Baylor, those two stood also for the enhanced mobility of a generation. They have intersected where the people make a compelling croon of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” but Grier started out at Florida until that didn’t work out and had him joining the fashion of transferring quarterbacks, while Sills crafted a story preposterously impressive.

He first gained notice as a 13-year-old quarterback, when Southern California Coach Lane Kiffin offered him a scholarship and loosed the requisite national yammering. Dreaming of quarterbacking and working at same, he went from high school in Elkton, Md., to West Virginia to El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., and back to West Virginia. When that quarterbacking dream finally stilled, he reinvented himself and his 6-foot-4 frame as a celestial receiver probably bound for the 2019 NFL season. Good grief.

It has become an understandable matter of normalcy in Morgantown while remaining incredible, but within 23 games, Still has reached 29 touchdowns, tied with Tavon Austin of the Dallas Cowboys for second most in program history. So on a Thursday night in Morgantown, it’s an emblem of the drive and ingenuity of football players that this one-time 13-year-old lightning rod sits between reporters, saying comfortably:

“There’s no better feeling than when you score and the other 10 players on the offense are running down full speed with their arms wide open, ready to pick you up, ready to jump with you. And then you look over to the sideline and all the coaches, they’re 10 yards off the sideline, and stuff like that, because they’re excited for us, too.”

Deep contempt in Colorado

The next night in Colorado near the Wyoming border, the accomplished time managers of Colorado State and Wyoming forged the schools’ whopping 109th meeting, or 110th, depending upon which university you ask. They epitomized the concept that the nation froths with so many deeply rooted rivalries that some go overlooked.

“I would say it’s a lot of tradition that most of the country doesn’t understand or respect or realize,” Colorado State fan and alumnus Shane McCann said at a tailgate gathering around a booming bus with its back door opened to a welcoming beer tap. (Nice touch.) He and his friend Nate Caldwell told of the rivals 56 driving miles apart, with its two sets of ROTC members running the game ball traditionally from one school to the other, and its “Bronze Boot,” the trophy made from an actual boot of a Vietnam veteran, Daniel Romero.

Said Zak West, a former Colorado State player from the Class of 2004, “These guys come down to Fort Collins, drink in our bars, and they wear their ugly brown-and-yellow.”

Bountiful brown-and-yellow remained among a bouncy Wyoming throng in the hollowed-out stadium hours later, relishing a 34-21 retaining of the Boot that narrowed the Rams’ rivalry lead to either 58-47-5 or 57-47-5.

“When you think of CSU, they don’t really respect us that much,” said Wingard, who pointed out he is a Colorado native who went unrecruited by Colorado schools. “They see us as a kind of a little brother, you know: a town of 30,000 people [next to Fort Collins’s 165,000], and, ‘They’re just not as good as us.’ I remember before this game, one of their guys was saying we don’t work as hard as they do, and I think they lost the game right there, honestly.”

And: “We really want to bring that Boot to the state, because the whole state’s behind us and, you know, they love that Boot.”

Then he spoke his kettle-corn near-poetry about why he loves playing football, a feeling that might sustain the game as it tries to lessen gratuitous hits and practice contact so as to stem its 6.6-percent drop in childhood participation over the past decade, owing to parental concern over brain injuries. A batch of six or eight Colorado State fans, parents, spent part of Thursday evening discussing the matters.

Football “teaches you a lot, just how to be a person and how to deal with yourself,” said one of those parents, Josh Quinn, a Colorado State tight end from 1993 to ’95. “But the state of the game, long-term, yeah, I mean, if we can make it safer, let’s do it. I don’t think the quality of the game has necessarily gone down. But how do you penalize? It seems like they haven’t figured out” when “somebody’s trying to hurt somebody, or somebody’s not.”

So the game dwells in a phase of adjustment. “But I think long-term, it’s going to be a cleaner-quality game,” he said. “I don’t think the game is going to disappear. There’s no way. Look around,” and he pointed to the bacchanalia.

He did so in the year 2018, in a month when the Ellison family in Southern California announced it would donate a former player’s brain to Boston University’s center studying chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition with a lopsided statistical effect on football players.

“Generally speaking, it could take up to 12 months [for results] due to the backlog of cases,” emailed Maria Ober, the assistant dean of communications at Boston University.

Bereavement in California

On Oct. 4, Kevin Ellison, a former safety at Southern Cal and for one season with the San Diego Chargers, died at 31 after being struck while wandering the northbound lanes of Interstate 5 while wearing a USC sweatshirt in the San Fernando Valley above Los Angeles. On Saturday morning in Redondo Beach, at a touching memorial service with some flower arrangements done in Ellison’s jersey numeral (4), the bereaved reconstructed the aspects that compose a human being.

Three deeply impressive older siblings, two dear friends and a former USC and Seattle Seahawks assistant coach turned pastor spoke, their words repeatedly running aground up against their emotion. Ellison had been a chubby, whiny baby-of-the-family. He was lousy at Pop Warner football at age 8, when he played guard but blocked literally no one. He became a charismatic teen of charm and pranking and the nickname “Mr. Smooth.” He relished making people do things that made them uncomfortable. He didn’t like people to touch his head.

He played fast. He had a tattoo reading, “Be The Best,” from his favorite movie, “Men Of Honor.” He devoured game film and spotted things coaches sometimes didn’t. He often hid the duration of his work from others because he deemed the hiding an advantage.

His sister, Camille, focused upon his last six years and zeroed in with purpose. She implored the audience to refrain from using the lazy terminology of the word “crazy.” She mentioned twice the term “bipolar schizophrenic affective disorder.” She told of his telling of eight concussions. She halted wrenchingly as she read off the symptoms he had relayed to her: inability to sleep through the night, a constant buzzing sound, a clicking noise in the jaw, dizziness, the regular voices people hear yet “magnified by 10,” a perpetual headache. Here was “this beautiful human being, still smart, competitive, handsome and a leader,” but his brain had come to rebuff any of the above.

His brothers, Keith and Chris, who both played major college football, and who both help coach high school football, told their stories with their rich, deep laughs and their heartbreaking halts. Keith told of a recent time in Palm Springs when, during a game of Cornhole, the old Kevin returned. “It only lasted, like, 20 minutes,” Keith Ellison said. Then: “I see him sitting down, off in his own world again, again fighting. And it hurt. It hurt so much. ’Cause I just wanted him back. I just wanted him to remain like those 20 minutes that we had together.”

The time had passed noon, and the audience sniffled, and in October 2018, American football brimmed with hope for the future, indescribable joy, youthful ingenuity, aged rivalry and abiding confusion.

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