The wake-up call came much too early for a Saturday morning.
"Are you up?" the voice said. "You better start getting ready for the game."
"Daaad, I'm sweeping," I said, squinting at the three Vegas-bright fluorescent numbers on my night-stand. "What time is it?"
My wake-up call came eight hours before game time, even though I live only 45 minutes from the stadium. Granted, I hold the world records in both snooze-button pushing and marathon sleeping, but with so much advance notice even Rip Van Winkle on cold medicine would have made the kick-off. My family's clocks are all set to RST, Rutgers Standard Time. It is a time zone all our own: My two brothers, sister, sister-in-law, brother-in-law and I are Rutgers alumni, and my father has worked at the school for the past 18 years." But the ties run much deeper than paychecks, diplomas gathering dust on walls or even the call of duty.
Why is it that my parents never miss a home or away game (Blacksburg, Va., in November; a game against Pittsburgh in Ireland—road trip!—five years ago)? Why, during a dinner earlier this year that happened to be my birthday celebration, was there a radio next to my father's elbow blaring the list of football recruits who had just committed to Rutgers? (Pass the pot roast. Sacra's little brother signed!) Why does my mother still have those Scarlet Knight place mats, circa 1976, and why is there a wooden plaque in my parents' living room that reads I'D RATHER BE WATCHING RUTGERS? Why does one of my brothers have 50 Rutgers games on videotape (including a complete set from last year's 4-7 gem of a season); why did my other brother teach his 2½-year-old son to say, "Go Rutgers!" before learning his A-B-C's; and why docs my sister, who doesn't particularly like football, attend every home game? Why is there a Rutgers vanity plate on my jalopy, and why do I have a plant potted in a ceramic Rutgers football helmet? Why do our lives each autumn revolve around a football schedule?
Perhaps these questions should be explored in intensive group therapy, but the best way to understand my family's fanaticism is to look where it all began.
Football today only faintly resembles the game first played between two colleges, on Nov. 6, 1869, at the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, N.J. The rules of that contest, between Rutgers and Princeton, prohibited throwing and running with the ball; players could kick it or bat it with their hands, feet, head or side. As college football celebrates its 125th anniversary, the legacy of the first game is not the "headlong running, wild shouting, and frantic kicking" reported at the time in the Rutgers student newspaper, The Targum. The intangible heirloom that was passed on to my family was created beyond the sidelines.
The first college football fans, a group of 100 or so, gathered around a field along College Avenue in New Brunswick and watched Rutgers beat Princeton 6-4. Rutgers students tied red scarves around their heads, and Princeton fans let go with the first college yell, "it was delivered like an imitation of a skyrocket, hissing and bursting in the air...attached to three hurrahs and a Tiger." said Parke Davis, a football historian, in a piece in the New York Herald Tribune. It was a scene described in an early program as "autumnal madness."
Which leads me back to my family. Freud couldn't have characterized our disorder more accurately: We arc afflicted with autumnal madness. How else to explain our tireless devotion to a team that has had a record barely above .500 for the past two decades?
Last month, at the first game of the season, against Kent, my father arrived at Rutgers Stadium five hours before kickoff. Thanks to my wake-up call, I straggled in with my mother a mere 3½ hours before the big moment.
It was the first game to be played in the new stadium, and the place was soon brimming with 33,279 fans, then the largest crowd ever to watch a game on campus. The Rutgers fans were wearing red, just as they had at that first game so many Saturdays ago, and bellowing cheers. And my family's autumnal madness was in full color, just as it is every football season. All of us, seated as usual in section 105, stood up and cheered in anticipation of the opening kickoff.
"Doesn't it look great?" my father asked, scanning the stadium.
Yes, Dad, college football, 125 years old, never looked better. At least not at Rutgers.