A (Football) Fan's Notes
The Internet has changed sportswriting in a major way: fans not only have a forum for their opinions, they can make a nice living out of it. The pivotal figure in this shift was Bill Simmons (“The Sports Guy”), the immensely popular ESPN.com columnist who turned his passion for the Red Sox, Celtics, and Patriots into a burgeoning media empire and a coterie of celebrity associates. (A recent column featured a contribution from Ben Affleck.)
Now there are countless blogs devoted to teams and sports. It’s been a mixed blessing. Some are written by dedicated and eloquent fans, but even more are written by people whose grasp on the English language (and decorum) is, let’s say, tenuous. Either way, there’s a legion of writers who have no interest watching a game from a press box or becoming a sports reporter in the traditional sense. This is not a bad career path to follow as some of the first-rate Internet-grown talent is getting book deals. This includes people like Simmons, Drew Magary (Kissing Suzy Kolber), and Will Leitch (who had published two books before Deadspin.com took off).
It is a bit troubling because it’s hard to imagine fandom being conducive to an extremely fruitful book writing career. Being a fan is a passionate vocation but how many books can you write if you just want to vent and celebrate, if you’re not willing to pick up a press pass or a phone?
Clay Travis cut his teeth writing on the Web, and let me be clear—he’s good. His first sports book, Dixieland Delight, was a rollicking account of visiting every football stadium in his beloved Southeastern Conference (University of Georgia, Auburn University, etc.). This time, in On Rocky Top, Travis concentrates his efforts on one team—and his lifelong love—the University of Tennessee Volunteers. With this brutally honest, riveting look at the highs and lows of fandom and the demise of homegrown football, Travis proves you can be a fan and a journalist. It’s an encouraging sign for the future of Internet-raised sportswriting and its gradual acceptance by the mainstream.
Travis’s intent was to follow the Volunteers during the 2008 football season doing the things he always wanted to do: watch a game on the sidelines, run onto the field with the team, and hang out in the locker room before and after the game. With Tennessee coming off a successful 2007 season and ranked high in the preseason polls, Travis’s time was supposed to be rapturous. Instead, the season became a classic example of being careful what you wish for as Travis got a great seat for a train wreck. The team’s offense stalled, the conference opponents were brutal, and Coach Phillip Fulmer tried to keep his cool amid rumors that he was a relic. The team finished 5-7 and Fulmer, who had been connected to the university as a player and coach for thirty-four years, was fired before the season’s end.
The losing doesn’t sit well with Travis who becomes sick—mentally and physically (vomiting before a critical game; developing whooping cough)—as the losses eat away at his pride and his expectations. To his credit, Travis does two things exceedingly well: First, he explains how a team became such a meaningful part of his life, while allowing himself to question how healthy his obsession is, especially since he has a wife and an infant son at home. The passion doesn’t end when the final whistle blows, and Travis’s trouble with that makes for some powerful reading; after all, he’s now part of the team. His fandom has become his regular life, and it’s an exhausting arrangement for everyone. At one point, Travis’s wife, Lara, catches him watching recruiting videos on a possible future quarterback:
“Is there ever anything that could happen in a Tennessee game that would make you not watch the next one?”
The question floors me. I realize that while I obsess about the results, torture myself on every play, and root for men and boys I don’t know at all, in the end, no matter what happens, whether I watch the game from the sidelines or my upstairs lounge, I’m always going to be back for the game next Saturday.
“No,” I say.
“Then deal with it, Clay, deal with it.”
Second, Travis takes advantage of the access granted to him. He talks to the student managers who affix decals to helmets; rides in the university equipment truck with a good ole’ boy straight out of central casting. Fulmer is at the center of this, especially his decaying relationship with the school’s athletic director, Mike Hamilton. The boss wants his employee to win a meaningful game. Fulmer is a father-figure to the school and the state, and preaches patience. But as Travis notes, in the lucrative and competitive world of college football, tradition and hometown loyalty are outdated commodities. Coaches have become mercenaries who come to schools to win ballgames, not build relationships. Fulmer, sadly, is toast.
There’s a human side to this big business as well as to being a fan. Sadly, one of those is becoming irrelevant. Travis’s ability to highlight those two themes makes this an illuminating read, especially those who wonder why sports matter so much to so many.
Books mentioned in this column:
On Rocky Top: A Front-Row Seat to the End of an Era by Clay Travis (It Books, 2009)
Dixieland Delight by Clay Travis (Harper Paperbacks, 2007)
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and The (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.