Having grown up my entire life in Birmingham, Alabama, the transition to attending school at Stanford was difficult in many ways. The 3,000-mile flight with multiple layovers barely even began to capture the distance I felt I was traveling to come to this University. Sunny California is a world apart from the Deep South — there are massive cultural contrasts and vastly different paces of life between the two regions.
Given all of this, it’s crazy (literally) that one of the most major adjustments to the West Coast for me was related to college football and fandom.
Growing up in Alabama, it’s tough to escape the umbrella of college football that envelops the entire state. From the second you enter this world, you are asked to make a choice between supporting the University of Alabama or Auburn University — although for most people it isn’t a “choice,” per se, since usually you just adopt the school that your parents or relatives attended.
As I had no relatives from the state, I was given an almost unheard-of amount of freedom in my choice. My decision ultimately came down to my preschool sense of wanting to be “different.” The majority of my friends grew up in Crimson Tide households and in perhaps my first attempt to be contrarian (have you read my other columns?), I decided to pledge my support to the Auburn Tigers.
It’s surreal how much of an impact this selection that I made before I had lost my first tooth or read my first book has had over the past 22 years of my life. Growing up, a significant portion of my wardrobe included Auburn gear, my free weekends involved trying to attend Auburn games, my birthday cakes all had some sort of Auburn logo on them and the Paul Finebaum radio station took precedence over any Billboard Top 100 song on the ride home from school. As sad as it is to admit, it seemed like so much of my happiness on Saturdays depended on the results of Auburn football games, even though I had no true connection to the university.
This allegiance persisted through when I first set foot on the Farm, which made adopting the Cardinal as my primary college football team a lot harder than it was for many of my classmates. In the South, where everyone grows up an SEC football fan like me, it’s natural to ask people, “What college football teams do y’all root for?” as an icebreaker. In California, where most allegiances are not solidified until college, this question was decidedly foreign and was met with uncertain responses like “Uh, Stanford, of course.” For many of my classmates, college football hadn’t been emphasized where they had grown up, and Stanford was the first team they had ever pulled for on Saturdays.
Throughout my freshman fall I felt awkward when people asked me who I would root for if Stanford played Auburn (even though the two teams have yet to play each other in the history of either program). Rather than responding, I would often counter by asking if they had adopted the local professional teams since moving to Northern California. For instance, I would say, “Well, you grew up a Red Sox fan in Boston but now live in the Bay Area. Are you a Giants fan now? And who would you root for in the World Series if the Red Sox played the Giants?”
Interestingly, for all other sports, my situation modeled that of my classmates. Given the lack of emphasis on sports other than football in the South, I embraced the opportunity to finally have a team to cheer on in sports like basketball, baseball and tennis. During my freshman year, I vied for perfect home game attendance for various Stanford sports. Strangely, for someone who had grown up as a college football “super fan,” my football attendance was less than stellar.
It wasn’t that I didn’t root for Stanford football — obviously, I wasn’t going to pull for some random Pac-12 school like Utah over my own university. I just think that feeling so out of place in a new environment made me want to hold on to my home state in some way. Watching SEC football on Saturdays made the South seem a lot closer than it was. Moreover, it just didn’t make sense to give up 18 years of fandom entirely, and I didn’t see why I couldn’t root for both Auburn and Stanford.
As the football season progressed, however, it became clear that something had to give. If there was a Saturday on which Stanford won but Auburn lost, I didn’t know whether I should celebrate or break my TV remote. I wasn’t even sure which channel I should flip to when Auburn and Stanford were playing at the same time (although I realize that there were far deeper questions that could keep me up at night).
Throughout the course of my freshman year and at the beginning of my sophomore year, things started to change. I adjusted to life at Stanford and began developing friendships with my peers — some of whom were football players. With these friendships came a different level of emotional attachment to the sport than I had ever had before. Previously, I had been rooting for anyone donning a Tigers logo on the field; now, I was cheering on my friends and classmates at my future alma mater.
Slowly but surely, my attendance at home games improved, and I went to more viewing parties for Stanford road games even when they conflicted with Auburn games. By the time my junior year rolled around — a year during which Auburn made the national championship on the heels of two of the most amazing endings to football games ever seen in the sport — I realized that “my team” was now solely the Cardinal.
While I was more than elated when Auburn threw a fourth-and-18 Hail Mary at the end of the fourth quarter to beat Georgia (dubbed “The Prayer at Jordan Hare” after the name of Auburn’s stadium), I have trouble looking back on that day with happy memories. That night, Stanford lost to USC on a last-second field goal to virtually eliminate its national title hopes, and the sting of that loss still weighs more than my memories of any Auburn win that season.
This past year, I was asked to serve as a commentator for KZSU’s radio coverage of the Stanford season. I can honestly say that this past season was the most fun that I’ve ever had watching football. That includes 2011 (the year Auburn won a national championship) and 2013 (the year Auburn returned to the title game).
From traveling across the country to broadcast games, to seeing Stanford lose in heartbreakers but also win in blowouts, to going out to dinner with friends to talk Stanford football, to analyzing next season’s recruiting class at The Stanford Daily’s office late at night, this past year has been unbelievable. What I have learned is that there is no greater bond between a fan and team than a sense of family, and that’s what I feel with the Stanford program — something I haven’t felt while rooting for Auburn.
My fondest memories of being a college football fan are the experiences I’ve had with this year’s Cardinal team. While I’ll obviously still cheer for Auburn — in case you’re wondering, some analysts at ESPN predict that Auburn will win the national title this upcoming season — my emotions on Saturdays lie with the fate of Stanford. I’m no longer split in any way, and I’m proud to say it.
Going back to the question I referenced earlier, it’s a no-brainer as to which team I would root for if Stanford played Auburn — Go Card! I’ve spent four of my most formative years at an incredible institution and have made lifelong friendships along the way. I’m blessed to have had this opportunity, and I’m so thankful for the chance to have been able to help The Stanford Daily write about sports. Thank y’all for the readership and incredible support over the years — what a journey it has been.
While Shawn Tuteja’s editors would be quick to agree that it has been quite a journey getting his columns print-ready, they would ultimately have to concede it was, like his “transition” to becoming a “Cardinal fan,” a journey worth taking. Share your own personal experiences with Shawn’s columns, from the highs to the lows, by emailing him at sstuteja ‘at’ stanford.edu.