Last Saturday an impressive football team from just up the road in Durham, NC gave the Charlotte 49ers a little taste of FCS caliber competition. In the minutes, hours, and days following the final snap this weekend I read story after story, analysis after analysis, and review after review from self-proclaimed college football experts. Some said the loss could be attributed to Matt Johnson’s five interceptions. Some said it wasn’t just Johnson’s fault and blamed the team’s seven turnovers. Other “Monday morning quarterbacks” seemed to feel like dropped passes and a lackluster effort on special teams were at fault for the blowout loss. While I’ll agree, a team committing seven turnovers (whether in the NFL or in Pop Warner) will have a difficult time winning anything other than the coin toss, I don’t necessarily feel like all of the blame should rest there.
Before I continue, a little background about me that’s not in my Pick Axe profile. I’m not a football expert. I’ve never played a day of organized football in my life. Well with the exception of some intramural flag football I played in college (we’ll just say I wasn’t very good, and leave it at that). Not to say that I don’t have the size or mindset for it, but my mother was always a little afraid I’d get hurt, so my youth came and went without ever getting to hit someone in shoulder pads. I have however, participated in plenty of organized sports contests. I’ve played soccer since I was six, ran and competed in throwing events in track and field, have officiated soccer on the amateur and high school level, and even dabbled in coaching. I love football. Both college and at the professional level. I never truly appreciated college football until about two months ago when I attended my first Charlotte 49ers Football practice, but that’s simply because I’m fiercely loyal. My alma mater never had a football team before this year and I just felt it would be a personal affront to them and my scruples if I donned a college football jersey from any other school than my own. For those who haven’t read my Pick Axe profile, I attended UNC Charlotte from 1998 to 2002 and bleed 49er green and gold. Since 1998 I’ve missed very few men’s and women’s soccer games, men’s and women’s basketball games, and try to hit as many baseball and softball games as I can. During my time as a student at UNC Charlotte (4 1/2 years) I attended every volleyball game (home and away), every home men’s and women’s basketball game, and traveled to every volleyball and men’s basketball conference tournament. It’s safe to say, 49er athletics is important to me and is a significant part of my life.
With all of that said, I want to discuss an important aspect of college football known as the “12th man.” For those unaware of even the most basic football rules, each team is permitted 11 players on the field at one time. Who is the “12th man” then you ask?? The coach?? The athletic trainer?? The water boy?? No, the “12th man” is YOU. It’s the fans. The spectators. The butts in the seats who penciled the 49ers in for three hours out of their potentially busy Saturday afternoon. The “12th man” is the guy (or gal) who is there for the team if they need him. The guy (or gal) who is there in a pinch and simply by being present, can help their team to victory. The guy (or gal) who knows they’ll never play a snap in their team’s uniform but would do anything to help them win.
Don’t believe me? No worries, you don’t have to take my word for it. The storied and decorated college football program at Texas A&M has been utilizing the “12th man” to defeat opponents since 1922. According to the website www.aggietraditions.tamu.edu the tradition of the “12th man” began when a Texas A&M football coach remembered that he had a player in the press box helping reporters identify players on the field. When the coach realized this, he called the player from the stands, had him dress and stand ready on the sidelines to help his team to victory if his assistance became necessary. The player’s name was E. King Gill, and he never actually left the sidelines during that game. Texas A&M won the game 22-14 and after the game Gill said, “I wish I could say that I went in and ran for the winning touchdown, but I did not. I simply stood by in case my team needed me.”
The next statement was taken directly from the above mentioned website and perfectly describes the nature and purpose of the “12th man.”
“This gesture was more than enough for the Aggie Team. Although Gill did not play in the game, he had accepted the call to help his team. He came to be thought of as the Twelfth Man because he stood ready for duty in the event that the eleven men on the gridiron needed assistance. That spirit of readiness for service, desire to support, and enthusiasm helped kindle a flame of devotion among the entire student body; a spirit that has grown vigorously throughout the years. The entire student body at A&M is the Twelfth Man, and they stand during the entire game to show their support. The 12th Man is always in the stands waiting to be called upon if they are needed.”
So what does that have to do with the Charlotte 49ers and the contest watched by so many of us in disbelief this past weekend? Well, here’s my disclaimer. If your feelings are easily hurt, stop reading now.