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Birthdays, Memories, and LSU Football

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I have an LSU class ring which I don’t ever wear.  I’m not much one for jewelry, but I always put it on for my birthday, which is in a few hours.  It used to my dad’s class ring, and he gave it to me for my birthday back when I was a student at LSU.  The ring even came with a convenient story, as the ring was sold to my dad my none other than NFL Hall of Famer, LSU great, and well, the greatest fullback of all time, Jim Taylor. 

Apparently, my dad and Taylor were casual friends since they played all sorts of sports against one another in high school.  According to my mom, Taylor also had a college job selling class rings, and he sold my dad his.  So I always called it my Jim Taylor ring. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the big business of college football and get lost in it.  The coaches are mercenary.  The players are only in it for themselves.  The boosters are corrupt.  Recruiting is sort of creepy.  Television has ruined everything.  Pick your complaint. 

But it’s also a game that passed on through family bonds.  I grew up in Maryland, which meant I didn’t grow up going to games in Death Valley.  In fact, college football barely made a dent in the sports landscape when I was a kid.  But my parents were LSU fans, and they would go to almost any length to catch a game.  We didn’t have a cable, so we were always going over to some neighbor who had ESPN so we could catch the occasional Saturday night game.  But back then, most games weren’t on TV.  So my dad would fiddle with the dials on the old Panasonic radio, trying to catch the broadcast on an AM band that managed to crackle through from Louisiana.  Sometimes this meant crawling on to the roof to listen to a game.  We’d huddle around the tiny radio on a cold November night, trying to catch the action through waves of static. 

I still have the radio.  I don’t ever use it, as every LSU game is now on TV on one of the million cable channels out there.  There’s no need for me to crawl onto my roof to try and catch a clear channel signal.  Hell, I don’t even know if clear channels exist anymore.  But I can’t bring myself to throw it out.

I remember those games and the sound of my dad’s voice cheering on the Tigers.  I remember him teaching me to sing “Hey! Fightin’ Tigers!”  I remember him teaching me about all of those past greats.  I remember him describing Pregame, though I wouldn’t ever see it until I finally came to LSU as a student myself.  By then, the torch of fanaticism had passed.  I remember it all like it was yesterday.

Ten years ago, LSU hadn’t won a national title since 1958.  They hadn’t won an SEC title since 1986.  And of the last ten years, seven of them had been losing seasons.  It was the nadir of LSU football.  The next ten years, of course, have been maybe the ten most successful years in the program’s history.  My dad would have enjoyed that.  But he missed out on it because he died ten years ago. We buried him on my birthday.  Of all things he missed out on, I doubt LSU football ranks really high.  Then again, some of my fondest memories involving him also involve the Tigers.  If I close my eyes, I’m still on that roof, listening to that radio, clutching that hot cocoa for its warmth.  Listening to the game.  Listening to those cheers.

Since it’s my birthday, I’m wearing my class ring.  But it’s not a Jim Taylor ring.  It’s an Oran R. Baker ring.