Game Day

I am still concerned about events in Ferguson, Missouri. I am still alarmed at reports that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa could sicken as many as 20,000 people. I am still worried about ISIS and journalists held hostage and the death toll in Gaza.

In sports-related news, I am excited about the tennis season's last Grand Slam, the raucous American under-the-lights (and possibly, for a few fans, under-the-influence) party in Flushing where Serena and Roger look like strong contenders to add another notch to their GOAT-caliber resumes.

But today is not about any of that. Today is about football.

A couple games have already been played, duly noted by alumni and assorted fans of Eastern Washington and Georgia State, but the season kicks off for real tonight, with my South Carolina Gamecocks getting the party started against Texas A&M.

To give you an idea of the extent to which this matters, I paired my black work blazer with my garnet Carolina Football T-shirt (thanks, honey) this morning and posted GAME as my Facebook status before 7 a.m. Requisite profile and cover picture changes and good-natured trash talking with an Aggie friend have followed. And it's almost 10. 

I have grown weary of the pro game that was my first football love, and I do not hold many illusions about the NFL-light version that big-time college football has become. I roll my eyes at the head-in-sand insistence that starting the season on Aug. 23 and playing until the second week in January, or scheduling games on Tuesday or Friday nights or whenever ESPN says, is somehow all for the good of the "student-athlete." I know the brutality that can damage brains begins long before draft day and that so many kids are sold a dream and a scholarship and often end up losing both.

I am sick of College GameDay's shtick and I'd like to issue Dr. Lou a permanent prescription of STFU.

But that's not the whole picture. Parts of that picture are still ... if not pure, then sincere, earnest in their exuberance. The smoke that billows above Cocky's curtained cage as the strains of "2001" swell and 80,000-plus roar at Williams-Brice (or whatever tradition does it for you) still tighten my stomach and shorten my breath, and I won't apologize for that. Morally bankrupt boosters and look-the-other-way ADs and pay-to-play arguments are not-going-away reality, but all that can, on certain Saturdays (or Thursdays) in the fall, take a backseat to the passion that all that knowledge can't completely erase from my pigskin-papered soul.

Sports, as I've opined often, are about more than the score and the stats. I've told my football family stories and shared my memories. I know that, as much as it may still rankle, my Clemson (A&M) graduate father will cheer for my Gamecocks tonight, and I know I'll do the same for his Tigers against Georgia on Saturday. 

Sports are also an escape - not in a forget-things-exist way, but in a remember-to-breathe way. Nothing that happens tonight on a football field in Columbia, South Carolina, will change any of the horror I mentioned at the start. That doesn't mean it doesn't matter. I can care intensely about a game without minimizing the importance of so much that isn't.

And that game has me nervous. The 'Cocks are favored to win - in fact, they're favored to win the SEC East - and ranked No. 9 in the nation. And they've won 18 straight games at home, the longest such streak in the country.

None of this, for a true South Carolina fan, is good. Three consecutive 11-2 seasons, capped by bowl victories, can't quite shake the unease that every USC supporter of a certain age carries around like an extra appendage. This is the school that lost to Navy when its first-ever No. 1 ranking seemed all but in the bag, that abruptly lost a beloved coach to a heart attack, that can never quite seem to get over that last Gator-shaped hump. Yes, these last few years with the Ole Ball Coach have been awesome, but can we really win an SEC title? Could we ever really play for a national one? If we say yes, does that poke the Chicken Curse with a sharp stick?

Up-to-the-minute concerns are no less worrying. Is Mike Davis 100 percent healthy? Is Dylan Thompson ready to replace one of the best quarterbacks in school history? Can a dominating defense return to to form without one of the talented - and polarizing - players in recent memory? 

These questions may not matter to you, and that's OK. You may have your own as the 2014 college football season begins its journey to a long-awaited four-team playoff, or you may not give a chicken's ass. That's OK - though slightly incomprehensible - too. Just understand that for the next 12 hours, this is my world. The turbulent outside one still turns, and I still watch with concern.

But tonight, I'm watching football.