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Losing college football stings across country

Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson throws a pass in the first quarter against Ohio State in Ann Arbor on Nov. 30. (AP file photo)

Michigan’s Big House will be sitting empty when the leaves start to change this fall.

Southern Cal’s famed white horse, Traveler, won’t be galloping triumphantly after a Trojans touchdown.

No one at Ole Miss knows for sure if partying fans will be belting out a well-lubricated “Hotty Toddy” in The Grove.

From Ann Arbor to Los Angeles to Oxford, that most American of pursuits — college football — has either given up hope of getting in a traditional season or is flinging what amounts to a Hail Mary pass in a desperate attempt to hang on in the age of Covid-19.

Even if some schools manage to take the field in the next month or so, it will be a different looking game.

Chances are, Saturdays will never be quite the same again.

“Our lives are changing forever right before our eyes,” Arizona offensive lineman Donovan Laie said.

While every aspect of society has been jarred by a worldwide pandemic that has claimed more than 160,000 American lives, the potential loss of college football feels like another collective punch to the national psyche.

For all the ills of big-time college athletics, it might the closest thing to a national religion.

“Since the virus hit, we’ve all lost a sense of our normal lives,” said Charles Reagan Wilson, professor emeritus at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi — better known to college football fans as Ole Miss.

“College football could be the balm for our spirit because it’s such a part of our familiar autumn life,” he added. “I think to not have it would up the ante on that sense of abnormality we’re all living through.”

That reality has already arrived for fans in two of the country’s most prominent conferences. On Tuesday, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 both called off their attempts to play this fall, saying they might try to play in the spring if the virus subsides.

The remaining Power Five conferences — the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Big 12 — are pressing on with their attempts to kick off the season next month, though all are quick to acknowledge that the virus could force them to cancel.

Ohio State fan Jason Streeter finds it difficult to grasp the concept of a fall without football.

“Devastation,” said Streeter, sounding as though a tornado had just swept through town. “It’s just a way of life in Columbus, honestly. It really is. You look forward to those fall Saturdays on the banks of the Olentangy.”

He talked longingly of traditions that are unique to his school, such as the band’s famed script spelling of “Ohio” during its halftime shows in the center of a nearly 103,000-seat stadium known as “The Horseshoe” — capped ff by a lone member high-stepping across the field to “Dot The I.”

Further down the college football food chain, smaller leagues have pulled the plug on their seasons as well.

The sting is especially painful at historically Black colleges and universities such as North Carolina A&T, where one of the highlights of football season — really, the entire year — is a week-long homecoming celebration that draws tens of thousands to Greensboro.

“It’s been an insular community for so long, by necessity,” North Carolina A&T athletic director Earl Hilton said. “These are places of retreat, places of sanctuary, places of protection. There’s a feeling we are in a safe place where we can celebrate and enjoy and appreciate each other in ways that are genuine and authentic.”

Not this year. There’s no football, no homecoming, no chance to watch the school’s famed band perform one of its dazzling halftime shows.

“The leaves change, it gets a little cooler, and it’s just what you do on a Saturday afternoon,” mused Hilton, his sadness clear. “I’m at a loss for words to describe what it’s going to be like.”

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