By Jeenho Hahm
Like the black-and-white photographs that document the glory days of Columbia Lions football, the team’s legacy has faded into the dustbin of history—at least for many of the modern-day students that the team represents.
Its status as the first-ever team to play a collegiate game across state lines? That was back in 1870, when the American South was still reconstructing after the Civil War.
Its two national championships? The first happened when the American Indian Wars were still raging. The second, when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.
So it was no surprise that this October, as the third-oldest college football team in the nation geared up for its homecoming game against dreaded rival Penn, the only indication on campus that such a match was about to go down was a short line of unenthusiastic fans outside the west campus gate waiting to board the free shuttle to the stadium, located all the way up in Inwood.
As a graduate of the University of Southern California, where homecoming games are nationally televised events surrounded by revelry of bacchanalian proportion, the lack of pageantry, spectacle, and carnival-like celebration of gridiron glory at Columbia was shocking.
Now, as a graduate student at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, my only consolation for the lack of game-day excitement is the fact that, for the first time ever, I didn’t have to pay for a student ticket.
To make matters worse, a classmate of mine—a grad student friend from China—had been curious about American football, and was accompanying me to the game. As we endured the listless shuttle ride to the stadium, I couldn’t help but recount to her my first college homecoming at USC.
The game that day had filled at least 90,000 seats in the Los Angeles Coliseum. No matter where the students were from or what they were studying, the many thousands in the student section were united behind a common conclusion: there was no better way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon than donning cardinal and gold, cheering on the Trojans.
For a moment during that retelling, I could almost hear the roar of the crowd. Then I was back to New York on a cloudy day with no more than a handful of fellow Lions.
Nevertheless, I still wanted to give my foreign friend as much of the college football experience as Columbia could provide.
After disembarking the shuttle, we followed the crowd to a white concession tent outside Wien Stadium. There were buffet tables serving tailgating fare; pulled pork, mac-and-cheese, cookies.
Merchandise hockers were selling Lions paraphernalia in the corners.
How much would they have to sell to match the $300-or-so million USC made from its athletic programs last year?
But in this tent, I began to notice subtle sparks, hints that school spirit might just have more to it than frenzied crowds.
A woman was explaining to her child why their entire family was decked in light blue gear that day.
“This is where Mom went for college, sweetie. I really had a wonderful time here, and I hope you’ll get to do that too, someday!” she said.
Then, an older gentleman approached my friend and asked, “Could you help out an old alumnus? Could you take a picture of me and my wife?”
In the age of selfies, asking a stranger to take a picture can seem quaint. But it was that much more human.
Each person with their own Columbia story and connection was at the game that day to create a new one.
Introducing a unique sports culture to a child, or person from another country. Sharing a moment with a stranger, who became a momentary friend out from the bond of school spirit.
As soon as it had come, however, the spark seemed to fade.
The crowds moved into the 17,000-seat stadium, but failed to fill it. Even the hype generated by Columbia’s rare 4-0 streak that season and chance to upset a rival at home couldn’t quite draw a capacity crowd.
When the field’s namesake, Robert K. Kraft, the owner of the five-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, was introduced to the crowd, the applause was tepid.
The audience’s enthusiasm was matched through the game’s third quarter by the team’s performance. Columbia trailed Penn 7 to 21.
Then, incredibly, that spark I’d noticed earlier returned — and set the stadium alight in a way made me think I might just be back in Southern California.
Columbia scored three touchdowns in a row and took the lead. The score was 27 to 21 in the fourth quarter.
It became impossible to catch any action on the field without standing up. Penn fought back and forced overtime. Pandemonium gripped the stands.
Penn scored a field goal during its turn in OT. Columbia was on the ropes. But as if buoyed by the suddenly frenetic crowd, the Lions, full of gusto, decided to go all in.
They’d match Penn’s field goal with a touchdown try, a game-ender.
Quarterback Anders Hill tossed up a 24-yarder to receiver Josh Wainwright in the endzone. The stadium held its breath as the ball spiraled through the air.
The stadium erupted. The crowd rushed onto the field. For the first time in 20 years, Columbia had defeated Penn.
It might not have been on the same stage as a USC home game, let alone this year’s Alabama-Georgia College Football National Championship, but for a moment, it might as well have been.
The sea of light blue on the field began dancing and singing in unison as Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” began to play. In that moment, there was not a better place to be in New York City.
While it was still not the kind of homecoming I was used to, it was a game that, in the end, captured everything I loved about college football. For my foreign friend, no additional explanation of what American football was all about was necessary.
No matter where they came from or what they were studying, the students and alums at the game that day were home.