Where I Come From: Becoming A Syracuse Orange Fan

This is the first of a week-long series of posts sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 2011.

The opening chapter of to How To Grow An Orange explains how I ended up not only attending Syracuse but also how I end up becoming the kind of insane person who would one-day want to create a website devoted to covering all aspects of Syracuse sports.  You'll find it below...

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It is by the grace of James Arthur Boeheim that I’m even writing that book as a full-fledged member of Cuse Nation. The odds were so stacked against me that it’s a minor miracle, really.

How so?

When I was a child, I rooted passionately for Notre Dame football.

When I was deciding where to go to college, I was thisclose to attending Penn State.

Finally, and most embarrassingly, I grew up a hardcore Georgetown basketball fan.

Look at that list. Notre Dame, who has become a rival in most sports and is basically despised by everyone not from South Bend. Penn State, our natural and long-time football rival. Georgetown, the Hell to our Heaven.

How in the world does a kid from central New Jersey end up rooting for Notre Dame and Georgetown? This is what can happen when your parents don’t provide you with the tools needed to make sound rooting decisions in life.

Notre Dame football, well, that’s my Dad’s fault. ("I learned it by watching you!") Having grown up in Indiana, he was an Irish fan from early on and that passion came with him to the East Coast. By the time that I was nine I was full entrenched in Irish lore. It didn’t help matters that Notre Dame won the National Championship when I was ten years old (1988), thereby cementing that I would associate them with winning and success.

When I was fifteen, my Dad took me to South Bend for my first Notre Dame game. Of course, it just so happened to be No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 2 Florida State, a game that is still recalled as one of the greatest college football games ever played. By the time Charlie Ward’s final pass had been batted down, my father and I ran onto the field together, celebrated among the fans and walked through the famous tunnel, passing depressed FSU fans along the way. How do you live a moment like that and not be hardcore about that team?

And for the record, yes, I saw Rudy in theaters three times. Read that sentence again. How many movies have you ever seen in a theater more than once? Maybe five or six? And they were epics, right? Lord of the Rings or The Matrix or something like that. Not me…I went paid good money to watch Charles S. Dutton yell at Sean Astin three separate times. That doesn’t even account for the number of times I watched the film on VHS. Or eventually on DVD. And pay cable. And then network cable. And then on broadcast.

I was disturbed, to say the least. You’re talking about a kid who kept a scrapbook of multiple Notre Dame football seasons with newspaper clippings, photos and other memorabilia collected along the way. Who does that? Deranged children, that’s who.

My Georgetown flirtations? Even worse. At least I had a solid reason to be drawn to Notre Dame. No one in my family rooted for Georgetown. No one I knew attended Georgetown (thank God). No one ever pointed me towards Georgetown and said "you know what would be a wise investment of your time and energy? Rooting for evil incarnate!" And yet, I did it.

My earliest college basketball memory is watching Georgetown play in the 1988 NCAA Tournament. I was nine going on ten and the Hoyas were taking on No. 1-seed Temple in the second round. The Hoyas lost but, for some reason, it was too late. I was hooked on something far worse than crack cocaine. I was rooting for John Thompson.

My hated rival? The Syracuse Orangemen. One of my best childhood friends was a Syracuse fan and that made the rivalry even stronger. We would taunt each other after every game and my seething hatred for all things James Boeheim grew. I owned multiple pieces of Georgetown clothing including a gaudy matching t-shirt and shorts set with a giant bulldog smack dab in the middle of my chest.

If ever a young boy was crying out for help, it was me. But help did not come. There would be no intervention. No one would gather in a circle around me and read me letters that begin "Your addiction to Georgetown basketball has hurt me in the following ways…" I was completely on my own, left to suffer through my shame alone.

Eventually, by the time I reached my formative teenage years, I had shaken free from the gray and blue menace that had coursed through my veins. I had gravitated away from college basketball in general and perhaps a cold-turkey approach was exactly what was required. By the time I began applying for colleges, Georgetown wasn’t even a thought.

The five schools I did apply to were The University of Notre Dame, The University of Florida, The University of Maryland, Penn State University and Syracuse University.

Notre Dame, for obvious reasons. To be honest, my interest in the Irish had waned somewhat at this point. My parents had gotten divorced and I had some father issues that caused me subconsciously – and later consciously – to dislike Notre Dame as a result.

Florida, because my father had moved to Florida and took me on a tour of Gainesville and the campus. I’m fairly certain that it is physically impossible not to apply to UF immediately following such an experience. Anyone who’s spent even a day on that campus knows what I mean.

Maryland, because, as a Northeastern Jew, I was required by law to apply to at least two of the following schools – Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, NYU or Syracuse. The Jewy Five, as they’re called (Okay, no one calls them that. I just made it up). Maryland seemed like a good school at the time and I liked the idea of being near some new cities. And Jews.

Penn State seemed like a logical choice. Big campus, good sports programs, within the Jewish mother range of regular visitation.

And finally, Syracuse. Yes, SU met The Jewy Five criteria. But there was something else about it as well. I mean, there would have to be if a life-long Orangeman-hater such as myself was going to commit to possibly joining their ranks.

It’s at this point I’d like to mention that, during my sophomore year, I had a meeting with a guidance counselor whose name I forget. The meeting consisted of me, my mother, and this bitter old hag. My grades were solid, if unspectacular. I participated in some sports. I was coming off a particularly tough year in math (screw you, Algebra 2) but other than that, I was your average American high school kid.

This delightful woman proceeded to tell me in so many words that, despite the fact that I still had a year-plus ahead of me before I needed to send out applications, I had no hope of ever attending a major university..No out-of-state school like a Penn State or a Syracuse would ever take me. And that I should mute my expectations to that of an in-state, public school because that was my ceiling (not that there’s anything wrong with those schools).

 I remember distinctly my Jewish mother, whose world orbited around my overhyped head, calmly thanking this woman for her "help" and then walking me to the car where she unleashed a spiteful rant that I had never heard from her pristine mouth before. I was pretty sure this misguided woman had sold me short but it wasn’t until that moment that I knew for sure. I’d tell you what the lesson of this mini-story is but I’m sure you probably know it already. Aaaaand… scene.

We can scratch Notre Dame and Florida off the list as I got rejected from both. I expected both, given that out-of-state standards for Florida are tough and the general standard for Notre Dame are tougher. By the time I got the rejection letter, I was relieved, because I had changed my mind on going there.

That left Maryland, Penn State, and Syracuse. I received acceptance letters from all. I visited Maryland early on in the process and came away feeling uninspired. I remember taking the campus tour and learning about the school and getting the distinct feeling that I wasn’t getting any kind of feeling. Nothing jumped out at me. Nothing said to me that I needed to be here. I’m sure it’s a lovely school and I know many people who’ve had amazing times there but I just knew it wasn’t for me. Maryland was out.

Maryland and Syracuse had been straight-up acceptances to the main campuses (especially Syracuse, which only has one) but Penn State came with a hitch. I had not been accepted to main campus. Instead, I was told that if I wanted to attend Penn State University, I would have to start my journey in some godforsaken place called Altoona and eventually transfer to State College. Have you heard of Altoona? Altoona looks at Scranton and thinks "Oh my, so cosmopolitan!" So that didn’t sound right.

Still, despite all common sense, I really wanted to go to Penn State. (I know…) My mom and I concocted a plan. We would try to strong-arm Penn State by saying I would sign right now if I could go to school at the Main Campus; however, if forced to accept Altoona, I would delay my decision and they would risk losing me and my precious dollars. That’d show’m who’s in charge!

Yeah, Mr. Million Dollar Land Grant University, up in your ivory tower, what are you gonna do now that one student that you weren’t sure you wanted in the first place is playing hard ball? Huh? Called your bluff, I did!

Naturally, this was a retarded tactic that had no effect on Penn State’s decision-making process whatsoever. Regardless, it was time to make my visits just in case. First up was Penn State. I remember distinctly driving there and noticing there was nothing around. I mean, nothing. For two hours in any direction of Penn State I’m pretty sure you’ve got trucks, deer, gas stations, and that’s about it. People like to talk about the Midwest and Mountain areas of the United State as being desolate? Try driving across Pennsylvania sometime. It’ll numb your brain.

When we finally reached State College, the town felt small too. Oh, it was a college town alright, but, literally that was it. I think we passed a prison, a Wal-Mart and one block of local shops. It’s that, then the college and THAT’S IT. Fine, I can deal with that. So we take the tour and it goes fairly well. I can only remember feeling like this was a pretty decent fit and that I really hoped our diabolical scheme would work so that I could go to college here. I also remember the tour guide saying Penn State was the leading university in the nation for meteorologists and thinking, "Good for you?"

And so, I returned from Penn State with a pretty distinct feeling that was where I wanted to be. The only thing stopping me was this Altoona business. I still had a trip to Syracuse on the docket but it seemed almost like a courtesy trip than something I really wanted to pursue.

As I’ve gotten older and, in theory, a little wiser, I’ve learned that the old axiom "everything happens for a reason" is truer than anything you will ever learn in this lifetime. Whether you believe it’s God or Spirit or The Universe or it’s just you making it happen is irrelevant. Things happen for a reason. And at the time, I didn’t know that was what was happening.

My mom and I made the trek from central New Jersey to Syracuse, New York, a drive I would make myself many more times: Across the Delaware Water Gap, up through Scranton, across the border through Binghamton, past Cortland and finally arriving in the Salt City.

There’s something great about the way the city appears in the distance when driving up I-81 from the south. Bear with me for a moment, but the only other feeling like it that occurs to me is that feeling you get when you’re driving to Las Vegas and it finally appears over the horizon.

Did I just compare Syracuse, New York to Las Vegas, Nevada? Yes, but like I said, bear with me.

Both drives become mind-numbing after a while. From the moment you enter Nevada, it’s just desert and mountains, peppered with small towns every 20 to 30 minutes. Upstate New York is much the same, only it’s farmland and hills separating small towns and cities that you pass every half-hour or so. The last half-hour before you see either city is the worst part because you know how close you are. You’ve been driving for hours and you just want to get there. But every time you pass over a hill and expect to see it, you see more hills. Or desert. Time slows down. The miles pass more slowly. Frustration seeps in. Until, finally, there it is. That first glimpse of civilization. Tall buildings appearing seemingly from out of nowhere. Progress, straight ahead.

The first time you drive up to Syracuse and hit the city limits, you’re immediately blown away by the Carrier Dome. You had no idea it was right there. Just off the highway. You’re busy looking for the exit, but then it hits you and you can’t ignore it. In a cityscape that’s as drab and dreary as the weather around it (sorry), it’s a beautiful thing.

I distinctly remember when we first arrived in Syracuse that there was something here I didn’t expect. And I liked it. Sure, the city itself is tucked away up in the nether regions of New York State, but, there was life here. Some semblance of society. Not so much that it was overbearing. Not at all. But it wasn’t just a University in a valley surrounded by nothingness. And I liked that.

We walked through Marshall Street and Crouse Avenue and, by God, it felt like what college streets should feel like. A slightly-claustrophobic area teeming with busy students, pizzerias, cafes, and niche stores, all of which were in the shadow of the University itself. What was happening here? I was not supposed to be this intrigued.

It was fourteen years ago but I remember the exact date of my Syracuse University tour. It was April 6th, 1996. I know this because it was the first Saturday after Syracuse’s loss in the 1996 NCAA Basketball Tournament Finals to Kentucky. The campus was not exactly celebrating but there was still a buzz in the air, some leftover residue from the excitement. Our tour guide could barely contain her disappointment with the loss. It stuck with me that this University was in a frenzy over the basketball team. And by the time we took a peak inside the Dome, I was very interested in learning more about this establishment of higher learning.

The rest of my tour was a blur but I’m 99% sure that I had decided in my head to tell Penn State to insert a certain piece of genitalia into a certain orifice because I was choo-choo-choosing Syracuse over Altoona. The only concern? Cost. I don’t know if you’re aware (you most likely are) but Syracuse University is INSANELY EXPENSIVE. Sorry, SU, but there are small nations with GNPs less than what it costs one student to attend your school. And I’m talking 1996-money. God knows what it costs these days. (I just checked…HOLY MOTHER!)

At the time, my Dad and I were going through some issues. What with my parents’ divorce and his moving to Florida. But I needed him to come through for me on this. I needed him to give me the okay, so that I could say yes to what the world was putting in front of me, because everything happens for a reason. And this was that reason. I called him up and told him about how I felt, knowing full-well the difference in financial commitment that attending SU would entail. Without flinching, he said,

"If my son wants to go to Syracuse, my son is going is Syracuse."

F*** yeah, Dad! And that was it. I accepted Syracuse’s offer. I declined Penn State and Maryland’s offers. And today, I write a blog all about Syracuse sports and not about Nittany Lions sports or Terrapin sports. And the world is a better place because of this. I think. Well, even if that’s not the case, I’m the better for it. And I’m glad everything happened for a reason the way it did.
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