I didn't spend much time researching colleges. I opened one of those college review magazines and picked the first college I saw: Auburn University in Auburn, Ala.
When I moved to Auburn, I felt like I had been slapped in the face by a huge, humid hand. It was nothing like my native Seattle, Wash. But something else surprised me even more: Here, football is life.
In Washington, football is nothing more than an average Saturday pastime. People generally watch it on TV, because few dare to brave the torrential rains that are common in the area.
In the South however, things are much different. Fans can trace their allegiances back over many generations, and the air carries the baying of Tennessee's Blue Tick Hound, the war cry of Mississippi's Rebel, the deadly silence of the Florida Gator, and the powerful roar of the Auburn Tiger.
It's a place where game day never starts on the day of the game. Die-hard fans set up their temporary residence on the campuses as early as the week before the game. After struggling to find new creative ways to park my car for class, I finally gave up and moved closer to campus.
Festivities start early, too. University organizations spearhead the fun with tailgates, parties, and decorations. Before long, the entire city wears the school colors. Cars, trees, buildings, and even cupcakes proudly display their support for the local team. Manufacturers produce loads of football paraphernalia - from T-shirts to dog collars - in the school colors.
By game day, the flurry of activity has reached its peak. Classes are often canceled. Businesses close. Every available parking space for miles around is filled. Every inch of grass (university property or private) is parked on, sat on, camped on, or being barbecued on. A quick peek inside the stadium before the game reveals vendors selling everything from seat cushions to snacks. And the arrival of VIP guests and the media adds to the excitement.
As the stadium gates open, a flood of eager fans pushes past. School spirit shows up in hair ribbons and body paint. Some fans tote signs and all have "shakers," brightly-colored versions of a cheerleader's pompom.
Fraternity and sorority members take a different approach: They dress up, the gentlemen in khakis and sport coats, the ladies in dresses or slacks.
Amid all this, I quickly felt out of place with my plain jeans and sweatshirt. It was nearly sacrilegious to be in the stadium without any orange and blue, so I was forced to hit up one of the concession stands and purchase an overpriced T-shirt.
What really makes Southern football unusual is the intensity of these fans during the game. Auburn devotees have been known to say, "My blood runs orange and blue."
I had to forget about my native Huskies' purple and gold, or else suffer alienation from the rest of my friends.
Many students refuse to sit down during the game. Often the stadium is so full that most students will resort to standing in the aisles and walkways. Forget trying to get to the concession stands during halftime. It's virtually impossible.
After the game, the traffic is atrocious. Police turn off the stoplights and direct traffic by hand. It can take up to four hours to get a couple of miles away from the stadium. (Another good reason to live within walking distance of a Southern campus.)
When the final touchdown has been scored, the parties rage long into the night, regardless of whether the team won or lost. The campus gets covered in trash, but by Monday, it's gone, because Southern pride drives everyone out of their houses, garbage bags in hand, to clean up.
The moral of the story: It's important to know where you're headed for college. While my experience has been a good one, others might end up wishing that the only surprise was having to pay $20 for a T-shirt.
Jamie Whiteley is a sophomore at Auburn University in Alabama.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society