Don't worry: It's better after college


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When you graduate, you will move on.

After your career as student, you will begin your career as a potential donor, and wherever you and whatever you do, though you will lose some of the old friends, the University of Iowa will keep in touch. As a result, you may become disheartened about your college past. You may drift away. What was it all for but calls for donations to my ghosts? So know this: When you graduate, you can pack in your bags one truth from Iowa. Pass what may, autumn will come and Hawkeye football will be there.

Here is what an away game is like.

We arrived two hours before kickoff from New York City sleep-deprived after a recent string of long laboratory nights but with focused excitement for the task at hand, which was, in no particular order, to see Happy Valley and to party, for purposes of science. They welcomed us, strangers no more, with cans of PBR launched into parabolas and smoking Weber grills, and we all exchanged our good histories.

From around the East Coast a small but enthusiastic Iowa alum contingent went to the Oct. 8 match at Penn State. It was a sepia afternoon brilliant with the pageantry of college football. Waved into the grassy parking of Beaver Stadium by hipster babes in police uniform and aviators, the alumni made the traditional tailgate among the country folk of Pennsylvania and told them about Kinnick Stadium, when the leaves change, and the Sun setting in the faraway cornfields where they worked and drank and drugged and took girls to stargaze. Alums of the university and of foreign wars held solemn barbecue in the shade.

Though unrelated, the contingent was familial. A public-policy grad student at the University of Delaware served brats with beer mustard to a perennial bro in Philadelphia, and they talked about Decorah. They agreed that solar is better than wind and drank a whiskey toast. Facsimile Iowa partygoers oscillated from one camp to the next, and before kickoff they waved goodbyes like they were waving goodbye to Iowa herself. They are sentimental people. To find them, you just look for yellow. Surrounded by the blue and white people, there they were, marching dutifully up the steps of the stadium to take up once again their wandering vigil.

With great pain, they watched Iowa lose. High up in the outer reaches of the stadium, they felt powerless in their cries, and the home fans used their principal counter, numerical advantage, to extinguish passion. In acceptance of fate, a frustrated 30-something working in Washington, D.C., said of the Penn State starting tailback, as he ran through the defensive line three times in a row, leading to a pass for the only touchdown of the game, "It's like he's running through a cornfield."

He had come with his buddy from work who did his undergrad at American University and who had long since left for the hotel. So the man alone made game-day friends with his seat neighbors and told stories about when he went to Kinnick Stadium, and he wondered aloud about his old game-day friends. Brian moved to Chicago. Krissy and Josh got married and then divorced. They're both in Iowa. I don't know about the others, he said. As is with those determined to live their own way at any cost, his scars were visible, and for a moment he was ashamed. Then the stadium did the wave, and the game, possibly the worst since Iowa's 6-4 win against Penn State in 2005, was over, folded into the memories of the fans, which, given the unique combination of statistical obsession and incalculable emotion of sport, lends them the air of exposed photographs.

NCAA football divides people like national politics. Some say that a football program can be the breadwinner of the university. Others counter, what's the point if all the bread is eaten by football? Then there is the debate about the rigor to which athletes are encouraged to apply to their academics. In turn is the debate over whether young men should be crashing into each other like avalanches, for the sake of at least their brains. And finally, many don't care about football.

Whatever. American sports are champions of pageantry and habits that are referred to as traditions. What is most important about college football is that the air is crisp and the emotions are plenty, and a chance should be made for fans to fill discontinuities in their identities with that of the campus. Because the dreary consensus among lost Americans who graduate is that in the end, you live with whatever helps you survive.

So consider identity a function of brain action and a scarcity of cultural resources — then it is not all for a rich graduate to become nostalgic and donate more bread for academic research, but for more. It is for the college people, that vagabond lot, so they can be part of something called Iowa, or science, God, or what have you, and carry it in amber.

Meanwhile, in Happy Valley, the night began. The two of us were separated by ambition from the other tired alums. While walking out the stadium to nowhere, we engaged with a pair of Nittany Lionesses in vintage jean jackets and basketball training jerseys underneath.

After introducing ourselves as astronauts, we held their eyes and hung next to them mute and after a minute or two we said, "So, what do you think of us so far?" Then we fixed Iowa pins to the breasts of their jean jackets and went to a bar akin to the offspring of Field House and the Dublin Underground if they hooked up one night in Martinis. The pulsating masses played a complicated game of table wars that no one quite understood. As a result, they had a glorious excuse to consume without abandon and every glass was raised like its insides were the last drop on Earth. Then they pushed all the tables in the bar together and refilled the capsized beer pitchers and the band began to play, and all of us, viewing college through gin monocles, sat down to the never-empty cup of a ghostly October Saturday night.

Before sunrise in the fog and mist on the grassy parking log reminiscent of a Civil War battlefield, we found ourselves in our car, with jean jackets on the dashboard and the Iowa pins disappeared. We threw the jackets out the window and got on the road back to New York City. At a gin bar in the East Village, another Iowa alum with plans to write a book about the Midwest would be waiting for us.

We were tired but wanted never to sleep.

Lawrence De Geest and Erik Nylen are University of Iowa alumni. De Geest ('09) is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, and Nylen ('08) is a graduate student at New York University.

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