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Steve Christilaw: Sports have different a meaning across the country

Travel offers a chance to look at things you know well with new eyes.

For the last week I’ve been traveling around Louisiana and Mississippi on a break with the greatest travel companion anyone could ask for, and it’s been a good break to enjoy things I occasionally take for granted.

College sports, high school sports – they both have different meanings in other parts of the country.

You don’t have to be from the Lone Star State to know that Texans take their high school football more seriously than they do things of lesser import, like, say, death.

And you don’t have to be from Indiana to understand the fervor that surrounds high school basketball there.

I once had a sports writer from Georgia tell me that the three most important sports in the South are: 1, college football. 2, spring college football. And 3, NASCAR.

I’ve never had any reason to doubt that fact and that particular anecdote puts things in a little perspective when you look at the way fans of the Southeastern Conference take their football.

Or the way we feel about our Zags.

I happened to fly into Atlanta for a trip to visit relatives in South Carolina on the same Saturday that Georgia upset someone important in a big rivalry game. Doesn’t matter whom. In the SEC, EVERYONE is a rival. We headed north toward Greenville and were passed by so many pickup trucks waving Bulldog banners that you’d think we’d landed in the middle of a remake of “Smokey and the Bandit.”

We take our rivalry seriously. Cougars, Huskies, we all know the stories, know all the jokes and all have a grudge simmering away somewhere because of a game or 15.

I now think we may be amateurs at it all.

We started and ended our trip in New Orleans, where there still are celebrations going from the 2010 Super Bowl, but headed west to see the bayou country. When you get to New Iberia you are in the confluence of two college football favorites: Louisiana State University and the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.

LSU fans are statewide, understandably, and they get louder and more vocal the closer you get to Baton Rouge. The hometown Ragin’ Cajuns have a devoted local following, considering the school is just 20 miles up the road.

You can tell where you are by reading bumper stickers. As you get closer to different schools. Nicholls State is the toast of Thibodeaux. Louisiana Tech has a devoted following in and around the middle of the state, but they are a proud, but vocal, minority compared to the Bayou Bengals of LSU.

Cross the Mississippi River into its namesake state and the colors shift, along with the allegiance. You’re in Ole Miss territory, and they were in the midst of a great deal of angst as we ventured through the state. The Rebels football program was just hit with NCAA sanctions and the outrage permeated our stay – at least until we arrived in Hattiesburg, home of Southern Miss – the Golden Eagles of Southern Mississippi.

Just as we were crowning our state champions in the Tacoma Dome, Mississippi was crowning state football champions.

While we were there, Hattiesburg lost to West Point in the state title game, but the celebration for a great season translated word-for-word for what we say about our young football players who come home just shy of the title.

The hometown team even boasted a girl kicker in the state title game – perhaps a first in the country for such a big-scale contest. She was good and she won’t be the last to accomplish the feat.

And that’s the lesson to be learned from this trip.

Football has its problems in the 21st century. We need to learn how to better protect those young heads and brains from the pounding that greater strength training and conditioning have wrought.

But the game still treats the young people who play the game to a range of life lessons. The value of hard work, the importance of team work and camaraderie, and the value that comes from setting, and meeting, a set of goals.

We may not greet our hometown team with a rebel yell and we may not include crawfish and boudin (the mystery meats of Louisiana) on our tailgating menu. But we love our football just the same.

Some days, it’s just good to remember the things that we have in common.

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