The Chief

The Chief

Note: Furrer4heisman, a Virginia Tech fan and former SB Nation blogger, has talked college football with us on a few podcasts. This season he attended over 25 football games–both high school and college–in search of something. This is what he found.

It’s nearly two hours before kickoff and The Chief has already found his spot for the game.

He stands alone on the track that circles the field of Homer Bryce Stadium at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, just beyond the north end zone between the steeplechase pit and the area used for jumping events. The Chief will stand here for the next five hours until one of the two teams playing tonight, the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks or Northwestern State Demons, claims him. And claiming him is no easy task.

At seven-foot-six, 320 pounds, Chief Caddo is the largest traveling trophy in college football. For a little over three hours, the Lumberjacks and Demons will play for the right to send its biggest and burliest linemen to the track behind the north end zone to retrieve the wood carved statue of an Indian chief and bring him to the winning sideline.

That scene won’t play out until well after dark. For now, with the sun overhead, The Chief stands in a nearly empty stadium with his gaze pointed toward the field. There’s no way of knowing how long he’s been there and there’s no evidence to suggest how he got there. Unlike other traveling trophies in college football, getting The Chief to this location doesn’t seem like it would be as simple as ordering a graduate assistant to retrieve him from a display case. But here he is. No one standing guard and no one is bothering him. It’s as if the sight of The Chief on the track is just as natural the sight of a high hurdle.

There isn’t a good reason to be in this part of Texas the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Nacodoches is a college town nestled in the piney woods that cover the eastern part of the state and is well off the interstate. Today it’s hosting what most would consider a less-than-compelling college football game, outside of it being a rivalry. Both the Jacks and Demons have known for some time this was going to be the last game of their respective seasons.

If SFA were in contention for a playoff spot in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, football 2012 328Homer Bryce Stadium would be a lot closer to capacity. Instead, a campaign with some preseason hype was derailed by turnovers and an inability to get defensive stops at opportune times. This evening a crowd of 8,341 will occupy a stadium that seats just over 14,500.

As the gates open and the game draws closer, some of that crowd makes its way to the track to get their picture taken with The Chief. Again, no one is standing guard or appears to be in charge of him. He just stands there, arms crossed, as fans, cheerleaders and band members create a line from the track to the goalpost for their turn to snap photos. Today, The Chief is college football’s Mall Santa.

This is the only real reason I’m here. I’ve driven six hours one way to get my photo taken with a seven-foot Indian carving, which sounds insane as I type it. About midway through the first quarter I’m rewarded for the hours spent on the road and stand next to The Chief, who dwarfs me. The photographer zooms way out to get both myself and The Chief into the frame and a couple of clicks later, I have what I came for.

Nacogdoches is my final destination as a college football tourist this season. The Battle for Chief Caddo is my 13th college game of the season and while I still have three more games to attend, all of them will be in a capacity other than as a fan. The trip to East Texas and the chance for an audience with The Chief is my last chance to really take in all that college football has to offer this year.

A season spent reconnecting with a sport that was beginning to feel more like a job than an escape has culminated with a chance to pose with a piece of what I think makes the sport great. To me, traveling trophies like The Chief and places like Nacogdoches, far away from the NFL’s big cities, are the biggest dividing line between pro and college football.

From the couch, the biggest difference in the two games appears to be skill level or the variety of offenses found in college. At the stadium, the sights and sounds separate the two. Whether it’s jumping during the pregame entrance in Blacksburg, wandering between tailgates in tiny Pittsburg, Kan., or hanging out with a seven-foot wooden trophy, there is no such thing as a bad day of college football.

This sometimes gets lost during the nearly eight-month gap between seasons. When teams get slapped with NCAA sanctions or shun tradition for a new conference affiliation and a larger paycheck, fans can forget why the game mattered to them in the first place.

Thankfully, for me at least, what happens inside the seating bowl can bring it all back. The atmosphere of a night game between two Top 10 teams. Watching a scholarship-less senior try to exhort the small crowd at a D3 game into an uproar or a seeing a first-year starter will his team to a come-from-behind win are still worth putting up with some of college football’s pettiness.

They are things fans miss out on in the sterile, mostly look-a-like stadiums of professional football.

In the end, the SFA fans leave Homer Bryce Stadium happy. Their team scored the last 24 points of the game to claim a 34-17 victory, their fourth in a row over their rivals. After the clock winds down, the Lumberjack players go to the end zone to retrieve Chief Caddo and plant him in front of the SFA band and student section.

The players engulf The Chief to where only his face and headdress are visible and pose for photos. They, too, have what they came for and their season culminates with a few camera clicks while huddled around one of college football’s venerable relics. They have earned the right to keep The Chief another year and when they travel to Northwestern State next season, they will again be the ones responsible for placing him so he can watch the Jacks and Demons play for him once again.