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Lost your love of the game? Find your UNA

Every year it seems easier to ask ourselves the question, “Do the games still matter?”

Which games? All games from preseason until the playoffs. Do any of them still matter? They certainly matter to television networks. More than 10 leagues have deals with networks in place that top more than a billion dollars. It makes live sporting events the most valuable commodity in television. While the monetary value of a televised live sporting event soars, the emotional value has never sat deeper in a buyer’s market.

The decline in sporting viewership over the past three years has led to many a thinkpiece trying to decipher why ratings have dipped. Social justice protests, cord-cutting and the pandemic have all been correlated with the sagging viewership metrics, but it all begs the question as to whether the actual games matter.

Sports transactions matter. Sports debates matter. Sports memes and gifs matter. But what is the reason for all of it, the games themselves? The perceived lack of interest this column aims to target doesn’t apply to all fans. There are certainly still people that live and die with every pitch, every play and every shift. Statistically speaking, that number is dwindling. The Super Bowl has seen a decline in overall viewership share for the past eight years. And that is the Super Bowl.

Is this another doom-and-gloom prophecy on how Gen-Z is killing another vestige from the past? No. This is an excuse to talk about a time when the game, and just the game, mattered. This is an opportunity to wax poetic about the University of North Alabama Lions’ 1993 Championship.

It is December 11, 1993, and I am in a car with my Paw-Paw. It is quite possibly the first time I have been in a vehicle with this man and not wound up in a church or agricultural situation. Not only are we not going to church or a pasture, but we are crossing the river and going to Florence. High cotton, indeed.

I witnessed zero out of 13 UNA victories that year. Colbert County had just won the state championship the previous night. A week prior, the University of Alabama won the inaugural SEC Championship game and was set to play the Miami Hurricanes. I didn’t have a lot of emotional equity to spend on the North Alabama Lions.

I knew running back Kenyatta Jones had played at Colbert County, linebacker Ronald McKinnon was pretty good, and some guy named Tyrone was up for a trophy that was not named after John Heisman (The Harlan Hill Award). Despite this lack of knowledge about the team, a day out is a day out, and football is still football even if it was just UNA.

An overflow crowd of 16,000 wedged themselves into Braly to see the local Lions take on Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). Most of my pregame time was spent wondering just why such an amalgamation of state names existed in a single school, but I was 12 years old and just assumed there were things a boy my age would understand later in life.

In my memory, it was the most thrilling four quarters of football that was ever played. UNA’s triple option was the most beautiful offense that I had ever seen. I was convinced, that while that Tyrone guy (future Washington Commander Tyrone Rush) should have definitely won that trophy, Brian Satterfield was the greatest running back that ever lived.

The first possession ended in UNA scoring a touchdown after their own botched field goal snap. What followed were wild swings in momentum seeing both teams dominate the game for stretches, culminating in a final UNA drive that began with 49 seconds and ended with a one-yard Cody Gross touchdown run.

I was consumed with dread that my precious Lions would lose and these IUP monsters would take our trophy back to whatever borderline they called home. In those moments, they became my Lions. The only team that I could ever love.

“Give ’em hell, Big L,” I yelled. It wasn’t my fandom talking. That wasn’t hometown pride. We had to cross the river to get here. I wasn’t from Florence. I was from Colbert County. It was the game that whipped my insides into mush. The game turned a boy happy to be out of the house into a raving maniac that thought about fighting grown men simply for chanting I-U-P. The game was all that mattered.

The game still is all that matters. Sports don’t live in the mentions, or the pregame or the tailgate. Sports live on the field, the diamond, the court and yes, the pitch. Sports don’t just live when a championship is on the line, or during rivalry week, or when you need two points for the over.

Sports live in the game, and all you have to do to find your UNA is to watch.

Bend your ear to the latest episode of Throw The Flag podcast, covering sports stars we can’t believe are still playing, the end of the college basketball season and a few recruiting quips.

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