Cultural identity is complicated. But how we describe who we are is often as simple as what football team you were told to cheer for when you were a child.
My grandfather was a Clemson fan, and even before I could understand the rules of the game I was taken to Death Valley. After the game, as is the tradition, we walked on the field to celebrate with players, fans, and thousands of people wearing orange. From there I was hooked.
It is amazing to feel like you are part of something bigger than you, and that is why we sometimes use our football teams as part of our cultural identity.
The idea that there are multitudes of fellow Tigers that go to our secular church on Saturdays and care as much as I do is amazing. To this day whenever I see a stranger on Saturday wearing my colors I am sure to say “Go Tigers.”
This is the beauty of sports, and it is why I went to the campus of UNC Charlotte for a football game on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Can 49ers football become part of the cultural identity of being a citizen of Charlotte?
In a few years, will I be able to say “Go Niners” when I see a fellow fan and feel a connection to them the way I feel with a Clemson fan?
(Note: At this point I believe it is important to add a disclaimer that I don’t believe that being a Charlotte fan should replace the team you were raised on or take the place of the place of where you received your diploma from. Instead, can we take pride in this team as a representative of the city that we love?)
Perhaps the biggest factor in this equation is winning. This is the team’s first year on FBS (Division I) football and yes, the team will take its lumps. From looking at other programs who have made this leap, we know that it is a process that will be difficult at times. Ticket sales are directly related to success on the field, and to be honest so is media coverage.
Despite being just few miles from Uptown it is fairly clear that the 49ers will fight for attention in a professional sports city.
But when you step on campus the feeling of being the underdog in town disappears.
There is something special happening, and as I spent two rain-soaked hours wandering campus before the game it felt like I wasn’t on the same college campus that I visited so many times growing up in the area. Not only are the buildings new, but there is a pride that is evident.
Every tailgate was impressive from their Charlotte branded tents to flags and 49ers gear. It felt like I was actually at a major college football campus.
Kudos to the administration as they have created an alumni tailgating area, but more importantly an area for students to tailgate. With the fraternity flags up and music blaring it was refreshing to see that the student body takes the pregame activities seriously. While I have heard mixed reports on student attendance at games, this was not the case as the student section was for the most part full for their first ever Black Out.
I spent some time talking to alumni and staff members following the Niner Walk and got the feeling of excitement for the game, but also a little bit of disappointment in the rain. This game was the first ever under the brand new lights, and while all the tickets were sold for the game there was the fear that the night might be lost to the rain.
They were wrong. The 49ers set a school record with 17,444 in attendance.
Despite a steady drizzle for most of the game the stands were packed and the fans were engaged and loud. With it being a relatively small stadium there is a sense of intimacy where it feels as if you are right on top of the action. Maybe its because it was the first night game, but the game felt like you were taking part of a special event. It felt like you were apart of a much larger cause, that your purpose at that time was to cheer your team on.
In the end the 49ers lost the game. They couldn’t hang onto the ball in the downpour and Florida Atlantic just managed the clock enough to eke out a win. But that shouldn’t be the story in a night where the stands were packed (until the second half downpour), and the 49ers showed that they are building towards something with a definite plan.
I am uncertain if this fully answers the question of if the 49ers can become part of the cultural identity of Charlotte and its citizens. The realist will say that they will probably always be second to the professional teams or that Charlotte is a transient city where people are always going to their alumni bars, but I am unsure if that is something that can prevent me or others from identifying as a 49ers fan.
In the end all that matters is that I love football, marching bands, and being part of something bigger than myself. Yes Clemson will always be my favorite, but why shouldn’t I identify with and believe in a team that represents the town I live in and love?
So here goes nothing: Go Niners!