I was reminded again Saturday that some people take their sports a little too seriously.
The reminder came, via a push, from an unhappy Golden Gopher fan who was seated to my right at the big University of South Dakota-Minnesota game on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in a wonderful new stadium.
We’d started off as pals, the 40-something Gopher fan and me.
Like most of the 49,000 people in the stands, he was confident the Gophers would crush USD. Like most USD fans, I was pretty sure the Gopher fans were right.
I should explain: Most weekends, I’m a Gopher fan. Even growing up in South Dakota as I did, we listened to the Gophers’ games, cheering the exploits of such stars as Sandy Stephens and Bobby Bell.
But on Saturday, I was wearing Coyote red because for one year, decades ago, I was a USD student.
I was attending the game, along with my sister and brother-in-law, who was a longtime faculty member at USD, as guest of a long-suffering Gopher season-ticket-holder.
The Gopher fan was amused (at first) about sitting next to people cheering for the Coyotes.
My sister explained to the maroon-clad fellow that the proper pronunciation of the team nickname is “Coyotes,” not “Coyoteee.”
We talked about pheasant hunting in South Dakota. We talked about the weather. We talked about Vermillion, home town of USD. We talked about how we didn’t figure the Coyotes had a chance against a team from the mighty Big Ten Conference.
When the Gophers took a 3-0 lead, the maroon fellow became even more affable.
But his mood began to change when USD took a 7-3 lead. It grew grimmer as the Coyote lead grew to 14-3 over the Gophs.
I, of course, was standing and cheering the mighty deeds of MY team.
“You want to put some money on how this game ends?” my seatmate asked.
“Nah, we South Dakotans are frugal,” I said, not mentioning that for more than 30 years I’ve been a Minnesotan.
As the first half continued and the Coyotes maintained their lead, my seatmate’s mood turned uglier.
“I don’t like you,” he said. “Why don’t you move?”
“These are really good seats,” I said.
“Come on, if you have any belief in your team, put some money on ’em,” he said.
“Not a gamblin’ man,” I said. “But this sure is fun.”
I stood to cheer again. That’s when he stood and gave me a shove, knocking me off balance, toward my brother-in-law, who was seated on my left. He grabbed me, preventing me from falling.
“Come on,” the Gopher fan said. “Let’s settle it, right now.”
“I’m 63 years old,” I said, stunned by his suggestion. “I’m a spectator, not a participant.”
Visions of what would happen if I actually tried to fight this guy danced through my head. For starters, I’d be pummeled. Worse, I’d be embarrassed because security would drag both of us from the stadium with thousands of people looking on. Still worse, I would have to explain everything to my bride when I got home.
On every level, fighting was a losing proposition.
But when he caught me, my brother-in-law apparently heard the trumpet calls of his youth.
When he was a youngster, my brother-in-law was a Golden Gloves boxer. Later, he’d become a Marine Corps combat officer in Vietnam.
Now, all these decades later, he was ready to answer the bell. Take the hill. Win one for his brother-in-law and the Coyotes and underdogs everywhere.
“Doug, let’s change seats,” he said.
I looked in his eyes. There was fire.
“It’s gonna be OK,” I said.
My sister looked in her husband’s eyes and shook her head.
“For heaven’s sakes, you’re even older than Doug,” she said. (He’s 65, but wiry.)
We both sat back in our seats, as did the angry Gopher fan.
For the remainder of the first half, I stifled all cheers (although there was a lot for Coyote fans to cheer about.)
The fightin’ mad Gopher fan didn’t return to his seats for the second half. Maybe he really didn’t like me, though I suspect his anger was really directed at the Gophs.
After the game, Coyote fans gathered at a corner of the stadium, near the field where the USD band played and the school’s cheerleaders danced. And soon, they were joined by the Coyote players, who returned from the locker room to the field of their greatest triumph. The players — when college football players take off their helmets, you discover they’re just kids — danced and greeted friends and family members and posed for pictures in front of the scoreboard that read: USD 41, Gophers 38.
It was all very sweet, although I did keep looking over my shoulder to make sure that my old seatmate didn’t try to crash the party.