Back Fuller, Football and My Family

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Fuller, Football and My Family

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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The women in my family have long watched college football intently, with the game being a big part of who they are.

When I told my daughter about Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller, her face lit up and she grinned brightly. It was a genuine, wide smile, one that turned into a sudden skip across the living room floor. My daughter doesn't know all of the details about football just yet, but she knows her loved ones watch it, talk about it and enjoy it. So she, with a flare for cheering and a guilty new penchant for the newly-discovered thumb's down, does, too. After all, it's a family tradition. One most passionately started and shared by those who look just like her.

I've long said this about my mother; she hasn't just put us first, she has always put us first-and-ten. The same went for my meemaw. The same goes for my wife. 

First, a little background information might help. My mom grew up in central Florida, a middle-child tomboy that split a large family of eventual Bulldogs, Gators, Seminoles and Yellow Jackets. In college, she dated an Auburn Tiger lineman before ultimately marrying my father. In grade school, she actually broke her kneecap in a very real game of tackle football; though mom never technically suited up in a game in the SEC, the culprit of her injury was a future Florida linebacker.

My mom grew up on the same street as the people who invented Gatorade. She stood on dumpsters as a small child watching the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville over an eight-foot fence. She was teenage classmates with All-SEC Georgia running back Willie McClendon. She once watched a bowl game right alongside Georgia Tech record-holder and now ESPN commentator Roddy Jones. Florida legend Ben Troupe calls her "Momma B" and lived in her house for a short time, while Florida State great Dexter Carter has warmly called her mom.

This is a woman at the absolute center of any and every football argument in the family. Most won't even watch games with her. I still can't take her calls on Saturdays. Don't let the 5'2'' frame and sinus sniffle fool you. Her last name might be Bennett, but her first name might as well be Cornelius. She has a strong, and growing, reputation for her football hot takes. Ask anyone around town about her fandom and most will just laugh. We're not quite sure yet if it's out of amusement or fear.

Mom makes fun of my dad, a 6'2'' retired Army Lt. Col., for not being intense enough when watching games. That web of fervor has even been known to entangle others. My father once had to get between her and another fan when she nearly started an upper deck brawl in the Orange Bowl. Years later, a bar fight nearly ensued when mom challenged an older man for incorrectly citing the rules of the game. Fittingly, she has broken one bone as an adult -- it came after slamming her wrist on a table reacting to her team losing on a missed kick.

Watch my mom on any weekend in the fall and you will see decades worth of passion unravel in mere moments. You will also see her mother. Many talk of how they, in many different ways, see a former generation in the current. My mom mimics her mom in almost everything she does. I see it when she smiles. I see it most when she cheers.

My late grandmother was one of the most fun, quirky people anyone would ever hope to meet. Growing up, my brother and I didn't want to spend the night with our friends, we wanted to stay with her. She was someone everyone fell in love with. Meemaw, as we called her, was Bear Bryant and Jimmy Buffett molded into a Mel Brooks movie character with gaudy earrings and a bright-colored purse. They were all always orange and blue.

An overzealous Florida football fan, meemaw obsessed over Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel, whose football card she long had taped to her vanity. Meemaw called Wuerffel "Danny Boy" and routinely referred to him as "our cousin" at family gatherings. As for, you guessed it, "Stevie Boy", she somehow found his meltdown faces and sideline tantrums affable and engaging. Raised in the Sunshine State, meemaw carried with her a circle of warmth for her loved ones and her Gators alike.

An active socialite, meemaw was well-known in the coastal communities of central and north Florida and, later, coastal Georgia. She volunteered at hospitals, was involved in every non-profit organization listed in the phone book and was a fixture at local chamber of commerce events. When you asked people if they knew her, they responded by saying her name with a rising pitch in their voice.

"Who, Jee-NNYYY?" they would ask with a smile.

That type of person. Except when the Gators played.

Meemaw's Saturday gameday apparel was a makeshift Halloween costume. She had orange Reeboks she cut the toes out of and made into flip-flops and white capri pants with Florida logos patterned all over them. Additionally, meemaw wore an orange Gator shirt, a beaded necklace with a huge logo fixture and dangly team earrings. This, for a lady tan as a leather couch from spending hours a day out by the pool, was just for staying at home. Earlier in her life, she went to plenty of live games, with my much-more reserved grandfather quietly tagging along.

Following big plays for Florida, meemaw would emerge shaking orange pom-poms singing "Go Gators...Woo...Woo...Woo." A very distinct giggle would soon follow. It was the type of sequence that would make you laugh, wince and wonder all at once. The cheer once made my mother threaten to move. It often made my father go for walks outside.

Meemaw's love for us had a tendency to ebb-and-flow some based on the score. Her love for the Florida Gators was unconditional. At the site of an injury on the field, meemaw would cringe and hold her hands together out in front of her face in deep and genuine concern. At the same time, however, she would root for injuries, minor mind you, for all of UF's opponents. Those admissions came sheepishly, however, as if she was whispering quietly and didn't want God to hear.

Whenever Thanksgiving came around, meemaw's house was always the gameday huddle. The women were the ones calling the plays.

When meemaw passed, the family asked me to go to Gainesville to buy some authentic Florida merchandise for her to be buried with. This jewelry and gear came right from the source for someone who was always front and center. While my grandmother was undoubtedly going to heaven, she wanted to go making sure she was looking the part.

From my meemaw to my mother to my wife, whose family is from Alabama, there is a proud football lineage shared by the leading women in my life. The same goes for a number of aunts and cousins as well. Upon that strong and striking foundation, my football fanship was long ago built. To this day, my most serious and sincere football conversations come with my mom. Dad wouldn't stand a chance.

I'm a product of two unique women absolutely captivated by college football and the history, pageantry and tradition that comes with it. Shelve the flowers and picture frames, Mother's Day at my parent's house has long come with charcoal and face paint. On our family calendar, it's sometimes viewed as just another day closer to kickoff. Watching Sarah Fuller open the second half in Saturday's Vanderbilt-Missouri game made me think about that notion twice and think about it in more ways than one.

My daughter watched Fuller become the first woman to play in a major college football game. I'm sure she will talk about it with her Nene soon. I'd say meemaw was somewhere watching, but Florida was playing Kentucky at the same time. I'd say my wife, a college athlete herself, was watching, but she was likely preparing for the Iron Bowl. Though my daughter may not ultimately remember much about the moment and might not ever enjoy more than casually watching college football at all, her smile, hearing the news, was a shared one.

The women in my family have long watched college football intently, with the game being a big part of who they are. Saturday, they got to see themselves in it as well.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports