Fall was always when I came alive, when the harsh rays of summer backed off and fell in at a slant, turning everything golden and sapphire blue. That was when I felt the stirring, when we welcomed back sweatshirts and ate scorchy tinfoil dinners under orange canyon canopies. When the walk home from school became a leaf-crunching delight. And when the voice of Paul James was the soundtrack to our Saturdays.
My dad had been a loyal fan of BYU football since his own time on campus in the early ’70s. Whether he was working in the yard, shuttling kids to sporting events, or fixing the sink on a Saturday afternoon, the Cougars were there with him, blaring from the gray kitchen stereo or the small transistor radio he held up to his ear at the sideline of a soccer game. Sometimes he’d watch on TV, springing from the couch if the play got intense or holding up a hand when we chose the wrong time to interrupt.
But when the game was at Cougar Stadium, Dad was always there. And sometimes he took me along.
When it was my turn to use one of Dad’s four season tickets, I would hurry through the teeming parking lot with a couple of my brothers, keeping my eyes on the backs of Dad’s long, striding legs as he rushed to make it before kickoff. One of his hands held the old transistor to his ear so he could hear the pregame commentary; the other cradled a rolled-up paper bag filled with licorice, Cracker Jacks, and other game-day sustenance. Dad would glance back now and then to make sure we were still behind him. Up ahead the announcer’s voice boomed, the growing crowd stomped and roared in the stands, and the distant drumline set the tempo for my own pounding heart.
If there was still time once we made it through the ticket gate, Dad would stop and buy us drinks (“Let’s get some pop,” he’d say). I’d carry my waxed paper cup up the winding concrete ramp, sipping down that cool lemon-lime tickle until we emerged in the south stands, an acre of green spread out below and endless blue stretching above.
And then, at Dad’s urging, we’d climb. Up, up, and up those crowded, sticky stairs until we reached our own row and at last got to breathe. I’d pass a good deal of the game scanning the sideline for Cosmo, watching planes pull their advertising banners across the sky, and wondering when the next ration of treats would be passed down the row. But I’d also spend time looking at my dad. I’d watch for his reaction when the crowd broke out booing (he preferred to mutter his displeasure under his breath). I’d wait to see if he’d stand up for the wave (and he did, every time, grinning down the row as we all rose and whooped). I’d try to catch his eye as he stared straight ahead in silent irritation when that know-it-all behind us screeched another inane observation into his ear. And always I’d search for his satisfied face when the Cougars scored and the tumult exploded around us.
My first month of college, five hours away from Provo and family, I was tender from my sudden shift in surroundings. I walked back from the campus library one Saturday afternoon, heavy with textbooks and homesickness. As I approached my apartment, I passed an open window and the sound of home poured out. BYU football was on TV. I asked my neighbors for the score and smiled when they told me the Cougs were ahead. I knew right where my dad was at that moment. And I knew he was happy.
Two years later I transferred to BYU and found myself seated in the student section of the stadium. The view was different there—closer—and I sometimes found the fans in my immediate vicinity more interesting than the game (or the airplanes, or the snacks), but I knew one thing hadn’t changed. At halftime I led some new friends to a row high up in the south stands to meet my dad. I didn’t have to wonder if he’d be there.
Year after year, fall lit up like a flame and then dwindled away, players and coaches came and went, and some seasons were a bust and my dad was disgusted. But still he went to every home game and followed every score, right up until the day in fall 2014 when he parked in a handicapped spot and, with my brother and my uncle, made his way up the steps—slowly, slowly—to watch his Cougars in person one more time.
As I talked to my dad on the phone one evening that same season, I looked up and found that the autumn twilight had stolen the day away before I was ready. I went out to gather my children, who were running in the park across the street, swishing through leaves and cursing each other with their Harry Potter wands. As I walked I asked my dad how his latest round of chemo had gone, and he mumbled something about being tired. Phone calls were never an ideal way for the two of us to communicate—our conversations were riddled with long, awkward pauses even in the best of times. I cast my mind around helplessly for insight or advice, but all that came out was, “How about those Cougs, Dad?” Ah, that got him talking. The Cougars carried us all the way across the darkening park and back to the glowing windows of home.
And now. Somehow fall thinks it can come creeping back in as it always has. The other day I stepped outside the grocery store and there was football in the air. And I felt that old stirring—but something else too. As the chill comes around and this earth tilts me farther from the sun, I am learning new things about fall: Late afternoon light on an orange-dappled mountain can be so beautiful it hurts, and the deepest blue sky will bring tears if you look too long. Homesickness is not just for the young. And your team’s last-second game-winning Hail Mary—thrown by a bright-eyed new quarterback and caught, impossibly, by a receiver drowning in opponents mere inches into the end zone—can almost break your heart even as the crowd erupts in cheers.
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Amy Felix Stewart is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Tooele, Utah.