“So it’s actually been three years since my last home game, which, you know, feels really weird.” It also feels weird saying it aloud, but now it’s out there, real and hanging in the air.

“Time does go by quickly.” I’m sitting with a former professor of mine, at a coffee shop in a building that didn’t exist when I was a student.

“Yeah…you know, I’ve had this game circled on the calendar since I started the new job — but the past three years just got away from me.”

It’s Friday morning. I’d returned early to South Bend to experience that crescendo of energy to our season-opener — that first rematch against Michigan. My most recent home game had been almost three years prior, USC in 2015. And now I’m back in 2018, three years and a lifetime older.

There are four seasons that occur on-campus: winter, spring, summer, and football. I remember an academic advisor telling me that given my grades (which were less-than-stellar), my best opportunity to study abroad would be to apply for football season my Junior year. I declined. I loved being a part of the 80,000-person ritual that took place half a dozen times a year. I couldn’t bear to miss one of those, let alone all six.

And I didn’t. I had a perfect home attendance record my four years as an undergraduate. Then I graduated, and the record suffered. I made it back to campus once in that first season post-graduation — both to avenge the prior year’s defeat to Michigan, and to see the friends I’d left behind. Returning as a conquering hero of sorts, having passed through the gauntlet of a college course load, but yet to figure out real life.

Real life had begun again when I moved back home to Austin, not Chicago or New York or D.C., separated from everyone I knew during those undergraduate years. Alone on a landlocked island, with no job prospects outside of Texas. If I were to see the friends I knew as a student I couldn’t just sit back and wait for them to come to me. I’d have to go to them. And, football season would be the reason.

“The past three years got away from me I guess.” It’s Saturday afternoon. I’m standing at a friend’s tailgate, the one I’d attended all throughout my undergraduate years.

“Why???” My friend’s mom is incredulous. Me, that once-faithful attendee, now some prodigal fan.

“Well work the last two years around football season was just super intense, and then I missed all the chances to come back.”

“It’s okay. It’s so much work to get here and do the tailgate — this is actually the only home game we’re coming to this year.”

“Whaaa???” I’m incredulous. But I’m no longer one to judge.

Michigan State 2013. Arizona State 2013. USC 2013. BYU 2013. Michigan 2014. Syracuse 2014. Florida State 2014. Navy 2014. Arizona State 2014. Texas 2015. Georgia Tech 2015. USC 2015.

I traveled. Home or away. Plane or car. It didn’t matter. I’d catch the last flight out of Austin to Chicago-Midway, I’d pull over at 1:00 A.M to nap in Lafayette, Louisiana en route to Tallahassee, I’d leave Burning Man in Nevada early and spend 28 hours in transit. The journeys were always complicated, but those complications were just the cost of the stories — and the greater cost would be never living the memories at all.

I never asked myself in the moment when life would change — as I peeled out of South Bend in an undersized Fiat rental car, I wasn’t thinking about how the USC weekend in 2015 was my coda on young adulthood. Then I gained agency and left my first job, then the pace of friends’ weddings accelerated, and there I was with no home games to attend. In less than a year I became the person who couldn’t make it back to campus because they were “busy”. Who was this monster?

The one that would attend no games at all in 2017. The start of a new job coincided with the start of football season, and I found myself busy again. Managing the finances and operations for a startup I prioritized over all, busy with work that struggled to wake me and failed to let me sleep. Another year slipping away, feeling powerless to halt the tide and create new stories.

I’d drift in and out of daydreams imagining how I’d return though. These daydreams never did end with me in the stadium though. They were never even about attending the games. They ended with me arriving in South Bend, surprising these people and friends I missed and cared for, separate no longer.

It’s Saturday night. Michigan 2018. We’re winning, and there’s only a few minutes left in the first half. We’re sitting in the very top row of the top bowl in the south end zone, looking down upon everyone and everything. From here I can even see the world beyond the stadium. That world I’d forgotten during all those games as a student, as a young alum that continued visiting the student section, and as someone who eventually stopped resisting sitting with the other 70,000.

“Guys, I’m gonna go — I promised some friends I’d meet them back at Brothers.” What am I doing?

“That’s really dumb, you’re here in the stadium.” Why leave now?

“Yeah, they’re not going to let you back in.” I don’t need to be here, in the stadium. I’m on campus, surrounded by friends in the game and outside. I’m not alone here.

I leave my friends at the very top row of the top bowl in the south end zone, and wind my way around the concourse to the gate I’d only entered less than an hour before.

“You know there’s no re-entry?” The usher at the gate almost seems angry about this. I guess my friends were right. Maybe I’m actually being dumb.

“Yeah, I do.” I step past the usher and begin walking south towards Brothers. Who would have known a world existed outside of the stadium during our home games? There’s a person walking their dog past Legends, as if today’s not the start of football season and the six-times-a-year ritual. The clouds are towering overhead, deciding whether to storm. The sun already chose to set and night’s easing across the sky. Time continues to move on by.

Brothers is full and there’s a line of people waiting to enter. I see one of my friends outside sitting on the patio, where she promised she’d be before I’d gone into the stadium. She sees me and —

“Oh my god, you actually came back!”

“Of course I’d come back!” Of course I would.