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Inside The Chart: Ode to the Agate

By Andy Demetra (The Voice of the Yellow Jackets) | Inside The Chart

Growing up, my college football tradition revolved around Sunday mornings, not Saturday afternoons.

Every Sunday I’d head downstairs to our kitchen, open the thick, leafy sports section of the Chicago Tribune, bypass the Bears previews and Cubs and White Sox recaps, and thumb straight to the back of the paper. There, in all of its small-font glory, were the two columns that captured my young imagination.

You can still find it in sports pages across America: every college football score, from FBS to NAIA, printed in agate type in the back section of the paper. From the first kickoff in the Northeast to the last whistle on the West Coast, every score is alphabetized and categorized by region. In one neat, miniaturized space, you could find an official day of record in college football.

In the days before the Internet and 500-channel cable packages, those scores had a certain exotic appeal to me. Maybe it was the cold, clinical way they were printed that left my imagination to fill in the blanks. How exactly did Hillsdale knock off Lake Erie 42-37? How overmatched was Edward Waters to have lost 64-0 to South Alabama? For the same reason people leer at fender-benders, my nine-year-old self always wanted to know the highest-scoring game from each Saturday. Something about Northwest Oklahoma hanging 79 on Texas College felt lewd and fascinating. I loved the outliers and odd-duck scores that only college football seemed to create. Every game has a story to tell, but the agate page treated the blowout with the same dispassionate regard as the last-second thriller.

Maybe reading those school names tapped into my adolescent sense of wanderlust. Even a novice college football fan had heard of Notre Dame and Alabama. I was drawn to the diverse, quirky schools I had never heard of, whose names sprang to life on my kitchen table every Sunday. Where is Castleton State, anyway? What colors are its uniforms? What’s its nickname? What does its stadium look like?

(Castleton, Vermont; green, dark gray and white; Spartans; and its home field, Spartan Stadium, was designed to mimic the historic railroad depots of the area, in case you were wondering).

Before Google could answer those questions instantaneously, those geographically ambiguous schools – the Ashlands and St. Scholasticas and Sul Ross States – beckoned to me like unfilled pages of a coloring book. The agate scores weren’t just back-page filler. In the pre-Internet age, they were a canvas for my curiosity, their spartan lack of detail (not to be confused with the Castleton State Spartans) giving my imagination plenty of room to wander.

(Several years later, when I hosted my first radio sports talk show in high school, I had a segment, naturally, called “The Obscure College Football Pick of the Week.”)

There’s something beautifully egalitarian about the agate page. Ohio State’s latest win is sandwiched between the final scores of the Northwood St.-Grand Valley St. game and the Ripon-Carroll (Wisc.) game.  Texas A&M-Kingsville has a seat at the table next to Texas A&M. Georgia Tech is treated no differently than Arkansas Tech. The agate page celebrates everyone: State U and the tiny liberal arts school, the Power-5 teams who play in 100,000-seat colosseums and the NAIA teams whose fields are ringed by rickety bleachers, all gloriously grouped together in the same size 5.5-point font. College football may be big business, but the agate page reminds us of the common thread connecting the game:  young men, at schools big and small, playing for the love of it.

In many ways, the agate page served as my window to the college football world. My Mom attended an all-women’s college; my Dad went to a school that disbanded its program in 1964. Needless to say, I didn’t have much cultural immersion into college football. I never got to experience those fall Saturdays, walking through campus on our way to the stadium, soaking up the tradition and grandeur. In my corner of suburban Chicago, where the Bears dominated everything (Chicago Tribune sports pages included), big-time college football seemed like a faraway curiosity. The agate page reminded me there’s an entire colorful world of football for me to explore.

After reading the agate page again recently, checking college football scores online just doesn’t feel the same. Drop-down tabs now separate scores by conference and leave out non-Division I games altogether. TV score tickers feel incomplete. Newspaper sports sections have shrunk in size, their agate pages relegated to the dustbin – or more precisely, the recycling bin – of history.

That’s a shame. There’s a charming simplicity to the agate page, the way it can condense the vastness and weirdness of a college football Saturday into one minimalist space. Sure, I can find scores on my iPhone in real time. But sometimes it’s nice to wait a day, open the newspaper with a satisfying rustle, and enjoy college football writ small.

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