Career Student Eyes Future

Justin Gage is closing in on the real world, but he's got another football season in the student section before the door closes and he moves to the old people sections at Razorback events.

Editor's Note: Justin Gage penned this story just before the 2013 season began. I've seen him in the student section for most of the 22 years of Hawgs Illustrated. I've seen him at many of the Razorback events I've covered, from Omaha to anywhere else you can imagine. I've seen him needle visiting batter's on the on-deck circle in Baum, with neat information found on the Internet. He's a fun guy and equipped with a potent, but dry sense of humor. Enjoy the ride with a career University of Arkansas student.

Justin Gage's Hog Tale

I got married on the steps of Old Main last year. My wife is from Long Island, New York. And God bless her, she didn't have a problem making her everlasting vows on a university campus in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

(Well, at least she didn't tell me she had a problem with it, I may have overlooked that during the planning.)

She knows how much I love the University of Arkansas. She married me knowing that I was a career student at the University of Arkansas. She married me despite knowing that I was a 31 year old man who still sat in the student section at Razorback games.

During my senior year of high school, the University of Arkansas admissions office invited me to tour their campus. As an incentive, they offered one ticket to the September 27, 1998 football game against Alabama, free of charge. I took it. I went to the game by myself.

The ticket stuck me in the Student Section. I was positive someone in the mass of belligerent young adults would mock me, the high schooler, for my lack of facial hair or something equally embarrassing. But of course, no one cared.

We destroyed the Crimson Tide 42-6, their worst loss in 41 years. A "sophisticated" college girl, who happened to look a little like Kelly Kapowski, gave me a hug in what must have been uncontrollable excitement after a Joe Dean Davenport touchdown catch. I may have told some friends that she kissed me. It was my first experience in the student section at Razorback Stadium. I never got to thank Joe Dean.

My college plans had been set in stone for years before my senior year in high school. I never considered the "best" college to attend. I never studied an institution's freshman dropout rate, its student-to-faculty ratio, or its ranking on various "Top Party School" lists.

I knew that I wanted to attend the University of Arkansas. Simple state pride had a lot to do with my decision. The U of A (not yet the "You of A," thankfully) was the intellectual center of my home state. But more importantly, I wanted to be a Razorback. I wanted to be, in some way, a part of the teams I grew up loving. I wanted the courtside seats. I wanted the cheap tickets. I wanted more hugs. Yes, the Razorbacks were important. I did not apply anywhere else.

Fourteen years later, I am still a student at the University of Arkansas (I also teach a couple of courses). For fourteen years, since the Fall 1999 semester, I have been enrolled as a student in some form or fashion during every fall and spring semester at the University of Arkansas (except one). That is an outrageous 147 hours as an undergraduate student and 124 hours as a graduate since 1999 (which would total to around $85,939.37 if calculated according to last year's instate tuition and fees). These numbers make me cringe and make my creditors smile. These numbers would turn my father's hair grey.

Most people my age have been prospering in their chosen careers for years. Most people do not understand what I am still doing "in college." But most people do not appreciate the value of an education, let alone the value of a REALLY LONG education. Really long educations aren't standard. I generally avoid telling people what I do in life. "Oh, a PhD in history," they ask, "What are you going to do with that? Couldn't you have been a medical doctor by now?" "Yes," I reply, "If I wanted to make money."

But I have taken advantage of my perpetual status as a student: I have attended every game in the students sections of Razorback and War Memorial Stadium since 1999. That's Clint Stoerner, Robby Hampton, Jared McBride, Zak Clark, John Rutledge (remember that guy?), Tavarias Jackson, Matt Jones, Robert Johnson, Casey Dick, Mitch Mustain, Nathan Dick, Ryan Mallett, Tyler Wilson, and Brandon Allen. From "Nuttin' But Fun," to "#WPS." "Code Red" to "The Wildhog" to the "Power Spread." Keith Burns and Reggie Herring. John L. Smith. That's 101 home games and 100 game programs collected (one was stolen from my seat – Ole Miss 2010).

That is fourteen seasons in the student section. That's 73 football wins and 27 heartbreaking losses (which doesn't sound so bad). That's countless Hog Calls and $5 Cokes (now Pepsi). That is way too many hours spent waiting in line outside Razorback Stadium before every game – just so I can get to my seat, my spot, my precious, before someone else does (the student section is "first come-first served-best seats"). I have sat in the same seat in Razorback Stadium – Section 116, Row 14, Seat 50 – since they moved the student section after the 2001 renovations (The stadium usher working my section, now a good friend, attended my wedding).

As a student, I have witnessed the gut-wrenching: Alabama's Shaud Williams' 80 yard TD run on the first snap in 2002, Tony Bua's personal foul against Florida in 2003, Matt Jones' fumble against Texas in 2004, and Ryan Mallet's interceptions against Alabama in 2010 – and the inspiring: Darren McFadden's 321 yards rushing against South Carolina, DeCori Birmingham's miracle catch against LSU in 2002 (which was, up to that catch, one of the worst game I've seen), Joe Adam's unbelievable punt return against Tennessee in 2011, and Clint Stoerner's redemptive TD pass to Anthony Lucas versus Tennessee in 1999.

I still have a piece of Razorback Stadium turf where Lucas caught that ball in the yet-to-be-expanded south end zone. While others were jumping on field goals, I was cutting up that fresh grass. That glorious moment in 1999, during my freshman year, is my fondest memory as a student at the University of Arkansas.

As we rushed the field in celebration, I did not think for a second that this might be the last time thousands of Hog fans, overcome with pure joy, would cram inside the hash marks. My expectations were high for the athletic program. Houston Nutt, the Arkansas-born master of motivation, had reignited the football program and it was only a matter of time before Nolan got the basketball team back on track.

But the next decade proved to be a rough. Nolan's bewildering exit flattened any chance for a comeback. Bud Walton and its student section became a shadow of itself during the Stan Heath and John Pelphrey years. Things didn't go so well for Houston either. Hate overwhelmed the state. It got ugly. But many of us were still happy to walk into the stands, loving every minute of every game.

At present, even after Bobby's shenanigans, the future looks bright.

Quite a bit has changed for the Arkansas Razorbacks since 1999. Fewer pretend that the old romanticism of college athletics is still around. Revenue is a top priority ("so we can compete with the big boys").

Scoreboards got as big as the budgets. Frank Broyles handed the reins to Jeff Long and the Slobbering Hog was promptly removed from Bud Walton (along with much of the student section). An annoying howl at the beginning of the Hog Call has gained in popularity. War Memorial continues to get drunker (please make it stop). Every game is on TV.

But a lot has remained the same. Students at the University of Arkansas still see fewer football games on THEIR campus than students at any other major university, but they still get to the games early (even at Little Rock) and stand during every play.

Arkansans still travel from all regions of the state to watch student-athletes (as Mr. Long insistently refers to them) play the games that we love. And despite all of the money we spend and all of the marketing we endure, we still go to watch these young adults represent our state, our university, through competition. It is as simple as that.

Some unreasonable folks make it more than that. They place their self-worth on the backs of the coach and the players. They believe the university owes them some wins. But most just enjoy the experience. Most love gathering with 70,000 of their kinsmen at Razorback Stadium where they can sit and consider what it means to be an Arkansan. What else can bring us together?

The Bielemafied 2013 season will be my fifteenth and final season in the student section. In 2014 I will be up in the nosebleeds (and low on the Razorback Foundation totem pole) but I will be as excited at kickoff as I was before that Tennessee game in 1999. I might even get to tailgate. And, after a touchdown, I will only hug my wife."

Justin Gage in 2003 with Boss Hog.

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