Dec. 15, 2004
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -
Anybody who says he,s been a UCSB soccer fan since 1998 or earlier is
either a liar or a sadist. I was at every home game that year, not because I was a fan, mind you, but because it was my job. I was the guy that counted the fans. I did other stuff, too, but counting the fans was easiest. 30, 50, 100, 200, tops. TOPS!
The Gauchos, went 2-17-1 that year, the worst in team history. If Harder Stadium had a tent over it people would,ve thought the circus was in town. The games were filled with all manner of ridiculousness. Against other-worldly UCLA, the Gauchos scored late in the first half to take a 1-0 lead. They celebrated wildly, some even running to their fans in the stands, well off the playing field, or Thunderpitch. When the referee put the ball down for the ensuing kickoff, the Gauchos had scarcely made it back onto the field, and weren,t quite ready. The goalkeeper was 20 yards off his line, still pumped. When UCLA,s star player kicked off, sending a long, driving ball that was falling at just the right angle, everyone in the stadium either soiled his drawers with fear or peed himself laughing. Clearly, the Gaucho goalie, leaping backward, arm outstretched, was not going to get to this ball. UCLA had scored on a kickoff.
Those were bad times, and the only thing that made them tolerable was that I was paid to witness them. One would have had to be drunk to enjoy those games. I didn,t care if UCSB won or lost. How could I? If I cared, I would,ve had ulcers by midseason. I wasn,t a fan, I was an employee, and they weren,t paying me enough to care.
The next year, by more circus weirdness, many of the same Gauchos, now
playing for first-year coach Tim Vom Steeg, enjoyed a 13-6 season, the
biggest turnaround in NCAA history. Harder Stadium was still a vortex of insanity, what with a New Mexico player once snatching up the ball from the pitch and booting it over and out of the stadium, but at least the Gauchos were winning. But that was my last year working at soccer games, so I quit going. I,d catch a match now and then, but even when Vom Steeg's Gauchos started making the playoffs every year, if they lost, so what, I'd say, I,m thirsty.
Not until UCSB's NCAA championship quarterfinal game at Harder Stadium this December 4, attended by 11,214, did I realize I'd never really been a Gaucho fan, not once in all my years attending UCSB sporting events. I didn't know what it meant to be a fan. I'd never felt the drunk of victory or the gut-shot of defeat, not even when I watched the men's basketball team mess up big, bad UNLV in 1990. I was there, I cheered, but if the Gauchos, or Nachos, as I and others like to call them, had lost, I'd have gone home with a smile just the same.
Not until I was part of that record crowd that watched UCSB beat Virginia Commonwealth silly in the quarterfinals to advance to its first ever College Cup - not until I saw members of the nascent Nacho Nation carry one of the big, metal goals out of the stadium in high celebration, like ants absconding with a feast - did I realize what it is to be a fan. I cared, and when the Nachos won I felt good.
When UCSB did it again the following Friday, stomping Duke 5-0 in the
biggest route in College Cup (soccer's Final Four) history, I thought I was going to fly. Watching the goalkeeper jump in the stands after the game, into the arms of UCSB's biggest fans, instead of stomping off the field and going home in the middle of the game, which happened at least once that I remember in 1998, I gave myself a headache trying to figure out how the Nachos and I had come so far, as team and fan, since those farcical 2-17-1 days.
By kickoff Sunday, with UCSB playing Indiana for the NCAA championship at the Home Depot Center in Carson and over 13,000 fans in the stands, the Nachos, their fans and I were one. When UCSB scored in the 82nd minute to tie the game at 1-1, all I could do was raise my arms and smile like a fool. The happiness I felt came from deep inside me, from a fountain I hadn't known existed. It was the joy only a real fan can know, when he's sure his team is about to do the impossible.
Ten thousand Nacho voices roared, alive. As chants ofUC...SB...UC...SB
shook the stadium, Indiana fans prayed for mercy for themselves and their condemned team. Everyone who'd come to cheer the Gauchos was united in beatitude, from the scummiest Isla Vista knuckle walker to the poshest member of the alumni association, students home from final exams and community members alike, all excited to have something to cheer about in these dark times.
When the Gauchos lost a penalty kick shootout 3-2 and Indiana was suddenly champion for the seventh time, no one knew quite what to do. I stood there, slumped, deflated, returned to my normal height, sick with a profound sense of having known the other side of fandom. It's brutal, caring about your team, but it also promises the highest joy. Mired in the emotional nadir of defeat, we couldn't stop cheering for UCSB and the team that had given us a reason to care.
I saw every home game in 1998, the worst season in school history. Yet what will stay with me from this annus mirabilis 2004 is not that I got to see my Nachos compete for the championship, but that I learned, at long last, what it means to be a fan.
Department of Spanish & Portuguese and
Latin American & Iberian Studies Program
University of California, Santa Barbara