With the ACC Championship game approaching, Duke's campus is more focused on football than it has been in a long time, or maybe ever. After all, the Blue Devils have never won 10 games, never played in the conference title game and never been to back-to-back bowl games before now. And they have been playing football for a long time.
Duke, or Trinity College as it was then known, fielded its first football team in 1888. Trinity's squad went 4-1 that year with John Franklin Crowell at the helm. That name might sound familiar—in his spare time, Crowell also served as the school's president.
Now, more than a century later, the Blue Devils are rewriting the record books. And the hype surrounding Duke football has multiplied each week as the wins pile up and the milestones are passed.
Students, North Carolina residents and the nation have given the Blue Devils a certain amount of celebrity that comes with being a hot, new sports story. What Duke is doing is unique, and people want to be a part of that. The New York Times even sent someone to Durham to get the scoop on the Blue Devils and bring their story into the national limelight. In other words, Duke football has made it.
Look at game attendance. The Blue Devils opened the season against N.C. Central to a crowd of fewer than 23,000. Sure the Eagles aren't exactly the cream of the college football crop, but everybody likes watching a 45-0 shutout victory.
By week three, Duke was 2-0 for the first time since 1998. With Georgia Tech coming to town, the battle to stay undefeated was on. That's a story fans can get behind. But fewer than 22,000 showed up. The Blue Devils lost to the Yellow Jackets and then lost again at home to Pittsburgh the following week, and the Duke football season was right on track.
But then something incredible happened. The Blue Devils beat Troy and Navy at home and knocked off Virginia on the road. They followed that up with an upset of then No. 16 Virginia Tech in Blacksburg—the first road win against a ranked opponent in 42 years—and returned to a campus that genuinely cared. Duke stood 6-2 with N.C. State coming to Durham, and people hung banners from their windows on West Campus, DSG sent out emails urging people to go to the game against the Wolfpack and the school stood behind its team in a way that I had not seen in my three years at Duke.
Then 32,000 people showed up to watch the Blue Devils secure their seventh win.
More than 30,000 fans came the following week and stormed the field following Duke's win against then-No. 24 ranked Miami on Senior Day.
The last two weeks the Blue Devils played at Wake Forest and North Carolina with a noticeable contingent of Duke supporters in the stands. The idea of the Blue Devils having a road presence and a traveling fan base would have been absurd two years ago coming off back-to-back 3-9 seasons.
And now with arguably the biggest game in Duke history approaching, my inbox is full of emails about purchasing a ticket for Saturday's game.
When I first began to notice the attention that the Blue Devils were getting in the second half of the season—from the student body, administrators and the nation as a whole—the first thing I felt was jealousy.
For those who have been going to every game since freshman year, for sports writers who have covered the team each week, even before the record-breaking victories, for those people who supported the team and were proud of Duke football before it went viral, it felt like outsiders were jumping on the bandwagon.
And it hurt.
But did the team feel the same way? No. They were just happy to play in front of a crowd. They understand that people are being drawn to the program only because it is winning, but that doesn't matter. Playing in front of fair-weather fans is better than playing in front of no fans.
But as a sports fan, the sudden influx of supporters bothered me. Anyone who has ever supported a losing team knows the pain that comes with continual defeat. To the newcomers, this pain was unknown. They hadn't suffered through any losing and didn't belong in the stands.
People will always get behind a team that is winning, especially when their narrative is as powerful as the one the Blue Devils have produced this season. And there will always be fans who were there before it was cool. And they will always be inclined to look down on the newcomers, the unworthy, who didn't experience the pain of losing and the humiliation of supporting a loser.
I am saying all this from the perspective of three years of Duke fandom. Imagine what Blue Devil fans from the pre-Cutcliffe era must be saying about fans like me. To them, I am the newcomer, the bandwagon fan. To them, my one season of supporting a losing team does not count me in the ranks of the truly faithful. I imagine that many of these older fans were bothered by the newcomers even more than I was.
As the magnitude of what Duke was doing this season set in, though, my jealousy started to melt away. After a while, I didn't care that people only supported the Blue Devils now that they were winners. I realized there is no point in jealously guarding the team, as if its success could only be enjoyed by those who were there for the losing as well as the winning. What Duke football is doing this year is too important for that.
This year, the Blue Devil bandwagon has enough room for everybody. Whether you've been a fan for three weeks, three years or three generations, this year's Duke team is yours to proudly support.
The bandwagon leaves Saturday for Charlotte—all aboard.
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