KARSON BELL HAS lived a charmed life as a college football fan this year — he has successfully rushed the field at three different games.
The 19-year-old Blinn College student was decked out in Oklahoma gear for OU’s 21-point comeback win against Texas on Oct. 9 in Dallas, joining the first storming of the field anyone could remember at the neutral-site game at the Cotton Bowl. That same night, the lifelong Texas A&M fan drove three hours to College Station, where, clad in A&M gear, he watched the Aggies upset Alabama and got on the field again, documenting it all on social media.
— karson bell (@bell_karson) October 11, 2021
Five weeks later, he witnessed Baylor upset Oklahoma in Waco. Afterward, he said, he flipped his OU shirt around, zipped up a jacket and joined in.
“I just wanted to rush the field in the sense of rushing the field,” said Bell, who is longtime friends with one of the Oklahoma players. “Not because my team won.”
There’s no official data that shows historic numbers of field-stormings, but ask pretty much anyone around the sport: This season the phenomenon seems to be way more commonplace. FiveThirtyEight took a shot at placing some figures to the trend, turning up 27 such instances thus far this season at the FBS level, more than in 2019 (14) and 2018 (10) combined. With rivalry week upon us, those numbers could easily grow.
Observers around the sport agree that standards appear lower for a once-rare tradition, and it’s creating more work for field managers, irking coaches and causing safety concerns that were only elevated after the recent tragedy in Houston at the Astroworld music festival — where 10 concertgoers have died after being crushed in a mass of fans. But there remains an understanding that, if done safely, it’s part of what makes college football special.
“[Football fans] go out there with the true intent of going out and celebrating with the team,” said Nick McKenna, the president of the Sports Turf Managers Association.
At least on the good side, he said, crowds this year seem to be less intent on destruction: “The focus on trying to tear the goalposts down is a lot less than what it used to be.”
SO WHY IS all of this happening?
One is that we all are just so pumped to be out of the house and back appreciating the greatness of a college football game after not being able to attend most of them last year.
“In a post-COVID year, I think that there’s just a lot of built-up or pent-up need for normalcy,” said Dr. Stephen P. Gonzalez, an executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology who, in his day job, serves as an assistant athletic director at Dartmouth. “When athletics is a large part of a school’s identity and in some of these major conferences, it’s an opportunity for people to kind of feel like they’re a part of something that’s bigger than them. I think a lot of this is really coming down to people desiring to have connection, especially after so much restriction, particularly in sporting arenas, over the last almost 20 months now. So this is almost like a release valve for a lot of people.”
Then there’s the social media factor. If something happened and you didn’t post about it, is it even worth remembering?
“I definitely think it brought a different type of excitement because we’re recording it all, posting it on Snapchat and Instagram and TikTok,” Bell said. “I do think that kind of adds a sense of clout-chasing.”
Bell proudly counts himself among those clout-chasers.
“Oh, absoluuuuuutely,” he said. “I mean, as soon as I got the opportunity to rush A&M, I was like, ‘I need to record every second of this and make a TikTok video.'”
It worked. His video was featured on ESPN’s social channels and other widely followed accounts. The final product garnered hundreds of thousands of views across multiple platforms.
Those factors have combined to create what at least seems to be a lower bar for rushing the field.
Fans of a previously winless UMass team rushed the field after the Minutemen beat a winless UConn team. TCU fans hopped the wall and celebrated a sixth win over Baylor in seven years. Colorado fans celebrated their second win of the season, over Oregon State, at the middle of Folsom Field. Kansas fans stormed the field after beating an FCS team, South Dakota, by three points. Last weekend, Cal fans celebrated on Stanford‘s field after a 41-11 win over the 3-7 Cardinal in the Big Game.
“We think of the Iron Bowl, that Kick Six, right? That’s rushable,” Bell said of Chris Davis’ legendary kick return to propel Auburn over its loathed rival, Alabama. “But now it’s any sort of upset at a home stadium. You’re rushing the field just because it’s the new wave.”
The rush of rushings even led FiveThirtyEight’s Josh Planos to create a metric to measure when it is and isn’t appropriate to celebrate with thousands at the 50-yard line. It’s called “What’re You Doing (On That Field),” or WYD for short.
In Planos’ ratings, which include factors like rankings, kickoff times, rivalry impact and walk-off scores, Texas A&M’s upset of No. 1 Alabama tops the charts, followed by Appalachian State‘s win over Coastal Carolina and NC State‘s win over Clemson. Coming in last? That UMass scene, followed by Arizona‘s win over Cal and Memphis beating Mississippi State.
“You know, 15 years ago, storming the field was reserved for something pretty special,” Gonzalez said. “It doesn’t seem like there’s as much rhyme or reason outside of the influence and the attention that people are trying to get from it. And it’s not just temporary attention and talking about it that one night. Now you can document it via social media.”
Baylor fans are a little too excited to celebrate the Bears’ win over unbeaten Oklahoma and rush the field with time on the clock.
ON NOV. 13, Baylor fans were so excited to celebrate their upset of No. 8 Oklahoma that they stormed the field before the game had ended and had to be rounded up back to the sidelines. Sooners coach Lincoln Riley was furious that the game continued, with Baylor hoping to kick a late field goal to add three points in case a tiebreaker was needed for Big 12 title game consideration. Riley said the fans surrounding his bench and players were causing safety issues, and he sent his team to the locker room, only to be told he had to have 11 men return for the field goal.
The following week, he clarified his remarks on his weekly coaches’ show, “Sooner Sports Talk.”
“Once their fans rushed the field, it was pretty hectic down there,” Riley said. “There was some really close to bad things that were happening. And that’s not a good situation. The officials and the [athletic directors] have the power, that if there’s an unforeseen circumstance and a game has already been decided, they can shut it down right there. And that’s what I wanted to happen. You’re going to make us bring our players back out here. And then they’re going to rush this field again. We’re going to do that again?”
Riley specifically mentioned having to help pull Baylor fans off one Oklahoma player, David Ugwoegbu. Bell, who is a friend of Ugwoegbu, agreed that it was out of hand.
“You could see Baylor students on his sideline 3 feet from him just screaming at him,” Bell said. “That’s a safety issue for the players that I don’t think should be tolerable.”
The concern isn’t just for the players, although there’s always a risk in mixing fired-up fans with players who just suffered a crushing defeat, particularly now that alcohol sales are more common at stadiums. The Tennessee–Ole Miss game was stopped for 20 minutes on Oct. 16 after fans that were angry about the spot of a fourth-down play in the fourth quarter threw trash and objects on the field, including a golf ball that landed near Lane Kiffin.
In 1993, following Wisconsin‘s first victory over Michigan since 1981, fans attempting to rush the field created a bottleneck and more than 70 people were injured after being pinned against guardrails or trampled, in what is known as the “Camp Randall Crush.”
Schools make announcements reminding fans not to enter the playing field, and conferences have increased penalties against schools where it happens. This season, the SEC has fined Texas A&M and Arkansas each $100,000, and Kentucky $250,000. It also fined Tennessee $250,000 for the Ole Miss meltdown.
The one positive that observers have noticed in postgame scenes this season is that fans seem to be more focused on just having a communal celebration.
“It’s less about damage and more about just saying you were there and being a little bit more jovial,” Gonzalez said.
Bell said he understands the safety risks, but he thinks college football fans have grown to appreciate the experience. He can’t see the “new wave” ending anytime soon.
“This is a crazy college football season. You’re only going to have that experience that one time and you’re gonna make it a memory, so why not do it?” said the guy who’s already done it three times this year. “I’ll always do it.”
MCKENNA HAS SEEN his share of field-stormings, and he isn’t much of a fan of this new wave.
He’s a 20-year veteran of the grass game and currently Texas A&M’s assistant fields manager, meaning he has to keep watch over that surface at Kyle Field, where tens of thousands of fans made their way after the Aggies’ upset of Alabama. He joked that he used to love the old days when Kyle Field was considered sacred ground and people didn’t dare tread on it.
Now, for the second time in three years, Aggies fans stormed the field after a big win, along with 2018’s exhale following a 74-72 seven-overtime win over No. 8 LSU.
McKenna was prepared with a level of confidence that Jimbo Fisher might appreciate. Less than two weeks before the Alabama game, McKenna said his staff had a meeting to discuss this exact scenario. Then, during the game, he could feel it coming.
“I warned my crew with about 10 minutes to go in the game,” McKenna said. “I said, ‘You know, if we pull this out, they’re going to rush the field. I can all but guarantee that.'”
Eric Kleypas, the field manager at Auburn, knows how that goes. Since 2013, fans have crashed the Jordan-Hare field three times after beating Alabama.
“You can see it in the student section’s eyes,” Kleypas said. “They’re kind of leaning as the clock’s going out. You can see it in their eyes, and you can see it in the police officers’ eyes.”
They’ve grown to understand it’s part of what makes college football different.
“From an agronomic standpoint, is that the best thing in the world? No,” said Andrew Siegel, the turf manager at TCU. “But man, it’s what makes our job fun. College football is just its own kind of entity. It’s so great because you have the players that go to classes with the fans, with the students. There’s so much more allegiance and pride and I guess everybody feels like they own the program if you’re part of it, as opposed to just being like a fan of an NFL team. These are your guys, they’re one of you. It kind of makes it awesome.”
The managers have a game plan. First, make a mad dash for the pylons and the padding from the goalposts, and have security protect those posts so they don’t come down. Then they wait for the cleanup to start.
The most common debris they find: keys, sunglasses, cigars, beer cans, vape pens, earrings, coins, phones and necklaces. Then there are the school-specific items, like at A&M.
“There were all these medals and little bars that came from the Corps of Cadets uniforms,” McKenna said.
At each place, the turf crews form a line that spans sideline to sideline and walk the whole field to pick up all of this debris. That stuff can wreak havoc on a $45,000 lawnmower with $7,000 blades.
But there’s another thing that can cause panic.
“Every now and then someone brings their loved ones’ cremated ashes and they’ll sprinkle them on the field,” Kleypas said. “You just immediately have to vacuum it up and usually have to cut the piece of grass out and replace it.
“Those ashes are faster than Roundup at killing grass.”
Kleypas also faces an extra degree of difficulty because Auburn has hedges around the field that get trampled. They still haven’t recovered from the last time nearly two years ago, he said. But the hedges fight back, too, ensnaring fans into becoming memes.
Auburn fans vs. the hedges is actually Alabama’s greatest rivalry. pic.twitter.com/QJja1yIgAm
— Matt Mitchell (@ALostrich) December 1, 2019
“[Fans] would put their coat on top of them and then jump on the coat thinking that would help with it,” Kleypas said. “You just fall right through. So we find different articles of clothing in there.”
McKenna, an Iowa State grad, just wishes there was a little more discernment among fans.
He was even disappointed to see his own family members stormed the field in Ames after the Cyclones beat Oklahoma State this season. His reasoning wasn’t so much about the playing field as it was that Iowa State was a touchdown favorite, so it wasn’t a storm-worthy win in his mind. It came in 14th in Planos’ WYD rankings.
“I have a niece that’s a junior in college,” he said. “So I started seeing pictures of her and her younger siblings out on the field and I was like, ‘Man, I failed you all. As an uncle, I didn’t educate you properly.'”