Getting real now

The story below ran in the April 19, 2010 issue of ESPN The Magazine. To see the evolution of this project in video, please click here.

The blue bus pulled through the gate and slowed at the end of the parking lot. Its motor sighed. The driver opened the door. Then something small but historic happened -- a football team emerged into the daylight. In a single file, 72 players jogged past the chain-link fence and onto the artificial grass of a brand-new practice field in downtown Atlanta. Georgia State head coach Bill Curry followed, a fishing hat shading his eyes and a whistle dangling around his neck. The old coach surveyed things, held up a bullhorn and barked to his players: "Period 1!" It was March 27, opening day for the just-finished practice field. Real practice for the infant Panthers began.

When Curry was hired in June 2008 to coach the start-up football program, this day seemed so distant as to be illusory. There were so many places to begin; how could it ever be real? On the first day that Curry reported to the job, GSU football was one empty desk, a phone and a set of keys that didn't turn the doorknob. The program didn't actually have a football, and the practice field was an illustration.

If it wasn't real in the summer of 2008, it's gotten very real in a hurry. Now there are five months until the Panthers' first game, Sept. 2 against NAIA's Shorter University at the Georgia Dome. It's only eight months before the season finale, a Nov. 20 visit to the BCS' best, Alabama. GSU will play as an independent until 2012, when it joins the school's other 17 varsity teams in FCS' Colonial Athletic Association.

More than 1,600 season tickets have been sold. In December, GSU officials gave out doughnuts to the people who showed up, and those who purchased ticket packages received free ­minihelmets signed by Curry. "I'd always hoped someday we'd have a football team," says 2005 grad Chris Dunn, the second ticket buyer ever. "A school isn't real until it has a football team."