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Football 101: International students get in the game

September 19, 2012
By Tony Phifer

CSU program not only teaches international students about college football, it helps them embrace campus life and American culture.

Darshan Shah caught the football bug in typical Coloradoan fashion: He fell in love with the game watching the Denver Broncos.

So, when the son of immigrants from India arrived at CSU in 1988 after growing up in Denver and Boulder, he was ready to jump on the Ram bandwagon. During his time as an undergrad and a graduate student, he got to see the Rams play in the 1990 Freedom Bowl and the Holiday Bowl in 1994 and ’95.

“I was a huge fan,” Shah said, “and I still am today.”

During the 1994 season, as CSU was making its first Western Athletic Conference championship run, Shah had a conversation with a fellow grad student from Saudi Arabia.

“He started asking me about games, and I got the feeling he really wanted to experience what it was like to attend a CSU football game,” Shah said. “Most of the students I had in classes in grad school were international students, and I related to them because my parents were from India. They had no idea about football, but many of them really wanted to learn and had no one to teach them about the game.

“That bothered me for years.”

Planting the seed

Fast forward to 2007. Shah, who founded his own tech company in California’s Silicon Valley, proposed a program to CSU officials to introduce football and its accompanying traditions to international students. The Department of Athletics fully supported the idea, and Football 101 was born.

Friday, Football 101 will celebrate its fourth anniversary. Up to 300 enthusiasts – nearly 25 percent of CSU’s international student population – will attend a class taught by Gary Ozzello, CSU’s senior associate director of athletics. Ozzello will talk about the basics of the game, teach students the CSU fight song and introduce them to the uniforms and equipment worn by CSU football players.

“I love teaching Football 101,” Ozzello said. “Some of the kids have no clue about the game, but there are others who know more about football than me.

“My favorite part is when I show them the equipment. They are stunned by the weight and volume of it – particularly the helmet.”

Tailgating, followed by football

Saturday, the students will ride buses to Hughes Stadium to learn the ins and outs of pregame tailgating before attending the Ag Day game against Utah State. CSU’s Alumni Association and Office of International Programs partner with Athletics to sponsor the day’s activities.

Mark Hallett, senior director of International Student and Scholar Services, said the students sit together in the east stands. Volunteers recruited by the Alumni Association sit with groups of students to help explain nuances of the game.

Part of the family

Hallett always looks forward to seeing the students’ faces as they cheer on the Rams.

“Last year was a great game, and I looked behind me and there was a young Chinese girl, shaking her keys with a wide smile on her face,” he said. “At that moment, she was one of us. It was great to see her as she became part of the CSU family.”

Important part of student experience

Hallett said programs like Football 101 are vitally important to help introduce international students to America and its customs.

“From the moment they arrive on campus I encourage them to not have their time here defined by the ‘iron triangle’ – the classroom, the library and their place of residence,” he said. “We try to involve them in all facets of campus life. It’s backyard international diplomacy, and Football 101 is a great example of that.”