Monday, September 4, 2017

Good Ole Rocky Top - WOOO! - Rocky Top Tennessee

When you have kids, the changes in adult life are far more pronounced than when you start your career or when you get married; once babies enter the picture, something as habitual as taking a trip with your spouse becomes more challenging. Having the time or the energy to make plans and arrange for the care of your children may seem like a small thing to those who do not have kids, but nothing gets you as firmly ensconced into the routine of everyday life like a pair of toddlers. Such is why, for Christmas 2015, I planned a trip for the following September with my wife, confirming nine months in advance that my mother would watch the kids (and the dogs). We had not been away together since our son, Quinn, was born in May 2015 and we needed that time for just her and I...but there was the desire to watch football in a live setting to be considered as well.

During her pregnancy with Quinn, my wife attended her semi-annual reunion trip with her college soccer teammates in Nashville, but was going through a rough, fairly consistently ill period in the first trimester and missed the group's night out at the Grand Ole Opry. I'm not a huge country music fan by any means, but I thought she would enjoy an Opry-included Nashville do-over.

Nashville was the "Sarah leg" of the trip. The "Chad leg" stopped in Knoxville, Tennessee, where the state's beloved Volunteers would be opening up their 2016 football season against the Appalachian State Mountaineers. Sarah and I had been to a few games, in fact only missing a live football experience together over the first four years that we knew each other only once (the 2009 season). After our daughter was born, though, her Saturday football viewing declined and taking her "on tour" with me was just not a topic of discussion that came up very often.

College Football is a blast to see in person, complete as it is with the unique food, beer, and setting of each town, so I thought she would enjoy with me the Tennessee Vols on the first Thursday night of the new season, then I would enjoy with her the one-and-only Grand Ole Opry on Friday night. It proved a nice combination-trip featuring things that we each really wanted to do mixed with a few things that we both enjoyed doing; a vacation format certainly to be utilized again some day.

We headed out toward Knoxville on Wednesday, taking a pit stop for the night in Asheville, one of the prettiest places to visit in North Carolina and home to a wide variety of good restaurants. For future Asheville reference, consider a meal at the Corner Kitchen and a post-dinner cocktail at the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar. The weather there during the transition period between summer and autumn is just perfect. Then, off to Knoxville we went the following morning.

Sarah had just started out that summer as a consultant for LuLaRoe, an increasingly popular clothing company that wound up woven into the fabric of our long-weekend getaway, in fact, even as it pertained to the game itself. For the game, we wore matching orange Vols shirts and she added to her ensemble an LLR skirt that, as we frequently joked that day, appeared to be Dorito-themed, as it was covered in rippled orange triangles that looked like Dorito chips. You could not miss it if you saw it reasonably up close.

When we got to the stadium area, our first destination was a popular tailgating spot called Calhoun's On The River. Though the place was too crowded for us to sit down to eat dinner, there were a couple of food trucks parked outside in the heavily populated parking lot and adjoining river walk. Neyland Stadium is actually situated right off the Tennessee River, making up for the venue's aging, rusting architecture with a heck of a surrounding aesthetic view. The food trucks provided some really good local craft beer and the river walk provided a really cool place to absorb the atmosphere of a Volunteer Nation coming into 2016 with high expectations and a pre-season #9 ranking. Sarah and I used the time to simply enjoy each other's company and a beautiful view.

Check out that view!  They call this "The Vol Navy"

One interesting aspect of being there with Sarah was the context of how we received the younger members of the tailgating crowd. It had been about five years since she and I had been in a comparable environment together; back then, we were still quite new to the career-oriented part of our life as a married couple and our college memories were not at all far in the rearview. Most of my subsequent College Football Tour stops have been with friends, and it's safe to state that guys getting together for a day of on-campus football comes with a different vibe than going to a college game with your wife. As we walked by the girls talking to the guys about their random meetings in the club, my wife could not help but joke about the trivial things that we care so much about when you're that age; I, meanwhile, could not help but follow her train of thought into thinking like a dad for the first time on one of these stops, shuddering at the idea that our daughter would become one of these young women that wear too little clothing and drink too much around a hundred thousand strangers someday. There's a special community aspect to football, but there are also a lot of boozed up dudes who need to stay away from my little girl (warning you in advance, punks!).

Certainly a plus of having my wife there as my companion was my attention to details like pre-game rituals of the team; I wax and wane on how punctual I want to be in order to see a lot of them, but always end up feeling happy about it when I do make the effort. At Tennessee, Sarah and I were able to catch the tail end of the Vol Walk, when the team and the band make their way down roads named after Peyton Manning and Phillip Fulmer to get to Neyland Stadium. "Rocky Top" was played about a thousand times across the six to seven hours that we spent in that vicinity, but the renditions during the Vol Walk and at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville the next night stand tall as the most memorable for yours truly. The first time that I had heard that song was at the funeral of one of my youth soccer coaches, who played for the Vols and was the father of one my childhood friends; I remember there being a release at the end of hundreds of orange and white balloons into the air to celebrate his memory...I thought of that several times when Sarah and I joined in the chorus of UT fans singing their fight song.

It was not all sunshine and "Rocky Top," however. The downside to going to the game with my wife was that she brought her purse and, according to the fine print on the back of the ticket that nobody ever reads but that apparently for once contained must-read information, she was not allowed to bring her purse into the game with her. Having just listened to Mickey argue his way into being permitted to carry a pocket knife given to him as a special token of appreciation from a client into AT&T Stadium for WrestleMania 32 in Dallas five months prior, I tried my best to convince the security guard to search her bag and let us move on, but he was adamant that we go to the bookstore, purchase the recommended clear pouch that the back of the ticket explained was the preferred option, and then all would be well.

We went through the song and dance mainly because we needed to get Sarah's LuLaRoe item into the stadium. You see, as sort of an innovative way to get her name out there, she brought with her a pair of leggings that she gave away for free to an unsuspecting woman among the 102,455 people in attendance (Neyland houses the fifth largest capacity crowd in college football). She advertised her LLR presence with the picture below on her instagram account, marked with a bunch of hashtags that actually put her post on the radar of the folks who run the scoreboard and giant video screen on one end of the stadium; early in the game, our attention was called by the PA announcer to the 'tron to check out various fans in attendance...and there we were! If you have followed this blog at all, you may know that the College Football Tour has a history of producing awesome moments that enhance my overall experience (i.e. Vince Dooley showing up where I was tailgating at Georgia to sign autographs, an unexpected, chance photo with Howard's Rock at Clemson, etc.). Add Sarah and I being featured on the Neyland Stadium video screen to the list! That would not have happened without LuLaRoe, so here's a quick plug - if you want to join my wife's exclusive shopping group, click here.

The picture that made the Neyland Stadium big screen!

The game itself was disappointing for Vols fans.  The lofty pre-season expectations proved a little over-exaggerated by the end of the overtime win.  Of course, that had no bearing on my enjoyment of it; I had never seen an overtime game before in person.  No other sport has a better, more exciting overtime than college football.  When I am watching at home and the game is close (and it is not already after midnight), I openly root for the game to go to overtime.  If the Irish or Wolfpack are in overtime, nothing is worse, but if you're watching without a rooting interesting, nothing in sport is better.  My favorite sporting event that did not involve one of my favorite teams remains the double overtime National Championship game between Ohio State and Miami.

Through the first half, it looked like App State was going to pull off their biggest upset victory since the famous 2007 shocker over Michigan.  The Mountaineers have a proud program on the rise in the FBS/Div. 1A and they played inspired football, frustrating everything that the Vols tried to do on offense and playing well enough on offense themselves that they went into halftime with a 13-3 lead.  I sure was glad that our picture ended up on the big screen because, beyond that momentary excitement, the energy in Neyland was sucked out in a hurry on account of the Vols failure to come right of the gates ready to further revive their national reputation.  App State was never going to be a pushover, but the Vols got caught, I think, looking ahead to their much-advertised game against Virginia Tech at the humongous NASCAR venue, Bristol Motor Speedway.  Tennessee did pull it together, tying the score in the early fourth quarter and shutting out ASU for the rest of the game.  Joshua Dobbs actually fumbled into the end zone on UT's overtime possession, peaking the game-long panic among the Vols faithful until their running back, Jalen Hurd, recovered it for the touchdown.  It was easily the most exciting play from a game largely void of exciting plays and from a team that would routinely go onto produce some of the most exciting plays of the entire college football season.

The Vols started 5-0, lost three in a row to reset their expectations, and finished strong at 9-4.  If Butch Jones leads them back to prominence, I'll have been happy to be a small part of their journey and, if he doesn't, then I'll still maintain fond memories of Tennessee football. 

I had been flirting for years with perhaps making the opening weekend a new traditional time for taking tour stops, particularly at schools with a lot of hype so as to catch their fanbases feeling a maximum amount of good vibrations, but after seeing Tennessee struggle so mightily to open 2016 and sharing with them the angst that comes from the realization that your team may not be as good as you hoped it would be, I have gone back to the Tour's standard of games in the mid-season or beyond in 2017; we'll see what happens in the future.  I definitely plan to do more combination college football-stuff Sarah enjoys type trips, that's for sure. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

For a Huge College Football Fan, The First Daddy-Daughter Game Is Truly Special

My daughter, Jordan, was freshly three when I traveled to Dallas, Texas last fall to join up with Jeff to catch the Red River Rivalry in person.  While I was hanging out with Jeff and his family, my daughter wanted to Skype.  Jordan could sense that I was having an epic time and curiously asked, "What are you doing there?"  I told her I was going to a football game, to which she surprisingly replied, "I want to go to a football game with you!"

It is my not-so-secret hope that my kids end up loving to watch two things with their dad and the other one is college football.  My son's room is covered in Irish decals and a giant ND leprechaun Fathead, advertising very openly to the little boy whose name my friends from college swear is an homage to a former Irish QB named (Brady) Quinn (that certainly didn't hurt in the name decision-making process!); I frequently read them a book about the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame during the season, planting the seeds; I encourage Jordan to fly the Irish flag in front of our house with me on Saturdays during the fall, watering the seeds.  I would admittedly be a little disappointed if those seeds didn't germinate into beautiful, football-loving flowers.  Jordan has shown some early signs of catching on; she genuinely enjoys flying the flag and frequently asks during the season that everyone in the house wear their Irish shirts, a request I'd make if she didn't.

I captured this moment with Jordan after the Irish beat Stanford on a TD
with 18 seconds left in 2014 just a few weeks after she turned two
I felt compelled to act on her request when, after I returned home from Texas vs. Oklahoma, she reiterated her desire to go to a game with me.  Granted, she was only three at the time and getting her to concentrate on anything that didn't involve Mickey Mouse Clubhouse or putting together a puzzle was going to be a challenge.  I therefore had no desire to drive to Raleigh or anywhere far away for what was sure to be less than a full game day's experience.  There was really only one option, then, for this testing ground of a first football game for my daughter: Wake Forest.  The Demon Deacons play in an easily accessible stadium about 15 miles from my house and tickets are never difficult to obtain on short notice.  As fate would have it, my alma mater, NC State, was playing in Winston-Salem two weeks after my Dallas trip.

Throughout those two weeks, I would ask Jordan again at bed time, "So, you really want to go to a football game with daddy?"  And she would continually respond excitedly, "Yes!"  The day before the game, I started inquiring about tickets through some people I know at Wake and went to the local collegiate apparel store and found her an NC State shirt appropriate for a late October day.  The very nice lady who runs the shop, hearing of my plan to surprise my daughter, threw in a set of Wolfpack facial stickers.  I got our tickets and we were all set.

Now there was just that little problem of keeping her entertained during the game.  How would it go?  Would she be bored out of her mind?  What was a reasonable expectation for a three year old little girl's first live football experience?  Should I bring some things for her to do during TV timeouts that are no big deal when watching at home, but are terribly monotonous when you're there in person?  The game was during the time that she typically took a nap, so what was the potential for the kind of in-a-crowd meltdown from a toddler that sends yours truly's blood pressure through the roof?  These were the kinds of things running through my head the morning of the game.

Oh and, by the way, NC State had not beaten Wake Forest in Winston-Salem in about fifteen years.  The last time, in fact, was before I started college.  I was in attendance for the first of the road losing streak to Wake in 2003.  Kevin's dad was the head of the psychology department at WFU back then and secured tickets for us.  We came back home to go to the game, expecting that we would be seeing the second win for an historically great NC State season (they started 9-0 the previous year), but the Pack got caught looking ahead to the next week's game at Ohio State.  And so it would go every two years.  It's not like Wake has some massive home field advantage either; any bigger program in North Carolina will fill half or more of BB&T Field with fans favoring the away team.  I'd call it an odd college football phenomenon that the Deacons could beat anyone at home with the kind of consistency that they defeated State without a definitive home field advantage.  I was actually there in 2011 as well to see another supposedly superior State team lose at Wake.  I bought season tickets that year because Notre Dame and State were playing at Wake (Kevin got married on the day of the ND game so I missed that one).  My wife and I took my good buddy affectionately known as Sac (another State alum) and watched another undermanned Demon Deacon squad upset the Pack.

Returning to scene with Jordan meant that I could possibly be in attendance for almost half (2003, 2011, 2015) of the odd year losing streak at Wake.  I should have expected that she might be my good luck charm, though.  The year that she was born was the first year that the Irish went undefeated in the regular season since 1987; our beloved Notre Dame football team has won 75% of its games since that season started.  Could some of that luck rub off on NC State?  Yes sir (at least on October 24, 2015)!  The Pack jumped out to a commanding lead in the first quarter and never looked back.  With my daughter in attendance, they tallied up 28 points in the opening stanza and coasted to a 35-17 win.

All I can say is THANK GOD that the Pack were scoring so many early touchdowns.  Jordan was a real hit with our surrounding attendees, of both the red and the black/gold persuasions, dazzling people with her bright smile and infectious enthusiasm, but she was pretty bored with the repetitiveness of moving the chains.  Touchdowns brought out the burgeoning football fan in her, though; and all four of them in the first quarter came off of big plays.  There's something unique about seeing a touchdown scored from a long pass or run in person because of the burst of energy that it evokes from the crowd even before the player crosses the goal line.  It's almost watching an audience do the wave; the player breaks loose from his defender and his teammates on the sideline start jumping up and down, which triggers the fans in the front rows and then lower bowl and then upper deck to get on their feet (like a wave from top to bottom).  And then the eruption of noise (and you usually only hear the happy fans).  It's a swell of emotion and even a three year old football novice feels that something awesome is happening.

With two long TD runs from Matt Dayes of 85 and 57 yards respectively and two long TD passes from Jacoby Brissett to Maurice Trowell and Nyheim Hines of 59 and 57 yards respectively, Jordan was kept engaged in the action.  Touchdowns equaled excitement equaled questions about the game (like "Is it another touchdown?" when people got excited about a first down, a concept she temporarily appreciated because she thought it was fun to pretend along with me that we were in Raleigh and say, as the PA guy proudly does at Carter-Finley, "That's another Wolfpack...FIRST DOWN!").

I'd like to think that it cushioned the blow of getting mauled by the Pack for Wake fans within ear shot of Jordan's cute little "Go Pack!" chants and her adorable attempts at getting down to a science the wolf hand sign (repeated opening and closing of the thumb to middle and ring fingers like the mouth of a wolf with the pinky and pointer fingers up representing the wolf's ears) and her repeated exclamation when she got it right of "Chomp Chomp Chomp."

Though she never had too many opportunities in the opening quarter to get distracted from why we were there, the second quarter's lack of scoring considerably dulled Jordan's enthusiasm.  She was going through a phase back then that, whenever in public, she needed to go to the bathroom like 65 times more frequently than in any other setting and the goose egg on the scoreboard laid by the Pack in the second quarter triggered it.  I had not accounted for that.  At all.  I'm no germophobe, but men's public restrooms are disgusting and here I am tasked with taking my little angel into this deplorable stall with urine all over the seats trying to make sure she doesn't touch anything.  Wake's men's rooms are far cleaner than your average college football venue, but the concept of a clean stadium men's room is akin to trying to make football "safe" or brussel sprouts sound appealing - some things just are what they are.

Ploys to keep her reasonably in tune with the game like ice cream were only so effective and it became clear to me that half time would signal the end of Jordan's first game day experience.  She did well to stick with it for as long as she did given her age.

One of the most memorable moments for me came as we were leaving, when an older couple that had been sitting a couple of rows behind us stopped me and said, "You're the dad of the year" and commented on how attentive I was to Jordan.  I needed to hear that even if it was from strangers.  I love what I do for a living, but it admittedly takes a lot of time and energy and I often wonder if I'm doing a good enough job being a dad, if I am as the couple said "attentive enough" to the needs of my family.  I felt like Super Dad that day; Jordan had a blast and talked about it for the rest of the season and she's going to be very excited to see the picture below added to the collage from my College Football Tour, as it is tradition to start the new season by adding Tour photos from the previous.  

Me and the J-Train

Monday, January 11, 2016

Clemson Offers Incredibly Positive Live Experience, Long-Lasting Story

Every stop that I make on my College Football Tour has its own story to be told.  Is it a rivalry game?  Is the team unbeaten or challenging for a conference championship?  Does the destination feature an added element of a personal nature?  Those are the obvious arcs.  When I rolled into Death Valley on October 11, 2014, the Tigers were set to play a team in its first season as an ACC member; so no rivalry there.  A pair of early season losses put Clemson already out of the initial College Football Playoff race and, given how good the Florida State team was that beat them in September, it seemed highly unlikely that the Tigers would be able to win the ACC either; so, nothing substantial on the line for a visitor like me with no dog in the hunt.  I certainly had no personal tie to the school or any intangible connection to the place.

I assumed that the story I'd end up writing about was how I had witnessed the rise of one of the game's most dynamic quarterbacks of the decade.  Yet, freshman sensation, Deshaun Watson, broke his hand in the second quarter of the 23-17 Tiger victory over the Louisville Cardinals and, frankly, had done very little up to that point.

The plan, then, was to make the entertainment value of the game itself and my picture with Howard's Rock afterward the primary storyline of this blog entry.

Me and the famous "Howard's Rock"

However, during the 2015 season, a new narrative emerged reminiscent of my original out-of-state road trip to Ohio State in 2002.  The Buckeyes won the National Championship approximately two months after I traveled to Columbus in early November thirteen years ago.  Obviously, Clemson being the #1 team in the country the season after I went there was a little bit different, but the theme was quite similar.  Despite the Tigers knocking off both my favorite team (Notre Dame) and my alma mater (NC State) in October, I found myself rooting for Clemson by season's end because of how cool it would be to say that I saw the National Champions LIVE in their home stadium shortly before their title-winning season. 

Rewinding the clock a few years, the talk of going to a Clemson game began when my good friend, Dean, was doing a clinical rotation in that part of South Carolina during his final year of Pharmacy School.  He eventually found us good quality seats and off I headed at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning to meet up with him and his friend, Samantha, in time for tailgating.  Samantha proved a very good person to be around that day.  She's a lifelong Clemson fan and had all the right connections for multiple tailgate sites.

The first place that we stopped was situated near the baseball stadium (convenient facilities when needed after a few pre-game cocktails).  While watching Georgia throttle Missouri on a very large TV, Dean and I caught up with each other and conversed with some of the local Clemson faithful.  The tailgate set-up belonged, I believe, to the father of one of Samantha's friends.  I was confused by this, though, because it looked to me as though her friend was sporting Louisville Cardinal-colored clothing.  Not wanting to stick my foot in my mouth, I observed the girl in the red dress surrounded by diehard Tiger fanatics.  A couple of beers later, the words "So how is it being a Louisville fan at this tailgate party?" just came out.  I was having too much fun by this point to be embarrassed, but I think she might've been.  She sheepishly acknowledged the rather red hue of her ensemble, but stressed that the dress was, in fact, orange.  Perhaps she was right, but I remember her dress being about as orange as the sun is blue. 

On the way to our second tailgate party, one of those moments occurred that stands out among the various trips that I've taken.  When you go to a college football game, there are certain constants - the roar of the crowd, the bands, the brews, the gridiron, etc. - and then there are the little things unique to each experience; the snow balls thrown by the Notre Dame students at the Notre Dame team in 2008, Garlow's cousin's Dazed and Confused impersonation in 2002, the worst I've ever had to urinate in my adult life in 2010, etc.  At Clemson, the classic song from the Rocky IV soundtrack, "No Easy Way Out," was randomly playing at the booth of an area sponsor, to which Dean and I - both long-time viewers of yearly Rocky marathons on TV - started singing along to the wide-eyed stares of Samantha (several years our junior and probably not as familiar with the various holiday replays of Stallone's greatest films).

I should've expected nothing less from a trip with Dean, who I'd have to say is one of my friends with whom I'm most likely create a lasting memory.  It's as if he attracts stuff like that; just a fun guy to be around.  A couple of other amusing memories from that trip are his joking insistence that Samantha's "Country Chic" lotion was actually called "Country Chick" and that the restaurant that we ate at for our post-game dinner, Papas and Beers, was called Buds and Suds.  It's the little things in life, ladies and gentlemen; my daughter is asking me right now what I've been laughing about for the last minute.

Dean and I at Memorial Stadium

The game at Memorial Stadium that afternoon - on a perfect early October day I might add - was one of the better ones I've attended.  Certainly nowhere near the Georgia-South Carolina game from 2013, but easily in sole possession of second place.  Clemson opened the scoring with a 70 yard punt return just over a minute into the first quarter, but then a defensive struggle began that lasted the rest of the game.  Future NFL draft picks Grady Jarrett and Vic Beasley starred for the Tigers.  Louisville took the lead in the second quarter, 10-7, but Jarrett recovered a fumble in the end zone to put Clemson back on top before the half.  Without Watson, the Tiger offense could not throw the ball.  A memorably vocal fan kept yelling over my right shoulder "C'mon Cole" - as in Cole Stoudt, who tallied an 8.0 quarterback rating (out of 100).  However, they won the field position battle and kept kicking field goals.  Louisville battled back and recorded a 70 yard gain to near the Clemson goal line, giving the Cardinals a chance to score a game-winning touchdown on the final play.  I said to Dean, "This place is going to pop like a balloon if Louisville scores right here."  Alas, Clemson's defensive held.

One of the best crowds I've been a part of proceeded to rush the field, which highlighted a difference I felt between Clemson and some of the more renowned football programs that I've seen live: the Tiger fans are supporting an elite program, but they haven't reached a point where they've forgotten that this is all a blast no matter if your team is 14-0 or 10-3 or 8-5 (or below .500).  I know for a fact that I would not have seen Notre Dame fans rush the field beating an unranked team to improve to 4-2 on a season and I'm quite confident that I wouldn't have seen that in Columbus, Norman, Gainesville, or Athens either.  I've got a great picture in the sports memorabilia area in my house, accompanying the shot of me with Howard's Rock, of the Tiger fans pouring onto the field.

The win was part of a stretch after their 1-2 start in which the Tigers won nine out of their last ten games.  Watson became a superstar after returning from his hand injury, even playing through a torn ACL to beat South Carolina for the first time several years.

I sit here writing this just hours before the National Championship game between Clemson and Alabama.  Win or lose, the context of the memories forged by my trip to Death Valley in 2014 will be shaped by Clemson's run to the title in 2015.  Watson's injury when I was there became part of the story of his overcoming adversity en route to his unrivaled status as the nation's best quarterback and to his emergence as the leader of a team challenging for a National Championship.  Even my tour stops to Virginia Tech and South Carolina in 2011 have now been influenced by Clemson's 2015 season, as the Tigers were the opponent in both games; that season and every season since were important stepping stones in the program's rise to national prominence culminating in their title game appearance.  

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Being a Part of Missouri's Rise to Modern Prominence

Moving to St. Louis in 2005 put me further than a quick drive down the interstate away from major college football for the first time in my life.  I grew up in central North Carolina, where there are four ACC schools within 100 miles; I went to the one farthest east (North Carolina State).  All the while, being in a major Midwestern city put me in an environment with a unique college football history to explore.  I'll admit that I never took full advantage of that during my four football seasons living there, but the intention to travel to universities across the nation that ultimately became my College Football Tour was born of STL friendships forged of mutual gridiron passion.

During the summer of 2006, a Wisconsin Badger diehard named Nick and I decided that we should make it a yearly tradition through our time in professional school to go to college football games.  We were talking to our Boomer Sooner-loving buddy from Oklahoma, Jeff - who I later joined in Norman for an OU game in 2010 and in Dallas for the OU-Texas game in 2015 - and noticed that the Okies would be traveling to Columbia for an October date with the Missouri Tigers.  For three guys swamped with 36 hour trimesters of school work, it took little more than a quick online purchase of a trio of tickets to a football game to make life a whole heck of a lot better.  Though it would prove to be the lone journey instead of the first of many pigskin-themed road trips, we had a good time and were all pleasantly surprised by University of Missouri football.

The Tigers were fortunately on the rise in 2006.  Gary Pinkel has made headlines in recent years for coaching Missouri to two straight SEC East titles in the program's first three seasons in the Southeastern Conference.  They were expected to be a league doormat by many pundits, but anyone who paid close attention to them from the latter part of the 2000s into this decade would know that they were building toward their recent success for a long time.  They first came on my radar during my college years at NC State.  We watched football each Saturday and played EA Sports NCAA Football video games the rest of the week; there weren't many good players or teams that we didn't know about.

Brad Smith was the quarterback responsible for leading Pinkel's early Missouri teams out of the doldrums.  Our '06 travel group assumed that losing Smith to graduation/NFL would mean a step back for the Tigers and a likely mediocre team come the end of October against the Sooners.  However, Chase Daniel emerged as a bonafide star and was the catalyst for Missouri's progression from bowl-eligible upstart to consistent conference title threat.  The Tigers got off to a 6-0 start and, by the time that we arrived on campus for the 10/26/06 showdown with OU, they were 7-1 and ranked in the Top 25. 

On the Friday before the game, we headed straight out I-70 west to Columbia.

Football was actually the icebreaker that started well over half of my friendships in St. Louis.  Nick, for example, was outside grilling a steak two buildings down from my apartment on the opening weekend of the '05 season.  We exchanged a nod.  Turns out that we were both in the class that began their Logan University careers in September 2005.  Our first conversation was about college football (as was our last, I'm sure; haven't talked to him in years, so hope he's doing well).  Fast forward a year to a month prior to our trip to Mizzou and Nick and I were joined by Tony, another friend that I made thanks to college football, to go to a local high school game, each of us sporting polos featuring the emblems of our favorite teams (Notre Dame, Wisconsin, and Ohio State); a couple of dads saw us walk in together and gave us a look that said "Oh my God, are these guys scouts?"  (FYI - that was the point of the polos, so mission accomplished #nerdculture).  We had planned to make that a thing that we did, but it - like our football road trips - stopped at one in a row.  We should've pretended to be scouts to see former 10th overall NFL draft pick Blaine Gabbert play at Parkway West High School, which was less than a mile from my apartment (I went as a plain old fan a year later).  Jeff, meanwhile, became my go-to sports discussion partner for the last decade and counting after we initially connected over our shared football and pro basketball fandoms.

Tony may not have been with us on the trip to Mizzou, but his presence was felt in the car thanks in no small part to the fact that he lent us the all-time classic hit cassette tape: WrestleMania: The Album (the 156,894th best selling album in the history of Amazon).  Featuring original songs by WWF superstars from the early 1990s, The Album provided us with extreme listening pleasure.  In all seriousness, that tape was a total trainwreck, but it was good for many laughs.  I believe that mine is the only college football blog that features two references to "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan, whose song "USA" surely would have been the most downloaded track on iTunes if such a thing had existed in 1992.  USA, U-U-U-USA, USA...HOOOOOO!!!!

Though not nearly as noteworthy as The Album, a stop at the mall to eat dinner on the way to Columbia allowed me to finally find - after a year of searching - a place in Missouri that served the southern staple beverage, sweet tea.  I'll never forget asking for sweet tea at the first restaurant at which I ate in St. Louis.  The waitress looked at me like I had a six eyes.  They had raspberry tea, but not tea with sugar in it.

You could say that iced tea without sugar is missing that special something.  The same could be said about college football without tailgating.  To this day, the only College Football Tour stop that featured no tailgating was Missouri.  That was no fault of the Tiger faithful, but rather an oversight by an inexperienced trio of foreign game dayers.  Reflecting back, it's an absolute must to do some sort of tailgating because it is the best way to gauge the atmosphere of the host campus.  Sharing a few adult beverages or a signature food item with fellow football fans ingratiates you as a one day member of the local fraternity in a way.  To merely get to the game shortly before it begins strips away a major part of the college football experience.  Aside from a beer or two at the restaurant near our hotel on Friday night, no cocktails were consumed in Columbia and no Tiger-specific tradition was encountered.

College football, though, is college football, with or without tailgating.  When you walk into a stadium for the first time, it's always special.  Each school has its own unique history.  Mizzou being resurgent rather than incumbent in its modern prominence at the time, I knew little about their long-term track record.  Two names immediately jumped out at me on their Hall of Fame circle: Kellen Winslow Sr. (whose son was a huge star at Miami in the early 2000s) and Dan Devine (who coached my Irish to the 1977 National Championship).  I was unaware that Devine had once coached the Tigers between 1958 and 1970, won 70% of his games, and won a pair of conference championships.  So, even without conversing with any Missouri faithful, I could see via notable names on their stadium's ring of honor and the mass of humanity crammed into the venue that Tiger football was worth watching live.

We joined 70,000 other people that day at Faurot Field to see Oklahoma control the game and defeat the Tigers 26-10.  Chase Daniel never could get the offense going and the Sooners did just enough without the aid of all-world running back Adrian Peterson, who had injured his shoulder earlier in the season.  It would have been awesome to say that I saw Peterson play live in college, but alas I can say that I saw the prolific Daniel play QB in college.  Daniel was one of the most underrated players of last decade and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 2007 (the year Tim Tebow won the award).

Chase Daniel - one of the best college QBs of the 2000s
Missouri will be remembered fondly for essentially starting my College Football Tour, but it will simultaneously be viewed as a part of the learning curve for how best to appreciate a school that I'd not previously visited.  To be frank, I'd like to plan another trip to Columbia in the future.  When I arrived, they were on the way up.  They've been on one of the best runs in program history since then.  I suspect that their success combined with my tour-savviness would create for a much more engaging campus experience the second time around.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Virginia Tech And Its Laundry List of Traditions Impresses

Lane Stadium has quietly become a destination site for any college football enthusiast whose fandom goes beyond their own team.  Home to the Hokies of Virginia Tech, it has been voted by several notable sports media sources (including ESPN) as the number one home field advantage in the nation.  The 66,000 seat venue holds some of the countries most devout fans, who help make it very, very loud - sitting in the confined quarters of your car with the radio turned all the way up loud.  Since head coach, alumnus, and former VT player, Frank Beamer, got the team headed in the right direction roughly twenty years ago, the Hokies have become one of the top programs in the country (even though they've taken a few steps back in recent seasons), driving the decibel levels for home games to near ear-piercing limits.  In two words, I would describe the experience of Virginia Tech football as "must-see."

I had a friend who had offered to take me to a game in Blacksburg for several years.  In 2011, I finally decided to take him up on it.  I got a look at the available games and got my eyes locked early in the season on the Clemson game.  The Tigers figured to, at the very least, put a respectable team on the field and I always desire to see a game that will be relevant to the bigger picture of a season, if possible.  VT-Clemson had the makings of a competitive match-up prior to the season, but when the game drew nearer, both teams kept on winning.  The Tigers, led by future sure-fire ring of honor inductee Tajh Boyd in the first of his three years as Clemson's starting QB, knocked off Florida State in late September, clearing their path to an undefeated record by the time they went to play the Hokies on October 1.  All of the sudden, it became a game between teams that would control their own destinies to their respective division titles.  It would potentially be (and did end up being) the first of two games between the teams, as winning their divisions would put them on a collision course for the ACC Championship game in December (that's exactly what would ultimately happen).

It was a rainy, cold night in Virginia when I arrived on campus.  The smell of warm turkey legs permeated through the chilly air as we got off the bus that had taken us from our chosen parking lot to the stadium.  A "Hokie" is a turkey, replacing the old Va. Tech mascot of the "Gobbler" (good call if you ask me).  I find it somewhat ironic that perhaps the most intimidating home crowd in the land has quite possibly the least intimidating mascot in the history of sports.  My middle school soccer team was nicknamed the Camels; that's worse, but not much worse.  Maybe it's better that people keep wondering what a Hokie is.  Anyhow, a hot turkey leg will warm you right up, trust me.  That was divine feasting.  At VT, they celebrate the turkey; they eat the turkey.  Amen.  Washed it down with some hot chocolate and I was good to go.  I got some hokie leg remnants on my Fighting Irish coat, draped over a Fighting Irish hooded sweatshirt with a Virginia Tech t-shirt pulled over it.
That's actually a tight shirt pulled over all that garb

We had excellent, perfect to my tastes seating.  It gave me a great view of the foliage behind one side of the stadium.  I think the trees add a nice aesthetic dynamic to the place.  It makes it unique.

Once we were seated, I got my crash course in Va. Tech football traditions, of which there are many.  Although I did not see it, the first of the lot is the corp of cadets known as the "Highty Tighties" walking the team, coaches, cheerleaders, etc. to the stadium.  Va. Tech, as I came to learn, strongly embraces its military ROTC programs.  They are actually considered on par with some of the service academies, designated as a senior military college.  I thought that was cool.  With the military tradition, VT once had a rivalry game with the Virginia Military Institute (VMI).  During that time, VMI would fire off a cannon and taunt VT for not even having one.  So, two Hokie cadets decided to make one.  Naming it "Skipper" as a tribute to JFK (who was the captain/skipper of a PT boat in World War II) after his assassination in the early 60s, the Va. Tech cannon remains one of the football traditions to this day; it's fired after every score (sadly, I only got to hear it once). 

Most teams have some sort of pregame walk and many other schools fire a cannon, but I'm not sure that it carries the same meaning everywhere else that it does at Virginia Tech. 

As the game was about to start, I had a question answered that I'd been wondering about for years and never got the chance to ask.  My buddy Brian, with whom I went to the game, has always been known to me as "The Sandman."  I never really understood why.  I just went along with it.  So, as the players were running out onto the field, "Enter Sandman" by Metallica starts blasting over the loud speakers.  That had been one of my many running songs on my iPod over the years.  I love that song.  There might not be a more adrenaline pumping song in the history of music; and that's where he got the nickname.  Lane Stadium feels like there's a rare Virginia earthquake when "Enter Sandman" is playing.  Definitely one of the most intense moments of the Va. Tech experience.

Well, let me get out of the way that Clemson basically shut down the Va. Tech offense, managed the game well, and won handily 23-3.  The crowd was pretty quiet in the fourth quarter.  I was quite surprised with the outcome.  It was the only ACC loss for VT in the regular season and they got another shot at the Tigers with the ACC title on the line, but they got blasted 38-10 in the rematch, too.  Oh well...

The first half was a good display by both teams of solid defensive strategy, so neither team had many long drives down the field that would accumulate numerous 1st downs.  Thus, there were not a ton of opportunities for another of the Hokie fan staples, but enough to know that you were witnessing something pretty cool.  On every third down, Hokie fans take out their keys and start shaking them.  Imagine 61,000 (we'll give the visiting team 5,000 seats) sets of keys jingling.  You've got a helmet on and you're trying to tell other guys with helmets on what to do.  Think that might be tough?

My personal favorite memory from Va Tech might be something that I misinterpreted.  Throughout the game when Clemson was on offense, the Hokie faithful would yell, "HOOOOhhhh."  You'll often hear "OOOOhhh" in many a sports venue; not just for football.  I thought it sounded like the Hokie nation was adding the "H" because of HO-kie; I could be wrong.  Well, Brian and I became friends in college through a mutual childhood appreciation for professional wrestling and, during our formative years as WWE fans in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a 2X4-wielding wrestler named "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan.  His signature catchphrase was to yell, "HOOOOhhhh!!"  So, after quietly finding this amusing for awhile, I decided to add the Hacksaw touch to the Hokie third down tradition, giving an emphatic thumbs up and doing my best Duggan impersonation.  That got a rise out of the Sandman and, thus, we had the joke of the trip.  I tweeted about it when I got home and, sure enough, old Hacksaw retweeted the comment (I later found it that it wasn't really Hacksaw, but a parody account, which made it only slightly less awesome...HOOOOOOOhhhh!)

"Hacksaw" Jim Duggan - HOOOOhhhh!!

Though I'm sure I've had a tendency to hyperbolize each tour stop, I don't think it's exaggerating to say that there's a lot to like about the Virginia Tech football experience.  The atmosphere is as raucous as anywhere in the country.  Passion emotes from the Hokie fanbase as much as any with greater football history.  The best concession item on the tour, by far, is the turkey leg.  If any of the other college stadiums that I've visited have a signature food, I was never made aware of it.  Besides, I can't imagine eating a bulldog, a gator, a fighting rooster, a wagon (sooner), etc.  Buckeyes are poisonous.  I'm surely not eating a little Irish guy.  Perhaps they serve a steak sandwich at Texas. 

All joking aside, if you're a fan of college football, do yourself a favor someday and check out Lane Stadium in Blacksburg.  HOOOOOhhhhhhh!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Tour Makes a Local Stop to Home of 3-time FCS National Champions

If you're not from the state of North Carolina, then Appalachian State University might seem the odd duck on a list of sites visited on a national college football tour.  There are dozens of combined division 1A national titles on my stops, to this point, so maybe even people in my home state look at the relatively small Boone, NC, formerly division 1AA school as a strange member of the list.  You just need to go there and see for yourself.  I'm not sure there is a more obvious example of what the success of college football can do for a school.  Three straight division 1AA (now called FBS) national championships from 2005-2007 and one unbelievable victory over a top 5-ranked division 1A (now called FCS) opponent has changed App. State quite a bit from the summer of 2005 (when I last visited) to early November 2012.  There are some new buildings on campus in addition to the $50 million worth of football facility enhancements (which included premium seating being tacked onto the football stadium along with 10,000 additional general admission seats).  Compared to any program nationally, it looks very good up close.  It puts similar programs to shame.

Kidd Brewer Stadium

2012 was originally supposed be my local, North Carolina tour.  I firmed up plans to go to App State in the spring and had hoped to add East Carolina (known for its passionate fan base, as well) as the fall approached.  My dad's worsening condition took ECU off the list and made Notre Dame's final home game of the season my second and final tour stop.  One week prior to heading back to South Bend, I made the trek west from my house in central NC to Boone - one of my absolute favorite places to visit when I was in college, but also a university whose football team I had never previously seen live (despite numerous opportunities).  The trip got off to a rocky start when, on the night before, my buddy Chris contracted a strange illness that made him unable to go with me.  I halfheartedly attempted to find someone to take the ticket, but knew of a few others that were going to be in town for the game.  I decided to go it alone.  Oddly, 2012's tour was completely flown solo.  I went to App and Notre Dame by myself.  App was a game-time decision for me.  I awoke that morning and decided that it was a gorgeous fall day perfect for watching football.  I contacted an old high school friend named Sharon, who I had fortunately been working with over the previous year on our high school reunion.  I say fortunately because, frankly, I had not seen her in over half a decade before the reunion planning.  If it were not for the reunion, I might not have known that she was going.  She turned out to be a major reason why my App football experience was so positive.  I called her once I arrived in Boone and was ushered right over to her awesome tailgating spot.

Most of my tour stops have found me aimlessly wandering prior to games, drinking a beer provided by an on-the-street venue and soaking in the unfamiliarity of the given campus.  I had been to App a dozen times.  I wanted the "I'm a huge App fan" tailgating experience; Sharon, her husband, and her friends were the perfect group to be around for exactly that.  They knew what they were doing; they had done this tailgating routine in that very tailgating spot for every home game over several previous seasons.  Nice people, all of which welcomed the lonely stranger who came to the game by himself with warm greetings and offerings for various drinks.  Thank you again, was great tailgating with you "at The Rock."  All around her spot next to the stadium, there were thousands of Mountaineer fans gearing up for a shot at another Southern Conference Championship (which is what they achieved that day with a victory over rival Furman).

This was a unique tailgating vehicle
After a bit of spirited tailgating, I met up with another friend of mine, Dean (who, I might add, was rocking a pretty sweet mustache that weekend).  It was visits to see him and his roommates at App back in the day that had made Boone such a destination in my undergraduate years.  On an unseasonably warm day for mid-November, we made our way into Kidd Brewer Stadium.  Dean filled me in on the changes that had taken place at App during and after their string of national championships.  I was very impressed by what I saw and what I heard.  The fans were crazy for their Mountaineers; it got pretty loud in there.  App dominated the first half before allowing a spirited comeback by the Paladins.  As the final whistle blew, the fans rushed the field in celebration of the school's 12th Southern Conference title.  It was especially memorable because it was the final regular season coaching appearance by Mountaineer legend, Jerry Moore, who retired after his 24th year as App State's head coach.  It was also the last So Con game that the school would ever play.  The next year, App moved up to Div. 1A/FBS.   

Me and Mr. Mustachio, Dean
My walks through campus, and particularly the moments before the games start when I look around at all the fans in the stadium, often spark favorite memories of watching the teams play on TV.  It had been five years from the time that I attended an App game to the last time that I had watched them on TV - the upset of Michigan that made the cover of Sports Illustrated.  Michigan football ranks closely with cleaning up dog doo on my list of least favorite things on this planet.  App beating them on the first day of the 2007 season helped brighten my day after Notre Dame got spanked to start their worst campaign in team history.  On that beautiful day in 2012, I found myself wondering what it must have been like to be on the App campus back then.  Already with two national titles in a row earned through a legitimate College Football Playoff, it must have been a helluva thrill to beat a top 5 team en route to a third straight national championship.  As big a football fan as I am, I'm quite confident that, had I been a student there when all that was happening, it would have absolutely made my college experience.

I'll always remember App State as site of some of my most enjoyable college experiences.  I've never met anyone that went there that didn't know how to have a good time.  Maybe it's a pre-requisite to attend, being adept at having fun.  As I found out in 2012, it's also a school that has found the right formula on Saturdays, combining the beautiful Boone atmosphere with rich modern football history.  I had a newborn and wife to get home to that evening, but I imagine from past experience that from "The Rock" to Klondike to Geno's, App State was hopping after securing another championship for the trophy case. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

"Between the Hedges" at Georgia Sets a New Standard for "The Tour"

During my wedding festivities in 2009, I was introduced to my wife's uncle, Ron.  I consider myself to be one of the biggest college football fans on the planet.  Frankly, in my travels around the country, I had yet to find anything but rivals (certainly no one more of a diehard than I).  Well, as I was pulling up to the hotel to drop my dad off from the airport, I saw this black and red car with University of Georgia Bulldogs emblems all over it - Ron's car.  In our first conversation, Ron was drawing from memories of Notre Dame vs. Georgia in the only meeting between the schools in history - a 17-10 Bulldog victory over the Irish in the 1981 Sugar Bowl.  What do you say to that?  "We'll get you next time"...?  Given the SEC's recent dominance, I was likely justified in refraining from any ND-fueled retort.  I walked away from that conversation knowing that I had met my match - at least when it came to being passionate about your team (I've got him beat in overall college football fandom, I think).  That night, he promised me that he would take me to a Georgia game some day.  It took me four years to take him up on the offer.  Boy, I'm glad that I did...

My wife and I took our daughter down to Georgia on September 6, 2013 so that they could hang out with the family and so that I could add "Athens" to my list of big name college football tour stops.  For me, going to these games evokes similar emotions as would a vacation to a place like Hawaii or Europe for most people.  It's like Christmas morning to a kid.  When you wake up, you've got that little tingle of excitement and your muscles start randomly jumping all around - an outlet for an enthusiasm that cannot be contained.  There's nothing quite like it.

Ron and I launched for Athens at 10:30AM for a game with a 4:30 kickoff.  We picked up one of Ron's Georgia-loving buddies, Herman, who brought along with him another Georgia-loving buddy, Phil.  These guys were characters.  This experience was unique.  I had been to Notre Dame with a fellow Irish fan who had dreamed of one day helping the boys "wake up the echoes."  I had been to Ohio State with current college students, all with their current college student mindsets of "let's party and go to the football game."  I had been to Oklahoma with a big Sooner fan around my age and of my same profession and football aficionado-stature.  I had yet to go to a game with a group of gentlemen who had seen and been a part of some of the greatest moments in their team's respective history.  Ron, Herman, and Phil are books of Georgia football lore.  They all know how to tailgate, as well.  At Georgia's awesome "Tailgate Station" - a gated and guarded tailgate community where you buy a grassy parking space for a cool $15,000 - Phil cracked open a Rolling Rock, Herman a bottle of 2 Buck Chuck, Ron an Icehouse, and I a Corona.  We sat there for two hours talking football.  They shared with me some of their favorite Georgia memories, as I absorbed the fact that - for these men - football season is the best part of their year.  Gentlemen, I concur.

Let me share something about Ron.  He's got the greatest mustache in the history of mankind.  Friends of mine still occasionally mention "the guy with the mustache" when talking about my wedding.  Curling out and around into a big loop, it requires mustache wax to keep it in place.  So, we were heading down to the bathroom areas and Ron got stopped by a group of young ladies wanting to have their pictures taken with him (that's one).  On his way back from the bathroom, he got stopped by another group (that's two).  Later, the blonde in her black dress and cowboy boot get-up that had caught everyone at Tailgate Station's attention a time or two throughout the day was standing in line waiting to board the bus to the stadium commented on it (that's three).  I won't repeat his reply.  On our walk from the bus to our seats, three more people commented on his "awesome mustache" (that's four, five, and six).  Six times, someone made mention of that 'stache.  Impressive.

Now, THAT'S a 'stache
Back at Tailgate Station, roughly four hours until kickoff, legendary Georgia coach, Vince Dooley, showed up to sign autographs.  Dooley was the coach for the 1980 National Championship team featuring Hall of Fame running back and 1982 Heisman Trophy winner, Hershel Walker.  He signed my shirt and snapped this picture with me.

Me and Vince's OK to be jealous
If you just said to yourself, "Damn, that's cool," then my reply would be, "You're damn right it was cool!"  That was unique to all my tour stops to date, meeting one of the best coaches in the history of college football.

Tailgate Station allowed Georgia to overtake Ohio State as the best tailgating experience that I've been a part of.  It has the TVs (for the other big games), the easily accessible bathrooms, and a relaxed, gated, and guarded atmosphere for you to enjoy a few pregame brewskis.  To top it off, they brought in excellent, catered food. 

On the bus to the game, the Dawgs faithful cycled through a few of the school's popular chants.  I may have to make "taking the bus" a staple for future tour destinations, particularly for those that house their football stadiums on campus.  The bus rides wind up being an informal tour of the school and its fan base.  I went to N.C. State and our stadium was at an off-campus site.  I didn't much care for that.  Football stadiums (and basketball arenas) should be on campus.  If I started a college, I wouldn't have it any other way.  The University of Georgia sure is a beautiful place on a sunny, late summer afternoon... 

92,746 packed Sanford Stadium that day.  South Carolina came to town for what has become, in recent years, one of college football's most underrated rivalries.  Steve Spurrier, of Florida playing and coaching fame, brought his hatred of Georgia with him to coach the Gamecocks in 2005.  South Carolina has been a thorn in Georgia's side ever since, almost annually disrupting the Bulldog Nation's hopes for an undefeated season.  Though the Dawgs have a 29 game lead in the overall series, the Gamecocks have won four out of the last five.  The one in five?  That's when I was there.  You're welcome, Georgia.

Georgia vs. South Carolina was easily the best game I've ever been to in 12 years of attending college football games.  The Bulldogs used an onside kick in the first quarter to spark a 17-3 lead.  The Gamecocks battled back to draw even.  The eventful first half ended with a Gamecock score right before halftime, tying the score 24-24 at the break.  Georgia dominated the third quarter to take a 34-24 tally into the fourth, but South Carolina came right back to pull within four.  The play of the day came on the next drive for the Dawgs.  Backed deep into their own territory, Georgia looked like they were about to lose momentum when 2014 #1 NFL draft pick Jadeveon Clowney came barreling through the line headed for Georgia QB and SEC all-time leading passer, Aaron Murray.  However, Murray rolled to his left and found a wide open Justin Scott-Wesley on a busted coverage for an 85-yard touchdown.  The Georgia defense held the Gamecocks on fourth-and-goal from the 1 on the ensuing drive and then the offense ran the ball down South Carolina's throat for the final 8-minutes of the game to seal the victory. 

Unfortunately, the Bulldogs limped through much of the 2013 season with a run of injuries that would rival any major college football program's single season injury record.  Nevertheless, on the second week of the season, Georgia provided me with a new standard for my college football tour.  Many thanks to Ron Wexler.  That was a trip worth the wait.