I have no excuse for taking this long to see a game at North Texas. It’s shameful, really. During my four yearlong Dallas tenure, I was preoccupied with speeding across the expansive Texas plains to exotic destinations like College Station and Lubbock. I had also made a bevy of far flung road trips to schools in nearby Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, logging up to eight hours behind the wheel in the wild and intemperate youth of the PigskinPursuit. Even within the DFW Metro area itself, the soaring TCU program was one of the hottest tickets in the sport, and the Cotton Bowl slobber knocker between Texas and Oklahoma ranks as one of the biggest annual matchups in the NCAA. The North Texas Eagles, located only twenty minutes up the road from Dallas in nearby Denton, Texas had, quite simply, slipped below my radar.
Excuses aside, this weekend, that omission would finally change.
But the weather gods in Denton would make me pay for my tardiness. While I had specifically chosen southern destinations for my late November pursuits to find agreeable t-shirt weather, the wild tempest of North Texas called for something more sinister. Freezing rain and howling winds were forecasted all weekend, with bitter temperatures hovering just above freezing. This would not be a day for tailgating, or exploring sprawling campus lawns under sunny skies. In fact, having packed light for the preceding games in Florida and Georgia, I’d have to borrow a jacket from one of my Texas friends just to survive the afternoon in Denton. As such, my trip to the North Texas Mean Green Football Machine would be an abbreviated one.
Located just off I-35E in Denton, access to the stadium is a breeze, and I find easy free parking on the north side of the highway right next to Fouts Field, the former home of Mean Green Football. From there, it’s an easy walk over I-35 across a pedestrian footbridge that connects with the grounds surrounding Apogee Stadium. Opened in 2011, Apogee’s defining feature is a giant V-shaped grandstand that looms over its surroundings like a pair of great aluminum Eagle wings. This unique feature gives the stadium a distinct look to any other that I have visited, and its signature is easily visible to the thousands of motorists speeding by on 35 every day. With a stated attendance of nearly 30,000 fans, however, the stadium is hardly bigger than some of the colossal high school venues in North Texas like Allen’s Eagle Stadium (18,500) or Toyota Stadium in Frisco (20,000).
But what it lacks in capacity, Apogee Makes up for in its sensitive environmental impact. The stadium is the only one in the country to achieve a LEED Platinum certification (a certification system for green building techniques), and encompasses such green features as runoff water retention systems, permeable paving, and three 120 foot wind turbines used to capture the howling prairie winds for power.
I collect an easy free ticket, a fancy plastic club level seat, from a member of the UNT Alumni Club who is standing outside the Alumni Pavilion with fistfuls of them in his gloved hands. Entering the stadium, I’m greeted on the concourse by a bright green Model A Ford, accented with a decal of a flying eagle. Similar to the “Wramblin’ Wreck” car at Georgia Tech, UNT has their own “Mean Green Machine” – a fully restored 1931 Ford Model A Tudor Sedan that serves as the pride of North Texas Mean Green athletics.
Portending a miserable day ahead, I grab a bucket of hot chocolate from the concession stands, pull out a fistful of napkins to wipe down the aluminum bleachers, and settle into a wide open swath on the 40 yard line. It’s senior day today, so before the game begins each of the graduating players are announced individually on the PA. They run through a gauntlet of their teammates lined up on the field, greeting their loved ones at the end, embracing in tearful hugs with the mothers. I feel bad for the players. It’s a miserable day and a lackluster crowd because of it. Only a few muffled cheers are mustered for each of the departing seniors, the crowd so mummified in blankets they can barely rise. Hardly an appropriate send off for four years of sacrifice and dedication. The game kicks off a few moments after, when the remaining underclass members of the Mean Green football team storm from the gates on the south end zone, sprinting onto the frigid turf.
The foul weather in the stands would magnify on the field, and with neither team remotely close to bowl contention, the effort between the lines is noticeably subdued. Neither team in North Texas wanted the football on this drizzly afternoon. There would be seven turnovers in all, the UTEP Miners owning five of those in fumbles alone. Aside from the frenzy of a few fumbles dancing across the slick turf, the first half is a snooze fest of sloppy play. The only scoring in the entire frame is a meager chip shot field goal by the Mean Green.
Things pick up a bit in the second half, when we see nearly every kind of touchdown that a team can score without their offense actually touching the ball. In the third quarter alone, there is a punt return touchdown, and interception return touchdown, and a fumble recovery touchdown; all of them within a span of five minutes. The on field antics breathe a little life into the listless crowd, a few fans even manage to unfurl their blanket cocoons long enough to stand and cheer for a few fleeting moments in the sleet. But whatever hope the Mean Green Machine had for their second win of the season was dashed early in the fourth quarter, when the Miners punched in a touchdown to take the lead 20-17. With an offense that hadn’t moved the football all day, to the tune of only 205 yards of total offense, North Texas fate was all but sealed once they dropped behind. They would go on to lose 17-20, sending their seniors out even more unceremoniously after a dismal 1-11 season.
Naturally, after the game I adjourn to my second home in Dallas; Pecan Lodge BBQ. Because nothing lifts the spirits after a frigid, dreary afternoon like the kiss of mesquite smoke across an unctuous beef short rib. An appropriate final meal for the close of the 2015 season.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ve probably heard a familiar refrain by now about things in the college football world which are quick to draw my ire. Domed stadiums, for instance, are one such example. Their very existence is antithetical to a sport meant to be played and enjoyed in the elements. Under beautiful October skies, and brisk autumn winds. College games played in NFL stadiums are another such complaint. Sterile and cold, erected in the wasteland outskirts of town and crowned with garish luxury boxes, NFL venues lack the charm and heritage of their college brethren. Even big cities themselves diminish the college football experience. The jewels of the college sport aren’t surrounded by skyscrapers, and they aren’t to be found in places like New York and Chicago – places where a college football Saturday draws nary a wink from the average citizen. The true gems of the game are tidy college towns like Tuscaloosa, Athens, Madison and Norman. Places where Saturday’s are alive, the air electric, the entire town embroiled, consumed with the promise of a big matchup.
A trip to Georgia State then, which satisfies all three of the reviled criteria stated above, was a curious choice for me. Located in the heart of sprawling downtown Atlanta, they play all of their home games inside the antiseptic confines of the hulking Georgia Dome – primarily the home of the Atlanta Falcons. As if those three affronts weren’t enough, the Panthers have only fielded a football team since 2010 and Georgia State itself is a tight, urban, commuter school lacking a campus in the traditional sense. Located right next to the monolithic Georgia State Capitol building, the GSU grounds are vacant on a Saturday morning with the exception of a few wino’s milling about Hurt Park. Clearly, expectations had to be tempered for this particular visit.
Before the game, I head over to the Krog Street Market, a hip, repurposed warehouse and former home of the Atlanta Stove Works, a cast iron stove and pan forge that closed up shop in 1988 after nearly 100 years in business. In 2014 those industrial bones were converted into a covered market for a handful of new hipster food shops. Browsing through the space, surrounded by exposed brick and heavy timber beams, an artisan chocolate maker offers me free samples of steaming hot chocolate from an outstretched recycled bamboo tray, a ruse to which I almost fall prey until I uncover the dirty truth: it’s vegan hot chocolate. In other words, brown colored water. Nearby, a few dozen bearded waifs wait in line for the craft beer store to open, key chains dangling from their belt loops, presumably lined up for some obscure, limited release, “sour beer” that tastes like a foot.
There’s a Chinese dumpling counter, an artisan charcuterie shop and a grass fed ice cream maker, among many others, all under the same roof. It’s a brilliant concept really, an incubator for food startups. Shared rents and lower barriers to entry make it much easier for anyone with a spatula and a dream to throw their toque into the ring, without the high risk gamble of a traditional stand-alone restaurant. Diners are the real winners, and for any foodie, the sheer craft and variety to be found in Krog Street Market is a dream come true. One could spend a month gorging in here without getting bored. Be warned, however, that the variety comes with a trade-off. The hipster influx here is palpable and the unkempt hordes of faux flannel wearing, mustache waxing, black rim bespectacled buffoons are nauseating.
Not nauseating enough, however, to deter my appetite for barbecue. I fold into line for Grand Champion BBQ, one of the stalwarts of the Atlanta barbecue scene since 2011. The small stand here is a satellite location for them, the proteins presumably shipped in from the main smokehouse in Roswell. Like any good joint, the ribs and brisket are still carved fresh, and the slicer delicately unwraps the black crusted delicacies from clear plastic as he attends to my order. Both the pork and beef offerings here are decent, but nothing extraordinary. It’s the delicious, yet standard and predictable barbecue that I have come to expect from a gas fired Southern Pride smoker. It always eats well but may not exactly deliver on “Grand Champion” level expectations.
After lunch, I head straight to the Georgia Dome for the Panthers early afternoon kickoff against the Troy Trojans. Garage parking for ten dollars is the only option within a few blocks of the stadium, the entire area engulfed by the concrete expanse of the Georgia World Congress Center. I circle the dome briefly, and, far as I can see, tailgating is completely absent. No grills, no tents, no unruly students or tired jock jams emerging from loudspeakers. The only sound to be heard on a Saturday afternoon is the pinging of strings against a colonnade of aluminum poles, flags flapping in the breeze.
I bum a free ticket from a few ardent fans lined up at the entrance, loyally decked out in bright blue Panthers sweatshirts and hats. But inside, the Georgia Dome feels the same as any other dome – antiseptic, sterile. Only the first level is open for Georgia State Games, and less than half the concession stands roll up their aluminum grates for business. The atmosphere feels cold and empty, like having the entire building to oneself. Admirably, there are a few thousand passionate Georgia State fans in the building, cheering, screaming, and doing their damndest to give the Panthers a home field advantage. The best of what fandom should be. Despite their earnest effort, they are dwarfed by the cavernous confines, their voices faint and helpless in the vacuum, swallowed up within the belly of this concrete monster. I feel bad for them. Their fledgling program needs a more appropriate home.
Despite the sparse crowd, the contest bears the hard fought passion of the college game. Helmets pop and echo louder in the giant space, and coaches can be heard on the sidelines audibly lecturing linemen about blocking assignments. On the field, the Panthers put on a good show. Quarterback Nick Arbuckle has a lively arm, and he tallies up 368 yards of passing while zipping a pair of touchdowns. His target du jour appears to be lumbering senior tight end Keith Rucker, who hauls in 10 catches for 154 yards during his final home game. Panther fans are treated to the team’s second straight victory, as the squad trots away with a serviceable 31-21 win.
In the end, I’m not going to tell you that a trip to Georgia State is some hidden jewel just waiting to be discovered. Because it’s not. And even the most ardent of Panther fans would likely say the same. In fact, they may struggle to stay afloat in a market already dominated by a bevy of professional sports franchises, and a longstanding college football program in Georgia Tech.
But, there is hope on the horizon for the Panther program, and a stadium of their own to call home. They were recently selected as the winning bidder to take over the soon-to-be vacated Turner Field property nearby, former ballpark of the Atlanta Braves, and the cornerstone of a 300 million dollar redevelopment project for GSU. With over 50,000 enrolled students passing through the halls annually, this project, coupled with the sheer number of alumni, could lay the foundation for a sustained program in the future. When all of this comes to pass, I may just find myself in centerfield for a ribbon cutting ceremony at a new Panthers stadium sometime around 2020.
We all turn our heads at car wrecks. We run to the window when we hear screeching tires, or watch the news with morbid fascination, our mouths agape during videos of a train derailment or capsized ship. It’s a part of us, the dark side of humanity.
So when I tentatively penciled a late November game at Central Florida on the calendar, I signed up to watch a college football car crash. I didn’t set out with the intention to see an 0-11 football team, things just kind of played out that way. During my torrid end of season planning, a trip to UCF was one of the only options available on Thanksgiving, and the Knights were in the twilight of their worst season in history. So while I never aim to see a program on its knees, I’d be a liar not to admit the trip to Orlando came with that same dark fascination that compels us to stare at the morbid. Sometimes, we just want to see things on fire. Exactly what, I wondered, would the atmosphere, fans, and players be like at a program about to complete a winless season?
The 2015 fall from grace was a rapid one for the Knights program. They are only one year removed from a 2013 campaign in which they posted a 12-1 record, finished ranked 10th in the nation, and slapped around a gun slinging Baylor squad for a major BCS Fiesta Bowl win. They even defended their American Conference title again in 2014, and posted a respectable 9-4 record before the wheels came off this year. But after beginning the 2015 campaign at 0-8, twelve year head coach George O’Leary (the same O’Leary of Notre Dame resume scandal fame) resigned, sending the Knights football program into a tailspin. Clearly, for a group of fans and players with a recent history of winning, things were looking dour in the Magic Kingdom.
It was an odd juxtaposition, I suppose, for the Knights to be located in Orlando of all places, home of Disneyworld. The happiest place on earth. Given my aversion to all things gauche, however, I didn’t hold high hopes for uncovering cultural diversions in the “theme park capitol of the world”, which was, in my mind, simply another soulless Florida wasteland of beige strip malls and insufferable family vacation attractions. While I would certainly be foregoing a trip to the rug rat hell of Mickey Land, an easy hour drive eastward to Merritt Island revealed a far more palatable cultural option – the John F. Kennedy Space Center. So on Thanksgiving morning, I skip the turkey, and head into space.
For a “family” attraction, the space center is anything but affordable. It costs me ten dollars to park, and a whopping fifty dollars for admission. And, despite the holiday, there are still plenty of tour busses and minivans pulling into the lot, unloading packs of feral children to roam about the grounds in light up sneakers, filling the air with a cacophony of wailing and squealing. One can only hope they are drawn towards attractions like the “Angry Birds Space Center”, and away from the more historical and culturally significant pieces of space history.
But entry price and sticky fingered toddlers aside, there are few places that arouse such fervent American jingoism as a trip to the Kennedy Space Center. Here, the triumphant, determined, American spirit is condensed into a single, 144,000 acre beacon of human ingenuity. Living abroad has given me an outside perspective on the vast cultural influence that the United States has had on the world for the past seventy years. And our space program and subsequent moon landings are, arguably, amongst the most impactful and defining cultural moments of the twentieth century. It’s impossible not to feel an overwhelming sense of national pride in the achievements here.
Highlights of the park include the “rocket garden”, a collection of rockets from the early days of the space program. Encompassing the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, they showcase the systematic, iterative process by which NASA engineers pushed their way into the black abyss a little bit deeper each time. The Atlantis exhibit sits in a building nearby, showcasing the thirty year history of the reusable Space Shuttle Program, which gave rise to advancements like the International Space Station and the Hubble Telescope.
From the visitor center, I then board a bus which shuttles visitors over to the Saturn V complex. Along the way, the bus ride tours around the active part of the Kennedy Space center, known as Launch Complex 39. Highlights of the bus route include the Elon Musk funded Space X platform, the Vehicle Assembly Building (V.A.B) – which, at 524 feet is the largest single story building in the world – and, finally, the massive tracked crawler transporter that carries the towering rockets upright from the hangar to the launch pads. The sheer size and scale of the engineering here is almost impossible to grasp.
But the true gemstone of the entire complex is the Apollo/Saturn V Center. For even the casual space fan, the exhibitions documenting the lunar landings here are fascinating. Exhibits such as the Apollo 14 command module, the lunar landing module that the astronauts stepped out of and onto the moon (suspended from the ceiling because it cannot support itself on earth’s gravity) and the lunar rover are things that we’ve all seen in videos hundreds of time; but to see them up close and intimately adds a completely new dimension to the significance of those moments.
But the biggest spectacle is the sheer mass and presence of the Saturn V rocket itself. Laid lengthwise on its side only 15 feet from the ground, suspended by heavy steel columns and extending over a football field in length, hovers a fully restored Saturn V rocket from the heyday of NASA’s 1960’s space race. 363 feet long and 33 feet in diameter, the Saturn V remains, to this day, the largest and most powerful rocket ever constructed. Beyond its dizzying size, this giant “flaming candle” may be the most complex engineering challenge ever built in human history. Walking beneath such a monument to man’s ingenuity is humbling to say the least, and sends the mind spinning.
To step back and think about all of the minutia – every single button, switch, bolt and screw had to be accounted for, tested, and retested; then every little part of it painstakingly assembled into this hulking, explosive giant – perhaps the most complex machine ever constructed – all of it done manually and analog, without the aid of anything resembling a modern computer; and then hurled at thousands of miles an hour through temperatures of thousands of degrees, hundreds of thousands of miles from earth directly into the ice cold vacuum of space; and then have the entire contraption do a U-turn and come home again with its pilots in one piece (never mind that whole “landing on the moon” thing in between): the whole undertaking simply defies imagination. It’s impossible to grasp the extent of the engineering challenges encapsulated here by watching grainy videos on television; one has to visit this place to truly grasp the magnitude of the achievement. Attendance should be mandatory for every American.
Or at least make a visit here a prerequisite for entry into Disneyworld….
After a morning of space exploration, I take an afternoon appetite to one of the premier barbecue haunts in Orlando – Four Rivers Smokehouse. Boasting fourteen locations throughout the state, my expectations for a “chain” barbecue joint were pretty dim. Then again, nearly every bite of barbecue that I’ve had in Florida has been completely mediocre, (including a visit to famous BBQ loudmouth Myron Mixon’s “Pride N’ Joy” location in Miami), so I didn’t have anything to lose. Worst case scenario, I could always hit the “Beefy King” afterwards for a reliable steamed beef sandwich.
An impressive selection of micro sodas greets me inside the doors of Four Rivers, and a mosaic of colorful bottles and flavors from small bottlers all over the country line the cooler. To my satisfaction, the aroma of smoke wafts through the shiny new restaurant, the menu features a full selection of Texas barbecue offerings, and beef ribs are even available on the weekends. Good signs so far. I settle on a combo of brisket and pork ribs, which, the cashier proudly proclaims, are smoked over hickory. As I move on down the ordering line, the meat carver happily accepts my request for slices from both the point and flat of the brisket. I raise an eyebrow in subtle approval…
Retreating to a table, still skeptical of anything Floridian, I gingerly gnaw on each of the protein offerings. Both of them, to my astonishment, are well crafted. Ribs pull cleanly from the bone with only a slight tug, and the fat cap on the brisket is completely rendered into unctuous, tender morsels. This is quality barbecue. If there’s a fault, it’s that the meats lack a strong smoke profile, and the hickory profile is faint. If I had to guess, I’d bet that they are using a gas or electric smoker with wood assist – a setup which produces easily replicable, consistent results, but lacks a smoky punch. Regardless, this is actually good barbecue, and, by middling Floridian standards – it’s outstanding.
From there I walk over to the UCF campus, one of the most unique pieces of landscape architecture in higher education. As one of only two campuses in the country designed as a series of concentric rings, (the other school being UC Irvine) the entire campus is arranged like a bullseye. Inspired by Walt Disney’s original plans for EPCOT, the campus was centrally planned from the beginning (as opposed to the organic outward sprawl of most universities) and intended to be pedestrian oriented. The Student Union and Library are located at the center of the bullseye, contained within the Pegasus Circle walkway. Progressing outward from the center, the rings become (appropriately) Mercury, Apollo and, finally, the outermost circle – Gemini – the only such circle accessible to vehicle traffic. The circles are further divided up into pie shaped wedges by other walkways radiating out from the center, what remains is a campus plan that resembles a dartboard. Different wedges of the pie then make up the different colleges within the University, interspersed with a handful of ponds, parks and fountains that offer respite from the hot Florida sun.
Evidently “theme park” planning in Orlando even applies to higher education.
UCF itself is a juggernaut. With enrollment at over 63,000 students, it’s quietly the largest university in the country. Given its size, parts of the campus feel like a small suburban subdivision. There’s a shopping village on the perimeter of campus, where students can select from Jimmy John’s, Dominoes or Dunkin Donuts, among other chain eateries. Fraternity row looks like an upscale cul-de-sac in the subdivision, with giant plantation nouveau style homes flanking both sides of the street. There’s even a skating rink and ferris wheel set up on Knights Plaza. A few tailgaters revel across the street from the Plaza, their tent and coolers set up along a beautiful long stretch of Bermuda grass that penetrates all the way to the center of campus known as the “Memory Mall”.
I begin my walk towards Bright House Networks stadium along the brick lined promenade that connects the football stadium to the baseball park. A huge steel sculpture of a Golden Knight mounted on a horse rears proudly in the middle of the walkway, as the brassy regalia of the UCF Marching Knights files in towards the entrance gates. With a sole finger thrust in the air, I track down a free ticket to the contest quickly, a season ticket actually, made from thick plastic and attached to a lanyard. There’s a bar code at the bottom of it, scanned for each home game, but since this is the last home game of the year it’s an easy giveaway. On the front of the laminated plastic the slogan reads “Back to Back American Conference Champions 2013 & 2014”, a subtle reminder that the Knights are only a season removed from success.
The stadium never fills up, as one would expect, and there are vast swaths of the aluminum bleachers vacant on a Thanksgiving night. But the fans that do show are of the die-hard ilk, and as passionate as you’ll find in the game. They do their best to rise and cheer, screaming when the Knights come storming out of the tunnel – some of the players for their last home game.
As the contest kicks off, for a few fleeting minutes, the Knights faithful are given a glimmer of hope. For an 0-11 football team, the crowd is a surprisingly vociferous and passionate bunch, their energy and commitment a credit to the Central Florida fan base. UCF quarterback Justin Holman marches his squad down the field, grinding out 61 yards on nine plays before kicker Matthew Wright boots an easy 28 yard field goal through the uprights. The knights jump out to a quick 3-0 lead, the crowd cheers wildly and boisterously, as if they had forgotten about their 0-11 mark. For a moment they know the feeling of confidence.
But that would be the end of it…
The remaining 55 minutes of the game is a thorough curb stomping at the hands of the South Florida Bulls. Aside from their 61 yard opening drive, the Knights only squeak out another anemic 140 yards of offense for the rest of the contest – cementing their position as the worst offense in the entire FBS for 2015. Holman would revert to form, tossing two interceptions and completing only 10 of his 26 attempts. His counterpart for the Bulls, however, stuffs the stat sheet on the night. USF signal caller Quinton Flowers accounts for all five of the Bulls touchdown, firing three of them through the air and scampering for another pair. By the time the final whistle calls mercy, the Bulls have gashed the Central Florida defense to the tune of 455 total yards of offense, running away with a 44-3 blowout.
If the Knights 0-12 finish tells us one thing, it’s that clearly, not every story in the Florida fantasy land has a happy ending….
Looks like Knights fans will have to hope for something better in the sequel.
But if there’s a single takeaway to be taken from my trip to UCF, it’s that even for smaller programs at the end of catastrophic seasons, there are still fans that don their jerseys, pack their trunks, and motor in on a holiday night to cheer their squad until the final whistle. And that is what true fandom is all about….
Growing up a native Bay Stater and ardent Red Sox fan, Fenway Park has always held a nostalgic mystique for me. My earliest sports memories involve wading through the crowds on Yawkey Way, clutching my father’s hand, the smell of roasted peanuts and cheap cigar smoke hanging in the air like a fog. We’d press into the arched brick façade, squeeze through the old mechanical turnstiles with a satisfying clunk, before the days of laser tag scanner beeps. Once inside, we’d buy a couple hot dogs for a buck fifty apiece, coating them with a few shiny foil packets of Gulden’s Mustard.
From cramped wooden slatted seats we’d watch Sox greats like Wade Boggs slap the ball around, while Jim Rice patrolled the iconic left field wall in the twilight of his career. My father would school me on the finer points of the game while I groveled for a Hood “Sports Bar” ice cream from the barkers climbing up the steps. Afterwards, we’d camp out on Van Ness Street near the player exit, hoping to land a few autographs before the freshly showered big leaguers sped off in shiny new sports cars. The same spot where I once snagged Mark McGwire’s signature during his 49 home run rookie campaign in 1987.
Despite the cliché, the ballpark felt more authentic then. There were still a handful of the old, “golden era” parks around the league at that time (Yankee, Tiger, Comiskey, Wrigley, etc.), and Fenway hadn’t yet become the self-celebratory theme park it has evolved into today. It was grimy and rusty, signs were faded (not just painted to look faded), the amenities were spartan, and the crowd was rough and haggard. The very bricks themselves seemed to ooze the yeasty aroma of eons of cheap, stale beer, popcorn and sweat. While today the skeleton remains the same, the park has undergone a considerable facelift in the past decade as part of the “family friendly” marketing strategy the Red Sox have employed. A strategy that has paid off with a decade long sell-out streak, and grandstands overflowing with pink baseball caps and Vineyard Vines polo shirts.
Unsatisfied with mere sellouts, as part of the indefatigable chase for revenue (a necessary evil within the arms race of modern baseball), the Red Sox management has opened up the gates to the park for any kind of cross promotional event imaginable, all in an effort to extract every possible nickel from the “lyric little bandbox”. Everything from Rolling Stones concerts to NHL games have been played here of late, and a 4-H pony show can’t be too far away.
In similar fashion, the University of Notre Dame has shown recent exuberance for extracting every last drop of revenue from the withering historic pulp of their football program. The tackily branded “Shamrock Series” contests have featured “neutral site” games in locations of puzzling geographic nexus for the opponents. The contracts, however, are lopsided to favor the Irish who get to claim to an outsized portion of the ensuing gate and TV windfalls. In the past decade, Irish fans have been treated to what might otherwise be interesting matchups, were it not for the peculiar locations. In lieu of simple home and home arrangements, fans have been treated to games like Notre Dame vs Washington State in San Antonio, Notre Dame vs Miami (FL) in Chicago, and Notre Dame vs Arizona State in Dallas; to name a few. Clearly, for the revenue obsessed top brass at both Notre Dame and the Boston Red Sox, an Irish football game in Fenway Park was a match made in revenue whoring heaven. Ka-Ching….
Throw in a flunky opponent, the floundering Boston College program would do quite nicely, and you had all the components for a late November college football cash grab. Too add even further humiliation to the Eagles, despite their campus being only 3.9 miles away from Fenway Park, *Boston* College had agreed to be the VISITING team for this little boondoggle. As if that weren’t insult enough, given the tight confines of the Fenway Park visitor locker room, the Eagles would actually have to dress in Chestnut Hill and then bus over to the stadium like a high school JV squad. Fredo indeed.
Yet it was precisely here, at this eccentric event, on a cold November night, that I found myself. As a lifelong fan of both the Irish and the Red Sox, there was a certain magnetic pull towards this contest that trumped my revenue mongering protestations towards it. And, as an ardent sojourner of the sport, I felt a certain obligation to investigate first hand these oddball collaborations that seem to be gaining popularity throughout the college ranks. Next year, for instance, Tennessee will play Virginia Tech on the infield of Bristol Motor Speedway, and Cal will be opening their season versus Hawaii in Sydney, Australia.
But like all things Boston and Fighting Irish related, my intrigue came with a hefty price. I’d forked over $175 per person for the pleasure, which may be the highest face value, regular season, college football ticket in history. On the secondary market, tickets were starting at nearly $1,000 each and ranged considerably higher from there. I can only imagine the field day the legendary Boston scalping racket had for this event. With a stated capacity of only 38,686, less than half a typical Irish home game, the limited confines of Fenway Park would make this the least attended, and, hence, most exclusive Irish “home” game in decades.
My father had agreed to tag along for the spectacle, making his annual pilgrimage on the PigskinPursuit. We meet up on Newbury Street, the heavily trafficked, outdoor, upscale shopping district of Boston after I drop my car in a parking garage for thirty five bucks. With a hankering for a long overdue, classic American cheeseburger, we huddle into Shake Shack for a few quick burgers and beers before making the hike up to Fenway. When Dad inquires about our seats, I show him our tickets for the event, gingerly pulling them out of my zippered coat pocket like a winning lottery ticket. His eyes grow wide when he sees the face value printed on the front, audibly gasping, nearly choking on a mouthful of cheeseburger. In between bites he yammers something about footing the bill for a large portion of my college education, and how I can surely pony up for a few football tickets for the old man. Add this to the list of baby boomer generation entitlements I’ll have to foot the bill for, I suppose….
While Boston itself is a decidedly mediocre college football town, overshadowed by the fanatical professional options in town, the streets are surprisingly alive on a brisk Saturday night. We begin our stadium journey down Boylston Street, the sidewalks flush with Irish fans, a shuffling mass of green sweatshirts. Boston College fans are far scarcer. With the Eagles 3-7 record, most of them smartly opted for the NBC broadcast at home. As we cross over the Mass Pike and turn onto Landsdowne Street, the spine of the Green Monster, the party is in full swing. Revelers pile out of the dingy bars on both sides of the street, and lines are stacked thirty heads deep outside waiting to get in. The entire street is cordoned off by police, its width swarmed with fans in a giant, roiling din. The aroma of browning onions wafts from sausage carts, the vendors rolling a few plump links across a hot grill, while the sound of souvenir barkers fills the air with thick Boston brogues. It’s not your typical college football tailgate, but close enough.
We enter through Gate C on Landsdowne Street, taking our seats in section 38 near the deepest part of centerfield, known in Red Sox lore as the “triangle”. The football field is laid out parallel to the first base line in Fenway Park, extending into the deep part of right field, the end zones nearly touching the padded walls of the relief pitching bullpens. The sight lines are a bit odd, as one would expect in a ballpark, and a broad swath of outfield grass separates the stands from the sidelines. For as small a park as Fenway is, the game action feels “distant”.
As the pregame clock winds down, and a few of the glitzy Notre Dame promotional videos finish playing on the video screen in centerfield, the Irish storm the field. They emerge, almost single file, from the first base (home) dugout while a cascade of green fireworks erupts into the night sky high above the home plate press box. Sporting bright, Kelly green, “Green Monster” inspired uniforms, the Under Armour creations are nearly solid green from head to toe, accented only with the infamous gold helmets. While in years past some of these “Shamrock Series” uniforms have been nauseating abominations (thankfully Adidas has since been kicked to the curb), this particular vintage looks quite sharp under the phosphorescent glow of the Fenway lights.
Although the uniforms might look sharp, despite the heritage of the billing and venue, on the hallowed fescue of Fenway Park the game proves to be one of the sloppiest fiascos I’ve ever witnessed. With a lofty #4 ranking entering the contest and college football playoff hopes on the horizon, the Irish do their best to Charlie Brown themselves out of the playoff picture on primetime national television. They turn the ball over an infuriating five times, three of those turnovers occurring inside the Boston College three yard line. The ball slips in and out of hands like a Harlem Globetrotters circus stunt, and the plucky Eagles refuse to go quietly into the frosty New England night.
Sophomore Irish quarterback Deshone Kizer leads the turmoil. He wastes no time firing his first interception of the night, a bullet into the chest of the BC defender in the Boston College endzone on the opening drive of the contest. The meltdown caps off an otherwise impressive 60 yard march for the Irish. Kizer would add another pair of pickoffs during the game (one more of them of the soul crushing variety at the three yard line) to finish with three interceptions on the evening. Not to be outdone, Irish running back C.J. Prosise fumbles twice (one of which is luckily recovered by center Nick Martin) and, for fear of being left out, freshman backup tailback Josh Adams gets in on the action with a fumble of his own. Even the sure hands of speedster wide receiver Will Fuller are greased, as he drops a few cupcake catches after darting behind the BC secondary. By the end of the night, the Irish would rack up 447 yards of total offense, but only manage two meager touchdowns to show for the effort.
Self-flagellating notwithstanding, Notre Dame manages to slink away with a narrow 19-16 win, but not until after a dramatic dive onto the on-side kick to end the game. Although still technically a win, the Irish are sure to find themselves a few notches lower in the polls after this particularly lackluster effort.
In the end, I’m torn about the Irish experience at Fenway Park. On one hand, there’s an undeniable nostalgia for witnessing the intersection of two of the cornerstones of my youth sports passion – Notre Dame Football and Red Sox baseball. And, of course, sharing an evening at Fenway Park with my father conjures enough maudlin, Kevin Costneresque sentiments to make the night a memorable one. But there is still something unshakably artificial and contrived about all of it. A lingering, glossy, commercialism that divulges the thinly veiled financial motive. The entire production feels heavily produced and cunningly marketed to feel authentic, but in a Disneyfied way that feels artificial, plastic.
But I suppose it could be worse. They could have played another game at Yankee Stadium…
Special thanks to my father for making the haul to Boston, it’s always special to spend an evening at Fenway Park with your Dad, and I look forward to another annual trip together next year!
It’s Wednesday night and I’ve just pulled into a gravel parking lot in Goldsboro, North Carolina. I’m on my way to Greenville, out towards the eastern reaches of the state, past the sprawl of Raleigh and the banal office parks of research triangle. Out here there is an outlier to be found. A rebel. A renegade. A program with perhaps the most rabid football fan base in the entire Tarheel state – the aptly named ‘Pirates’ of East Carolina.
The Tarheel State is a basketball state first and foremost, the landscape dominated by the hardwood floors of the ACC Conference. Down here, football is a mere footnote, as some of the titans of the sport like Duke and North Carolina believe that true athletic competition doesn’t begin until March.
But in Greenville, things are different. East Carolina calls the American Athletic Conference home, and their fans are a notoriously rowdy, raucous departure from the gentile, bowtied southern mannerisms of Dukies and Tarheels. At 50,000 seats their stadium even boasts larger capacity than both Wallace Wade (Duke) and Groves Stadium (Wake Forest), which they routinely fill. Among the Pirate contingent, there seems to be a perpetual chip on their shoulder about their ACC brethren, and they are quick to remind you that in Greenville, things are different.
While the game would be a Thursday night kickoff instead of a Saturday afternoon affair, it would be far from a tame one. Temple was coming into town for a primetime, ESPN tilt, along with the invariable hoopla that comes from the network talking heads. While historically Temple would usually be a rather tame draw, the 2015 vintage of the Owls were soaring, sporting an unblemished 6-0 record and a lofty #22 ranking. With the stakes raised for the contest, swarthy Pirate Nation was already hoisting their battle flags in anticipation.
But before a marquee Thursday night showdown with the undefeated Temple Owls, I’ve got some needs to attend to. Barbecue. Eastern Carolina whole-hog style barbecue, specifically. Unlike their western “Piedmont” style brethren that smoke pork shoulders exclusively and douse it in red sauce, the Eastern Carolina style espouses the use of the entire pig and a vinegar based sauce. Minimally prepared and cooked whole over a hardwood (usually oak or hickory) fire, the various parts of the finished hog are then chopped with a pair of heavy cleavers into a vinegary mélange of minced porky delight.
In this barbecue crazed state there’s even a division (a feud according to some) among Carolinians over which style of barbecue, West or East, is the “true” form of the art. A quarrel that even went to the state senate, and is reflected in the verbiage of North Carolina house bill #433 (http://www.ncleg.net/Sessions/2007/Bills/House/HTML/H433v4.html). It’s comforting to know that the North Carolina legislature has solved all of the other pressing issues of the state, and now find themselves idle enough to tackle such demanding issues as settling semantic barbecue squabbles.
Personally, I’m not one for politics, and I’ll gladly to cross the aisle when it comes to smoked meat.
A trip to Greenville, then, would put me smack dab in the middle of some of the finest hog slings the Tarheels have to offer. With three of the state’s preeminent destinations on my itinerary, I punched a few extra holes in my belt and prepared for a North Carolina pork-a-palooza.
Back in that gravel parking lot on the night before game day, I’ve just pulled into Wilber’s BBQ, one of the legends of North Carolina barbecue since 1962. The place is busy for a Wednesday night, and a steady stream of customers flow in and out with paper sack takeout orders gripped tenderly under their arms. The interior is an homage to pine. Pine paneling, pine chairs, pine ceiling held up by exposed pine beams, and, with no detail overlooked, there’s even pine picture frames on the walls. Fortunately, they keep the Oak for the cook shack out back.
The menu is up on the wall. An ancient Coca Cola branded slide letter menu board, which proffers a handful of BBQ plates or meats by the pound. They’re out of ribs for the night, so I order a combo of chopped pork with fried chicken instead. The combo comes with a classic array of Carolina style sides; a generous basket of golden fried hush puppies, house made coleslaw, and Styrofoam cup of sweet tea poured over crushed ice. The pork here is minced fine, mixed with a few morsel of outside brown and a waft of oak smoke. Adorned with a few shakes of Wilber’s vinegary sauce, the meal is the archetype of North Carolina style barbecue.
From Wilber’s, I speed forty minutes east to Ayden, home of Skylight Inn, screeching into the parking lot in a cloud of dust only minutes before they close up shop for the night. If Wilber’s is a legend, then Skylight Inn is the patron saint of North Carolina barbecue. The fires here have been burning since 1947. They’ve been featured in countless magazines and television shows, fed a few presidents, and claim a James Beard award for American Classics.
In keeping with the classics, I order the whole hog BBQ tray for $7.50. The hearty combo includes two cardboard trays stuffed with chopped pork and coleslaw, along with a notebook sized slab of the heaviest, most dense corn bread I’ve ever encountered. For refreshment, a Cheerwine is fished out of an ice bucket next to the register – the North Carolina equivalent to Dr Pepper. The food here is served stacked, a tower of porky delight. I’m given a sheet of wax paper to spread it out on, and a basket of Skylight’s sauces are arranged on the table.
While I generally eschew all forms of BBQ sauce, the vinegar sauce indigenous to eastern North Carolina pairs exceptionally well with their style of whole hog chopped pork, which can often run on the dry side. The spicy pepper vinegar sauce at Skylight in particular, is the perfect balance of heat and acidity to cut through the rich, unctuous pork. Although, to be fair, the protein here could easily stand on its own sans adornment, as one would expect after sixty eight years. It’s got a kiss of smoke and just enough fat to stay moist. But when my teeth chomp down on a few odd chunks of unexpected bone and gristle, sending electric shockwaves up my jaw, it sours the experience. Perhaps the butcher ought to be a bit more careful with his cleavers.
Bellied on barbecue up for the night, I bed down in a cheap motel in Greenville and crank the rattling air conditioning unit to its maximum in an attempt to ward off the inevitable meat sweats.
As Thursday morning awakens, I brush off cobwebs from the pork induced coma the night before, wipe the grease stains from the corners of my mouth and go hunting for a late breakfast. It’s game day in Greenville, there’s a bright blue sky overhead, a spring in my step, and a hankering to punish a few more pigs. And when it comes to barbecue in Greenville proper, there is only one true option: B’s. (yes, thats the whole name)
If you have an image in your mind, of the idyllic, ramshackle southern barbecue joint, go ahead and erase it immediately. Replace that image with B’s BBQ instead, which embodies a veritable checklist of every criteria a proper BBQ joint should satisfy. It reads like a barbecue fairy tale incarnate.
For starters, there’s no website.
There isn’t even a phone.
Every floorboard and wallboard in the joint is uneven, crooked, or patched up. There’s a broken handle on the rickety old screen door, and the awning over the take-away window is covered in years of soot and ready to collapse. Service is exclusively cafeteria style, and sauce is served in old whiskey bottles on the mismatched tables. They are only open for lunch, Tuesdays through Saturdays, and when they run out of food each day, the place simply closes. Of course, given the lack of a phone, there’s no way to know this unless you actually drive by.
As if those weren’t credentials enough, B’s has their own road – B’s Barbecue Road. Which isn’t a little driveway spur, mind you, but a well-traveled, two mile stretch of county road.
I arrive early, but there’s a line formed already. It’s barely 10:30, and patrons are stacked up at the sliding take-away window while the woman inside barks the orders back to the kitchen. A massive oak tree shades the picnic tables out front, while smoke billows from every corner of the screened hut cook shack. There’s a few dozen bags of Kingsford Charcoal stacked up in the corner, a forgivable offense for a place that remains unchanged for nearly forty years.
As if scripted from a movie, a farmer in a mammoth 8 wheeled Steiger tractor pulls up for lunch, the clunky diesel motor barely croaking to a stop before he clambers down the ladder and trots over to the take-away window. Clutching a steaming Styrofoam box a few minutes later, he scurries back to the iron behemoth, hoists himself into the cab, and lurches off in a black plume of diesel smoke, a full box grader in tow behind.
Beyond the famer, the true beauty of a place like B’s lies in the parking lot, a dusty gravel log jam of vehicles from every socio economic class. A Mercedes S-Class pulls in next to a concrete contractor’s dump truck, while a Volvo station wagon sidles in next to an old Chevy C-10 pickup. Polished loafers and rolled up French cuffs huddle over the picnic tables next to dusty work boots and ripped t-shirts, all of them nose deep in a box of pork or chicken.
I order the combo plate; a generous heap of chopped pork and a chicken leg for $11.75. The hefty Styrofoam box comes fully dressed with coleslaw, boiled potatoes and four corn fritter logs, and it’s paired with a cool, Carolina sweet tea to wash it down. The pork is classic North Carolina style, finely chopped and generously doused in a peppery vinegar sauce. Chicken is the real star of the show, however, moist and smoky inside with a delectably crispy skin, it makes me a poultry believer for an afternoon.
With a football game on the horizon I head into downtown Greenville and find easy free parking on the corner of 10th and Forbes, and decide to walk off the hefty lunch with a stroll through the East Carolina campus. There’s a nice treed quad in the heart of the campus, anchored by a Cupola, a feature oddly reminiscent of the “Old Well” at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill a few miles up the road. On a pristine Thursday afternoon, the campus is buzzing, and the students show plenty of spirit decked out in their bright purple Pirates gear. Pee Dee the Pirate Statue stands proudly on the opposite side of the quad, attracting a few visitors that pose in awkward positions with the poor sailor.
As I make my way further South towards Dowdy Ficklen stadium, the sidewalks are thick with ECU fans, the surly, bandanna wearing Pirate logo on full display in the melee of tents, chairs and flags. The stadium is surrounded by tailgating on all sides, and fans have turned out early for the festivities on a Thursday afternoon. I spot a few custom tailgating rigs of interest, a former delivery ban outfitted with a bright Pirate paint job and satellite TV, as well as a full length retired coach bus that someone converted into a massive tailgating land yacht. East Carolina fans are widely reputed as some of the most raucous tailgaters in the game, and a few laps through the lots confirms that reputation.
I secure a ticket in the lots for twenty five bucks in section 16, a seat on the 30 yard line and a prime spot for viewing the fabled Pirate entrance. But walking into the stadium, my purple shirt quickly falls out of fashion. Pirate Nation has deemed the primetime matchup a “blackout” game, and legions of fans are decked out in solid black, a few devoted students even going the extra mile and painting themselves in full body skeletons.
As the pregame clock ticks down, the Pirate mascot raises an ECU flag onto an aluminum mast behind the endzone. The crowd rises to its feet, anticipation thickens in the night, and they exchange boisterous chants of “purple”……”gold”….across the field. Soon after, an inflatable pirate skeleton in the west endzone begins to quake as the tinny notes of Jimi Hendrix’ “Purple Haze” come screeching across the loudspeakers. Bright purple smoke wafts from the mouth of the skeleton, billowing and hovering heavy in the air like a brush fire. As the guitar chords reach their crescendo, the Pirate squad comes bounding out of the helmet, streaking across the field enveloped in purple fog. The crowd wails away at the top of their lungs, rhythmic clapping echoing off the press box façade. It’s everything a phenomenal entrance should be, and among the most unique in the sport.
On the field, the Pirates look formidable for the first three quarters. They play smothering defense, holding the ground heavy Owls to a paltry 72 yards of rushing the entire night. As the teams jockey back and forth for field position early in the game, the conservative Pirate attack finally breaks through, reeling off a 14 play, 80 yard touchdown drive in the second quarter. Pirate quarterback Blake Kemp manages the game well, and shines for a moment as the second quarter draws to a close when he leads the team 75 yards down the field before firing a touchdown strike to wide receiver Quay Johnson with only :18 seconds remaining in the half.
Coming out of the tunnel after the break, the third quarter turns sloppy. The two squads trade a few punts, and the Pirates throw an interception which is offset when Temple botches the following field goal attempt. Both teams held scoreless in the third frame, the Pirates cling to a tenuous 14-10 lead as the quarter draws to a close.
The atmosphere grows tense, and the smell of an upset wafts through the anxious Pirate faithful. Between the third and fourth quarter, the crowd rises to its feet, compelled by the crushing guitar intro of Guns n’ Roses “Welcome to the Jungle”. Once standing, the entire stadium crosses their arms in an X shape above their heads to mimic crossbones, a handful of them waving bright crimson Jolly Roger flags with the slogan “No Quarter” emblazoned across the bottom. The same red “No Quarter” flag is hoisted ceremoniously onto the aluminum flagpole in the east endzone, replacing the purple one. The slogan, a reference to the pirate policy of taking no prisoners and offering no quarter once engaged in battle, is the fourth quarter rallying cry for the team and fans alike to fight until the bitter end. The raising of the “No Quarter” flag at the start of the 4th quarter is a tradition unique to ECU football, and a menacing one for opposing players and fans alike.
Unfortunately, on this night, the No Quarter flag bears the mark of the black spot. The Pirate defense, which had remained stout for three quarters, collapses. With 3:31 remaining in the fourth frame, they give up a crushing 71 yard touchdown drive, and the Owls regain control at 17-14. The hobbled Pirates add to their woes only four plays later, when after going three and out on offense, their ensuing punt attempt is stuffed by Temple. Assuming control with only a 15 yard field, Owl running back Jahad Thomas promptly scampers into the end zone for another score, extending the lead to 24-14. Down by 10 with scarcely two minutes remaining on the clock, the Pirate’s fate is sealed in Davy Jones’ Locker, and the purple faithful head for the exits.
In the end, East Carolina is one of the gems of the American Athletic conference and college football at large. It has a rabid, quirky fanbase and a handful of unique traditions that belie its smaller prominence on the national landscape. It feels more like an SEC “light” school, and the Pirates could easily hold their own when it comes to game day atmosphere amongst some of their larger conference brethren. In fact, East Carolina may, arguably, make for a more interesting football gameday visit than its basketball crazed neighbors on Tobacco Road. But for now, it remains one helluva sleeper and I’d gladly go back for a marquee Saturday matchup, and maybe a few more bites of barbecue….
In the pantheon of the college football world, a trip to Arkansas State doesn’t rank very high on the list of dream destinations. And, if we’re being honest, Northeast Arkansas is hardly an exciting tourist draw. The broad, table flat expanse of the Mississippi flood plain features endless miles of cotton, corn and soybeans, but lacks the rugged beauty of the Ozarks to the west. Hemingway spent some time here, in nearby Piggott, Arkansas, the hometown of his second wife Pauline Pfeiffer. Reportedly, much of his novel Farewell to Arms was written in a studio there. Outside of that little historical nugget, however, the greater Jonesboro area offers little to the wayfarer.
But if I’ve learned anything in my travels, it’s that every place deserves a visit. Every little corner of America has a story to offer, no matter how small or subtle, and it’s my calling to discover it. To leave no stone unturned…
After flying into Memphis, the nearest airport of measure, I set off on the hour long journey to Jonesboro setting a northwesterly course along Route 63. The rental car gods have bestowed upon me a gas guzzling Ford Explorer, and the black behemoth feels like a school bus compared to the cramped shitboxes I’m accustomed to.
I cross over the broad, tea colored, Mississippi River under the expansive double iron arches of the Hernando De Soto Bridge. The span, over 9,000 feet of her, is named after the famed Spanish explorer who first surveyed this stretch of the river in the mid 1500’s. The same Spaniard whose remains purportedly lie unmarked somewhere in the sand beneath those murky depths after his body was tossed in and sunk by his men. According to legend, after dying of fever he was “buried” (chucked into the river) in secret during the night; lest the ruse that he was an “immortal sun god” be spoiled amongst the subjugated natives.
In addition to the bridge, however, (and the general conquistador pestilence and brutality that early Spanish explorers wrought upon the new continent) the legacy of De Soto carries a far greater implication on the culinary landscape of America than most are aware, and, even, the very bedrock of the PigskinPursuit itself. Ironically, it is De Soto that is widely credited as the first European to introduce domesticated Eurasian swine to the North American mainland.
That’s right, DeSoto brought pigs to America. And we are forever in his debt…
A few of those first hogs DeSoto brought over undoubtedly escaped the executioners axe, and set off to run wild in the forested expanse of the New World. These pioneering pig “pilgrims” that made the trans-Atlantic voyage, and subsequently scampered off into the wilderness, would become the forefathers of the feral pigs or “Razorbacks” that have populated the entire Southern US since. So, perhaps, even a certain Arkansas football team owes their very mascot heritage to the bearded Spaniard.
One could further surmise, that during those initial days of Spanish exploration, after a long day of conquistadoring, some of DeSoto’s men took a long, mouthwatering glance at those portly hogs running around and got an appetite. One of them may have then glanced upwards into an untapped wilderness of virgin hardwood forest bursting with oaks, hickories, and cherry trees and put two and two together. One bright idea and a few blows of the axe later (for both the trees and the swine) and the enterprising bunch were tenderly roasting said pigs over a crackling hickory fire (thankfully, the electric smoker hadn’t been invented yet). And, voila, sometime in the mid 1500’s American BBQ is borne – partial courtesy of Senor De Soto.
According to legend, some twenty minutes later, Texans and North Carolinians began arguing over whose barbecue’ is better….
Arriving in Jonesboro, I take a quick breakfast at Presleys Drive-In, a forty year old staple of the Jonesboro dining scene. The exterior of the classic, red roofed, dairy diner is highlighted by expansive dark tinted windows, each of them hand painted with cartoonish pictures of hot dogs and banana splits. Elvis paraphernalia adorns the interior, small tchotchkes and statues, along with a few framed pictures and news clippings of “The King”. I order a breakfast platter of ham, eggs and potatoes for $6.05 and wash it down with a heavy Styrofoam cup full of chocolate shake.
The downtown portion of Jonesboro is an idyllic, if charming, one lane college town. An afternoon stroll along Main Street reveals a plethora of pubs, burrito joints, local clothing stores and bicycle shops. It’s the usual assemblage of college town commerce that you would expect for a school that quietly houses nearly 20,000 students. But what separates Jonesboro from some other peers in the lower echelons of the college game, is the surprisingly robust school pride featured throughout the village. Make no mistake about it, this is Red Wolves country, and you’ll find it boldly shouted it on every street corner. One can hardly walk a few steps without seeing wolf “paw prints” or a giant lettered “A”. Every shop window and store front in town is decorated with elaborate hand painted murals of the Red Wolf mascot, decked out in ASU logos, each of them touting slogans like “Howl” or “Wolves Up”. It’s one of the most prideful college towns I’ve encountered.
On a pristine afternoon, the Arkansas State campus is just starting to show signs of fall. The leaves are turning the first shades of rust, the lawns cropped and hay colored. It’s a sprawling, open, campus but still buzzing with students on a Tuesday afternoon. Like many other universities in the south, enrollment at Arkansas State has grown precipitously over the past two decades, and the architecture reflects that. New buildings abound here, evoking the conservative, precast concrete forms of banal higher education design. There are a few bright spots, however; the ASU University Museum, which features some nice collections of Native American artifacts, as well as exhibits on early Arkansas frontier living. Another museum, The Bradbury, is also a few steps away and is dedicated to more modern art collections.
With a few hours before kickoff, I channel my inner explorer and go on the hunt for some BBQ, settling on Demo’s BBQ, one of the only joints in town. Claiming “award winning” BBQ, Demo’s actually boasts two locations in the greater Jonesboro area, and the building here on Church Street is their mainstay shop. While the battered galvanized metal siding on the exterior has all the hallmarks of a classic southern BBQ joint, a row of gleaming steam trays greets me inside the door, and expectations quickly plummet.
I order my customary combo of brisket and pork ribs, which the counterman insists are carefully smoked over hickory. While that ruse may work on the unsuspecting greenhorn, I’m a steely eyed sharpshooter for bbq at this point in my career. And after a mass of gray, smokeless, chopped beef is summarily lumped onto my plate, I start looking for the ultimate act of desperation – sauce. Pork ribs, albeit smokeless, fare a bit better, they’re at least passable at best. But as I gnaw them from the bone, I can’t help but wonder what Papa DeSoto would think. After nearly five hundred years on the continent, I feel like his pigs deserve a proper smoking more befitting their heritage.
Pork fix satisfied, I zoom back over to the ASU campus, as a few of the Red Wolf faithful start dropping tailgates in the various parking areas surrounding the stadium. It’s quiet, as one would expect for a Tuesday night draw, but gameday access is a breeze, and I find easy free parking along Red Wolf Boulevard fifty yards from the stadium. Centennial Bank Stadium, formerly known as “Indian Stadium” prior to the ASU mascot change from “Indians” to “Red Wolves” in 2008, features a spectacular grove on its eastern flank. Towering pines and hulking oaks shade the grounds underneath, pre-game revelries occupy the various picnic tables and tents, while children slalom through trunks of the great trees chasing footballs. As the last few rays of amber light slice through the aluminum grandstands, leaves and shadows dance and flicker, the grove ethereal and mute in the fleeting moments of dusk.
I circle around the West side of the stadium, as the brassy ASU marching band begins filing towards the gates. The crowd thickens, forming a gauntlet on the asphalt walkway as the players walk through in their scarlet and black Adidas jumpsuits, exchanging high fives with outstretched arms as they march towards the stadium. It’s here that I track down a free ticket. “Here you can have this one, I got upgraded to the luxury boxes!” a guy proclaims when he sees my lone finger raised in the air. He hands me a glossy black ticket, the words ‘along with the others we’ve won!’ written in bold letters across the front.
Shortly after finding my seat, the Red Wolf mascot comes blasting out of an inflatable black tunnel on the back of a throaty Harley Davidson motorcycle, the players sprinting behind in a cloud of smoke. As one might expect, the stands are a bit sparse on a Tuesday night, and with swaths of open grandstands the stated attendance figure of 20,495 seems a bit generous. But the remaining fans that choose to attend on a Tuesday night are the die hard types, so they put up a decent home field advantage for the Red Wolves squad.
On the field, the Wolves take it to the Ragin Cajuns early. Quick footed Arkansas State quarterback Fredi Knighten carves apart the Cajun defense. Scampering around pursuers to extend plays, he finds seams in the defense, firing a pair of touchdowns in the first half. The ASU running back committee of Warren Wand, Johnston White, and Michael Gordon trade handoffs as they march downfield, contributors to the 306 yards of total rushing that the Wolves tally on the night. Even the ASU defense chips in, picking off an errant Cajun pass attempt and returning it for a thirty yard touchdown. The Wolves are on the prowl. At the close of the first half, ASU sits comfortably in command at 34-14, and it looks like a rout in the making.
But in the second half their momentum grinds to a halt. The offense sputters, and the defense softens. The Ragin’ Cajuns assert control. Led by standout dual threat quarterback Jalen Nixon who amasses 201 yards rushing, and another 253 through the air, ULALA intends to mount a second half comeback. The ASU student section does their best to will their team back to life. During the third quarter, they collectively bellow the ASU war chant “OOOO …..o.. OOOOOOO…” an exact copy of Florida State’s Seminole War Chant, and presumably a holdover cheer from the days of the Arkansas State Indians. Despite the chant, the Red Wolves play remains flat, and fans anxiously watch seconds dribble off the scoreboard. In the end, the Red Wolves manage to run out the clock, escaping with a dicey 37-27 win and extend their unblemished Sun Belt Conference record to 3-0.
In the end, Arkansas State is a pleasant trip. The grounds and groves surrounding the stadium would be an inviting place on a fall Saturday afternoon, and Red Wolves pride is alive and well in Jonesboro, adorned on every window and shop front in town. But if there is a bigger takeaway from my trip to Arkansas State, it’s that history can be uncovered in the most unlikely of places and every small corner of America has a nugget to offer. Clearly, any barbecue aficionado owes a debt of gratitude to those early Spanish explorers, and were it not for the soaring arches of the Hernando Desoto Bridge over the great river, I may have overlooked it. That’s what makes off the beaten track places like Arkansas State always worth the journey.
To pay my respects to Hernando De Soto for his contributions to the barbecue world, the PigksinPursuit will be tipping out a pour of my next Big Red in his honor….
On the list of sports destinations for fans in the Bay Area, San Jose State football, sadly, may not even crack the top ten. The city is a professional town first and foremost, dominated by the likes of the 49ers and San Francisco Giants. Even larger programs like Stanford, with their recent gridiron success, struggle to fill a 50,000 seat stadium and capture the appropriate mind share of fickle Bay Area fans. For smaller stature programs like the Spartans of San Jose State, being overlooked is simply part of the territory.
But not by me.
As I continue to probe further into the corners of the college football world, the Spartan program held a certain intrigue for exactly the reasons outlined above. Does a smaller program like San Jose State, completely overshadowed by the other options in town, still have the same kind of rabid fan base common to the college game? Can an under the radar city like San Jose, quietly the third most populous city in California, sustain a football program?
On Saturday afternoon I pressed south into San Jose to find out the answers to those questions. I’m on the third leg of a west coast tripleheader that would take me to three games in three days. Thursday night I had witnessed a Stanford thrashing of UCLA in Palo Alto, and Friday evening I watched a downtrodden Fresno State Bulldog team rescued by rain in the parched Central Valley. Today was the day for some Spartan football.
My journey begins perched on a barstool at Henry’s Hi-Life in the River Street Historic district of San Jose. Finding anything outside of a taupe colored strip mall in San Jose is a challenge, but the small remnants of the turn of the century, Italian immigrant, working class neighborhood remain in the River Street district. This run down, red clapboard building adorned with a glowing neon “Hi Life” sign started life as the Torino Hotel at the turn of the 20th century, and is purported to have been a brothel for some time. For the past fifty years Henry’s has called it home, and while the ramshackle structure would be right at home in a working class, rust belt city like Cleveland or Milwaukee, in a tech city like San Jose, it’s a standout. Dishing out beer and BBQ since 1960, the dark, oak and mirror paneled pub is a classic taproom. The kind of place where you grab a woven wood bar bowl of free peanuts and order up a boilermaker and Michelob. It even comes replete with a few barflies squabbling about the San Jose Sharks. Who knew there were actual sports fans in San Jose…
I pull up a stool along the slick, red leather bar rail and quickly settle into a pint of draft Shiner Bock. The only menu they have is painted up on the wall, to which the barkeep gestures with an outstretched index finger, a dingy bar towel draped over his shoulder. I opt for a two meat combination of their sole barbecue offerings: pork ribs and chicken. A steady stream of customers flow in behind me, each of them issued a plastic, numbered token by the hostess as part of Henry’s odd cueing system for dining room seating. Evidently, all dinner orders are placed at the bar, and then, only when the food is ready, are patrons finally escorted into the dining room for seating. A few newcomers audibly groan at the confusing process, pleading their case to the obstinate hostess who simply wags a finger at the sign in retort. I chuckle at the confused patrons like a grizzled regular. Hell, if it’s been working at Henry’s for 55 years – take a number and fall in line….rookie.
Surprisingly, the barbecue here is decent stuff. While “bar” BBQ usually draws a healthy dose of skepticism from my discerning taste buds, Henry’s proves a pleasant surprise. Chicken is tender and lightly glazed with a sweet barbecue sauce and moist all the way through. The pork ribs would be closer to grilled instead of slow smoked, they have excellent texture, pulling cleanly from the bone with only a gentle tug. It’s not Lockhart, but for San Jose – it’ll do. With a heaping pile of BBQ in front of me, cold Shiner on tap, and the Irish playing the despicable Trojans on of the television perched over the bar, it’s tempting to wallow away for a few hours in the dark pub. But, alas, a Spartans game beckons…
I take a customary tour of the San Jose State campus, a compact urban property that appears mostly a commuter school and lacks the sprawling beauty of its neighbors like Stanford and Cal. Strolling down the main palm tree lined walkway, a few tile roofed Mission Style buildings flank the main quadrangle, at the center of which stands a massive 22 foot statue erected in tribute to the 1968 Olympics “Black Power Salute”. The statue memorializes the political statements of SJSU alumni Tommie Smith and John Carlos. The two sprinters, both African American athletes, won Gold and Bronze, respectively, in Mexico City in the 200M. During the proceeding medal ceremony, they each stood on the podium in black socks, bowed their heads, and raised a lone black gloved fist into the air during the entire rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Captured during the height of the US civil rights struggle, the photo of their protest, and subsequent imbroglio that followed, has become one of the most enduring images of a political statement made at a sporting event.
From campus, I make my way south a few blocks and find easy street parking on the corner of 8th and Martha Street. The residential neighborhood is quiet on a Saturday evening, a few dogs bark in the distance, the rattle of a few lawn sprinklers rhythmically tapping away. Tailgating is all but absent from the area, and it could be any peaceful family neighborhood in America……. That is, until you reach 10th and Alma Streets, where you’re thrust into the throbbing epicenter of a borderline riot. Loudspeakers crackle with the latest pop tunes, the grass crunches with empty beer cans and a potpourri of beer, smoke, sweat and sunscreen wafts over the area like a fog. Students are swarmed around trucks and tents like packs of wild jackals, crammed into the woefully undersized (and underserviced) lot provided to them by the University for tailgating. Caged like animals in the fenced parking lots surrounding Spartan Stadium, it’s like walking by a zoo. I don’t dare feed them.
Frankly, it’s a pleasant surprise to find so robust a student tailgating scene at a place like San Jose State. This is exactly the kind of loud, boorish, inebriated and unsterilized environment that student tailgating should be, and it’s alive in well in the tiny program. Across the street, in the older, more civilized alumni lot adjacent to Spartan Stadium, where the shitbox cars and compact trucks turn into luxury SUV’s and flat screen TV’s, I ply my trade on the ticket hunt. It’s not long before I track down my favorite ticket deal – a freebie – on the 40 yard line, courtesy of an old timer wearing a bright blue Spartans jersey over his pleated khakis.
I find my way to my seats along the aluminum bleachers, and shortly thereafter the SJSU squad scampers onto the field through a gauntlet formed by the band, their electric blue helmets gleaming under the light towers that encircle Spartan Stadium. One of the more underrated helmet designs in the sport, Spartan headgear is festooned with a colorful silhouette of a Spartan Warrior helmet. The design is also replicated at midfield in a bright mosaic of blue, white and yellow.
While the players continue the last few minutes of pre-game warmups, a bald, jort wearing, senior citizen clambers atop the concrete wall behind the player bench at midfield. Clutching a tambourine hand drum, the crowd cheers as he raises his hands, leading the stands in alternating chants of “San”….”Jose”…. like a denim clad pied piper. But after the PA announcer personally introduces “Krazy George” by name, it’s clear that this isn’t your run of the mill, boisterous lout.
George Henderson or “Krazy George” as he is affectionately known, may be the most famous (and amongst the “down in front” geezer crowd – reviled), sports fan in the world. It was here, in the Bay Area, at an Oakland A’s playoff game versus the New York Yankees on October 15, 1981 where Krazy George encouraged his entire section to stand and raise their hands in the air in unison, and then after encouraged the adjacent section to the same, thereby creating the first “Wave”. As Edison is to the light bulb, Crazy George is credited with inventing the crowd phenomenon known as “The Wave”.
Today the 71 year old Henderson still patrols the San Jose State sidelines, enthusiastically thumping away his large tambourine to get the audience’s attention. During periodic breaks in the action, he leads the crowd in various chants, always followed by his signature wave. A professional cheerleader by trade, Henderson’s resume is lined with appearances at dozens professional sports teams all over the country during his storied forty year career. But his cheering antics all started here, at a San Jose State Spartans game, where he attended as a student in 1968. Krazy George, a local legend if there ever was.
Unfortunately for the Spartan squad, despite having the world’s most recognizable cheerleader in their corner, they flounder on the gridiron. The San Diego State defense is smothering. They dominate the line of scrimmage, upending the porous Spartan offensive line, which is driven into the backfield on every snap. San Jose State quarterback Kenny Potter spends most of the evening scrambling for his life. Continually pursued by a pack of rabid Aztecs, he fires two interceptions on the night, while the entire Spartan offense squeaks out a meager 148 yards in total.
While the annihilation unfolds on the field, I spend the game chatting away with a pair of ardent Spartan fans seated beside me. Dave and Mary, the latter an alumnus, are both garbed in head to toe SJSU gear and make the faithful trek in every Saturday from their home in Gilroy. Eschewing any plans in the fall in favor of football, they’ve had season tickets to Spartan football for over twenty years now. Despite the mounting futility of the SJSU squad, the couple still rises, cheering wildly on key third downs. Even in tiny corners of the game, passionate devotees are the backbone of the sport, and Dave and Mary represent the best of that fandom. Despite their best efforts, and the hijinks of Krazy George, the Spartan empire crumbles before the Aztecs in a lopsided 7-30 defeat. But, fortunately, spirit is alive and well in the humble SJSU Spartan program….
Daybreak in Palo Alto finds the pavement slick with a much needed bout of rain the night before. I jump into my rental Kia, set the coordinates into the iPhone, and speed South on route 102 towards Fresno for a Friday night kickoff.
I’m on my way out to Fresno State as the second leg of a west coast triple header, and it’s a three hour jaunt from San Francisco, the nearest city with an international airport. After witnessing a smashmouth Stanford squad lay waste to UCLA the night before, I’m speeding off to the second game of an elusive west coast tripleheader.
I exit route 102 in Gilroy, California home of the infamous Gilroy Garlic Festival, and lope onto the winding stretch of Highway 152 that snakes through the soft, round hills of the Diablo Range. Craggy oak trees, bent and twisted like old scarecrows, dot the hillsides. Gnarled limbs outstretched into great, leafy umbrellas, they form little round pockets of shade that dot the hay colored meadows A few steers peer up from the shelter beneath, their soft eyes obsidian and serene, chomping on mouthfuls of the lush, sweet grass.
Agriculture abounds here, and the roadside is blanketed with fresh produce stands every few hundred yards. Colorful, hand painted signs proffer fresh goods inside the little, ramshackle plywood huts. Overflowing wooden crates of peaches and grapefruits are stacked outside, the plumpest and roundest of them arranged neatly on top. Cartons of strawberries and garlic are set out on makeshift sawhorse tables next to neatly stacked mason jars of fresh olives. Nearby sits a basket full of avocadoes, their leathery skins black in the shade, hawked at six for a buck.
Continuing on past the San Luis reservoir, the road descends from the hills and straightens, bisecting the broad, flat landscape like a black razor. The California Central Valley. Roughly the size of Tennessee, the 450 mile long valley is the largest, most productive agricultural area in the world. It’s estimated that half of U.S. fruit and vegetables are grown here alone, and nearly all of specialty tree crops like almonds, walnuts and olives. Both sides of the highway are flanked by endless rows of nut trees, fruit trees, and grapes; all arranged into neat grids with mechanical precision. Passages from Steinbeck fill my head as I whistle past the groves.
“…And all the time the fruit swells and the flowers break out in long clusters on the vines. And in the growing year the warmth grows and the leaves turn dark green. The prunes lengthen like little green bird’s eggs, and the limbs sag down against the crutches under the weight. And the hard little pears take shape, and the beginning of the fuzz comes out on the peaches. Grape blossoms shed their tiny petals and the hard little beads become green buttons, and the buttons grow heavy. The men who work in the fields, the owners of the little orchards, watch and calculate. The year is heavy with produce. And the men are proud, for of their knowledge they can make the year heavy. They have transformed the world with their knowledge. The short, lean wheat has been made big and productive. Little sour apples have grown large and sweet, and that old grape that grew among the trees and fed the birds its tiny fruit has mothered a thousand varieties, red and black, green and pale pink, purple and yellow; and each variety with its own flavor. The men who work in the experimental farms have made new fruits: nectarines and forty kinds of plums, walnuts with paper shells. And always they work, selecting, grafting, changing, driving themselves, driving the earth to produce.”
The area today is embroiled in a devastating drought. Instead of advertising fruit stands, the medians here are littered with hand painted signs that read something entirely different. Affixed with messages like “pray for rain” or “dams or trains, build water storage now”, the drought is here is palpable, even to the casual observer. A bridge over the Fresno River bed reveals little more than a dry wash of rock and sand, while the green waters of the San Joaquin River flow well below the creek walls, the steep banks parched and crumbling. Given the national dependence on the food supply produced in the Central Valley, this isn’t a California crisis – it’s a national one.
Arriving in Fresno with an appetite, I pull into the Westwoods BBQ company as they’re opening the doors for lunch. The sprawling new building is an homage to nouveau ranch architecture and comes complete with a galvanized tin roof, windmill, and a Massey Ferguson tractor parked out front. A voluminous interior features spectacular exposed timber beams, garage doors, and the rusting remnants of a mechanized planter set out for display alongside a few other artifacts from the regions’ robust agricultural heritage. It’s an admirable attempt at authenticity for a place that sits between a Joanne Fabrics and Chick Fil A.
The waitresses all wear cowboy boots and jean shorts here, and the bubbly blonde taking orders gasps at my four meat combo request of tri-tip beef, beef rib, pork ribs, and fried chicken. By middling California standards, the cue’ is good here, but lacks the smoky punch I’ve come to revere from places in Texas and Kansas City. The ribs (both pork and beef) are prepared well, pulling cleanly from the bone, but lack any actual smoke profile, and likely emerged from an electric job given the hulking size of the kitchen. Tri-tip beef, however, is a clear standout. Delicately pink in the middle, with a crust dusted in an intoxicating dry rub containing notes of garlic and celery, this tri-tip is a fine example of the “Santa Maria” style BBQ indigenous to central California.
I walk off the heavy lunch with a stroll through the Fresno State campus, alive on a pristine Friday afternoon. Skateboarders cruise past on the slick concrete walkways, while a central fountain offers refreshing mist from the high afternoon sun. A few frat house recruiting shacks line the main walkway, the colorful wooden structures decorated with bold Greek letters while the brothers and sisters intercept incoming freshman on the sidewalks. There’s a giant figurehead of Ghandi shaded under a grove of slender pines, while a somber concrete memorial to the Armenian Genocide anchors the other side of campus.
But two of the greatest features to be discovered on the Fresno State campus aren’t on the main quad itself. Instead, it’s a few of the student run agricultural programs that offer their goods to the general public. Boasting the first University run winery in the country, the Fresno State University Winery has been producing student made wines since 1997. Scholars interested in furthering their studies in viticulture and oenology manage everything from the on-site vineyard to the full scale production and aging facilities found on site. The school produces around a dozen different wines, available for purchase in the area, and they have won over 200 medals at wine competitions over the past decade. And lest you think this is simply a major for that perpetually drunk, portly frat boy that everyone knew in college, the Fresno State Wine school boasts a 100% post-graduation employment rate. No word on how many of those esteemed graduates land jobs in the prestigious vineyards of Sonoma or Napa, versus slinging cocktails at the local watering hole, however.
In lieu of the winery, I opt for something a little sweeter for an afternoon treat – ice cream – and I saunter over to the Gibson Farm Market for a few scoops. Like a few other schools I’ve visited, Michigan State and Penn State to name a few, Fresno State also claims its own on campus creamery. Tended by students in the agricultural program, Gibson Farm Market features a vast array meat, dairy and fruit products all produced on the 1,011 acre university farm. Naturally, my eyes gravitate towards the walls of coolers, all of them neatly stacked with dozens of tempting ice cream flavors packed into minimalist white cartons branded with a Bulldog emblem. As if the ice cream itself weren’t enough, with the cornucopia of on campus orchards and fruit groves, the ice cream stand doles out generous portions of student made preserves and jams to sample. In the end, I opt for a simple cup of vanilla, topped with a few viscous spoonful’s of their marionberry preserves.
With the afternoon winding down, I poke my way towards Bulldog Stadium. Scouring the local side streets, all of them affixed with irritating game day parking prohibition ordinances, I’m eventually forced to park at the Wesley United Methodist Church for fifteen bucks. Approaching the stadium, sidewalks swell with red and blue jerseys, and the tailgating lots come to life. Vast swaths of manicured Bermuda grass surround the stadium on both sides, and the lawns are packed with the requisite tents, trucks, and a few custom tailgating jalopies for the die hard fans. There aren’t a lot of street tickets for sale, the market is predictably soft for the 1-5 Bulldogs, but I eventually track one down from a white haired old timer limping towards the stadium clutching a red vinyl Bulldog seat back in tow. His wife doesn’t like the night games he says, and we settle on a final price of $16 because he only has four singles for change.
As the kickoff clock winds down, I find my seat in an empty expanse of the open aluminum bleachers. Massive cantilevered light towers hang over the stands, while the endzones are painted in the iconic red and white checker pattern, the hallmark of Bulldog Stadium. A team of parachutists jump in to deliver the game ball, landing precisely on the menacing open jowls of the Bulldog painted at mid field. Shortly thereafter, the inflatable orange tunnel on the South ramp starts to quake, and the Fresno State squad bounds onto the field, emerging from beneath a giant inflatable Bulldog, enshrouded in a stream of white smoke. Despite the high energy entrance, first half play is relatively quiet. The two squads swap a pair of touchdowns apiece, all of them on long, methodical drives; and the Bulldogs botch a field goal attempt. With the score knotted at 14-14, the two teams retreat to the locker rooms to strategize for the second half.
At halftime, I do some strategizing of my own. I buy a customary stadium Coke for six bucks, and despite having already downed a few pounds of meat and ice cream during the day, my carnivorous instincts are tempted once again by a sign advertising student made hot dogs. In one of the most brilliant stadium concession ideas I’ve encountered, the all-beef dogs proffered in Bulldog Stadium are made entirely by students in the Fresno State Agricultural School, and proceeds from the dogs go towards fundraising for Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology. So I pony up another six bucks for one of the plump franks, and slather it with a few pumps of mustard.
There is, perhaps, no more appropriate higher educational cause for the PigskinPursuit to support, than the scholastic pursuit of encased meats.
After the break, the Bulldogs dig themselves into the doghouse in the third frame. They fumble the ball to UNLV, botch yet another field goal attempt, and yield two touchdowns to the invading Rebels to trail by 11 heading into the fourth quarter. But then, they do an about face. The defense stiffens, stymieing the Rebel attack while the Bulldog offense breaks through, punching in two touchdowns in quick succession (capped off by a two point conversion) to regain the lead 31-28. The second score, in particular, is a brilliant run by running back Martez Waller that carves the UNLV defense for 38 yards. With 2:37 remaining, the Bulldogs kickoff to the Rebels clutching a tenuous three point margin, the passive Friday night crowd comes to life.
But 2:37 is a lot of time. And on the first play of the ensuing drive from his own 25 yard line, UNLV quarterback Kurt Palandech gashes the UNLV defense, sprinting for 39 yards deep into Bulldog territory before he is finally stopped at the 36 yard line. With two minutes remaining, and only 36 yards to go, it portends heartbreak once again for the Bulldog faithful.
It is precisely at that moment, in the parched Central Valley of California, that the weather gods intervene in spectacular fashion. Just as UNLV huddles for the next play, the night skies open up, and a torrential downpour cascades onto the glowing field below. The drops fall heavy and cool in the tepid night air, liquid patters and chimes on the aluminum benches, the crowd rises and roars like a wilted flower refreshed. Both the ball and the field are immediately slickened, and the Las Vegas natives are ill equipped to deal with such elements. Their offense falters, tattered in the deluge, and they are swept away in four quick plays. The final two are sacks, where the Rebel QB is stuffed ceremoniously into the soggy turf to lie, defeated in a puddle of tears and rain. Dramatically, the Bulldog’s prevail 31-28. God is credited with one assist on the night.
It’s a poetic ending for a game at Fresno State. The garden of America, scorched and cracked, thirsting for a few drops of water. A proud football team, struggling too, in need of a lift of their own. The green “V” on the back of the Bulldog helmets stands for the California Central Valley, the very mission of the school interwoven into the agricultural backbone of the of the state. It was a fitting end, then, that the Bulldogs escaped with a win during my brief visit to Fresno, both the team and the valley quenched by a few precious drops of rain.
footnote: There are two other exceptional eateries to be found in Fresno during a game weekend that are worthy of inclusion for future reference.
Mike’s Grill – which serves the best Santa Maria style Tri-Tip sandwich that I’ve had anywhere in California, and is found in an unassuming shack in the middle of a strip mall parking lot.
the Chicken Pie Shop – which specializes in, well, chicken pies and is a unspoiled, beautifully original, green vinyl boothed throwback to the golden age of the american diner.
While in years past, hitting a few games on a weekend meant a quick hop into the Jetta and a few hour jaunt down some winding county roads, this year things are different. While living the expat life in Paris certainly has its advantages, keeping my usual pace on the college football chase is a challenge. As such, any precious time back in the USA during the fall involves meticulous planning in order to maximize my gridiron intake. With a week long trip scheduled for mid October, I had planned to squeeze five games in the course of seven days, beginning with a triple header weekend on the west coast. This opening frenzy would take me to Stanford on a Thursday night, Fresno State on Friday night, and close out at San Jose State on Saturday evening.
Fortunately, my sister had recently moved to Palo Alto, which meant a roof over my head and easy staging for the weekday Stanford contest. While I had already visited Stanford Stadium before, the smashmouth Cardinals of 2015 vintage sported a lofty #15 ranking, and were hosting the #18 UCLA Bruins in what promised to be one of the bigger Pac 12 match ups of the season. Sister reluctantly in tow, we trotted off on foot, making easy work of the short walk to Stanford Stadium located only steps from her front door.
We stop for a quick bite at Kirks Steakburgers, a landmark burger joint that’s been slinging them out to scholars at “The Farm” since 1948. Located in an upscale shopping court across the street from the stadium, the original location is long gone, but the place is still hopping a few hours before kickoff. After a ten minute wait in line, I order one of their signature bacon cheese steakburgers and a pile of steak fries. Cooked over charcoal, the burgers have a hallmark grilled flavor that sets them apart from their fried counterparts and gives Kirk’s its namesake. The burger itself, however, is mediocre on a busy game day. Overcooked and dry, it’s a hockey puck between two buns, further insulted by lifeless and soggy steak fries. After 67 years in business, I’m sure Kirk’s reputation is well deserved, but today wasn’t one of them.
From there, we amble across the street and into the Stanford Arboretum as tailgaters revel in the last few rays of a pristine afternoon. The arboretum is, quite simply, a breathtaking tailgating venue. Shaded by dozens of massive Eucalyptus trees, some of them over six feet in diameter, the natural beauty of the space is rivaled only by The Grove at Ole Miss. Generously spaced maroon and white tents line the natural promenades formed by the great trees, while the effervescent, minty twinge of eucalyptus fuses with grill smoke into an intoxicating alchemy wafting through the air. It’s a distinctive aroma, tailgating perfume, and completely unique among the college football landscape. Stanford should bottle and brand this scent…
As dusk settles, I track down a pair of tickets for twenty bucks a pop, the market surprisingly soft even with a marquee Pac 12 opponent in town. Despite a half decade of sustained success extending back to the Jim Harbaugh era, evidently the Cardinal faithful are still getting used to big time football in Palo Alto. Settling into our seats as the final minutes of pre-game warmups are completed, I school my sister on the finer points of the disheveled mob of ragamuffin misfits comprising the Stanford University Marching Band. A motley assortment that remains, unrivaled, as the worst band in all of college football.
Although billed as a competitive game on paper, once the football is kicked, however, the contest turns ugly in a hurry. The Cardinal decimate the hapless Bruins, stuffing them into a locker like a schoolyard bully with their signature brand of punishing, physical football. Watching the juggernaut Stanford offensive line blast the Bruins five yards into the backfield on every snap is a thing of beauty for purists of the traditional power game.
The standout for the trees on the day is running back/kickoff returner/athlete extraordinaire Christian McCaffrey, son of Pro-Bowl NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey. The blisteringly quick McCaffrey racks up 243 yards (a Stanford rushing record) against four touchdowns on the ground, while darting for another 122 yards of kickoff returns. Stating a strong case for his Heisman candidacy, McCaffrey was completely unstoppable on this night.
While McCaffrey stuffs the stats box, its wide receiver Francis Owusu that steals the highlight show. He has only one catch on the night, but it’s a circus grab. At the opening of the third quarter, on a reverse -backtoss gadget play, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan unloads a 41 yard rainbow into the endzone. As the ball spirals down towards Owusu, he leaps into the air with the cornerback blocking him and proceeds to catch the ball with his arms bear hugged around the back of the defender, while still clutching the football to complete the catch as the duo tumbles into the turf. The incredulous grab draws barely an audible cheer from the crowd, as nobody in the stands realized exactly what had happened until they saw it replayed from several angles on the jumbotron. Without a doubt one of the most magnificent grabs I’ll ever witness…
In the end, it was an impressive, dominating win for the Stanford squad and further cemented their position as the team to beat in the Pac 12 conference once again this year. Their tough, physical brand of football is truly a delight to watch in the age of ADHD inspired, basketball on grass, spread option offenses. With a looming date on the calendar in late November with Notre Dame, the result of that contest could likely determine one of the final four playoff spots. Let’s hope that McCaffrey sleeps through his alarm on that day….
Special thanks to my sister for hosting me for the weekend, and (reluctantly) agreeing to come along for another year on the PigskinPursuit!
Breakfast is served at Zada Jane’s Café in Charlotte, North Carolina. Heavy tattoos creep below his shirt sleeves as the nonchalant waiter plonks my omelet down, trotting off in an identical pair of grey Chuck Taylors that all the servers wear. The eclectic walls are painted bright canary yellow, accented with purple ductwork, and a few shuffleboard courts flank the patio outside. In addition to the usual breakfast favorites, the menu also features an array of vegetarian, free range, hormone free (pick your toxin to avoid) fare. Most of the items sport uber hip names like the “blazing saddles” omelet or the “bunny rancheros” eggs, and a full bar starts serving at 11am. This quirky little diner would be perfectly at home in cities like Austin or Portland, but in a conservative town like Charlotte, it’s a stand out.
While a hipster joint like this might not be my usual artery clogging greasy spoon, the recommendation came highly endorsed by my Irish cohort Ron, who assured me it was one of the best breakfast haunts in town. True enough, the biscuits are fresh baked and fluffy, served warm with an array of local preserves waiting to adorn them. A satisfactory chorizo omelet fills the belly, crowned with a side of locally sourced bacon and a helping of home fried potatoes; I’m topped up for an afternoon of football in the Queen City.
I’m in town to see the Charlotte 49ers, the newest member of the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision. The game on this Saturday would be their first foray into the torrid world of big time college football, having made the jump up from the FCS ranks at the start of the 2015 season. I’d also be bringing a newcomer with me on the pursuit – Kristina – who, appropriately, would be attending her first ever college football game. A college football newbie and an FBS rookie both making their debut on the same day. These two, mixed together with a swampish September game in the South, promised for an interesting afternoon.
In addition to the jump into the FBS ranks this year, nearly everything else about the ‘Niners program is squeaky new. The school has only fielded a football team at all for two years, kicking off their first season in 2013 after the student body began petitioning for a squad in 2006. Similarly, the mortar is still drying between the bricks of Jerry Richardson stadium, an intimate 15,000 seat venue that first opened its gates in 2013. Fresh concrete sidewalks surround the stadium, flanked by young tree saplings and recent landscaping. Everywhere you look, the facilities are new. Remarkably, for many Charlotte fans, they have dogs older than the football program itself.
Yet, beautifully, the spirit of college football sprouts proudly in the Charlotte program. Fans line the sidewalks around campus, buzzing on an early Saturday morning. Shaded by green 49ers tents and matching chairs they set their tailgate spreads out in the parking lots, the snap of footballs and squawking kids ringing in the air. A massive alumni tent greets returning visitors, many of whom may be experiencing football on their campus for the first time. There are even a few custom tailgating wagons to be found, ramshackle vehicles that fans outfit in team colors and regalia, driven to each home game for Saturday festivities.
For their part, the school tries to indoctrinate the students into the spirit of the fledgling program. They provide a sprawling green lawn adjacent to the stadium dedicated solely to student tailgating. The manicured green spills over with a few thousand revelers, beer cases are stacked beneath the tents (kegs are banned), and some pop tunes crackle over the loudspeakers. The bustling village comes complete with University supplied tents and tables, which the student body then claims with various flags or fraternity letters. While there are a few rules against excessive drinking (beer pong is banned), it’s a deft move by the Charlotte administration to foster this kind of student spirit, the lifeblood of any successful football program.
One of the most magnetic aspects of college football for me, is unearthing all of the pageantry and traditions that make each school so unique. In the case of Charlotte, it’s fascinating to literally watch them nurture and develop those traditions in real time…
We scan the grounds for ticket resellers, but there are none to be found. Evidently the scalpers haven’t found a market in the Charlotte program yet, and I’m forced to ply my trade at the stadium box office. For thirty bucks apiece, I grab a pair of tickets on the fifty yard line, one row in front of the swelling Charlotte student section – all of them decked out in monochromatic green T-shirts. Delightfully sitting in front of the most vociferous mob in Jerry Richardson Stadium, I’ll be able to get a first hand feel for the true energy these college football neophytes can muster. Kristina shifts nervously as the rabble behind us continues to swell…
Before the final pre-game festivities kick off, the PA announcer requests a moment of silence over the loudspeakers for departed offensive line coach Phil Ratliff. Ratliff, a two time all American on the offensive line at Marshall, died at age 44 of heart complications only three weeks before the start of the 49ers 2015 season. Beloved by his players for the intensity he brought to the program, he also routinely held barbecues at his home in nearby Harrisburg to instill comradery amongst the young squad. His presence clearly left an impact on the early foundations of the Charlotte program.
As the visiting team takes snaps in front of us, I get an up close look at the opponent on the day – the “Blue Hose” from Presbyterian University in Clinton, South Carolina. Sneakily sporting what might be the funniest mascot name in college athletics, the “Blue Hose” moniker was coined by sportswriters in the early 20th century when referring to the blue socks or “hose” that the athletic teams wore. Proud as the Presbyterian program may be, on this day they were scheduled as cannon fodder for the 49ers inaugural FBS contest.
As a shower of green fireworks explodes into an overcast afternoon sky, the Charlotte squad comes streaming out of the tunnel beneath the fresh brick archway of the Judy Rose Football Center, named after the current, and 25 year tenured, Athletic Director that brought the program to UNCC. The Niners’ soon make quick work of the visiting Blue Hose. Decidedly overmatched for their southern foes, the Charlotte squad runs down the field unabated, putting on a show for the 16,631 that showed up at Richardson Stadium (an attendance figure I might question given the blocks of empty seats). Meanwhile, lackadaisical freshman still amble into the stands throughout the first quarter. Something they’ll have to remedy when a bigger opponent marches into town.
In the end, the 49ers have their way with the hapless Blue Hose. Junior wide receiver Austin Duke is the standout on the day for Charlotte, amassing 166 yards and a touchdown catch on the afternoon. With a comfortable 34-0 lead after three quarters, head coach Brad Lambert takes his foot off the gas, and the Niners’ skate away with a comfortable 34-10 victory that was never in question. But as they enter the teeth of their Conference USA schedule in the coming weeks, things are going to get decidedly more challenging for the young squad. Welcome to the FBS Charlotte…
After the game we pull into the South 21 Drive-In for a throwback slice of Americana. The classic car hop is a time warp back to the 1950’s, and remains nearly unchanged since they first opened their doors in
1955. An original red neon sign out front touts their “curb service”, a perfectly preserved homage to the golden age of 1950’s roadside decor. More neon accents the bright red and white color scheme that lines the flat roofed car ports spreading out from the tiny brick cook shack in the middle. A few patrons precariously squeeze their lumbering SUV’s into tight parking spaces between the white painted columns of the structure. With parking dimensions originally designed to comfortably house the smaller family cars of the 1950’s; the South 21 Drive-In is ill equipped to deal with today’s soccer mom and her hulking suburban school bus.
I order their signature “Super Boy” burger, shouting my order into the galvanized metal speaker box that swivels out from the menu board. Paired with a chocolate shake and a portion of crisp golden onion rings, the entire feast costs about ten bucks. While roller skates would be more appropriate, the waiter hustles the order out to my car window on foot a few minutes later, setting it down on the rotating stainless steel tray while we square up the bill.
The Super Boy is a simple, no frills burger – two thin patties, fully dressed with all the condiments, sandwiched between a soft, white sesame seed bun. It’s a delightful throwback to the times when just a modest, fire grilled, 100% American beef burger was enough for a man. Before the days of elaborate chipotle turkey burgers garnished with exotic cheeses, slathered in frilly aioli’s or foie gras, and capped with all other manner of hipster adornment. Simple food that never falls out of fashion.
Your grandfather ate this burger. And he probably washed it down with a quart of Old Crow whiskey before driving his entire family home without seatbelts. You should too.
And that’s representative of exactly what a football weekend in Charlotte is all about. The old, and the new. The delicate balance of honoring the old world of pageantry and tradition that underpins the fabric of the game, yet intelligently blending it with the new world, as a fledgling program rises to carve out its own niche and create tradition within the modern landscape of the sport.
Special thanks to Kristina for a positive attitude and vociferous cheering during her first college football experience!