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….
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