People often ask me about the best college football destination in the country. I’m usually reticent to answer because there are so many variables to that question, and, depending on the circumstances, there are a handful of places across the country that could be considered the “best” on any given week. Invariably, however, I always list LSU as one of the most sublime places in the country to spend a college football Saturday. Having caught a few games here before, I can personally attest that between the Cajun food, ample drink, authentic hospitality, a rabid fan base, ear splitting 93,000 seat stadium and smash mouth SEC football, LSU is one of the premiere destinations in the land.
So when my friend, and Texas A&M ring bearing alumni, Federico texted me over the summer about the November 23rd matchup in Baton Rouge, I immediately circled my calendar. While he had done the circuit of Big 12 destinations back in the Aggies long forgotten past, with their move to the SEC conference came a whole new list of road destinations for him to experience. Appropriately, LSU was at the top of that list.
I fly in to New Orleans early on Friday morning to give myself a day of exploration in the city. Despite the breadth of my travels, I had never actually visited NOLA before. While the allure of the infamous French Quarter and a few giant Hurricane drinks has a certain croc wearing, touristy appeal, I opt to spend the day a bit more tastefully. I pull into the National WWII Museum on Magazine Street as the doors are opening for the day, and shell out eight dollars for parking. An avid WWII history buff, I’ve traveled to sites of historical significance all over the world, but this museum in New Orleans is reputed to be among the best.
It costs me $32 for an all access pass for the day, which grants admittance to all the features spread throughout the several buildings on campus. Up first is the 4D movie “Beyond all Boundaries”, a 40 minute historical overview of both the European and Pacific campaigns that was produced and narrated by Tom Hanks. As the film plays on the screen, guard towers and gun turrets rise out of the stage, and later smoke fills the entire theater as a bomber fuselage is lowered from the ceiling as part of the “4D” effects. I spend the rest of the afternoon casually wandering the extensive displays and historical artifacts spread throughout the galleries. In addition to some of the smaller pieces, the museum boasts an impressive collection of recovered machinery. In the US Freedom Pavilion alone, a Sherman tank sits proudly on the floor while a collection of old warbirds hang from the ceiling; including a B-17 Flying Fortress, B-25 Mitchell and the seductive, sweeping lines of a P-51 Mustang, among others.
I break only for lunch, and take a quick stroll down the street to Cochon Butcher – a casual lunch offshoot of the infamous Cochon Restaurant. Translated literally “Cochon” means “Pig” and, accordingly, the small café features a bevy of house made charcuterie offerings available plain, or stacked into well crafted sandwiches. Naturally, I opt for both; the ever popular pork belly sandwich and a personal charcuterie sample platter. The rich belly sandwich is served with mint and cucumber, the crisp flavors offsetting the unctuous, fat laced pork into a perfect balance. The charcuterie sampler features a range of their daily specials, neatly arranged on a wooden tray: duck liver mousse, country terrine, soprasseta, duck pastrami and coppa di testa. It’s a carnivores dream come true.
After my WWII touring is done for the afternoon, I brave the rush hour traffic in New Orleans to pick Federico up at the airport, as a log jam of cars flows out of the terminal. From there, we hustle west an hour along I-10 and pull into the overstuffed parking lot of Mike Andersons in Baton Rouge. Evidently, we aren’t the only ones with the same idea, as the Cajun seafood joint is jammed for the big game, and it’s an hour and a half wait for a table and oyster po’boy. The A&M faithful have come out in droves, and when the Aggie War Hymn pipes in over the loudspeakers, more than half the restaurant collectively rises to their feet, locking arms and swaying while they confidently belt out the chorus. From there, we enjoy a few nightcaps at The Chimes pub on the outskirts of the LSU campus, edging past a few collar popped frat boys squabbling on the sidewalk. I work my way through a handful of the flowing Chimes taps, opting for a selection of the local Abita seasonal brews while Federico samples from their equally impressive whiskey selection.
As the gameday morning rises, the weather turns foul and an ominous mist hangs in the sky like smoke. We slip into some free parking on Lake Shore Drive, and shuffle over to campus, passing by Mike the Tiger’s plush habitat as hordes of onlookers try to snap a photo of the LSU mascot. It’s there that we meet up with my friend Mandy, the same host from my visit back in 2010 and a die hard LSU fan. Soon after we shake hands, we’re corralled onto the median of the street as the crowd parts for the LSU player walk (which like every other SEC school, LSU claims to have invented). Blue lights flash and police sirens whale away as two busses pull up, the doors swaying open as the crowd roars. Head coach Les Miles steps off first with a police escort, followed by two single file lines of players from each bus – offensive players on the right, defensive players on the left. Garbed in neat coat and ties, the players walk purposefully towards the stadium but stop for the occasional high five and handshake with kids. The famed, and highly talented, LSU Golden Girl squad follows after the players. Teeth chattering as they promenade, their scantily cut leotards do little to allay the drizzle.
Following the player procession, we meet up with Mandy’s aunt Karen, host of the infamous Van Geaux tailgating rig. If there is such a thing as professional tailgating, Karen would rank among the best, and she welcomes us with the same gracious hospitality I enjoyed back in 2010. Their converted DHL truck overflows with provisions, and I make several raids on an overflowing tray of incredible home made tamales. Soon, the weather grows angry, and ask the sky turns fowl and we’re forced to find shelter and take refuge under a bus shelter as an afternoon of blissful LSU tailgating is ruined.
We file into Tiger Stadium early to escape the deluge, huddling into the crowded concrete concourse as it’s mobbed by thousands of others retreating from the rain. Fed buys a flimsy plastic poncho for $8, and I hunt down the boudin vendor for a tube of the Cajun meat delicacy. It’s a safe bet that Tiger Stadium is the only college football stadium in the country that offers fresh boudin and jumbalaya among its food vendors. Waiting until only a few minutes before kickoff, we finally emerge from the tunnel and are blasted by an icy wind that whips the drizzle in sideways. Fed’s cheap poncho is immediately tattered, revealing his crimson Aggie shirt to bare in a sea of purple and yellow slickers – Louisiana natives all better prepared for the elements. As the ball slides out of receivers hands during the final minutes of warmup, the greasy weather portends a miserable afternoon. Fed and I shiver in the mist, an unseasonably cold fall afternoon in the giant belly of Death Valley.
True to form, the game proves a tough one for the visiting Aggies. Already nursing a hand injury, electric Aggie quarterback Johnny Manziel is stifled by the misty weather. He sails errant passes over the heads of his receivers, the ball fluttering in the mist as he completes only 16 of 41 attempts. On the ground his feet slip on the grime, failing the normally surefooted and elusive captain, and he is stuffed into the turf repeatedly by the dogged LSU pass rush. It’s one of the worst performances in the Heisman winner’s short two year career, as he tosses two interceptions against only 224 yards, and the imposing confines of Tiger Stadium lay claim to yet another victim.
The LSU offense proves better built for the elements. Pounding the ball on the ground relentlessly, the Tigers amass 324 yards of rushing offense. Senior running back Terrence Magee chews up 149 yards alone, averaging over 11 yards per carry as he streaks through the porous Aggie defense. Quarterback Zac Mettenberger plays a serviceable, mistake free game – flipping short passes to his receivers who break free of the flimsy Aggie arm tackles for extra yards. In the end, LSU walks away with a confident 34-10 victory, eliminating any last hope for a Johnny Manziel appearance in a BCS bowl game.
Thank you to Mandy and Karen for their always gracious hospitality and incredible setup! Hope to see y’all again next year, and folks like you are the reason LSU is such a special place!!!
Special thanks to my friend Federico for making the trip down to Baton Rouge. Can’t wait to hit another game with you next year man!
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