It’s Saturday morning in the Windy City, and finally feels like fall.  A refreshing crisp is the air, and I don a hooded sweatshirt over my purple t-shirt in preparation for the trip to Northwestern.  It’s an 11am start time, one of those awful byproducts of maximizing television exposure.  Weary fans barely have enough time for a cup of coffee, never mind anything heavier, before herding into the stadium for a morning kickoff.  The way the Big 10 is playing this year, early kickoffs might be the only games fans choose to watch before flipping over to the afternoon SEC or Pac 12 matchups.

I catch a ride to the Fullerton red line stop on the “El”, the elevated local train system in Chicago.  For $2.25 I can ride it all the way up to Evanston from downtown, and I press into the silver car as it rattles to a stop.  Urban dwellers are quick to glamorize the joys of public transportation, but a few minutes on the train remind me why I don’t miss it.  A few vagrants lie across the seats, and the entire car wafts an enticing aroma of old socks mixed with rancid ethnic food.  It rumbles agonizingly slow on the elevated tracks, stopping altogether at random intervals for no apparent reason.

Winding through the Chicago skyline, the train gradually swells at each stop with an array of purple and crimson shirts.  Nearing Evanston, it’s packed to standing capacity. The contrast between the two fan bases is stark.  Older Northwestern alums tote paper bags of neatly placed organic groceries, while younger Indiana alums carry Styrofoam coolers packed with unnaturally colorful bum wine, trading sips of cheap rum from a disposable plastic flask.  A few of them squabble with each other about the contest ahead, which, given the traditional football prowess of both schools, is comical to say the least.

After nearly an hour on the train, I cover the ten miles to the Central Street stop, the same pace as a casual jog.  I emerge from the station with scarcely an hour before kickoff.  It’s a beautiful day for college football in Evanston. Crisp weather, brilliant blue sky and leaves arching over the street are just starting to turn the first shades of autumn gold.

I cue up for breakfast at Mustard’s Last Stand, a hot dog joint in the shadow of Ryan Field.  Dishing out Chicago fare since 1969, the walls are covered with old football photos and a fading white menu board.  I opt for an armful of classics, a chocolate shake, hot dog with the works, and an Italian beef sandwich – with the bun dipped in the au jous of course.  Like all traditional Chicago dogs, the poppy seed bun is overflowing with tomatoes, a pickle slice, sweet peppers, slather of yellow mustard, an all beef frank, and a gentle shake of celery salt.  Ketchup, the prevailing beacon of bad taste, is refreshingly absent from the entire establishment in true Chicago fashion.  The Italian beef sandwich proves underwhelming and plain, but the chocolate shake here is a true star.  Hand dipped from tubs of chocolate ice cream, it’s blended with syrup and whole milk, served in a Dixie cup, the icy treat just thick enough to tug through a straw.


After my power breakfast, I walk past a few ambitious tailgaters in the gravel lot next to Ryan Field, scooping up a quick ticket on the 50 yard line for twenty bucks.  The scalper tries to put up a fight, but when he’s holding an inch thick stack of tickets in his hand, it’s hard to be persuasive.  Built in 1926, Ryan is one of the oldest stadiums in the Big 10, and entering through the concrete arches it echoes that classic feel.  At only 47,000 capacity it’s also the smallest stadium in the Big 10, and only about 2/3 of the place was full on this early Saturday morning, despite the unblemished 4-0 record of the Wildcats.

Following the opening kickoff, The Hoosiers are caught off guard in the opening half, as the Northwestern blitzkrieg explodes for 314 yards, jumping out to a 20-0 lead heading into the locker room.  The crowd grows aloof with the easy first frame, relaxing on the aluminum bleachers, chatting about classic cars and corporate strategy.  But Indiana battles back in the second half, reeling off 21 3rd quarter points, forcing the NU fans to their feet once again on key third down defensive stands.  Surprisingly, the contest proves to be an exciting shootout.  Eventually, late in the 4th quarter the Cats put the game away, punching in a touchdown with five minutes left on the clock.  Though the 44-29 win is convincing, the 704 yards of total offense – a school record – is sure to raise an eyebrow from some of the elder statesman of the conference.  With a 5-0 record and abnormally weak Big 10 play this year, the door is open for a Wildcat surprise season.

After the game, I brave the “El” once again, then cab it over to Smoque Barbecue, and sink my teeth into the best brisket I’ve had outside of Texas. (read the full review here)   Bellied up on barbecue in the late afternoon, it’s time for the real entertainment of the day; Oktoberfest.  I return to a houseful of lederhosen garbed friends where a keg of imported Hofbrauhaus and authentic Bavarian pretzels await as we flip channels through a few of the SEC games.  A few hours later, we stumble onto a hired trolley for the night, reveling through downtown Chicago in a handful of traditional German bars like Prost!.  Sloshing huge mugs of molasses colored Spaten Optimator and passing sips of the massive two liter “das boots” full of lager, it’s a fine nightcap to a nice little Saturday.

Truthfully, the trip to Northwestern was more about spending a weekend in Chicago with friends, and checking one more Big 10 school off the list.  While they may have sporadic bouts of historical success, Northwestern is not a traditional football powerhouse and the game day environment is pretty tame.  Like any major metropolitan area, college football takes a back seat to the professional teams in town, and the Bears are certainly the kings of the gridiron in Chicago.  But a pristine day of fall weather watching a few helmets pop is never a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon, or morning for that matter, especially with an Oktoberfest chaser…

(Full Clickable gallery below)


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