Pouring over the calendar in early October for our annual college football trip, my best friend Tyler had procrastinated once again. After last years showdown in Columbia for the South Carolina vs Florida game, he had his sights firmly set on another November matchup in the hard hitting SEC. But as the months went buy, hotels filled up and flights sold out, making any trip to the heart of Dixie prohibitively expensive. As such, we were forced to look elsewhere, and the allure of Norman, Oklahoma quickly beckoned as the storied Sooners were hosting the prolific Baylor Bears, a clash that would surely have implications on the college football playoff picture. With a few mouse clicks, flights were finally locked down for Tyler and his coworker Thibs, and a trip to Bricktown was settled.
As the calendar towards game day approached, however, a few things had shifted in the Big 12. The mighty Sooners no longer stood atop the standings, and upstarts like TCU and Kansas State had dared to leapfrog the perennial contending Crimson and Creme in the rankings. The good folks in the scheduling department at ABC Network had responded in kind, moving the #15 Oklahoma vs #12 Baylor matchup to a dreaded 11am start time, while they shifted the #6 TCU vs #7 Kansas State tilt to a 7pm kick down in Fort Worth. While I typically balk at the move to a morning kickoff, this presented us with an interesting option – catch an impromptu doubleheader! Faced with the prospect of seeing four top 15 teams in a single day (a feat I’d never accomplished in six years), Tyler and Thibs quickly agreed, and a full slate of big time college football was on the calendar.
After a night out in Oklahoma City the night before, morning starts early on Saturday. Between the 11am kickoff and a three hour drive between games, tailgating would be a futile effort in our little SUV rental. Making the short drive into Norman from Oklahoma City, we fuel up on a few breakfast tacos at Rudy’s, the long, serpentine line flooded with crimson shirts all looking to do the same. We find free parking in the quaint residential neighborhood surrounding the OU campus along Brooks street, hoofing it a mile over to the stadium on a perfect fall afternoon. I had already secured tickets the night before, answering an ad on craigslist that scored us three tickets for face value, in the 3rd row, on the 50 yard line – an intentional departure from my usual street haggling, as I hate trying to find blocks of tickets.
We tour the OU campus for only a few minutes, the early kick doesn’t leave much time for sightseeing, before heading into the bowels of Gaylord Family Memorial Stadium. Shortly after the Sooner Schooner completes its semicircle around the field, the crowd rises to it’s feet for kickoff exchanging chants of “boomer”….”sooner” back and forth across the gridiron. Seated only a few rows behind the Oklahoma bench, our view is incredible, and a great window into some of those sideline nuances that you’d never get in the grandstands. Things start out well for the Sooners, their up tempo offense moves the ball efficiently as quarterback Trevor Knight zips passes to standout freshman receiver Miciah Quick. They score a pair of touchdowns in the first frame, and jump out to a 14-3 lead after the first quarter while the Sooner faithful bellow confidently in the excitement of their home field advantage.
But that would be the last we’d hear from the crimson crowd all afternoon, and the Sooners would never score another point all day. Baylor explodes in the second quarter, erupting for three touchdowns as their gunslinger Bryce Petty tosses the ball all over the turf with impunity. Baylor head coach Art Briles spread offense is a marvel to watch, as they gnash apart the defense, reeling off chunks of yards at a time. Midway through the third quarter, the OU defense all but taps out, as Baylor piles on to lead 38-14. From our vantage point steps away from the OU squad, the players are visibly gassed, gulping for air while they slump on the bench, defensive coordinator Mike Stoops (brother of head coach Bob Stoops) berating them for yet another breakdown. Baylor would go on to a full 48-14 blowout, their first win over a ranked opponent in 37 tries, dating back to 1991. The roar of 85,048 people reduced to the silence of a Sunday church service, we hustle out towards the car. It’s a three hour ride down to Fort Worth, and football is only half done for the day….
Some would say there isn’t much to see on the stretch of I-35 South from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth, but I for one enjoy the vastness of it all. At the crest of each hill the rolling plains stretch out to the horizon, a few oil derricks bob in the distance, and the sun lowers in the sky turning the grassy expanse into magnificent hues of gold and rust.
Tyler mans the wheel, careening through southern Oklahoma at a comfortable 75mph while I navigate and Thibs takes a snooze in the back seat. We stop only once, for a quick drive through mission at Whataburger, the venerable Texas burger chain. Grease soaks through the flimsy yellow wrapping paper as the hefty burgers are doled out, and Tyler deftly keeps the little SUV between the lines while gripping a fistful of cheeseburger. We listen intently as the radio bellows out the afternoon Notre Dame vs Arizona State contest, a sound thrashing for the flailing Irish.
After a few hours, traffic thickens as the skyscrapers of downtown Fort Worth appear in the distance, puncturing the faint orange sky of dusk. Approaching Amon G. Carter stadium, the streets grow thick with game day traffic and, with kickoff only twenty minutes away, parking options are severely limited. We’re forced to pull into a driveway in one of the residential neighborhoods surrounding TCU and fork over thirty bucks to park, which I negotiate down from forty on principle alone. Probably the first time this guy has been haggled for parking on his front lawn…
Hustling over to the beckoning tower lights, parking lots are already emptying into the stadium as fans guzzle a final beer before producing their tickets for scanning. With ticket options and time at a premium, locating three contiguous seats off the streets would be nearly impossible at this point. So we split, buying a pair of tickets for Tyler and Thibs, and then a single for myself – each for fifty bucks a a pop. We agree to meet up after the first quarter of the game, once a few seats become available. Hustling through the turnstiles, I make it onto the newly renovated concourse just in time to catch the final few minutes of pre game ceremonies. The Horned Frogs streak out of the tunnel sporting special black uniforms for the occasion, their iridescent purple helmets reflecting the brilliant showers of fireworks cascading overhead.
The Horned Frogs jump out to an early lead, mounting a pair of touchdown drives in the first frame that put the Wildcats on their heels. Dual threat quarterback Trevone Boykin slices through the KSU defense, running for 123 yards on the night while passing for another 216 on top of that. While Kansas State would keep the score close for most of three quarters, TCU exerts firm control for the entire contest. Finally, in the fourth quarter as the fickle Horned Frog crowd is ready to head for the exits, they finally break the game open and run away with a 41-20 signature victory. With only a single blemish on their record for the year, the big win keeps the four team playoff hopes alive for TCU, and the Big 12 newcomers have firmly established themselves as conference contenders.
After the game we retreat to the Fort Worth Stockyards for some liquid refreshment at the historic White Elephant Saloon. It’s not everyday you catch four top 15 teams in a single afternoon, in fact, it’s downright rare – and that calls for a few Shiners to celebrate…
Thanks for Thibs for making the journey down to Oklahoma and Texas and jumping at the opportunity to hit an intense doubleheader. Can’t wait to hit another one with you next year!
Thanks to Tyler for a lifelong habit of procrastination on key decisions, for once it actually worked out to our benefit. We fell into one hell of a weekend, and look forward to another one in 2015!
Full Clickable gallery below:
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The beauty of College Football lies far beyond the game itself. It’s a chance to travel and explore, uncover unique traditions, cultural nuances, and be immersed into the energy and atmosphere of a raucous crowd. Most importantly, it’s about people. Each year offers a chance to gather once again with friends, enjoying the shared bliss of a crisp fall Saturday afternoon. On special occasions, however, it can even be a conduit to reconnecting with old friends. Friends with whom the pressures of time, careers, geography and family can make it increasingly difficult to stay connected with. On this weekend, that friend was Tyler.
Though we initially yearned for an SEC matchup, planning this for this debacle took place with the season already a few weeks underway, and the only date that matched up on our calendars was November 17th. With the juggernauts of the SEC all hosting barnburners against cupcakes like Western Carolina, Jacksonville State and Georgia Southern, we set our sights on the most bonkers place we could think of: West Virginia. Nobody goes to West Virginia right? I mean those people are crazy, insane even. You’d have to be nuts to go to a place like that.
But in mid September the Mountaineers were undefeated and averaging 65 points per game with an offense that resembled an ADHD 13 year old playing Madden. No team had yet cracked the code on how to slow them down, much less stop them, and a late season matchup against perennial Big 12 powerhouse Oklahoma was sure to be prime. Morgantown – nothing short of a couch burning riot.
Best friends since childhood, this was the first season that Tyler was able to join me since the official four year Pigskin Pursuit began. Reflecting back on it, however, Tyler may be partially responsible for setting this entire odyssey into motion in the first place, many years ago when we were just kids. Raised a staunch Irish Catholic, Saturday afternoons at Tyler’s house meant one thing; Notre Dame Football. It was likely there, scrambling around the carpet in his parents living room where my initial baptism into Irish fandom was bestowed. From the ages of eight to eighteen when we weren’t out in the yard chasing footballs like a pair of Labrador Retrievers, we were glued to Irish TV broadcasts, flipping through thick Saturday newspapers for player names and numbers.
A few years later, it was Tyler crammed into the backseat of a friend’s Volkswagen Golf with me for a 12 hour overnight drive to South Bend, Indiana – my first ever College Football game in 2001. He had even selected the opponent for our trip; USC, a game which, incidentally, was the last time Notre Dame defeated the Trojans in Notre Dame Stadium, dating back to the tenure of former head coach Bob Davie. After sneaking into the raucous Notre Dame student section on a majestic mid October afternoon, it was there, that day in 2001 – surrounded by 80,000 other boisterous fans – where something inside of me tripped. Mesmerized by the power and energy of it all, I was immediately captivated. Owned by the moment. Like a heroin addict, I’ve been chasing this dragon ever since. Tyler was there at zero hour, easing the needle into my arm.
This season the impetus for our journey was certainly less dramatic, but a perfect opportunity to reconnect. It was his wife Kristi’s idea actually, probably desperate for a weekend of peace and quiet with their newborn daughter. As the manager of the household calendar, she even helped coordinate a few details. She then sternly instructed me to take good care of her husband – lest she regret this decision.
Like any good friend, I lied and told her I would.
Tyler greets me at the Pittsburgh airport on a chilly Friday night after picking up our shiny silver Dodge Avenger rental. Still dapper in his work attire, he’s sporting khaki’s and a starched blue button down shirt, complete with French cuffs and the links to match. Spit polished dress shoes, and hair neatly parted, I haven’t seen him this dressed up since his mother dragged us to church on Sundays in middle school.
“You better have brought a change of clothes” I remark, confident that Kristi probably selected the entire ensemble.
“Why?” he responds chidingly.
“Because if we walk into a bar in West Virginia with you wearing that, we’re getting the shit kicked out of us”.
Five seconds into the trip and the wisecracking is immediately underway. We make a beeline for Primanti Bros, the infamous Pittsburgh institution. Featured on scores of TV shows, their towering sandwiches may be the most famous in the country. I direct Tyler towards the original location in the Strip District, flanked by long rows of old brick warehouses and loading docks. We settle into one of the creaky wooden tables, nursing a few Yuengling Lagers while perusing the painted menu board.
Ordering up a classic steak sandwich and a corned beef, they’re both among the best sellers at Primanti’s. Beer is the #1 seller, in case you were wondering. The goliaths emerge a few moments later, quivering towers of meat, coleslaw, tomatoes, and french fries piled between two thick slices of white bread. The sandwiches are so large they explode with every bite. By the end, our wax papers (there are no plates) are lumped with disheveled piles of meat and coleslaw. But they are hearty, filling offerings, and we wrestle with consciousness during the hour long drive South to the hotel in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.
The next morning, I rouse us early and we shoot down the undulating highway towards Morgantown. After a couple missed turns that don’t exist, courtesy of the new and improved iPhone Apple maps, we sling open the door to Ruby and Ketchy’s diner on the outskirts of town. Pine paneling covers every wall in the homey small town gem, and a stone fireplace crackles away in the corner. A few West Virginia fans chat over their diner mugs of coffee, garbed in bright yellow sweatshirts. We fold into a table and squawk about our cushy white collar careers, a conversation oddly out of place in a diner like this. Ordering up a couple of standard greasy spoon breakfasts, we toss the waitress a $20 on the way out, shocked at the remarkably affordable prices.
Loaded up on bacon and eggs, we poke our way down progressively thinner, bumpier roads towards Pinchgut Hollow Distillery for an encounter with the iconic West Virginia cultural institution of moonshine liquor. Winding down the final stretch of hilly dirt road before the distillery, a hunter decked out in Realtree camo ambles along the shoulder, a Mossberg pump shotgun straddled across his shoulders. Tyler casts me a sheepish glance. Movies about West Virginia start this way, and they usually don’t end well. After giving the hunter a wide berth on the gravel shoulder, we arrive into the confines of the parking lot without incident.
Huddling into the cozy Pinchgut Hollow tasting room, we’re greeted warmly by sample girl Stacey who takes us through the array of glass and ceramic bottles arranged neatly on the pine counter. They produce two kinds of moonshine here, traditional corn and a rarer buckwheat version – Pinchgut claiming to be the only legal buckwheat moonshine distiller in the US. We sample both. The raw, clear, 100 proof liquor burns the tongue a bit, but it’s surprisingly smooth, with a discernible difference in taste between the two grains. We also sample the sugary Apple Pie and Honey Peach flavored varieties, cut down to a paltry 70 proof for softer palettes. All four versions are available for purchase in 750ml ceramic pig bottles, a clever design inspired by a 19th century glass Suffolk Bitters Whiskey bottle the owner keeps proudly shelved in a glass display case.
They make Bourbon here too, naturally, as the raw moonshine is poured into charred oak barrels and aged on premise for two years to give it that amber, earthy glow. We sample those too, both the familiar corn bourbon and their exclusive buckwheat “bourbon”. (*bourbon dorks – no need to chastise me here, I am well aware that technically buckwheat liquor cannot be called real “bourbon” – it’s a descriptor, relax). Like any spirit, the aging really brings out some depth and complexity to the flavors, and it’s remarkably smooth sipping bourbon. They offer a tour of the small, family owned operation, already expanding with the explosion in consumer demand for craft distilled spirits. I revel at the neat stacks of numbered oak barrels shelved in all corners, the dense, yeasty smell of grain mash wafting through the crisp morning air. It’s a tempting place to stay for an afternoon, sitting on their porch, swapping pulls of Bourbon – but a big game beckons.
Warmed with our white lightning sampler, we speed on into Morgantown and press into Mario’s Fishbowl, a crowded landmark pub known for their giant “fishbowl” sized frozen schooners of beer. It’s a dark, cramped space alight with character. The walls are littered with thousands of cards and messages handwritten in magic marker, some of them witty, others a bit simpler minded like stenciled fraternity letters. There are records posted for the fastest fishbowl chug – 3.63 seconds, and a few fellas next to us fling quarters at a small vase perched on a dusty shelf high above the bar.
“The secret” the portly guy next to us proclaims “is to bank it in off the back wall” as he flings another quarter skyward. We watch it tumble clumsily, rattling off a few bottles before rolling to a stop on the floor behind the bar. If they manage to sink one, they get a free schooner full of a beer of their choice. For the next few minutes, he and his cohort keep peppering quarters at the vase wildly, the bus boy dodging them like an incoming mortar barrage each time they ricochet off the back wall. All told, the duo aimlessly flails twenty dollars in quarters at the tiny vase, all for a five dollar mug of beer. None of them connect. We toss a dollars worth of our own. The vase remains empty.
The bartenders at Mario’s are all young, perky coeds sporting grey t-shirts imprinted with the slogan “Take Me Home” on the back, a nod to the John Denver song Country Roads and defacto alma mater for The University of West Virginia. The entire bar even erupts in a Denver chorus a few times, swaying and clanking their foamy mugs back and forth. But the girls don’t abide bullshit from the rough and tumble game day crowd. When a precariously young looking patron orders two beers, one for himself and a friend, she sternly warns him “If you’re friend isn’t 21, I’m going to punch both of you in the stomach…” I doubt she was the kidding sort.
We politely order up a few signature fishbowls of Yuengling Lager, watching intently as the bar girl pulls a fresh, frosty bowl from the freezer with each order, chipping a solid disk of ice off the top of each glass before filling the vessel with the amber nectar. If there is a beer served colder than this, I haven’t found it. Like a couple of regular bar flies, we camp out on stools for a few hours, drinking a handful of fishbowls, dodging quarters, and soaking in one of the great Morgantown pubs before moving on.
From there, we wander into Kegler’s, a cavernous sports bar close to campus. With the usual array of wings and light beer, we perch on a few bar stools watching the afternoon games before making our final ascent to Milan Puskar. As we near the stadium, I thrust two fingers in the air signaling my need for a pair of tickets. Swarmed by a gaggle of sellers with fistfuls of them, I haggle a guy down to thirty bucks apiece for two seats on the 30 yard line, about half face value. Pressing the final stretch before the stadium, we elbow our way through the “Blue Lot”, hallowed tailgating grounds at West Virginia. The broad swath of asphalt is a borderline riot. Blue and gold tents pack the expanse with columns of grill smoke rising between. Coonskin cap adorned fans huddled beneath, spilling out of tents on all sides, clutching fresh beers while empties roll around the pavement like fallen leaves in the breeze. It’s an impressive scene.
Entering Milan Puskar for the first time, it’s a large space, but compared to the other goliath stadiums I have been to, nothing extraordinary. Although capacity is a humble 60,000, when full, the stadium itself is actually the largest city (by population) in the entire state of West Virginia. But that’s not what has my attention. What stops me dead in my tracks is that of all things, unbelievably, they sell beer here. Beer. Here. In West Virginia. If you polled college football fans across the country, of all the places where they absolutely should NOT sell beer – West Virginia would be at the top of that list. This is a whole new level of danger. But as I think about it, god only knows what these delightful lunatics would be sneaking into the stadium otherwise. So encouraging them to consume beer instead, I’m guessing, is actually a clever ruse sober them up. Wicked smart.
The game kicks off to Oklahoma, and the Sooners immediately respond by marching 75 yards down the field on a touchdown drive. In predictable Big 12 fashion, the contest turns into a track meet. For four quarters, the two teams trade touchdowns, although at one point the Mountaineers battle back from a 31-17 half time deficit. The animated crowd bellows with each sway in momentum, and the Mountaineer faithful are a vociferous, inebriated bunch. At half time the cacophony quiets for a moment when a public service video pipes in over the jumbotron encouraging fans to “celebrate with class”. It pleads with them to not burn couches – a time honored Mountaineer victory tradition recently banned by city ordinance because of its prevalence. That’s right, the city of Morgantown had to pass a law expressly banning couch burning. These are my kind of fans.
All told, the two teams rack up nearly 1,500 yards in total offense as receivers and running backs streak through porous defenses unabated. For a moment, West Virginia clings to victory, when they punch in a touchdown to take a 49-44 lead with only 2:53 remaining. But the Sooners know better. They march down the field unhurriedly on the final drive, chewing through the final minutes of the clock knowing they can score at will. With 24 ticks remaining Oklahoma QB Landry Jones slings an easy five yard touchdown pass to receiver Kenny Stills, and the Sooners confidently slide away with a 50-49 victory. Milan Puskar is hushed in frustration, the blue and gold faithful make for the exits in teeth grinding silence, “Take Me Home” is only sung in victory. The couches will live to see another day.
A barnburner of a game to begin with, the contest was further enhanced by the most electrifying individual performance I have ever witnessed on a college football field. West Virginia senior wide receiver Tavon Austin, playing in his final home game in Milan Puskar Stadium, was given a few snaps at running back for a few extra touches on senior day. What followed was nothing short of remarkable. Austin rushed for 344 yards (on 21 carries – a 16.4 ypc average), caught another 82 yards in the air, and racked up 146 more on kick returns. All told, he finished the day with a pair of touchdowns against 572 all purpose yards – only 6 shy of the all time record for all purpose yardage in an NCAA game. Shortly after a few of his initial runs, it was obvious that the Sooner defense had no ability to contain his blistering speed. Literally every single time he touched the ball, he was a threat to score. I have never witnessed its equal. It certainly arouses some suspicion with Mountaineer offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, that he waited until the final game of Austin’s 4 year career to truly unlock his talent…
Sunday morning, our adventures are hardly over. We stretch down the winding, hilly back roads of Southwest Pennsylvania to pay our respects to Fallingwater, easily the most famous house ever constructed. Designed by fabled American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1939, the dwelling sits perched atop a waterfall on the Bear Run River. Wrights’ crowning jewel of a long and distinguished career, the work is a masterpiece of cantilevered concrete, stone and glass. Each painstaking detail cleverly designed and expertly crafted. It’s an awe inspiring work, and, as a former architect, completely humbling. After the tour, we snap a few quick photos outside before pressing Northward. We’re allowed outdoor photos exclusively, as the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has irritatingly banned indoor photography.
Motoring back into to Pittsburgh, we make one final stop before boarding our respective flights. Beyond Primanti’s there is another famous sandwich that put Pittsburgh on the food map; the Turkey Devonshire. Akin to the “Hot Brown” sandwich in Louisville, the Turkey Devonshire consists of slices of roast turkey piled atop toast points, stacked with bacon and tomatoes, and finished with a generous slather of a proprietary cheddar based cheese sauce. It’s been a belt busting staple of the Steel City since 1934. We pick the Union Grill for our Devonshire’s, a fixture of the Oakland neighborhood, purported to have the best one around. Ordering up a pair of the luxurious sandwiches, they are dished out 15 minutes later on a piping hot ceramic skillet, the cheese sauce still bubbling. Indulgent to say the least, we make fast work of the creamy, hearty fare. After a quick waddle to the plane nap time ensues quickly.
After a whirlwind weekend in West Virginia, Tyler is sold on another adventure next fall, and I’m already circling the calendar in anticipation. So look for us coming to a SEC hotspot in 2013. Kristi, I promise I’ll take good care of him…
Special thanks to Kristi for pushing for this, and allowing Tyler a weekend out on the road…
Special thanks of course to Tyler for sticking the college football needle into my arm decades ago and setting all of this in motion, looking forward to the trip next year…
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Sitting in a plywood shack in Elbert, Texas my index finger gently caresses the cold trigger of a matte black AR15. Thirty rounds of screaming hot lead wait to be hurled towards my prey hiding in the mesquite and oak scrub beyond. I flash the infared light intermittently at the feeder, illuminating the target in a red glow as I peer through the laser dot on the scope. Hog vision can’t detect light at this spectrum. My father and I chat away in the shanty while we wait, a rare opportunity to spend time hunting together. An hour before, I’d stalked within fifty yards of a herd of twelve white tailed deer, an easy kill shot for any marksman. They carelessly munched on tufts of grass, taunting me, almost as if they knew deer season wasn’t open for another week. The hogs prove more elusive this evening, and, after a couple of unproductive hours, Dad and I call it quits as darkness sets in over the Texas sky.
I’m in town with my father for the Notre Dame vs. Oklahoma game up in Norman. Visiting close friends Bryce and Kate in Fort Worth, we’d all circled this game on the calendar years ago. While trips for Notre Dame to Oklahoma are exceedingly rare, the Irish have enjoyed an 8-1 all time record against the Sooners and have never lost in Norman. As if two historic juggernauts colliding weren’t enough, the surprise undefeated Irish enter the contest with an unblemished 8-0 record and lofty #5 ranking. Squaring off against an 8th ranked Oklahoma team, this clash is certain to have BCS implications. ESPN further adds to the hooplah, as their ESPN Gameday crew showed up for the 7pm primetime showdown on the plains.
We’d spent that Friday morning at Pecan Lodge in Dallas, getting an appropriate fix of Texas Barbecue before heading out for the afternoon hunt. Touting an elusive five star rating from the head honcho at Full Custom Gospel BBQ, waiting lines at the tiny storefront inside the Dallas Farmers Market have swelled to prolific proportion. Patrons wait up to two hours for a few velvet morsels of their black barked brisket. Smoked over mesquite wood, it’s Pecan Lodge’s unique departure from traditional central Texas barbecue, which exclusively espouses post oak smoke. We descend on a heaping platter of the “holy trinity” of Texas barbecue: pork ribs, sausage, and brisket. As if the protein fortress weren’t enough, I add a few Jurassic sized beef ribs to our burgeoning tray, giant bones of silky beef enveloped with a pristine red smoke ring. This is, quite simply, the best barbecue Dallas has to offer. Second place isn’t even close.
(Read the full review of Pecan Lodge here)
Saturday morning we pile into Bryce’s truck with a payload of provisions, heading due north up I-35 from Fort Worth, over the scarred, rocky, treeless hills of southern Oklahoma. We stop only once, pulling off the interstate in Marietta, Oklahoma at Robertson’s Hams. Chugging out smoke since 1946, the storefront features a wide selection of house smoked hams, jerky and sausages. We sling a few of their country ham sandwiches stacked on rye bread into the cooler and speed off. Pulling into Norman, the place is thick with game day traffic. Grills spew columns of blue smoke into the sky while crimson OU flags wave in the gentle prairie breeze. We find free parking in an empty grass lot a mile south of the stadium, poised alongside the grassy shoulder of Jenkins Avenue for a quick getaway later. With a brilliant clear sky overhead and 7pm kickoff, it’s a perfect lazy afternoon for tailgating.
Before cracking my first beer, I trot to the stadium to upgrade our student tickets at Memorial Stadium Gate 7. With prices for the historic matchup fetching $300 and up on Stubhub, I’d unearthed a set of 4 student tickets on Craigslist for $150 apiece and had them FedExed to Fort Worth. For $50 bucks more I upgrade them at the stadium to general admission seats as the woman carefully places a “Student Guest” sticker onto each ticket. With the open seating policy in the student section, the four of us will now be able to sit together. Not an ideal option to be standing 4 quarters amidst a sea of hammered drunk 20 year old OU students, but assuming I get equally marinated, it should at least be tolerable.
Returning back to the tailgate, a few empty cans already rattle around the pickup bed. Bryce, Kate and my father have jumped out to an early head start. The cooler is brimming with a cross section of regional microbrews from around the country. Ommegang from Cooperstown, New York, Clown Shoes from Massachusetts, and some rocket fuel from the Scottish brewery Brew Dog Brewing Company dubbed “Tokyo”, which tips the scale at nearly 20% alcohol and tastes like straight kerosene. My personal favorite is “Nitro” from Left Hand Brewing Company, a jet black Stout that pours like used motor oil. In between beers, my father and Bryce swap pulls of Crown Royal, while Texas country songs from Randy Rogers Band howl out the open rear window of the truck. It’s a fine afternoon.
With kickoff approaching an hour away, we stuff our pockets with a few walking beers and begin the trek to the stadium. While certainly outnumbered by crimson OU shirts, the Notre Dame contingent is well represented in Norman, handfuls of folks yell hearty cheers of “Go Irish!” as we pass by. Entering the stadium, portals to the grandstands are mobbed, backed up with a serpentine line of students. It’s a mad house, people clambering over one another like lines of red ants. We shuffle skyward up the steps, climbing to row 62 before I finally locate four open spots. Surrounded on all sides by OU students, we’re smack in the middle of the beating heart of OU fandom. I’ve been to Oklahoma a few times before, but never as a visitor, and I don’t know how these inebriated red shirts are going to respond to a group of infiltrators. The crowd erupts on all sides of us when the Sooners take the field, exploding in a deafening roar as fireworks shower across the dusky orange sky. Tear gas couldn’t quell this blustering melee right now. My father shoots a nervous glance my way with that “are you sure you know what the F you’re doing?” look. Kate gives me the same.
The game kicks off ominously at first, as Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones slings the ball down field in their high tempo, no huddle offense. The crowd bursts with each completion, exchanging high fives and feeding off the initial onslaught. They feel a rout on their hands. But the stout Notre Dame defense stiffens up in the red zone, holding the Sooners to a field goal and surviving the initial wave of momentum. As the Irish offense takes the field once again, Sooner fans reach their zenith, roaring loudly in support of their defense. Two plays later, the crowd hushes to an eerie silence. Notre Dame tailback Cierre Wood streaks 62 yards for a touchdown. 86,000 Sooners are stunned. With one play, the roiling stadium turns to a church.
It stays that way for nearly three quarters, as the impenetrable Irish defense baffles the Sooner attack. Their high powered, gun slinging offense is stymied. Squeaking out a few field goals, they enter the 4th quarter with exactly 0 yards rushing. The crowd comes to life briefly, when, midway through the 4th frame Oklahoma grinds in a touchdown to knot the score at 13 apiece. But the gutsy Irish respond immediately, once again, when quarterback Everett Golson connects for a 50 yard completion deep into Sooner territory. The crowd is hushed once more. Being bullied in Memorial Stadium is a foreign concept for Sooner fans, and they stand gape jawed and silent in the dry night air.
An interception and a few touchdowns later, the Irish assume a comfortable 30-13 lead as the fourth quarter draws to a close. With a minute left and contest decided, the aluminum bleachers begin to empty as crimson clad students cascade towards the exits. We stay behind, savoring every remaining second of the improbable win. Irish victories in Norman don’t come around often, the last one occurring in 1966. Remaining Sooner fans are gracious in defeat, helping us capture the moment in a handful of photos, exchanging handshakes and well wishes for the rest of the season. To a man, they’ve been polite hosts.
I can only hope we show them the same courtesy next year in South Bend. Courteously escorting the Sooners to the exits of Rocks House amidst their flowing tears of anguish and defeat…
Thank you to my Sooner friend Heather for the gameday guidance, and hopefully we can connect next time I make it down to Norman.
Special thanks to Bryce and Kate. As always, great to catch a game with you guys, and look forward to a few adventures next fall!
Thanks again to Dad for joining my tour again this fall, and glad we could finally get you a taste of some proper Texas Barbecue. I’ll make an Irish fan of you yet…
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Nebraska Football. The mere mention of it conjures up images of Tommy Frazier running the unstoppable option rushing attack, rugged corn fed fullbacks steamrolling unsuspecting linebackers and stalwart, bone crushing defenses. They claim three Heisman trophy winners, over 800 total wins (4th in NCAA History), and five national championships – three of which occurred during the 1990’s. By any measure, Nebraska stands as one of the most storied programs in College Football, and I wanted to make the journey to Lincoln to experience it first hand.
This would be the second game of my three day Thanksgiving rivalry weekend extravaganza, and I made the quick morning drive across the fallow plains of I-80 from Omaha to the Star City of Lincoln. A crisp late fall morning snapped some color into my cheeks and I hurriedly broke out my best bright red sweater to bundle up and blend in with the Husker crowd.
To say that Cornhusker football is a religion in the state would be an understatement. They are the only game in town (in State for that matter), and on Saturdays in Nebraska you are either attending the game or watching the game. The 80,000 plus capacity behemoth known as Memorial Stadium boasts the longest consecutive sellout streak in College Football at 306 games, which, for perspective, dates back to 1962. In fact, Memorial Stadium by itself is the third largest city in Nebraska on any given home football Saturday.
Lincoln is a quintessential smaller Midwest town, bisected by one way streets and flanked by old brick and limestone clad buildings. The University of Nebraska sits right in the middle of downtown, and due to the limited parking space, tailgating isn’t quite as robust as one would expect. You simply don’t have the vast oceans of grass surrounding the stadium that you will find at other schools with more tailgating notoriety. The fans at Nebraska make due, however, occupying all nooks and alleys of downtown Lincoln. The Cornhusker faithful are widely reputed to be among the most welcoming, and ardent fanbases in the country.
One of the most notable features of the crowd at Nebraska is their sheer energy when the Huskers go on defense. Nebraska, as a program, has a rich tradition of stifling defenses and the last few years have yielded some of the stingiest defenses in the College game. The pride of the Husker defense lies in a tradition known as the “blackshirts”. Since the 1960’s black shirt practice jerseys have been awarded exclusively to the defensive starters, and are a revered honor among Husker players. The fans respond in kind in the stadium, rising and cheering loudly when the Cornhuskers go on defense. Now most stadiums get louder on defense, which is hardly remarkable. At Nebraska, however, the crowd becomes absolutely deafening on defense, and their exuberance for a “three and out” is the most energetic I have witnessed in my travels. This, coupled with the tight quarters of the field (the grandstands are packed extremely close to the sidelines and endzones) make Memorial Stadium one of the most imposing places in the sport for visiting teams.
The opponent on the day would be the Buffaloes from Colorado, whom I had recently witnessed blow a 28 point 4th quarter lead against Kansas down in Lawrence only a few short weeks ago. That collapse cost head coach Dan Hawkins his job, and interestingly the Colorado program has sported a 2-1 record since the firing. Thickening the plot, this would be the final regular season Big 12 games for both of these squads as Colorado departs for the Pac 10 next year, while Nebraska leaves for the greener pastures (and fatter television contracts) of the Big 10.
The game itself was predictably one sided except for a slow start through the first quarter. Once the Huskers got warmed up, however, they never looked back despite missing their starting quarterback Taylor Martinez. Running back Rex Burkhead picked up the slack for the missing quarterback by amassing 101 yards of rushing and a touchdown on the ground. Burkhead, the Plano, Texas native, also demonstrated remarkable versatility by passing for two touchdowns on the day as well. Additionally, the stifling Nebraska defense lived up to their reputation by forcing three turnovers and holding the Buffaloes to a stingy 262 yards of total offense, many of which came late in the third quarter once the contest had already been decided. In the end the Huskers pulled away to a hearty 45-17 win.
After a trip there, it’s impossible not to be impressed by a Nebraska game. There is an incredibly rich football tradition that precedes a gameday in Lincoln, but in true understated Midwest fashion the experience lives up to its lofty reputation . There is a solidarity permeating the entire Kool Aid State (look it up) that rallies around the Cornhuskers, and their red clad fans have drunk it in droves. Filling an 85,000 seat stadium for the last forty eight years in such a sparsely populated state is testimony to Husker Nation, and I certainly screamed myself hoarse in the third largest city in Nebraska on Saturdays.
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