In between my evening MAC doubleheaders in late November, I had an afternoon to kill in Columbus and looked for a few cultural diversions to keep me out of trouble. With BBQ in central Ohio out of the question, the most obvious choice was exploring a few of my other favorite things: meatballs and booze.
As faithful readers of the blog already know, I am a purveyor of the finer things in life and you’ve heard my familiar schtick about the greatness of barbecue, chocolate shakes and burgers. Predictably, I also happen to be a connoisseur of meatballs too, and I appreciate the subtle artistic nuance of a perfect meat sphere. I’ve eaten them across this great country of ours, including handfuls of them at the infamous Meatball Shop in New York City.
With those credentials out of the way, allow me to introduce you to perhaps the greatest meatball on the planet: Marcella’s. While it’s a tad more upscale than my typical haunts, Marcella’s Italian Kitchen in Columbus dishes out the meatball of the gods. About the size of a regulation softball, a single meatball is a sizeable portion on its own. The behemoth is served in its own cast iron pot, and arrives garnished with parmesan cheese. One bite and you know you’ve gotten into something transcendent. The ball is incredibly light and fluffy, almost spongy in texture and yields easily with a fork. Well spiced with Italian seasoning and grated cheese folded in, the ball arrives slathered in a thick red tomato sauce. This is the holy grail of meatballs. You will, quite simply, never surpass this; you can only hope to find its equal.
Following the epic meatball, it’s time for a little post lunch digestif. Fortunately, as the national explosion of micro distilleries swells, two such places have opened up within the city limits of Columbus: Middle West Spirits and Watershed Distillery. I make a visit to Middle West first, tapping on the door until one of the distillers answers and happily gives me an impromptu tour. These smaller operations are a far cry from the pristinely manicured grounds and professional tours that I had earlier this fall in Kentucky bourbon country, and getting a personal tour is a warm touch. He proudly shows off the gleaming copper Kothe still. Custom ordered from Germany, it features more knobs, dials and windows than a Virginia class submarine. The strong aroma of fermenting mash permeates the humid air in the warehouse, accented by the sweet, intoxicating scent of oak and bourbon. While they make an array of award winning vodkas, I opt for a few small samples of their equally esteemed wheat whiskey and reserve bourbon, both crafted from locally sourced Ohio grains. Naturally, I pick up a jet black bottle of the OYO Reserve Bourbon before heading out the door.
Following Middle West Spirits, I head to the other upstart in town, Watershed Distillery. Things are a bit more formal here, and the counter girl insists on the $10 fee for a tour despite the place being empty. I decline the tour, but fork over five bucks for a couple of tastings of their different spirits – vodka, gin and bourbon. The bourbon barrel aged Gin is a refreshingly unique departure from the norm, and if you’re a gin fan it would be worth a try. A staunch traditionalist, however, I ultimately pick up a bottle of their traditional oak aged bourbon. Between the Watershed and Middle West bourbons, I’ll be returning home with a nice haul of craft spirits.
From there, I brave the two hour drive to Toledo over the flat expanse of northern Ohio. Occupying the west bank of Lake Erie, and located only sixty miles from Detroit, Toledo has an overwhelmingly industrial feel. Cranes and smokestacks jut into the skyline, and the rusting dreck of factories and bridges dominate the landscape. I make a brief stop at Tony Packo’s Cafe, a Hungarian hot dog house considered an institution in Toledo since 1932. I order up a combo plate of their signature chili dog and stuffed cabbage, admiring the eccentric collection of signed hot dog buns adorning the walls. Comfort food served on red and white checkered table cloths never tires in my book, and after a quick meal I head towards the University of Toledo.
The lights of the Glass Bowl beckon, and after easing into a five dollar parking space, I head towards one of the more unique stadiums in college football. Named after the city of Toledo’s prominence in the glass manufacturing industry, the Glass Bowl was constructed in 1936. The stadium features impressive traditional stonework, craftsmanship which has been deftly preserved throughout several modern upgrades over the years. Two stone towers on the south end pierce high into the night sky. Like medieval ramparts they stand in stoic contrast to the blaring, garish jumbotron pumping out ads for the local tire warehouse. A blend of the old and the new, the Glass Bowl is one of the finer venues in the sport – architecturally speaking.
I pass by a few revelers as they spill out of a converted party ambulance, the lights flashing above while they clutch red solo cups. Aside from them, however, the lots are pretty quiet on a chilly Wednesday night. A 25 foot blue and yellow rocket sits perched on a stand outside the Northeast entrance to the Glass Bowl. Bought in 1961 from the U.S. Army missile program, the one ton projectile points directly towards the fifty yard line of arch nemesis Bowling Green State’s Doyt Perry Stadium.
I pick up a $35 face value ticket for 20 bucks from an old lady pawning a single after her nephew elected to stay home on a brisk night. As the game kicks off, the Rockets take the field garbed in garish pink and blue uniforms – an admirable salute to breast cancer awareness, but a trend that I find thoroughly tired at this point. But they play spirited football for the first half, holding the explosive Northern Illinois onslaught to a single touchdown and carry a 10-7 lead into the locker rooms at halftime.
The second half would ground the Rockets, however, as the Huskies make a few halftime adjustments – most of which consist of letting Jordan Lynch run wild with the offense. Lynch, the outside Heisman hopeful, explodes for three rushing touchdowns in the second half and the rout is on. Racking up 160 yards on the ground and another 200 through the air in the process, Lynch would pad his already impressive season statistics and his case for the bronze trophy. The Huskies would eventually roll to a 35-17 win, improving their unblemished record to 11-0 and an outside shot at a BCS Bowl bid still possible. Rocket fans start filing solemnly out of the Glass Bowl with a few ticks remaining in the fourth quarter. Per my usual, I hold on until the final whistle, admiring the fine stonework of the historic venue for a few extra minutes.
Special thanks to my friend Becky for her hospitality in Columbus, and agreeing to my finicky meatball requirements…can’t wait to catch you at an Irish game next fall!
Full Clickthrough gallery below:
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Friday morning my father wrangles me out of bed at 5:30 AM. As I wrestle with consciousness it eerily reminds me of high school. An early riser, he’s already spit polished and ready to roll, wide eyed and giddy for a day of bourbon tasting. We jump into our silver Nissan Altima rental, a “double upgrade” according to the good folks at Enterprise at McGhee Tyson airport, and speed northward into the morning black. Winding up I-75 in the dense fog of early morning, we twist and turn through the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. On a clear day, with the sun poking over the mountains just beginning to rust with the color of fall, this would be a spectacular drive. But blanketed by fog, and dodging eighteen wheelers chugging up the hills, it’s a tedious ride.
Although were visiting the University of Tennessee for the weekend, my final remaining venue in the SEC, first we’re on a run to experience the “Bourbon Trail”. A collection of whiskey distilleries in the heart of Kentucky Bourbon country just south of Louisville, the trail connects a handful of the most iconic Bourbon distilleries in the country. Located about three hours from Knoxville, we’d been planning this trip for nearly a year. Buffalo Trace is our first stop, and we take a full tour of the grounds – the only free tour offered at any of the distilleries. Walking through the old brick warehouses, the wooden barrels arranged neatly in racks, the aroma is an intoxicating mix of whiskey, charred oak and sawn pine. The barrels here rise six full stories in the warehouse, left in the dark for years to slowly age into the caramel colored nectar.
When we finish in the tasting room, I ask the shopkeeper if they have any stray bottles of Pappy Van Winkle 20 year tucked away in a closet somewhere. Considered by many to be the finest bourbon made, it typically retails for over $250 per bottle – assuming you can ever find a bottle for sale. Figuring the best place to ask would be directly from the source at Buffalo Trace, perhaps I might win the lottery…
The shopkeeper chortles at my silly question: “You’d have better luck going into the woods and getting your picture taken with Sasquatch” he retorts. A simple no would have sufficed…
From there, we make a stop at Woodford Reserve and their immaculate grounds before motoring down the Bluegrass Parkway into Bardstown for lunch. The quaint little downtown is a haven for whiskey heads, as pubs tout long bourbon menus and a handful of liquor stores dot 3rd Street. We settle into Mammy’s Kitchen for lunch, a converted turn of the century drug store with small tile floors and decorative square ceiling tins. I order up a “Hot Brown Sandwich”, the signature Kentucky dish that traces its roots back to the Brown Hotel in Louiville (see my original blog post about it HERE). Naturally, I order the dinner sized portion, and the gluttonous affair is a decadent pile of turkey, bacon, ham, and tomato all served open faced on toast points and smothered in rich parmesan sauce.
As if the massive sandwich weren’t enough, the waitress sells us on a slice of their scratch made chocolate cream pie. A recipe handed down from her great grandmother “Mammy”, the chocolate is so rich and intense that it resembles a gelatinous brownie, topped with a generous dollop of whipped cream. Both chocolate fiends, my father and I slash forks for the last few bites so aggressively it makes Game of Thrones look like a Pixar movie.
After lunch we hit Willett distillery, turning up a rustic gravel drive into their parking lot. One of the few family owned distilleries (most of the others are owned by “big liquor” companies such as Jim Beam, Brown Forman, etc.), Willett is noticeably more rough around the edges. The steel clad warehouses show rust around them, there are tractors hauling grain around and the grounds aren’t the pristinely manicured putting greens like the other places. But they make a damn fine bourbon, and I grab a bottle of their elusive, limited release, 10 year old Single Barrel Family Estate to smuggle back to Saint Louis.
From there, our final stop on the day is Makers Mark. In a clear fall afternoon, the drive down the rolling green hills of State Road 49 is spectacular. Unfortunately, the iconic Loretto, Kentucky distillery is a mob scene when we get there. Hoping for a quiet Friday afternoon tour, the place is overrun with joggers decked out in silly outfits. Evidently, Makers Mark is a key stop along the “Bourbon Chase” an annual two day, team relay race that trots through the heart of Kentucky Bourbon country. We take a quick self guided tour of the operation (there are no formal tours because of the race), doing our best to avoid the fluorescent spandex garbed hordes pouring out of every building. We dip our fingers into the massive Cypress wood mash tubs, licking the sweet “beer” before it ferments into alcohol. After a quick glimpse of a 100 year old label cutter, we conclude the tour on the finishing line, where workers dip full bottles of Makers Mark into their signature red wax seal.
Saturday morning proves to be yet another early wake up call, as the good folks at the SEC scheduling department elected to kickoff the Tennessee vs South Carolina matchup at noon EST. As you’ve heard my familiar refrain on this blog before, noon start times are a pox upon the festive world of college football, and a complete atmosphere killer. They are especially egregious at a preeminent destination like Tennessee, where pre game tailgating and traditions such as the “Volunteer Navy” are such an integral part of the game day experience.
I circle a few side streets on the hunt for free parking, but given the tight confines of urban Knoxville, I’m forced to pull into the Knoxville City-County building for $20. As a uniformed police officer waves me in, he asks to search the trunk of the vehicle. “Why do you need to search the trunk” I respond, curious about the questionable 4th amendment breach. “In case you have any explosive devices in the trunk” the officer responds matter of factly. Although I typically mock overzealous security measures, evidently the building has been subject to a handful of bomb threats over the years, so the procedure is not entirely unfounded.
As we head towards campus, we walk past pockets of tailgating, orange tents and tables are shoehorned into every small parking lot and lawn between buildings. A few parties even spill out of the large parking garages dotting the city. Given the tight urban constraints of Knoxville, there simply aren’t the large swaths of parking and lawn that you’ll find surrounding other stadiums in the SEC and Volunteer fans are forced to squeeze a party into any small corner they can find. We stroll further down Cumberland Avenue, the major thoroughfare bisecting the UT campus, and the sidewalks grow thick with orange garbed gameday pedestrians.
The scalpers are out in full force too, but with tickets still available in the box office for face value, they have little room to negotiate. After surveying the market a few times and getting cussed out by one grey bearded old timer for bargaining too hard, I nail down a pair of seats on the 30 yard line for $80 apiece (lower than face at the box office). While I certainly could have done better if only looking for myself, negotiating pairs of tickets is a harder game to play.
Approaching the impressive brick façade of Neyland Stadium thousands of fans form a gauntlet on both sides of Phillip Fulmer Way, while the “Pride of the Southland” Tennessee marching band toots away on the steps of the Hearing and Speech Building. The street, named after national championship winning former head coach Phil Fulmer, is the site of the Tennessee Volunteers player walk. In keeping with many other SEC institutions, players walk down the avenue en route to the stadium while fans cheer boisterously alongside.
As we enter the cavernous bowl of Neyland Stadium and assume our seats, the atmosphere is noticeably subdued. The dreadful early start time coupled with a lackluster season thus far, clearly has the Volunteer fan base aloof. Players finish a few last warm-ups and head into the tunnel while the band takes the field. The band runs through a few formations, and belts out “Rocky Top” to pump the crowd up, the defacto fight song for the Volunteers. Finally, they assemble into their infamous “Power T” entrance, and shortly after the players burst out of the tunnel and run through the formation on their way to the bench. A quick coin toss and we’re ready for game time in Tennessee…
And what a hell of a game it is. For the 5th game in a row, I catch an absolute barn burner of a contest. On paper, the game was supposed to be a blowout, as the South Carolina Gamecocks came into the contest ranked #10, and had reasonable expectations to win the SEC East Division. The match even starts out tenuously, as on the second Tennessee possession from scrimmage wide receiver Alton Howard gets absolutely annihilated by South Carolina’s sensational defensive end Jadaveon Clowney for a loss of 5 yards. As Clowney struts around, the restless Tennessee crowd shifts nervously in their seats on the play, wondering if this will be the start of a VERY long day.
But the Vols stand their ground. Quarterback Justin Worley fires crisp passes down the field, and the Tennessee defense shows remarkable resiliency. At halftime, the Volunteers own a 17-7 lead and the crowd swells with energy.
After the Pride of the Southland band performs their impressive halftime routine, the Gamecocks come out with renewed zest in the third quarter. Quarterback Connor Shaw leads Cocky on a pair of touchdown drives, and the South Carolina squad regains a 21-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter. The crowd deflates, Tennessee fans have become all too cynical over the past decade, and fourth quarter collapses have become the unfortunate norm for the prestigious program. A couple particularly pessimistic fans even head for the exits, confident they already know how the story is about to unfold.
Today, however, things are different. After booting a field goal with ten minutes remaining, the Volunteers have pulled themselves to within a point. Then, the Volunteer defense takes over. They stymie the Gamecocks on three separate drives late in the 4th quarter, stuffing QB Connor Shaw into the turf on one such drive and knocking him out of the game. The defense shows remarkable poise each drive, stifling Steve Spurriers potent offense. Willed by the growing electricity in the stands, the orange garbed faithful rise to their feet.
As Tennessee assumes the ball with 2:48 remaining, they initiate their final offensive drive. After a few incompletions, Worley connects with wide receiver Marquez North on an incredible 39 yard bomb deep into South Carolina territory – well within field goal range. After a few running plays to squeeze the final ticks off the clock, Tennessee place kicker Michael Palardy nails a 19 yard chip shot to win the game as the clock expires. 95,000 fans erupt in celebration as the Volunteer bench empties onto the field. It’s the biggest win for Tennessee in since 2007, and the euphoric crowd belts out “Rocky Top” with a fervent muster pent up for nearly a decade.
In the end, after such a thrilling and intense game, Tennessee is unquestioningly one of the premiere destinations in the SEC. It’s a tradition rich program, in a fun town, with an enormous stadium and passionate fan base. While my visit was noticeably subdued, largely a function of an early start time and mediocre team, this is a program ready to bounce back. It has all the ingredients to reassert itself in the top echelon of the SEC, and with some of the right personnel decisions, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it rebound in the next few years. And I for one can’t wait to head back to Knoxville for a huge tilt when the Vols are sitting atop Rocky Top once again…
Special thanks to my father for joining me for another year of adventure. It’s always a special weekend to spend with your Dad drinking whiskey and watching football…
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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Sept 10th @ Pittsburgh (Penn State) Sept 10th @ Kent State (North Carolina A&T) Nov 19th @ South Alabama (Presbyterian) Nov 22nd @ Miami OH (Ball State) Nov 25th @ Memphis (Houston) Nov 26th @ Middle Tennessee (Florida Atlantic)
Total Miles Traveled: 18,772 Total Attendance: 155,118 Total Games: 6