Pigskin Pursuit

An eight year odyssey across the backroads of America during the ultimate College Football roadtrip.

Tag: Independent (page 1 of 2)

Boston College vs Notre Dame – Irish fight off the fumbles in frigid Fenway…

Growing up a native Bay Stater and ardent Red Sox fan, Fenway Park has always held a nostalgic mystique for me. My earliest sports memories involve wading through the crowds on Yawkey Way, clutching my father’s hand, the smell of roasted peanuts and cheap cigar smoke hanging in the air like a fog. We’d press into the arched brick façade, squeeze through the old mechanical turnstiles with a satisfying clunk, before the days of laser tag scanner beeps. Once inside, we’d buy a couple hot dogs for a buck fifty apiece, coating them with a few shiny foil packets of Gulden’s Mustard.

From cramped wooden slatted seats we’d watch Sox greats like Wade Boggs slap the ball around, while Jim Rice patrolled the iconic left field wall in the twilight of his career. My father would school me on the finer points of the game while I groveled for a Hood “Sports Bar” ice cream from the barkers climbing up the steps. Afterwards, we’d camp out on Van Ness Street near the player exit, hoping to land a few autographs before the freshly showered big leaguers sped off in shiny new sports cars. The same spot where I once snagged Mark McGwire’s signature during his 49 home run rookie campaign in 1987.

Despite the cliché, the ballpark felt more authentic then. There were still a handful of the old, “golden era” parks around the league at that time (Yankee, Tiger, Comiskey, Wrigley, etc.), and Fenway hadn’t yet become the self-celebratory theme park it has evolved into today. It was grimy and rusty, signs were faded (not just painted to look faded), the amenities were spartan, and the crowd was rough and haggard. The very bricks themselves seemed to ooze the yeasty aroma of eons of cheap, stale beer, popcorn and sweat. While today the skeleton remains the same, the park has undergone a considerable facelift in the past decade as part of the “family friendly” marketing strategy the Red Sox have employed. A strategy that has paid off with a decade long sell-out streak, and grandstands overflowing with pink baseball caps and Vineyard Vines polo shirts.

Unsatisfied with mere sellouts, as part of the indefatigable chase for revenue (a necessary evil within the arms race of modern baseball), the Red Sox management has opened up the gates to the park for any kind of cross promotional event imaginable, all in an effort to extract every possible nickel from the “lyric little bandbox”. Everything from Rolling Stones concerts to NHL games have been played here of late, and a 4-H pony show can’t be too far away.

In similar fashion, the University of Notre Dame has shown recent exuberance for extracting every last drop of revenue from the withering historic pulp of their football program. The tackily branded “Shamrock Series” contests have featured “neutral site” games in locations of puzzling geographic nexus for the opponents. The contracts, however, are lopsided to favor the Irish who get to claim to an outsized portion of the ensuing gate and TV windfalls. In the past decade, Irish fans have been treated to what might otherwise be interesting matchups, were it not for the peculiar locations. In lieu of simple home and home arrangements, fans have been treated to games like Notre Dame vs Washington State in San Antonio, Notre Dame vs Miami (FL) in Chicago, and Notre Dame vs Arizona State in Dallas; to name a few. Clearly, for the revenue obsessed top brass at both Notre Dame and the Boston Red Sox, an Irish football game in Fenway Park was a match made in revenue whoring heaven. Ka-Ching….

Throw in a flunky opponent, the floundering Boston College program would do quite nicely, and you had all the components for a late November college football cash grab. Too add even further humiliation to the Eagles, despite their campus being only 3.9 miles away from Fenway Park, *Boston* College had agreed to be the VISITING team for this little boondoggle. As if that weren’t insult enough, given the tight confines of the Fenway Park visitor locker room, the Eagles would actually have to dress in Chestnut Hill and then bus over to the stadium like a high school JV squad. Fredo indeed.

Yet it was precisely here, at this eccentric event, on a cold November night, that I found myself. As a lifelong fan of both the Irish and the Red Sox, there was a certain magnetic pull towards this contest that trumped my revenue mongering protestations towards it. And, as an ardent sojourner of the sport, I felt a certain obligation to investigate first hand these oddball collaborations that seem to be gaining popularity throughout the college ranks. Next year, for instance, Tennessee will play Virginia Tech on the infield of Bristol Motor Speedway, and Cal will be opening their season versus Hawaii in Sydney, Australia.

But like all things Boston and Fighting Irish related, my intrigue came with a hefty price. I’d forked over $175 per person for the pleasure, which may be the highest face value, regular season, college football ticket in history. On the secondary market, tickets were starting at nearly $1,000 each and ranged considerably higher from there. I can only imagine the field day the legendary Boston scalping racket had for this event. With a stated capacity of only 38,686, less than half a typical Irish home game, the limited confines of Fenway Park would make this the least attended, and, hence, most exclusive Irish “home” game in decades.

My father had agreed to tag along for the spectacle, making his annual pilgrimage on the PigskinPursuit. We meet up on Newbury Street, the heavily trafficked, outdoor, upscale shopping district of Boston after I drop my car in a parking garage for thirty five bucks. With a hankering for a long overdue, classic American cheeseburger, we huddle into Shake Shack for a few quick burgers and beers before making the hike up to Fenway. When Dad inquires about our seats, I show him our tickets for the event, gingerly pulling them out of my zippered coat pocket like a winning lottery ticket. His eyes grow wide when he sees the face value printed on the front, audibly gasping, nearly choking on a mouthful of cheeseburger. In between bites he yammers something about footing the bill for a large portion of my college education, and how I can surely pony up for a few football tickets for the old man. Add this to the list of baby boomer generation entitlements I’ll have to foot the bill for, I suppose….

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While Boston itself is a decidedly mediocre college football town, overshadowed by the fanatical professional options in town, the streets are surprisingly alive on a brisk Saturday night. We begin our stadium journey down Boylston Street, the sidewalks flush with Irish fans, a shuffling mass of green sweatshirts. Boston College fans are far scarcer. With the Eagles 3-7 record, most of them smartly opted for the NBC broadcast at home. As we cross over the Mass Pike and turn onto Landsdowne Street, the spine of the Green Monster, the party is in full swing. Revelers pile out of the dingy bars on both sides of the street, and lines are stacked thirty heads deep outside waiting to get in. The entire street is cordoned off by police, its width swarmed with fans in a giant, roiling din. The aroma of browning onions wafts from sausage carts, the vendors rolling a few plump links across a hot grill, while the sound of souvenir barkers fills the air with thick Boston brogues. It’s not your typical college football tailgate, but close enough.

We enter through Gate C on Landsdowne Street, taking our seats in section 38 near the deepest part of centerfield, known in Red Sox lore as the “triangle”. The football field is laid out parallel to the first base line in Fenway Park, extending into the deep part of right field, the end zones nearly touching the padded walls of the relief pitching bullpens. The sight lines are a bit odd, as one would expect in a ballpark, and a broad swath of outfield grass separates the stands from the sidelines. For as small a park as Fenway is, the game action feels “distant”.

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As the pregame clock winds down, and a few of the glitzy Notre Dame promotional videos finish playing on the video screen in centerfield, the Irish storm the field. They emerge, almost single file, from the first base (home) dugout while a cascade of green fireworks erupts into the night sky high above the home plate press box. Sporting bright, Kelly green, “Green Monster” inspired uniforms, the Under Armour creations are nearly solid green from head to toe, accented only with the infamous gold helmets. While in years past some of these “Shamrock Series” uniforms have been nauseating abominations (thankfully Adidas has since been kicked to the curb), this particular vintage looks quite sharp under the phosphorescent glow of the Fenway lights.

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Although the uniforms might look sharp, despite the heritage of the billing and venue, on the hallowed fescue of Fenway Park the game proves to be one of the sloppiest fiascos I’ve ever witnessed. With a lofty #4 ranking entering the contest and college football playoff hopes on the horizon, the Irish do their best to Charlie Brown themselves out of the playoff picture on primetime national television. They turn the ball over an infuriating five times, three of those turnovers occurring inside the Boston College three yard line. The ball slips in and out of hands like a Harlem Globetrotters circus stunt, and the plucky Eagles refuse to go quietly into the frosty New England night.

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Sophomore Irish quarterback Deshone Kizer leads the turmoil. He wastes no time firing his first interception of the night, a bullet into the chest of the BC defender in the Boston College endzone on the opening drive of the contest. The meltdown caps off an otherwise impressive 60 yard march for the Irish. Kizer would add another pair of pickoffs during the game (one more of them of the soul crushing variety at the three yard line) to finish with three interceptions on the evening. Not to be outdone, Irish running back C.J. Prosise fumbles twice (one of which is luckily recovered by center Nick Martin) and, for fear of being left out, freshman backup  tailback Josh Adams gets in on the action with a fumble of his own. Even the sure hands of speedster wide receiver Will Fuller are greased, as he drops a few cupcake catches after darting behind the BC secondary. By the end of the night, the Irish would rack up 447 yards of total offense, but only manage two meager touchdowns to show for the effort.

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Self-flagellating notwithstanding, Notre Dame manages to slink away with a narrow 19-16 win, but not until after a dramatic dive onto the on-side kick to end the game. Although still technically a win, the Irish are sure to find themselves a few notches lower in the polls after this particularly lackluster effort.

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In the end, I’m torn about the Irish experience at Fenway Park. On one hand, there’s an undeniable nostalgia for witnessing the intersection of two of the cornerstones of my youth sports passion – Notre Dame Football and Red Sox baseball. And, of course, sharing an evening at Fenway Park with my father conjures enough maudlin, Kevin Costneresque sentiments to make the night a memorable one. But there is still something unshakably artificial and contrived about all of it. A lingering, glossy, commercialism that divulges the thinly veiled financial motive. The entire production feels heavily produced and cunningly marketed to feel authentic, but in a Disneyfied way that feels artificial, plastic.

But I suppose it could be worse. They could have played another game at Yankee Stadium…

Special thanks to my father for making the haul to Boston, it’s always special to spend an evening at Fenway Park with your Dad, and I look forward to another annual trip together next year!

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Notre Dame vs Texas – Irish thrash the Longhorns…

I generally don’t write much about Notre Dame at this point, because I’ve spent so many weekends there that I don’t have much to add to the site.  This trip was a fortuitous one, to witness the Irish host the Longhorns in a rare matchup between two of the most historic programs in the sport.  Despite the heavy billing of the contest, the Longhorns are in the midst down cycle in their program, and didn’t put up much of fight on this day.  The Irish easily handled the sputtering Longhorn squad on this day, running away with a lopsided 38-3 blowout.  I earnestly hope the Texas program bounce back to it’s historical dominance, and the game next year in Austin can live up to the hype of these two legendary programs.

Nevertheless, it’s always a treat to be back in South Bend for the weekend, touring the magnificent campus, and downing a few meatball subs from Polito’s.  With a few marquee names coming to South Bend in the future like Georgia and Ohio State, I look forward to more of these powerhouse games in the House that Rock Built.

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Special thanks to my friends Bryce and Geoff for meeting up, providing lodging, and an overall excellent weekend.  Look forward to seeing you at the next big Irish game!

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Navy vs Georgia Southern – Middies march over the Eagles…

It’s an early Southwest Airlines flight on Saturday morning, and I touch down in BWI shortly after sunrise with a full docket of football ahead. With a Navy game scheduled for 3:30 in the afternoon followed closely by an 8pm night game at Maryland, it’s a tenuously tight window to catch two. Energized by the doubleheader prospect ahead, I jump into a rental car and dash southeast towards Annapolis into the orange morning light.

I get into town easily, then wind around the historic state capitol building on the narrow, brick lined streets of Annapolis. The labyrinth of one way streets and tight quarters confounds my GPS, and I rattle my way through cobbled side streets the old fashioned way (cursing and hissing) before slipping into a spot in front of the iconic Chick and Ruths Delly. I pull up a counter stool in the colorful, cramped, diner that’s been dishing out classic fare since 1965. Opting for a simple corned beef and hash breakfast, it’s a delightfully greasy affair that would be equally welcome at 3AM after bouncing through the numerous pubs in town. Washing the formidable meal down with a “regular” sized chocolate malt, I peer over an adjacent table of tourists attempting to conquer the “Colossal” sized shake the deli is noted for – a 6lb. bucket of pancreas busting ice cream delight.

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From there, I poke my way towards the United States Naval Academy where a guard stops me at the gate to check ID before waving me through the white concrete walls surrounding campus. Like my West Point trip earlier this year, the grounds of the USNA campus are immaculate. Perfectly manicured lawns are abutted with naval paraphernalia, as dozens of imposing black cannons and massive anchors flank the walkways or sit perched on building patios.

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In the middle of the quad, in front of the impressive Academy Chapel, the Herndon Monument, aka “Mount Herndon” juts out of the turf – a scale replica of the Washington Monument. Its on top of this imposing 21 foot granite obelisk where the “plebes no more” tradition takes place at the USNA. One of the most revered traditions in the school, a cap or “cover” is placed on top of the monument at the end of spring semester. With the entire structure caked in a thick coat of slick lard, the plebe (freshman) class, must then work together to climb the monument and retrieve the cap. An accomplishment which signifies their progression as officers into the U.S. Navy.

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Wandering deeper into campus, I pass by the landmark “Tecumseh” statue, decked out for game day in Hulk attire, bathed in a fresh coat of green and purple paint. Behind it lies Bancroft Hall, the largest college dormitory in the world, housing all 4,500 midshipmen under one roof. Passing through the rotunda, and the “Commander in Chief” trophy which has been housed here for quite a few consecutive years, I pay my respects to Memorial Hall. A solemn tribute to USNA graduates that have given the ultimate sacrifice to their country in military operations, the names of the fallen are inscribed into the walls according to their respective class year.

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In an adjacent nook, a diorama of Captain John Ripley details his heroic exploits detonating a strategic bridge during the Vietnam War. Reading like a real life action hero movie, the true story of “Ripley Under the Bridge” is near incredulous, the very definition of a man with “cajones”. For over three hours under enemy fire, he singlehandedly dangled underneath the Dong Ha bridge to place over 500lbs of explosives that ultimately annihilated it, thwarting the advance of an estimated 20,000 enemy troops. Do yourself a favor and read more about it HERE.

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Finishing up on campus, I hike over to Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, located about a mile and a half West of the Academy grounds. Shaded by soaring concrete grandstands as the late afternoon sun starts to dip, the lots are full of blue and yellow tents, many of them posted with signs for various classes and affiliations. Men and women clutch beers huddling within, while kids toss footballs between cars and alternate turns sliding down the grassy slope on the south side of the stadium. With tickets already secured from my college football cohort Bob, I pass through the entrance gates early, not wanting to miss a second of the Midshipmen pre game march on.

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A quick survey of the confines of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, and I notice something rather unique. In lieu of retired player numbers, the facades of the press box are lettered with the names of global naval conflicts – Peleliu, Tarawa, Pearl Harbor and Guadalcanal, to name a few – a sobering reminder of the broader mission that awaits the players on the gridiron. Soon, the Midshipmen march on to the field grouped in neat square formations as the PA announcer calls out the respective companies. Donned in traditional white caps and long black wool coats the cadets are well prepared for the chilly afternoon, their numbers spread evenly taking up the entire field . Beneath the caps, a few of the middies sport wispy mustaches, a funny look if you ask me, but permitted under Naval Uniform Regulations 2201.1 so long as it does not “exceed 1/2” in length or extend beyond the corners of the mouth”.

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On the field, the Midshipmen make short work of Georgia Southern. They trounce the Eagles behind the strength of their traditional triple option rushing attack. Navy amasses 394 yards of rushing against only 71 yards of passing on the day, methodically grinding out five yards at a clip as the ball is pitched from one runner to the next. The Eagles, for their part, move the ball well. They put up nearly the same rushing and passing yardage as the Naval Academy, but the Southern squad is hamstrung by turnovers, coughing the ball up three times on key drives. Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds is the star on the day, piling up 277 yards on the ground and tossing a handful of completions during his rare passing opportunities. In the end, the Middies run away with a 52-19 victory, a convincing blowout win over the Sun Belt conference leading Georgia Southern Eagles.

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Special thanks to my friend and USNA graduate Armando giving me the lowdown on all the history, tradition, and important landmarks to check out on campus.  Maybe one day we can meet up for a game in Annapolis and I can get the full tour!

Special thanks to my friend, and fellow intrepid college football voyager, Bob for the tickets to the game and continued support throughout the season.  I look forward to our paths crossing again next year!

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Notre Dame vs Navy – Irish slip past the Middies…

Speeding south from Philadelphia after my afternoon, improbable, Temple upset over East Carolina, I grab my friends Tim and Suzie for a night contest in Landover. Friends from grad school, they were kind enough to put a roof over my head and grab an extra ticket to the Notre Dame vs Navy tilt in FedEx field – home of the Washington Redskins. We pull into the tailgate lots well after dark, while the cavernous stadium glows at the top of the hill like a circular alien spacecraft. While some of the fans stumbling around the parking lots have clearly made a full afternoon of the festivities, we’ll have only an hour to tailgate before pressing into the stadium. That gives us just enough time to make a full assault on the snack table, the entire tailgate graciously supplied by Suzie’s friend Meredith. A sweet potato chili in particular grabs my attention, and as an icy wind whips through the parking lot, the spicy comfort food warms the belly for a chilly night ahead. Washed down with a handful of Guinness’, we’re ready for the contest ahead.

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Readers familiar with the blog know my utter contempt for NFL stadiums. Cold, soulless beasts that they are, the sterile complexes typically occupy cultural deserts in a toxic waste part of town. FedEx field is no different in that regard, it’s simply a giant concrete donut dropped coldly into a sea of asphalt. But on a night like tonight, with the mercury dipping well into the 30’s accompanied by gusting winds, the well appointed luxury concourses of an NFL stadium are a welcome respite. I set my prejudices aside for the evening, as the enclosed, heated walkways offer cozy shelter during breaks, and we warm ourselves in big, overstuffed leather chairs. A few kids rattle away on video football games on the Xbox kiosks alongside, a much needed relief for them from the insufferable exhaustion of having to watch, you know, actual football….

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The game itself is a painful one, at least for the multitudes of Irish fans in attendance who collectively make up about half of the crowd. When Notre Dame jumps out to an early 28-7 lead, Tim and I high five assuredly, hoping that a few promising backups like quarterback Malik Zaire or speedy tailback Greg Bryant might get a few extra practice snaps. But like so many other frustrating Brian Kelly coached squads, the Irish find a way to turn what should be a blowout contest, into a complete nail biter. The scrappy Midshipmen battle back, launching a full on assault with their triple option rushing attack that the Irish defense appear helpless to stop. Entering the fourth quarter, the Middies own a 31-28 lead and the Irish’ remaining playoff hopes are in serious question.

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Fortunately, the Irish open the final frame with a pair of touchdowns as the offense once again finds it’s rhythm. Running back Tarean Folston barrels for a 25 yard run for the second touchdown, en route to a spectacular 149 yard night for the talented sophomore. While Navy would bring the game close once again with a fourth quarter touchdown of their own, the Irish would eventually roll to a precarious 49-39 win. Given the early shenanigans from the new College Football playoff committee, a colossally biased collection of charlatans, the ugly win will not bode well for Notre Dame’s position in the rankings. But that’s what happens when they fail to close out easy opponents and dominate football games like they should. Dominance is, unfortunately, not a hallmark of this Brian Kelly led squad.

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Special thanks to my friends Tim and Suzie for hosting me for the weekend, and making their first appearance on the Pigskin Pursuit after all these years of loyal following. Can’t wait to catch you guys again in a couple of weeks!

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