Mid morning on Friday, as the fall colors of October are ushered in, I’m behind the wheel for an Empire State doubleheader. My father is in the passenger seat beside me, tagging along for our annual father son trip into the colorful world of College Football. After trips to a couple of SEC hotbeds the last couple of years, we’d decided to stay local this year. A few months ago we locked a doubleheader at Syracuse and Army on the calendar, easy half day drives from the confines of his home in Western Massachusetts.
We take the milk run from Massachusetts into New York, traversing the winding mountain curves of Route 2 through the Berkshire Mountains. Climbing through narrow river valleys and down precarious hairpin turns, the road is a spectacular one in early fall. The valleys are bursting with the spectrum of fall New England colors, while the black asphalt roads are speckled with reds and golds as the flurry of leaves float down from the canopy above. I’ve traveled far and wide in the fall time during the past six seasons, but New England remains unrivaled for sheer autumn beauty.
As we coast down the hill into Troy, New York we leave the picturesque two lane road and pick up Interstate 90 to continue our press westward across upstate New York. A few hours later, the Jetta rolls into the construction riddled downtown of Utica for a quick visit to Adirondack Distillery, one of many micro distilleries that has opened in upstate New York in recent years. We take a quick sample of their newly released bourbon, a “young” bourbon aged only four months in miniature five gallon oak casks. Evidently, with the explosion of startup distilleries the newer entrants are having trouble sourcing new oak barrels for aging, as demand for them far exceeds the handful of cooperages left in the U.S. The young bourbon at Adirondack proves a bit on the harsh side, as does the customer service. The countermen are coarse at best, and despite the place being completely empty, they can’t be bothered with the fact that we just drove three hours to pay them a visit. We slug down the samples from cheap plastic cups and leave the surly service behind.
Pulling into Syracuse an hour later, we beeline for the iconic Dinosaur BBQ on Willow Street, one of the most infamous cue’ joints in the country. Opened in 1988, the original Willow Street location gave birth to the Dinosaur empire, which now numbers nine full restaurants spread throughout the Northeast and Chicago. While I’m usually leery of BBQ joints of such acclaim, the allure of smoke wafting through the air is too much to resist. We pull up a table in the bar speckled with a few stray, red Louisville shirts, and I order my usual three meat combo of pork ribs, brisket and house made sausage. The food arrives a few minutes later, and, predictably for a big place, it’s decent, but hardly life changing. Brisket is trimmed of all fat and lacks a distinct smoky flavor while the coarse grind sausage has a nice snap to it and breakfasty type spice. The ribs are the star of the plate, with a developed bark and they pull cleanly from the bone with a slight tug. While it may not be up to Texas standards, or even Hometown BBQ in Brooklyn for that matter, for upstate New York, Dinosaur is a solid BBQ joint.
As the sun starts to dip and game time approaches, we make our way up the hill towards the Syracuse Campus for some Friday Night action. Street parking is plentiful around the stadium, once you decipher the deliberately obfuscating signage (parking alternates sides of the street each day), and we make our way towards the beckoning concrete monolith of the Carrier Dome. As one of only four domes that serves as home field for the 128 FBS college football teams (Syracuse, Georgia State, UTSA, Idaho) the huge arena also plays host to Syracuse basketball and lacrosse games, among others. While I generally loathe domes for their banal, sterile environment; the Carrier Dome stays pegged at a comfy 71 degrees and features an impressive array of local beers on tap. With a stated capacity of only 49,262 it’s rather middling for an ACC football program, but when converted to it’s basketball configuration for the powerhouse ‘Cuse team, the 35,446 person capacity routinely sets NCAA basketball attendance records. One quick glance at the plethora of retired basketball jerseys hanging from the rafters, and it’s quickly apparent that this is a place where football plays second fiddle to the hoops program.
A few minutes after taking our seats, I’m greeted by my college football doppleganger and host for the evening, Bob. After exchanging emails for the past several years about our shared travels, I finally meet another intrepid college football fanatic in the flesh after he graciously provided a pair of his four season tickets to the game for my father and I. Sporting orange rimmed glasses, a neatly tied Syracuse football necktie and a beard that would be the envy of any Mountain Man, Bob greets me with a hearty handshake after the drive in from his headquarters in Albany. We’re joined by his father Jim, a Syracuse graduate from the class of 1957 who’s been loyally attending Orange games since before the Jim Brown era despite a stint the Air Force during the Korean Conflict.
By day, Bob is a mild mannered New York state government employee and a former librarian; but as the clock winds down on fall Friday afternoons, he transforms into an insatiable college football fanatic. Like myself, Bob doggedly chases college football games all over the country every single weekend, and we’d even (unknowingly) been at a handful of the same contests over the years including the Notre Dame vs Navy game in Dublin, Ireland two years ago. Growing up rooting for Syracuse with his father, and later as a Florida Gator undergraduate, this combo presumably sewed the seeds of Bob’s college football obsession, and he’s even managed to do all of this while staying happily married.
During the game, we swap stories about some of our favorite Saturday haunts and Bob’s list of exploits is impressive. He’s been to over 66 different campuses during the past thirteen seasons of “serious travel” in his words, and has traversed over 42 different states during the pursuit of his goal of seeing a college game in all 49 States (Alaska being the lone exception of college football). While my focus tends to be on some of the larger juggernauts of the sport, Bob has probed deeper into venues both large and small. He’s seen games at every school in the Ivy League for instance, and urges me to add a few of the tiny stadiums to my roster (which I will certainly do at some point).
More than anything, however, watching a game with Bob is a rare opportunity to finally connect with another individual that shares the same unique passion for exploring the world of college football. Before I leave Bob presents me with another gift, his season tickets to our Army contest tomorrow (with parking pass) along with tickets to my upcoming Navy game in mid November. I often speak about some of the great individuals I’ve met along my journey, but they simply don’t come any better than Bob, and I hope we get to hit a few more games together in the future.
For the Orangemen, the game proves a taxing one. While Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino is usually known for his explosive offenses (and motorcycle accidents with female assistants), tonight it’s his defense that stymies Syracuse. The Orangemen are helpless to move the football, managing two meager field goals on the night while dual threat quarterback Terrel Hunt completes only half of is 32 passes and fires a pair of critical interceptions. The ineffective Syracuse offense is further demoralized to the tune of 2 safeties on the night, as the relentless Louisville defense stuffs them into the turf of their own endzone. Comfortably in control for the entire game, Louisville takes a well balanced offensive approach, steadily feeding speedy running back Brandon Ratcliff as he chews up 110 yards on the ground with a pair of touchdowns. While the final 28-6 score may reflect a closer game, the paralyzed Syracuse offense never gave the crowd much to cheer for, and the Orangemen drop to 2-3 on the season. For the orange clad faithful, November 2nd can’t get here soon enough, the first tip of Men’s basketball season…
Thank you to Bob and Jim for the incredible hospitality and support over the years. I look forward to crossing paths again in the near future, and safe travels across the land this year Bob!
Special thanks to my father for joining me on this annual adventure, and we’ll get you to another exciting SEC location next season!
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