As another fall is ushered in, and my sixth season of travels begins, home base has once again changed. Now located in New Hampshire, my football travels will become increasingly challenged as the entire Northeast corridor is a vacuum for great college football. This season will inevitably mean more flights, and carefully arranged planning to make the most of my precious fall weekends. Spontaneity will give way to more advance planning and preparation, a new challenge as I continue to probe further into the depths of the sport.
With their long anticipated move to the Big 10, however, Rutgers offered a reasonably exciting opportunity to open my season at a bigger conference venue. As the “birthplace” of college football, Rutgers is considered the founding father of the sport when, in 1869, they squared off against Princeton in front of College Avenue Gymnasium in the first ever inter collegiate football game. While the program has enjoyed mixed success in recent years, their expansion into the Big 10 seeks to bring new revenue streams into the state university of New Jersey despite the challenges of gaining traction in an area dominated by a huge NFL presence. Personally, I think both Rutgers and Maryland are incongruent fits for the Big 10, but as a scholar of the sport, I wanted to scope out the scene there regardless.
I hit the road on Friday night after work, piling into “White Lightning” – my white, 2002 Jetta TDI – that reads 170,000 miles on the odometer. Despite a season ending breakdown in late November last year during a particularly frigid run to Northern Illinois, the little car is fully repaired and ready for another 100,000 miles or so of flawless service. After only a few minutes in the car, however, it’s a sobering reminder of how excruciating driving in the Northeast can be. Traffic every 20 minutes, pothole infested roads under perpetual construction, and obnoxious, aggressive drivers swerving across lanes at every opportunity. It’s a close cousin to a county fair demolition derby, complete with the concrete “Jersey” crash barriers. After a few white knuckled hours in the car, I long for the flat open plains of Texas, or the vast expanse of the New Mexico high desert. Driving in this part of the world is sheer toil.
After a couple of hours on the road, I pull into New Haven, Connecticut a stone’s throw from the Yale University campus and squeeze into a parking spot in front of a tiny, innocuous red brick building. It’s here, in this little brick building that Louis Lassen claims to have invented the hamburger back in 1895 at his appropriately dubbed business; Louis’ Lunch. The ancient little building is still owned and operated by third generation family member Jeff Lassen, and the humble interior is decorated with names and dates carved into every surface of the ancient wood booths. In a nod to simplicity, Louis’ menu is exclusively burgers. Your only options here are cheese, tomatoes, and onions; no condiments are permitted – especially ketchup. To pay my respects, I order up two with the works, and hand over twelve dollars in cash; naturally Louis’ doesn’t take plastic.
I chat up the grill man while I wait, the line forming eight people deep during dinner service, and later will well out the door after the dozens of local Yale bars close in the early morning. According to him, they can go through as much as 500lbs of ground beef a day, and he prepares each burger to order in an ancient vertical cast iron grill – the same grill that’s been in continuous operation since 1898. If there’s another grill in the country still going strong after 116 years, I’d like to see it. The burgers arrive unceremoniously, wrapped in butcher paper that turns a delightful shade of translucent grey as the grease drips through. Served medium rare, the sandwiches are a precarious affair, as the lightly toasted slices of thin white bread don’t hold up well under the heft of the thick patties. But when they’ve been served this way for well over a century, and I’ll not dare question the genius of a pioneer like Mr. Lassen.
The next morning I finish the drive down to Rutgers, crossing through the industrial wasteland surrounding I-95 in North Jersey – a landscaped dominated by marshland and oil refineries. Arriving near the newly baptized “High Point Solutions” Stadium, parking logistics become an immediate frustration. I’m informed that none of the parking within eyesight of the stadium is available without an advanced purchase hang tag – no cash lots, no side streets, no lawn parking – zip. Instead, I’m forced to park at a remote overflow lot for $20 and take a shuttle bus over to the stadium – a situation that puts me at the mercy of public transportation.
Visiting Big 10 fans will be in for a rude awakening at the cultural desert surrounding Rutgers Stadium, an offsite monolith plunked coldly into the middle of nothing – exactly like its sterile NFL counterparts a few miles up the road. Here in Piscataway, you’ll be corralled into a sea of gravel, and removed from any semblance of atmosphere or community. No stores, no pubs, no campus, no semblance of college atmosphere whatsoever. It’s a far cry from the charm of spending a game day pub crawling through Madison or tailgating under the fall colors in a grove in Bloomington. On the bright side, however, the tailgating scene is surprisingly robust, and a few of Jersey’s finest sons should keep you suitably entertained.
Strolling up to the box office to get a feel for ticket availability, I recoil at the $55 face value for a seat against a tomato can opponent like Howard. As usual, I opt to try my luck on the streets instead, and, quite literally thirty seconds later, I’m handed a freebie by a guy standing outside the stadium with fistfuls of extra tickets. They were given to him as part of a promotion, and he’s kind enough to pass the good will on to me. Say what you will about brusque talking Jersey natives, evidently a few of them ain’t so bad.
I find respite under a few of the broad shade trees outside the box office, taking refuge from the sweltering 90 degree heat. The band marches by a few minutes later in a procession of brassy regalia. Donning full red and black, long sleeved uniforms, they might have to break out the smelling salts later this afternoon to ward off collapse. As a voice cracks over the loudspeaker, it signals my entrance into Rutgers Stadium, excuse me – “High Point Solutions” stadium. With a stated capacity of only 55,000 it’s one of the smallest stadiums in the Big10, but with an FCS opponent like Howard in town, the Scarlet Knights will still struggle to fill it for the home opener.
After the game kicks off, the Biston strike first by marching the length of the field for a touchdown after forcing the Scarlet Knights to punt on their first possession. But after the initial blow by Howard, the Scarlet Knights take over from there. Senior quarterback Gary Nova slings the ball all over the field, firing three touchdowns in the first half alone, and four total on the day. Despite my free ticket in the upper deck, I slip into a few seats under the shade of the grandstands, retreating from the oppressive sun. The students take note too, and after halftime with the Scarlet Knights leading 31-7 most of them retreat back to the comfort of the tailgating lots, leaving a ghost town in the student seating section. While the Bison would punch in a few late touchdowns in the 4th quarter against the second string Rutgers defenders to bring the final score to a respectable 38-25, the game was never in question. Despite the easy win, the Scarlet Knights will face their first real test of the season next week, when they open their Big 10 schedule against the visiting Nittany Lions of Penn State.
But the question isn’t whether Rutgers is ready for the Big 10. The real question is whether the Big 10 is ready for Jersey….
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