Pigskin Pursuit

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

Tag: San Francisco

San Jose State vs San Diego State – Spartans conquered by the Aztecs…

On the list of sports destinations for fans in the Bay Area, San Jose State football, sadly, may not even crack the top ten. The city is a professional town first and foremost, dominated by the likes of the 49ers and San Francisco Giants. Even larger programs like Stanford, with their recent gridiron success, struggle to fill a 50,000 seat stadium and capture the appropriate mind share of fickle Bay Area fans. For smaller stature programs like the Spartans of San Jose State, being overlooked is simply part of the territory.

But not by me.

As I continue to probe further into the corners of the college football world, the Spartan program held a certain intrigue for exactly the reasons outlined above. Does a smaller program like San Jose State, completely overshadowed by the other options in town, still have the same kind of rabid fan base common to the college game? Can an under the radar city like San Jose, quietly the third most populous city in California, sustain a football program?

On Saturday afternoon I pressed south into San Jose to find out the answers to those questions. I’m on the third leg of a west coast tripleheader that would take me to three games in three days. Thursday night I had witnessed a Stanford thrashing of UCLA in Palo Alto, and Friday evening I watched a downtrodden Fresno State Bulldog team rescued by rain in the parched Central Valley. Today was the day for some Spartan football.

My journey begins perched on a barstool at Henry’s Hi-Life in the River Street Historic district of San Jose. Finding anything outside of a taupe colored strip mall in San Jose is a challenge, but the small remnants of the turn of the century, Italian immigrant, working class neighborhood remain in the River Street district. This run down, red clapboard building adorned with a glowing neon “Hi Life” sign started life as the Torino Hotel at the turn of the 20th century, and is purported to have been a brothel for some time. For the past fifty years Henry’s has called it home, and while the ramshackle structure would be right at home in a working class, rust belt city like Cleveland or Milwaukee, in a tech city like San Jose, it’s a standout. Dishing out beer and BBQ since 1960, the dark, oak and mirror paneled pub is a classic taproom. The kind of place where you grab a woven wood bar bowl of free peanuts and order up a boilermaker and Michelob. It even comes replete with a few barflies squabbling about the San Jose Sharks. Who knew there were actual sports fans in San Jose…

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I pull up a stool along the slick, red leather bar rail and quickly settle into a pint of draft Shiner Bock. The only menu they have is painted up on the wall, to which the barkeep gestures with an outstretched index finger, a dingy bar towel draped over his shoulder. I opt for a two meat combination of their sole barbecue offerings: pork ribs and chicken. A steady stream of customers flow in behind me, each of them issued a plastic, numbered token by the hostess as part of Henry’s odd cueing system for dining room seating. Evidently, all dinner orders are placed at the bar, and then, only when the food is ready, are patrons finally escorted into the dining room for seating. A few newcomers audibly groan at the confusing process, pleading their case to the obstinate hostess who simply wags a finger at the sign in retort. I chuckle at the confused patrons like a grizzled regular. Hell, if it’s been working at Henry’s for 55 years – take a number and fall in line….rookie.

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Surprisingly, the barbecue here is decent stuff. While “bar” BBQ usually draws a healthy dose of skepticism from my discerning taste buds, Henry’s proves a pleasant surprise. Chicken is tender and lightly glazed with a sweet barbecue sauce and moist all the way through. The pork ribs would be closer to grilled instead of slow smoked, they have excellent texture, pulling cleanly from the bone with only a gentle tug. It’s not Lockhart, but for San Jose – it’ll do. With a heaping pile of BBQ in front of me, cold Shiner on tap, and the Irish playing the despicable Trojans on of the television perched over the bar, it’s tempting to wallow away for a few hours in the dark pub. But, alas, a Spartans game beckons…

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I take a customary tour of the San Jose State campus, a compact urban property that appears mostly a commuter school and lacks the sprawling beauty of its neighbors like Stanford and Cal. Strolling down the main palm tree lined walkway, a few tile roofed Mission Style buildings flank the main quadrangle, at the center of which stands a massive 22 foot statue erected in tribute to the 1968 Olympics “Black Power Salute”. The statue memorializes the political statements of SJSU alumni Tommie Smith and John Carlos. The two sprinters, both African American athletes, won Gold and Bronze, respectively, in Mexico City in the 200M. During the proceeding medal ceremony, they each stood on the podium in black socks, bowed their heads, and raised a lone black gloved fist into the air during the entire rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Captured during the height of the US civil rights struggle, the photo of their protest, and subsequent imbroglio that followed, has become one of the most enduring images of a political statement made at a sporting event.

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From campus, I make my way south a few blocks and find easy street parking on the corner of 8th and Martha Street. The residential neighborhood is quiet on a Saturday evening, a few dogs bark in the distance, the rattle of a few lawn sprinklers rhythmically tapping away. Tailgating is all but absent from the area, and it could be any peaceful family neighborhood in America……. That is, until you reach 10th and Alma Streets, where you’re thrust into the throbbing epicenter of a borderline riot. Loudspeakers crackle with the latest pop tunes, the grass crunches with empty beer cans and a potpourri of beer, smoke, sweat and sunscreen wafts over the area like a fog. Students are swarmed around trucks and tents like packs of wild jackals, crammed into the woefully undersized (and underserviced) lot provided to them by the University for tailgating. Caged like animals in the fenced parking lots surrounding Spartan Stadium, it’s like walking by a zoo. I don’t dare feed them.

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Frankly, it’s a pleasant surprise to find so robust a student tailgating scene at a place like San Jose State. This is exactly the kind of loud, boorish, inebriated and unsterilized environment that student tailgating should be, and it’s alive in well in the tiny program. Across the street, in the older, more civilized alumni lot adjacent to Spartan Stadium, where the shitbox cars and compact trucks turn into luxury SUV’s and flat screen TV’s, I ply my trade on the ticket hunt. It’s not long before I track down my favorite ticket deal – a freebie – on the 40 yard line, courtesy of an old timer wearing a bright blue Spartans jersey over his pleated khakis.

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I find my way to my seats along the aluminum bleachers, and shortly thereafter the SJSU squad scampers onto the field through a gauntlet formed by the band, their electric blue helmets gleaming under the light towers that encircle Spartan Stadium. One of the more underrated helmet designs in the sport, Spartan headgear is festooned with a colorful silhouette of a Spartan Warrior helmet. The design is also replicated at midfield in a bright mosaic of blue, white and yellow.

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While the players continue the last few minutes of pre-game warmups, a bald, jort wearing, senior citizen clambers atop the concrete wall behind the player bench at midfield. Clutching a tambourine hand drum, the crowd cheers as he raises his hands, leading the stands in alternating chants of “San”….”Jose”…. like a denim clad pied piper. But after the PA announcer personally introduces “Krazy George” by name, it’s clear that this isn’t your run of the mill, boisterous lout.

George Henderson or “Krazy George” as he is affectionately known, may be the most famous (and amongst the “down in front” geezer crowd – reviled), sports fan in the world. It was here, in the Bay Area, at an Oakland A’s playoff game versus the New York Yankees on October 15, 1981 where Krazy George encouraged his entire section to stand and raise their hands in the air in unison, and then after encouraged the adjacent section to the same, thereby creating the first “Wave”. As Edison is to the light bulb, Crazy George is credited with inventing the crowd phenomenon known as “The Wave”.

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Today the 71 year old Henderson still patrols the San Jose State sidelines, enthusiastically thumping away his large tambourine to get the audience’s attention. During periodic breaks in the action, he leads the crowd in various chants, always followed by his signature wave. A professional cheerleader by trade, Henderson’s resume is lined with appearances at dozens professional sports teams all over the country during his storied forty year career. But his cheering antics all started here, at a San Jose State Spartans game, where he attended as a student in 1968. Krazy George, a local legend if there ever was.

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Unfortunately for the Spartan squad, despite having the world’s most recognizable cheerleader in their corner, they flounder on the gridiron. The San Diego State defense is smothering. They dominate the line of scrimmage, upending the porous Spartan offensive line, which is driven into the backfield on every snap. San Jose State quarterback Kenny Potter spends most of the evening scrambling for his life. Continually pursued by a pack of rabid Aztecs, he fires two interceptions on the night, while the entire Spartan offense squeaks out a meager 148 yards in total.

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While the annihilation unfolds on the field, I spend the game chatting away with a pair of ardent Spartan fans seated beside me. Dave and Mary, the latter an alumnus, are both garbed in head to toe SJSU gear and make the faithful trek in every Saturday from their home in Gilroy. Eschewing any plans in the fall in favor of football, they’ve had season tickets to Spartan football for over twenty years now. Despite the mounting futility of the SJSU squad, the couple still rises, cheering wildly on key third downs. Even in tiny corners of the game, passionate devotees are the backbone of the sport, and Dave and Mary represent the best of that fandom. Despite their best efforts, and the hijinks of Krazy George, the Spartan empire crumbles before the Aztecs in a lopsided 7-30 defeat. But, fortunately, spirit is alive and well in the humble SJSU Spartan program….

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Cal vs UCLA – Berkeley Battle of the bears…

Continued from Stanford Post here:

Racing out of Stanford Stadium still amped from the overtime thriller, I mash the accelerator on my rental silver Ford Focus.  Thanks to egregious California rental taxes, for two days this little go-kart cost me $153, and I intend to get my moneys worth.  The feeble engine whimpers, sputtering up the ramp to Interstate 880.  Fifteen seconds elapse to reach cruising speed at 60mph.  I zip northward briefly, before the inescapable clutch of California traffic sucks me into its soul crushing vortex.   The forty mile drive up to Berkeley is not going to be an easy one.  I’m crawling my way to Cal to see the Golden Bears host UCLA in a night tilt, the tail end of a Saturday Bay Area doubleheader.

After an hour lumbering up the interstate, I pull into downtown Berkeley.  With its ample stop lights and narrow streets, the town is ill equipped to deal with the influx of game day football traffic.  I scour a few side streets for free parking, shoehorning the tiny rental into a spot on Piedmont Avenue, a few blocks east of the infamous Telegraph Avenue – an icon of 1960’s hippie culture.

Changing my crimson polo for a navy t-shirt, I walk a pleasant tree lined side street up to Cal Memorial Stadium.  Strolling past handfuls of dingy frat houses, students spill onto the sidewalks clutching red solo cups, the Korean K-Pop viral sensation “Gangam Style” wailing away over loudspeakers perched on second story windowsills.  A few street food vendors line the avenue, manning stainless steel carts billowing aromatic steam.  Opting for a few small tacos, chicken and beef, they come garnished with fresh cilantro and onion, far better than any Sysco crap found in the stadium.

When I thrust a lone finger into the air, a few scalpers swarm me.  It’s a big game for the Cal Bears against a heated in-state rival, but tickets are still plentiful.  We haggle for a bit, but when I walk away the grizzled trader relents, agreeing to my $20 offer.  From the outside, the stadium gleams with new glass louvers, the white limestone façade glinting shades of pink and orange with the setting California sun.  Originally carved into the Berkeley hillside in 1923 as a tribute to World War 1 veterans, the historic stadium underwent a modern facelift for the past two years.  Tonight was the official rededication.

After some extra pre game ceremonies, the two bears take the field as a brisk evening chill fills the air.  A sloppy game ensues.  Although both teams move the ball well, racking up nearly 900 yards of offense together, there are nine turnovers between the two, UCLA guilty of six of those.  Cal takes advantage of the mishaps, with quarterback Zach Maynard slinging four touchdowns and 295 yards.  At halftime, the 57,643 spectators all remain seated.  Each seat comes outfitted with a colored square of card stock.  As part of the rededication ceremonies, Cal has a card stunt planned, a phenomenon they claim to have invented back in 1910.  Spelling out “Memorial Stadium” in Yale Blue and California Gold, the fans have good reason to stand, as the Golden Bears would later walk away with a 43-17 victory, and a chance to turn their dismal season around.

It’s a lot of work catching two games in a single day, and logistics have to be well planned to make it happen.  But hitting a couple of Pac 12 games gave me yet another glimpse into college football on the left coast, and spending an afternoon in the temperate climate of the Bay Area is always a pleasure.  Like any major metropolitan area, both of these teams take a back seat to some of the bigger professional spectacles in town.  On this particular weekend, both the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s were in baseball playoff games, and the San Francisco 49ers had a home game.  While college football is simply overshadowed in that environment, both teams still enjoy the ardently passionate fan bases that make college football so unique.

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Stanford vs Arizona – Doubling up in the Bay Area…

Rust colored masts emerge in the distance, piercing thick early morning fog, soaring into a crystal blue sky above.  Thin strands of cable drape gracefully from the stacked towers, woven into steel webs, shrouded in white mist rolling off the bay. Gawking at an engineering marvel, fumbling for my camera, and dodging eighteen wheelers, now isn’t the time for multi tasking behind the wheel.  It’s my first trip across the Golden Gate Bridge, and I’m swerving like an asshole in six lanes of traffic.

It’s a brilliant Saturday morning in San Francisco, and I pick my way South down highway 101 to Palo Alto for the front end of a Pac 12 doubleheader.  Stanford has a noon kickoff today against Arizona, and, following that, I’ll shoot up to Berkeley for a night game with the Golden Bears of Cal.

Stopping only once, I grab breakfast at the Palo Alto Creamery downtown.  Occupying the same street corner since 1923, it’s a throwback diner, gleaming with stainless steel and dishing out traditional breakfast fare.  Though the feel is classic, the prices are contemporary Californian, I gaspingly shell out twenty five bucks for some eggs and a chocolate shake.

I find free parking on a side street, throw on my best crimson polo and head over to the Stanford Campus.  Passing by a Trader Joe’s and upscale designer furniture store, the socio economic status of the school is evident.  Built by railroad tycoon Leland Stanford, the campus is exquisite, easily among the finest in the country and befitting a school of Ivy caliber.  Circling around Palm Drive, I ascend slate steps onto the pristine main quad, surrounded by the symbolic battery of arched promenades.  Blonde colored Stanford Sandstone, quarried from the nearby Santa Teresa Hills, shimmers flecks of gold in the morning sun.  The stalwart Romanesque stone buildings are connected by airy arcades, all capped in red clay tiles, typical of California mission style. It’s a magnificent campus, which, coupled with the reputation of the school, commands reverence.

With kickoff fast approaching, I drag myself away from the resplendent architecture, and trot towards the stadium.  It’s homecoming weekend at Stanford, and I pick through white tents and rows of catered buffet lines.  Nametags abound, along with class years ’62, ’72 etc.  The older the class, the nicer the food and wine.  True Stanford tailgating, however, I discover across street from the stadium.  Shaded beneath a grove of majestic Eucalyptus trees, the Cardinal faithful lay their spreads out.  Emerging from the trunks of boxy Mercedes G-Wagon’s and sleek silver Porsche Cayenne’s, elaborate picnics are set on tablecloths, complete with Napa wines and artisan cheeses.  Welcome to Palo Alto.

Tickets prove easy. For forty bucks I land a choice seat staring down the 50, a great view given the cozy confines of Stanford Stadium.  The Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band (or LSJUMB), a disheveled collection of rag tag musicians, take the field for pre-game ceremonies.  For those unfamiliar, the LSJUMB is one of the more unorthodox and controversial bands in the college landscape, having been banned from several campuses over the years for profane, offensive hijinks.  An alumni friend once described the band as “doing whatever entertains them (the band), without giving a damn what the audience wants or thinks”.    Entirely student led, the “band” eschews uniforms in favor of hobo couture, sloppily dressed in costume, drag, and button festooned fishing hats.  They avoid traditional band music, formal marches and almost any discernible organization whatsoever.  It’s like an Occupy protest with brass.

On the field, it’s a contrast of styles.  On one side stands the head butting Stanford style, a hard nosed, physical gauntlet cut from the mold of former head coach Jim Harbaugh.  Opposing them are the revamped Arizona Wildcats, powered by a quick tempo, run and gun offense, the hallmark of new head coach Rich Rodriguez.  Surprisingly, Arizona lures the conservative Cardinal into a shootout.  Against an imposing front seven of the Stanford defense, the Arizona aerial attack takes to the skies, throwing for nearly 500 yards on the day.  Stanford chews up the turf, feeding the ball to clydesdale tailback Stephen Taylor and connecting deep play action passes to massive tight end Levine Toilolo.  With over 1200 yards of total offense, the game is a track meet.  Holding a comfortable 48-34 lead with only 9:00 remaining, the Arizona squad sputters.  Brutalized by four quarters of a Stanford grind, they give up two touchdowns in the final six minutes to let the Cardinal knot the score at 48, sending the contest into overtime.  In the extra frame, the Wildcats are exhausted, squandering their only opportunity with a costly interception.  Stanford pounds in a 21 yard rushing touchdown, winning the contest with an exclamation point.

After the nailbiting finish, I hustle out of Stanford Stadium, elbowing my way through the crimson herd to get on the road quickly.  I’ve got the tail end of a doubleheader to hit up at Cal Berkeley, and the California traffic gods can be merciless to those in a rush…

Continue to Cal post here…

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