Pigskin Pursuit

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

Tag: SEC (page 2 of 6)

Georgia vs LSU – Dawgs take a bite out of the Tigers…

After spending the better part of Thursday and Friday gluttonously eating my way through the impressive Atlanta food scene, a binge highlighted by some house cured charcuterie and an unctuous pork belly banh mi sandwich from Star Provisions, I fight through the oppressive traffic on I-85 South towards Hartsfield Airport.  There, I greet my cohort for the weekend – Brian.  A former benchwarmer on the University of Maryland lacrosse team, he assured me he had plenty of experience watching college athletics from the sidelines.  But having been to a few epic SEC games before, including a trip to the Florida Georgia game in Jacksonville, aka “The worlds largest outdoor cocktail party”; a last minute trip to Athens was more than enough to lure him out of Saint Louis. He presses his 6’6” frame into my shiny silver Toyota Corolla, which, between the two of us, nearly bottoms out the suspension in the little go kart.   What looks like an easy 1-1/2 hour drive on Google maps proves arduous instead, as the route is littered with construction zones, traffic lights and surprisingly awful Georgia drivers.

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The pork belly banh mi from Star Provisions

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A house made charcuterie sampler at Star Provisions

 

We set our bags down briefly at the hotel, pound a couple of Yuengling tall boy cans, and walk over to Clayton Street – the throbbing heart of downtown Athens.  I’d heard legends about the nightlife in Athens, widely regarded as one of the finest college towns in the country, but unless you regularly wander Bourbon Street in New Orleans, little can prepare you for the delightful mess of Clayton on a home game weekend.  As revelers spill out of bars, the sidewalks are teeming with bodies.  Frat boys in khakis and topsiders, girls sporting tiny dresses and shiny heels, all of them punching their smartphones furiously while elbowing into or out of the myriad bars lining the street.  We press into All Good Lounge after making a quick scan of the scene and order a couple of green Yuengling bottles.  From there, the night melts into a handful of different pubs along Clayton, each of them as jam packed as the next… Athens is an impressive scene.

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It’s an early wake up call on Saturday morning, and though I’m shaking a few cobwebs from a couple extra unwarranted Yuengling’s the night before, we’re both wired to get the day underway.  We make a quick stop at a liquor store for provisions, then tote our new stash of cold Yuenglings towards Sanford Stadium.  The streets are already lined with tailgaters, pressed into any free stretch of asphalt they can find.  A few tailgates have loudspeakers set up, replete with jort and jersey wearing, goateed MC’s babbling incessantly on the microphone in between bouts of insufferable southern hip hop tunes.  There should be some kind of licensing procedure to use a microphone in public, especially for LSU fans…

Just south of the stadium we meet up with Cody and Kendel, friends of mine from Dallas.  Texas Tech and Baylor grads, respectively, their college football experience had been solidly forged in the formidable Big 12 conference.  As avid sports fans, however, for the past couple of years the husband and wife duo has been traveling extensively to high profile sporting events. Inspired by my adventures, they finally wanted to see what SEC football hoopla was all about.  With the allure of a monster matchup in Athens, Georgia vs LSU would be a fitting introduction to their first SEC experience.  You can read Cody’s full take on his first SEC experience here

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We join their tailgate, graciously hosted by Kendel’s extended family.  Tossing our beers in the community cooler and shaking hands, we crack a few cold ones to get the day underway.  Shaded beneath the broad canopies of magnificent oaks, it’s a crystal blue late September sky overhead and a sublime day for tailgating.  While Brian and I immediately raid the snack table, we introduce ourselves to the rest of the group, all of whom are acquainted with Kendall’s extended family.  Bradi and Alan, the hosts, welcome us in typical Georgia tailgate fashion, swiftly sequestering us to the nearest table for a game of flip cup. Despite our newcomer status, little mercy is shown, and fifteen minutes later I’m already three beers deep.  It’s going to be that kind of day…

The morning quickly devolves into bouts of flip cup, beer pong and cornhole – interrupted only for fistfuls of burgers hot off the grill and a particularly addictive buffalo chicken dip.  While our tailgate is delightfully rowdy and boorish, a tailgate next to ours does a gender reveal for their expecting baby as a few of their toddlers scramble around in the bark mulch.  Anywhere else, this may seem peculiar, but at an SEC tailgate, it seems oddly appropriate.

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Georgia exemplifies the best of what SEC, and broader college football, tailgating is all about.  Our collective group of Alan, Bradi, LeAndra, Meredith, Lindsay and Katie are among the most welcoming hosts I’ve encountered on my travels.  A cup never runs empty, participation in drinking games is mandatory, and strangers are welcomed into the fold with open arms and sharp tongued smack talking.  The next four hours pass like minutes as we spend the resplendent morning drinking, laughing and reveling.  As the afternoon sun arches over the sky, it’s regrettably time to leave, but after this serious bout of tailgating, I’m appropriately lubed up for the game.  With pre game field passes awaiting us, there’s no way I’m missing a chance to walk between the hedges…

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Fighting our way towards Sanford Stadium, the scene outside the gates is a human cattle stock pen.  Sanford is built into a small valley on campus, a feature that limits access to the entrance gates, so thousands of fans cramp into the small basin between the stadium entrance and the Tate Student Center.  We jostle through the crowd towards the hospitality tent to pick up our field passes and game tickets, and make a quick dive into the coolers for a few final Yuenglings, naturally.  Shortly after, a University of Georgia representative leads our group through the entrance gates and into the darkconcrete tunnel.

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We emerge from the tunnel into a brilliant wash of colors surrounding the field at Sanford Stadium.  A crystal blue sky overhead, bright red seats fill the grandstands, and the lush green of grass tucked in between the neatly manicured hedges that famously surround the field.  Standing on the sidelines, the stadium still hushed as spectators start trickling in, we observe the players taking warm-ups on the field.  Up close is the only way to grasp exactly how freakish some of these athletes are, the speed in which they accelerate, leap, or change direction.  We observe one player nonchalantly catch a 50 yard kickoff in the back of the endzone – one handed, over his shoulder – as if it were a set of tossed car keys.   Heralded Georgia QB Aaron Murray zips passes to his wide receivers, all of them running crisp, geometrically precise patterns with delicate footwork and split second timing.

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As the stadium begins to fill and the student section starts its boisterous pre game chants, the field crew ushers us off the grounds.  We find our seats on the 35 yard line, only a few rows up.  Seated adjacent to the student section, we’re in for a delightfully raucous afternoon.  As the pre game energy reaches its zenith, flags are raised and the crowd wails as the Bulldogs quickly hustle on to the field.  During the final moments of warm up, the student crowd taunts LSU Quarterback Zach Mettenberger with chants of “No Means No”, or, more accurately “Neaux means Neaux” according to a few painted signs.  The barb is a reference to his two sexual battery charges.  Originally a Georgia recruit and quarterback, Mettenberger was booted off the team in 2010 for these off field exploits.

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A few moments later, LSU place kicker James Hairston boots the ball high into the late afternoon sky and the crowd “barks” as the ball starts to fall.  After touching a knee down in the endzone, the Dawgs assume control first.   What follows is one of the most exciting, back and forth games that I have attended on my travels.  Far from a typical SEC defensive standoff, both teams move the ball with remarkable ease.   The Georgia defense is powerless against the LSU passing attack, and gives up several third down conversions over 20 yards.  On the other side, the Bulldog rushing attack, despite an injury to star running back Todd Gurley, absolutely steamrolls the normally stout Tiger defense.  Although Georgia leads for the first three quarters, they never pull more than a touchdown ahead, as LSU responds with each swing in momentum.  As the game swings back and forth, we sit down only a handful of times, the exuberant Georgia crowd stands nearly the entire contest.  The way it should be…

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Finally, in the fourth quarter, the game breaks stride.  With 4:14 left on the clock, LSU running back Jeremy Hill scampers 8 yards into the endzone for a touchdown.  The Bayou Bengals assume their first lead of the game at 41-37 as the crowd in Athens hushes in frustration.  But when senior Bulldog QB Aaron Murray takes over, he takes to the skies, zipping the ball to his receivers and ripping off massive chunks of yardage.  On only his 6th play from scrimmage, he fires a touchdown pass to Justin Scott Wesley to complete the 75 yard drive and bounce the Bulldogs back on top 44-41.

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While LSU would get the ball back with 1:47 left on the clock, more than enough time to get within field goal range, after nearly four quarters of frustration the Georgia defense finally comes up with a key stop.  They stifle the controversial LSU quarterback, as Mettenberger fires four straight incomplete passes, ending the Tigers chances.  The crowd roars in celebration as the Georgia bench storms on to the field, earning the team a pesky excessive celebration penalty.  But the 15 yard penalty is meaningless as the clock soon expires; the Bulldogs have pulled off a massive home win, and kept their SEC Championship hopes alive.

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Thank you to my friend Brian for the last minute spontaneity and hitting it hard the entire weekend.  Can’t wait for the next one man!

Thank you to my friends Cody and Kendel – always great to meet up with you guys for a game and I’m glad I got to be a part of your first SEC experience.  Let’s get another one on the calendar soon!

Thanks to the entire tailgating crew – Alan, Bradi, LeAndra, Meredith, Lindsay and Katie (and anyone else I forgot) for your warm hospitality and putting on a fantastic tailgate for my first Georgia game.  When do I get to come back???

And of course, special thanks to my other friend for the game tickets and field passes.  Amazing experience as always, and can’t wait to finally get to a game with you one of these days…

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Vanderbilt vs Ole Miss – Rebels come knocking down the ‘Dores…

A new season starts again.  The hot Midwestern sun beats through the windshield as I grind through the tasseled corn fields of southern Illinois.  Gradually, the midwest plains give way to the rolling green hills of western Kentucky.  As I press southeast along Interstate 24 and across the Tennessee border, the broad valleys of the Cumberland River open up before me.  My white Jetta streaks through the deep rock cuts of the highway, great gouges carved into the Tennessee limestone exposing the chalky cliffs.  The odometer reads 169,423 miles as the tiny diesel motor gurgles steadily along the highway.  Year five is underway…

I’m on my way to Vanderbilt University, one of three schools remaining for me to visit in the SEC conference (Tennessee and Georgia will be completed later this year).  More importantly, it’s a chance to catch up with my good friends Dave and Merritt.   Both classmates from the MBA program at Notre Dame, we’d hoisted more than a few beers together at a few of my rowdy Irish tailgates.   Ardent followers of the blog for years, they’d agreed to give me the VIP express tour of Nashville, one of the truly great American cities.  And with an 18 month old baby at home, they’d assured me that an early wake up call wouldn’t be a problem….

Exiting off the log jammed expressway into downtown Nashvegas, I jolt down a few side streets towards the university and quickly sniff out some free parking options.  After witnessing a few other vehicles making their move, I bounce the Jetta over a concrete curb in Centennial Park and tuck neatly into an open space on the sprawling lawns.  The well manicured grounds are already home to a few bright red Ole Miss tents, and sizzling grills waft an enticing tailgate aroma through the park.  With a bevy of massive overhanging Oak and Maple trees, Centennial Park must feel like home to the Ole Miss faithful, a bunch used to tailgating in the hallowed grounds of “The Grove” in Oxford.

I quickly change shirts, donning my best black, dry fit polo on a tip from Merritt that it’s a “black out” night, and head straight for Rotiers Restaurant.  After nearly five hours on the road, I’m famished, and one of their legendary burgers has been on my short list for quite some time.  With the plush green leather booths overflowing with pregame crowds, I pull up a seat at the sturdy oak bar and take a token glance at the menu.  Dark pine paneling covers the walls, and a few dusty old Budweiser signs from the 70’s hang above the bar.  Pictures of dogs are tacked up behind the bar, family dogs I’m told – everyone that works here is a Rotier – so their kids and dogs grace the walls like any workplace.  Even my waitress is a Rotier, and she grins approvingly when I order one of their off-menu chocolate shakes.  Between the porridge thick chocolate shake and a hefty burger slid between two hearty slices of french bread, a season full of gluttony is off to a running start.

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Just as I’m finishing up, a familiar face taps me on the shoulder.  My friend and co-host for the weekend – Dave – taps me on the shoulder.  He’d sauntered in for a few pre game cold ones to escape the heat, and clutches a local Yazoo Brewing Company ale.  A Vanderbilt undergrad and Nashville native, he knows the area extensively, and runs me through a few of the campus highlights to check out during my pre game wanderings.  After a few minutes of catching up, I jot down their section and row in the stadium and head out for my campus walk.  Dave wisely lingers in the confines of the Rotiers air conditioning, nursing a few more Yazoos.

With the mercury pushing 95 degrees, it’s a sweltering, muggy day.  The Vandy campus, however, with over 170 species of trees shading the meandering walkways, offers some respite from the sun.  Considered a national Arboretum, magnificent Sugar Maples and Southern Magnolias dot the campus, every tree individually tagged and numbered with a small placard.   The school itself, built from a grant by rail magnate Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, holds a rather unique place among its SEC brethren.  A private university with an undergraduate enrollment of just under 7,000 students, it’s dwarfed by the rest of the massive public institutions in the conference.  And while the Commodores may be the pencil necked, perennial doormat of SEC football, they far outpace the rest of the conference in academic reputation (85% graduation rate), and annually rank in the top 20 universities nationally.

IMG_0201As the sun starts dipping below the horizon, it signals my walk towards the stadium.  Strolling through fraternity row on my way to Dudley Field, the streets are a delightful mess.  Sidewalks are lined with stumbling frat boys, and gaggles of talented coeds sport skimpy black Vanderbilt dresses.  The crowded lawns are cordoned off with chain link fence and littered with empty blue and red solo cups, while pop tunes blast out of massive black tower speakers.

IMG_0199I circle the stadium, and, after snubbing a handful of scalpers, scoop up a ticket for 25 bucks ($55 face).  Despite an official “sellout”, there are still plenty of tickets on the street. Climbing up the aluminum bleachers, I find a few empty seats in Section B, and pass a few minutes awaiting Dave and Merritt’s arrival.  As the pre game ceremonies kick off, the entire incoming freshman class runs out of the tunnel like an awkward teenage stampede.  Sixteen hundred students sprint across the field during the five minute procession while the PA announcer rattles off statistics about the plebs.  It’s a clever way to indoctrinate the newcomers into the spirit of Commodore Football, and remarkably similar to the “Baylor Line”.

IMG_4005Though a normally aloof crowd from what I’m told, the Vanderbilt faithful turn out in droves for the season opener against a cross divisional rival, filling Dudley Field to the gills.   At only ~40,000 capacity, Vanderbilt Stadium is easily the smallest venue in the SEC, dwarfed by some of the juggernaut arenas like Neyland and Bryant Denny.  But with as much fervor as the sellout crowd can muster, they scream into the swampy night air as the first kickoff of the season is belted down the field.

IMG_4007It feels good to be under the lights again, helmets popping, the crowd roaring on a key third down.  Feeble attempts at inciting “Anchor Down” cheers bellow through the jumbotron loudspeakers, but the audience is savvy enough to make their own noise when the situation warrants.  The teams trade control in the first half, Ole Miss comes out strong in the first quarter, but Vanderbilt dominates the second.  With optimism permeating through the humid night, Vandy takes a 21-10 lead into the tunnel at halftime.

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In the second half, momentum shifts.  Ole Miss comes out with a quick score and the crowd grows anxious as their tenuous lead quickly evaporates.  After a few more exchanges, the Rebels take a 32-28 lead midway through the 4th quarter.  As the clock winds down to 4:24 remaining, the contest reaches its zenith.  The Commodores march down the field on a couple of monster passing plays, punching in a touchdown with only 1:30 left on the clock. The crowd erupts, cups go flying into the air, sodas and ice cascade over the student section in celebration.  35-32 Vanderbilt.

But the joy is short lived.  When Ole Miss takes possession, the Vanderbilt defense collapses on the second play, giving up a 75 yard touchdown pass.  Dudley field goes silent.  The Rebels have gone back ahead 39-35 with only 1:07 remaining.  After a long kickoff return and ensuing penalty, a glimmer of hope remains for the ‘Dores when they assume the ball at midfield and a minute still remaining.  But in the end, hope fades once again when, a few plays later, QB Austyn Carta Samuels flutters the ball into the hands of an Ole Miss defender.  A game ending interception.  Ole Miss squeaks away with the win.

Vanderbilt fans file quietly out of the tunnel.  There is little yelling, gnashing of teeth, and complaining about officiating that usually accompanies such last second defeats.  These kinds of losses are usually the most devastating, but the fans here handle it with remarkable composure.  To a man, one of the classier fan bases I have been witness to.

In the end, I’m not going to tell you that Vanderbilt is one of the premiere destinations in the SEC, because it’s not.  And Commodore fans would probably tell you the same.  Its one of the smaller, quieter stadiums in SEC, and given their rigorous academic standards, the team struggles to maintain competitiveness in the most cut throat conference in NCAA football.  But the visit to Nashville alone makes the trip worthwhile, especially when you get spend it reconnecting with old friends.

The group

Special thanks to my friends Dave and Merritt for hosting me for the weekend, indoctrinating me into Vanderbilt Football, and showing me the best of what Nashville has to offer.  Hope to catch you guys again soon!

Clickthrough gallery below:

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Florida vs Mizzou – Gators chomp the Tigers…

  1. Do not attempt to ride, poke, prod, stab, or grab the manatee at any time with any object including your hand or foot.
  2. Do not chase or corner a manatee while swimming or diving.
  3. Do not disturb a resting manatee. Sleeping manatees sometimes rest in a “face-plant” on the river bottom, rising for air every few minutes. It is unlawful to interfere with these normal activities.
  4. Do not attempt to feed the manatees or give them water. Doing so may make the manatee associate food and water with humans, endangering the manatee.
  5. Do not attempt to single out or surround a manatee.

These are the instructions we’re given by John, our tour guide at Birds Underwater, as he chirps them out in a well rehearsed high pitch squeal.  Shortly after our Friday morning flight into Gainesville, we sped down Highway 121 into Crystal River, Florida, home to some of the most fertile grounds for Manatee encounters on earth.  The spring fed waters of the Kings Bay habitat maintain a lukewarm 72 degrees year round, the perfect sanctuary for Manatees retreating from colder winter temperatures.

While in Florida I wanted to find a few outdoor adventures to explore, and splashing around the tepid waters of the Crystal River seemed like the perfect escape from strip mall hell.  My frame pressed snugly into a neoprene wetsuit, John finishes taking us through the guidelines for proper manatee etiquette before we load into the pontoon boat for a private guided tour.  I make a mental note to be sure not to “stab” a manatee per John’s instruction, wondering what kind of cretin needs such a warning…

Motoring out into the lagoon, we learn to pick out the manatees from a distance by looking for bubbles on the surface, their mammoth bodies lumbering like dark shadows beneath.  Once spotted, we dive in into the crystal water and casually swim over for a closer look.  The clear waters swarm with fish; Mullets, Snook and Mangro Snapper, but Manatees are the feature attraction.  Up close the 1,500lb goliaths are gentle, approachable creatures, with inquisitive soft brown eyes as we stare at one another.  Their barnacle covered skin rough to the touch, most of them bear handfuls of deep scars from encounters with speed boat propellers.  It’s a rare experience to be up close and personal with such a massive animal in their own environment, especially one that isn’t trying to eat you.

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photo credit: http://emol.org/scott/

Though impressed with the mellow mammoths, in some ways I feel bad for the manatees.   In order to be protected they have to endure throngs of foppish tourists piling out of pontoon boats, toting their braying brats and huddling around like hordes of neoprene sausages.  Every time a manatee is spotted by one boat, a dozen others quickly moor alongside, unloading mobs of these clumsy fluorescent goons to surround the peaceful giants.  I surmise it’s no accident when speed boats occasionally collide with a manatee, often with lethal results.  I think the gentle creatures deliberately hurl themselves in front of anything with enough speed to end things quickly. Seppuku by Seadoo – a warriors death.  It sounds like a far more palatable alternative than suffering a lifetime of dealings with your average gape jawed, croc wearing, American family tourist.

But an afternoon in the water is splendid, and a private tour offers us a more intimate, respectful experience that allays my gag reflex to all things touristy.   We finish off the evening at Charlie’s Fish House, one of the few dining options in town.  Florida Stone Crabs are in season, and I order up a couple platters of the fresh, meaty red claws. Lightly steamed with just a touch of butter, the sweet crab is a perfect finish to the day as we watch the sun settle over Kings Bay.

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Saturday morning the day starts early in Gainesville, and after a hearty breakfast at the Sweetwater Inn we shuffle down the broken sidewalk towards campus.  Streets are surprisingly empty for a game day, and not until we get within a block of the stadium do they become swarmed thick with bright blue and orange dry fit polo shirts.  A noon kickoff is clearly the culprit.  Nobody has enough time to properly pregame before marching into the stadium.  Another unwelcome byproduct of television influence, early start times are completely debilitating to an energetic gameday atmosphere.  Particularly in Florida, where the scorching mid day sun reaches its zenith over the stadium, most people would rather be camped out under a few shade trees with a cooler full of beer.  SEC games always seem better at night…

As the morning sun climbs higher into the sky, I instantly regret my decision to wear jeans.   I should have taken cue from the flood of polos, khaki shorts and flip flops around me, the official uniform of SEC fandom.  The ensemble would be complete with a swoop haircut, team sun visor and matching colored “croakies” – the elastic bands attached to one’s sunglasses, keeping the shades well affixed should they decide to spontaneously leap from one’s well coiffed head.  The fashion could be worse I suppose – I could be at a Big 10 game.

We walk down the palm lined terrace to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the soaring grandstands towering overhead.  Approaching the entrance, a small sign commemorates the birthplace of Gatorade by UF researcher Robert Cade, while a giant bronze statue of former Heisman winter Tim Tebow flanks the gates.  With a stated capacity of 88,000 “The Swamp” as it’s more commonly referred, routinely packs in more than 90,000 boisterous fans, and is one of the most feared venues in the SEC.

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As the game kicks off, it’s quickly evident to the Missouri Tigers, newly minted to the SEC, why the Swamp is such an intimidating place to play.  Despite the oppressive mid day sun, the crowd roars each time the Gators stifling defense takes the field, thousands of arms outstretched, clapping fiercely in unison to the infamous “Gator Chomp”.  A defensive standoff sets in on the field, as both teams lock horns in trench warfare.  Although they move the ball, Tiger quarterback James Franklin is picked off four times.   The fast paced Mizzou offense is grounded by the Gators, managing their only touchdown on the day in the second quarter when they take the lead into halftime 7-0.

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The Gators anemic offense doesn’t score until the 3rd quarter, when they knot the game at 7 apiece.  As the fourth quarter opens, the Gators connect on a huge 45 yard touchdown pass to Mike Gillislee to take a 14-7 lead.  The close score makes for a dramatic 4th quarter, both teams battling fiercely as Mizzou fights to tie it up.  With 1:49 left, Missouri launches their final attack from deep in their own territory.  Needing a touchdown to score, they move the ball 60 yards downfield to the Gator 20 yard line with only a few ticks remaining and one final shot at the end zone.  90,000 bodies hang in the sweltering Florida air for James Franklin’s final throw, which lands anticlimactically into the outstretched arms of Florida DB Josh Evans, a game ending turnover.  Franklins’ fourth interception on the day is his most costly, and the Gators skate away with a narrow victory in a barnburner.

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After the game, the drama is hardly over.  We retreat into The Swamp, a landmark bar in Gainesville that’s ranked annually on the list of best college bars in the country.  Situated on the corner of University Ave  and 17th Street, the bar is a converted Victorian home that features an impressive outdoor lawn space.  Escaping the sun, we shoehorn into the crowded pub, wedging into the corner of a communal table and order up a couple icy buckets of Yuengling lager from one of the waitresses flitting around in skin tight outfits.  A stuffed alligator hangs from the ceiling over the bar, and dozens of flat screen TV’s flash away with various SEC broadcasts.  With the Irish game underway, I vigilantly try to persuade the bartender to put the game on one of the small, unobtrusive TV’s in the corner, even offering him a ten dollar tip for hitting a button on a remote.  He refuses, and, looking at me coldly, informs me that “we only watch SEC games here, son”.  Disgusted with this vile affront, I slam the remainder of my Yuengling, marching out the exits towards the multitude of sports bars lining University Ave.

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We slide into the Gator Zone, a non-descript college pub, chosen because it was the first place that met my exacting criteria of beer, TV and NBC.  There, I spend the rest of the evening glued to a single television set perched over the bar, watching the Notre Dame versus Pittsburgh debacle unfold before me.  A triple overtime nail biter, I’m ranting like a lunatic with each play as the Irish battle back and forth.  Slamming my fists on the pine countertop and unleashing streams of light beer induced profanity at the dramatic swings; I draw a few raised eyebrows from the khaki crowd in Gator country.  Chrissy cowers next to me with embarrassment.

In the end the Irish prevail, and I narrowly avoid an early escort from the Gator Zone security staff looming over my shoulder.   We spend the rest of the evening watching the appropriate SEC game, Alabama vs LSU, prevalently showing on every single television screen in the dark pub.  But the next time I make it to Gainesville, I’d rather be watching the SEC night game of the week inside the raucous confines of The Swamp, with 90,000 others screaming into the humid Florida night air.  The way SEC football is meant to be.

Special thanks again to a good friend for tickets, I owe you a few beers in Miami man…

Thanks again to Chrissy for joining me on another adventure, and perhaps your Tigers will fare better on an SEC roadtrip next year…

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Missouri vs Alabama – Tigers drown by the Tide…

Columbia hates me.

I’m starting to wonder if it’s personal.  During my first visit last year, an icy wind howled through the parking lots.  Cutting through layers of clothing, upending tables and tents, we were driven out of tailgating, retreating instead to the comforts of Shakespeare Pizza.  As the Tigers moved to the SEC Conference this season, I circled the biggest game on the calendar at Memorial Stadium in 2012; the #1 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide.  A short two hour drive from Saint Louis, Mizzou would be a welcome reprieve to the long travel hours I’ve already logged this year, and a chance for Chrissy to give me the VIP tour of “COMO” (an abbreviation of Columbia, MO).

Cruising into town after work, it feels good to be back behind the wheel of the Jetta. Friday night starts promptly at Booches Billiard Hall when I drag Chrissy and her family there.  A 128 year old throwback of pool hall splendor, I wrote extensively about the Columbia institution last year here.  Settling into a sturdy oak table, the aloof waitress delivers a few of their signature burgers, each slid onto the table on single sheet of wax paper. A couple of Stag lagers wash the feast down, under the glow of those same classic neon beer signs. I note a yellowed sign above the bar that reads “unattended children will be sold as slaves”, one of a handful of crass statements found tacked on the walls.

A few hours later we slip into Campus Bar and Grill, knocking on the alley back door in speakeasy fashion and gliding past a familiar bouncer.  Formerly known as the Big 12 Pub, the joint was forced to change its name after a lawsuit from the football conference bearing the same name.  Stainless steel bar tops swarm with red Cardinals shirts, students clutch pitchers of cheap swill, all glued to flat screen TV’s aglow with the MLB playoffs.  In the 9th inning the Cardinals come back in thrilling fashion to clinch the opening playoff series. The entire bar erupts in celebration, fans standing on tables, beers tossed into the air in a foamy shower.  Chrissy’s friend Mary slings drinks behind the bustling counter, the entire length stacked three deep.  Our drinks flow constantly, perhaps too quickly.  We take shots.  Then take a few more.  A few Irish Car Bombs follow.  What started innocently turns into a big night.

Saturday morning, I wake up to the patter of rain. A glance out the window confirms the weather turning even more lecherous than last year.  We tempt the tailgate anyway.  An ash sky swirls overhead, and clouds hover ominously above black tents and flapping yellow flags scattered throughout tailgating Lot X.  Unsure if the weather will hold, we drink beer to appease the tempest.  Craft beer actually, a fine offering of local Schlafly seasonal ales presented to the gods.  Mine goes down like battery acid, a reminder of the late night before, each sip a test of will.

After a few hours in the lots, we brave the elements and file into the student section in Memorial Stadium.  The gate attendant inspects student ID cards methodically like a rookie bouncer, but not carefully enough.   I glide past her with my phony plastic credentials.  Assuming standing positions on the greasy aluminum bleachers, our footholds grow slicker each moment as the rain gets heavier.  Before kickoff  the drizzle turns to a downpour, and, without raingear, we’re woefully underprepared.  A few students produce flimsy plastic ponchos, others remove their shirts entirely.  For lack of alternative, we get wet.

The game kicks off under the steamy, warm rain and Missouri is whiplashed by the caliber of the defending National Champions.  Hardly 15 seconds into the game, Alabama reels off an 80 yard touchdown run, dampening the already soaked spirits of the crowd.  A few minutes later Alabama scores again and the rout is on.  Despite performing competitively with the middle of the SEC pack this season, against the Crimson Tide the Tigers are decidedly outmatched.  With a 28-0 blowout mounting in the second quarter, a flicker lights up the blanketed sky in the distance.  Then another, closer.  Finally, a flash of lightning penetrates the grey fold, erupting in brilliant tendrils streaking over the press box of Faurot Field.  The referees halt the game, a mandatory 40 minute rain delay leaves the crowd stranded in the deluge, staring at an empty field.

Soaked to the bone with a blowout mounting, we hoof it out of the stadium for drier pastures.  After a quick wardrobe change, we retreat to the shelter of Campus Bar once again, burying my nose in the thick foam of a fresh Guinness pint.  It nourishes the soul.  I stare into one of the few TV’s playing the Notre Dame game, erupting in fits and glee during the Irish dramatic overtime win against Stanford.  From there, the night devolves into a pub crawl.  Sprinting between bars, splashing though puddles and huddling beneath awnings amidst heavy showers, each pub is crowded and steamy. Despite the weather, the town still swarms with revelers.  We put together an impressive string of bars, Willie’s, The Field House and a handful of others.  A small cross section of the impressive night life to be found in Columbia.  Underrated among the college football town landscape, perhaps the move to the SEC will help more traveling fans discover the jewel of Central Missouri.  It’s truly a magnificent college town.

Perhaps next year I’ll finally catch some decent weather there…

 

Special thanks to Chrissy for playing tour guide all weekend, and showing me just how popular she still is in Columbia!

 

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