The beauty of College Football lies far beyond the game itself. It’s a chance to travel and explore, uncover unique traditions, cultural nuances, and be immersed into the energy and atmosphere of a raucous crowd. Most importantly, it’s about people. Each year offers a chance to gather once again with friends, enjoying the shared bliss of a crisp fall Saturday afternoon. On special occasions, however, it can even be a conduit to reconnecting with old friends. Friends with whom the pressures of time, careers, geography and family can make it increasingly difficult to stay connected with. On this weekend, that friend was Tyler.
Though we initially yearned for an SEC matchup, planning this for this debacle took place with the season already a few weeks underway, and the only date that matched up on our calendars was November 17th. With the juggernauts of the SEC all hosting barnburners against cupcakes like Western Carolina, Jacksonville State and Georgia Southern, we set our sights on the most bonkers place we could think of: West Virginia. Nobody goes to West Virginia right? I mean those people are crazy, insane even. You’d have to be nuts to go to a place like that.
But in mid September the Mountaineers were undefeated and averaging 65 points per game with an offense that resembled an ADHD 13 year old playing Madden. No team had yet cracked the code on how to slow them down, much less stop them, and a late season matchup against perennial Big 12 powerhouse Oklahoma was sure to be prime. Morgantown – nothing short of a couch burning riot.
Best friends since childhood, this was the first season that Tyler was able to join me since the official four year Pigskin Pursuit began. Reflecting back on it, however, Tyler may be partially responsible for setting this entire odyssey into motion in the first place, many years ago when we were just kids. Raised a staunch Irish Catholic, Saturday afternoons at Tyler’s house meant one thing; Notre Dame Football. It was likely there, scrambling around the carpet in his parents living room where my initial baptism into Irish fandom was bestowed. From the ages of eight to eighteen when we weren’t out in the yard chasing footballs like a pair of Labrador Retrievers, we were glued to Irish TV broadcasts, flipping through thick Saturday newspapers for player names and numbers.
A few years later, it was Tyler crammed into the backseat of a friend’s Volkswagen Golf with me for a 12 hour overnight drive to South Bend, Indiana – my first ever College Football game in 2001. He had even selected the opponent for our trip; USC, a game which, incidentally, was the last time Notre Dame defeated the Trojans in Notre Dame Stadium, dating back to the tenure of former head coach Bob Davie. After sneaking into the raucous Notre Dame student section on a majestic mid October afternoon, it was there, that day in 2001 – surrounded by 80,000 other boisterous fans – where something inside of me tripped. Mesmerized by the power and energy of it all, I was immediately captivated. Owned by the moment. Like a heroin addict, I’ve been chasing this dragon ever since. Tyler was there at zero hour, easing the needle into my arm.
This season the impetus for our journey was certainly less dramatic, but a perfect opportunity to reconnect. It was his wife Kristi’s idea actually, probably desperate for a weekend of peace and quiet with their newborn daughter. As the manager of the household calendar, she even helped coordinate a few details. She then sternly instructed me to take good care of her husband – lest she regret this decision.
Like any good friend, I lied and told her I would.
Tyler greets me at the Pittsburgh airport on a chilly Friday night after picking up our shiny silver Dodge Avenger rental. Still dapper in his work attire, he’s sporting khaki’s and a starched blue button down shirt, complete with French cuffs and the links to match. Spit polished dress shoes, and hair neatly parted, I haven’t seen him this dressed up since his mother dragged us to church on Sundays in middle school.
“You better have brought a change of clothes” I remark, confident that Kristi probably selected the entire ensemble.
“Why?” he responds chidingly.
“Because if we walk into a bar in West Virginia with you wearing that, we’re getting the shit kicked out of us”.
Five seconds into the trip and the wisecracking is immediately underway. We make a beeline for Primanti Bros, the infamous Pittsburgh institution. Featured on scores of TV shows, their towering sandwiches may be the most famous in the country. I direct Tyler towards the original location in the Strip District, flanked by long rows of old brick warehouses and loading docks. We settle into one of the creaky wooden tables, nursing a few Yuengling Lagers while perusing the painted menu board.
Ordering up a classic steak sandwich and a corned beef, they’re both among the best sellers at Primanti’s. Beer is the #1 seller, in case you were wondering. The goliaths emerge a few moments later, quivering towers of meat, coleslaw, tomatoes, and french fries piled between two thick slices of white bread. The sandwiches are so large they explode with every bite. By the end, our wax papers (there are no plates) are lumped with disheveled piles of meat and coleslaw. But they are hearty, filling offerings, and we wrestle with consciousness during the hour long drive South to the hotel in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.
The next morning, I rouse us early and we shoot down the undulating highway towards Morgantown. After a couple missed turns that don’t exist, courtesy of the new and improved iPhone Apple maps, we sling open the door to Ruby and Ketchy’s diner on the outskirts of town. Pine paneling covers every wall in the homey small town gem, and a stone fireplace crackles away in the corner. A few West Virginia fans chat over their diner mugs of coffee, garbed in bright yellow sweatshirts. We fold into a table and squawk about our cushy white collar careers, a conversation oddly out of place in a diner like this. Ordering up a couple of standard greasy spoon breakfasts, we toss the waitress a $20 on the way out, shocked at the remarkably affordable prices.
Loaded up on bacon and eggs, we poke our way down progressively thinner, bumpier roads towards Pinchgut Hollow Distillery for an encounter with the iconic West Virginia cultural institution of moonshine liquor. Winding down the final stretch of hilly dirt road before the distillery, a hunter decked out in Realtree camo ambles along the shoulder, a Mossberg pump shotgun straddled across his shoulders. Tyler casts me a sheepish glance. Movies about West Virginia start this way, and they usually don’t end well. After giving the hunter a wide berth on the gravel shoulder, we arrive into the confines of the parking lot without incident.
Huddling into the cozy Pinchgut Hollow tasting room, we’re greeted warmly by sample girl Stacey who takes us through the array of glass and ceramic bottles arranged neatly on the pine counter. They produce two kinds of moonshine here, traditional corn and a rarer buckwheat version – Pinchgut claiming to be the only legal buckwheat moonshine distiller in the US. We sample both. The raw, clear, 100 proof liquor burns the tongue a bit, but it’s surprisingly smooth, with a discernible difference in taste between the two grains. We also sample the sugary Apple Pie and Honey Peach flavored varieties, cut down to a paltry 70 proof for softer palettes. All four versions are available for purchase in 750ml ceramic pig bottles, a clever design inspired by a 19th century glass Suffolk Bitters Whiskey bottle the owner keeps proudly shelved in a glass display case.
They make Bourbon here too, naturally, as the raw moonshine is poured into charred oak barrels and aged on premise for two years to give it that amber, earthy glow. We sample those too, both the familiar corn bourbon and their exclusive buckwheat “bourbon”. (*bourbon dorks – no need to chastise me here, I am well aware that technically buckwheat liquor cannot be called real “bourbon” – it’s a descriptor, relax). Like any spirit, the aging really brings out some depth and complexity to the flavors, and it’s remarkably smooth sipping bourbon. They offer a tour of the small, family owned operation, already expanding with the explosion in consumer demand for craft distilled spirits. I revel at the neat stacks of numbered oak barrels shelved in all corners, the dense, yeasty smell of grain mash wafting through the crisp morning air. It’s a tempting place to stay for an afternoon, sitting on their porch, swapping pulls of Bourbon – but a big game beckons.
Warmed with our white lightning sampler, we speed on into Morgantown and press into Mario’s Fishbowl, a crowded landmark pub known for their giant “fishbowl” sized frozen schooners of beer. It’s a dark, cramped space alight with character. The walls are littered with thousands of cards and messages handwritten in magic marker, some of them witty, others a bit simpler minded like stenciled fraternity letters. There are records posted for the fastest fishbowl chug – 3.63 seconds, and a few fellas next to us fling quarters at a small vase perched on a dusty shelf high above the bar.
“The secret” the portly guy next to us proclaims “is to bank it in off the back wall” as he flings another quarter skyward. We watch it tumble clumsily, rattling off a few bottles before rolling to a stop on the floor behind the bar. If they manage to sink one, they get a free schooner full of a beer of their choice. For the next few minutes, he and his cohort keep peppering quarters at the vase wildly, the bus boy dodging them like an incoming mortar barrage each time they ricochet off the back wall. All told, the duo aimlessly flails twenty dollars in quarters at the tiny vase, all for a five dollar mug of beer. None of them connect. We toss a dollars worth of our own. The vase remains empty.
The bartenders at Mario’s are all young, perky coeds sporting grey t-shirts imprinted with the slogan “Take Me Home” on the back, a nod to the John Denver song Country Roads and defacto alma mater for The University of West Virginia. The entire bar even erupts in a Denver chorus a few times, swaying and clanking their foamy mugs back and forth. But the girls don’t abide bullshit from the rough and tumble game day crowd. When a precariously young looking patron orders two beers, one for himself and a friend, she sternly warns him “If you’re friend isn’t 21, I’m going to punch both of you in the stomach…” I doubt she was the kidding sort.
We politely order up a few signature fishbowls of Yuengling Lager, watching intently as the bar girl pulls a fresh, frosty bowl from the freezer with each order, chipping a solid disk of ice off the top of each glass before filling the vessel with the amber nectar. If there is a beer served colder than this, I haven’t found it. Like a couple of regular bar flies, we camp out on stools for a few hours, drinking a handful of fishbowls, dodging quarters, and soaking in one of the great Morgantown pubs before moving on.
From there, we wander into Kegler’s, a cavernous sports bar close to campus. With the usual array of wings and light beer, we perch on a few bar stools watching the afternoon games before making our final ascent to Milan Puskar. As we near the stadium, I thrust two fingers in the air signaling my need for a pair of tickets. Swarmed by a gaggle of sellers with fistfuls of them, I haggle a guy down to thirty bucks apiece for two seats on the 30 yard line, about half face value. Pressing the final stretch before the stadium, we elbow our way through the “Blue Lot”, hallowed tailgating grounds at West Virginia. The broad swath of asphalt is a borderline riot. Blue and gold tents pack the expanse with columns of grill smoke rising between. Coonskin cap adorned fans huddled beneath, spilling out of tents on all sides, clutching fresh beers while empties roll around the pavement like fallen leaves in the breeze. It’s an impressive scene.
Entering Milan Puskar for the first time, it’s a large space, but compared to the other goliath stadiums I have been to, nothing extraordinary. Although capacity is a humble 60,000, when full, the stadium itself is actually the largest city (by population) in the entire state of West Virginia. But that’s not what has my attention. What stops me dead in my tracks is that of all things, unbelievably, they sell beer here. Beer. Here. In West Virginia. If you polled college football fans across the country, of all the places where they absolutely should NOT sell beer – West Virginia would be at the top of that list. This is a whole new level of danger. But as I think about it, god only knows what these delightful lunatics would be sneaking into the stadium otherwise. So encouraging them to consume beer instead, I’m guessing, is actually a clever ruse sober them up. Wicked smart.
The game kicks off to Oklahoma, and the Sooners immediately respond by marching 75 yards down the field on a touchdown drive. In predictable Big 12 fashion, the contest turns into a track meet. For four quarters, the two teams trade touchdowns, although at one point the Mountaineers battle back from a 31-17 half time deficit. The animated crowd bellows with each sway in momentum, and the Mountaineer faithful are a vociferous, inebriated bunch. At half time the cacophony quiets for a moment when a public service video pipes in over the jumbotron encouraging fans to “celebrate with class”. It pleads with them to not burn couches – a time honored Mountaineer victory tradition recently banned by city ordinance because of its prevalence. That’s right, the city of Morgantown had to pass a law expressly banning couch burning. These are my kind of fans.
All told, the two teams rack up nearly 1,500 yards in total offense as receivers and running backs streak through porous defenses unabated. For a moment, West Virginia clings to victory, when they punch in a touchdown to take a 49-44 lead with only 2:53 remaining. But the Sooners know better. They march down the field unhurriedly on the final drive, chewing through the final minutes of the clock knowing they can score at will. With 24 ticks remaining Oklahoma QB Landry Jones slings an easy five yard touchdown pass to receiver Kenny Stills, and the Sooners confidently slide away with a 50-49 victory. Milan Puskar is hushed in frustration, the blue and gold faithful make for the exits in teeth grinding silence, “Take Me Home” is only sung in victory. The couches will live to see another day.
A barnburner of a game to begin with, the contest was further enhanced by the most electrifying individual performance I have ever witnessed on a college football field. West Virginia senior wide receiver Tavon Austin, playing in his final home game in Milan Puskar Stadium, was given a few snaps at running back for a few extra touches on senior day. What followed was nothing short of remarkable. Austin rushed for 344 yards (on 21 carries – a 16.4 ypc average), caught another 82 yards in the air, and racked up 146 more on kick returns. All told, he finished the day with a pair of touchdowns against 572 all purpose yards – only 6 shy of the all time record for all purpose yardage in an NCAA game. Shortly after a few of his initial runs, it was obvious that the Sooner defense had no ability to contain his blistering speed. Literally every single time he touched the ball, he was a threat to score. I have never witnessed its equal. It certainly arouses some suspicion with Mountaineer offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, that he waited until the final game of Austin’s 4 year career to truly unlock his talent…
Sunday morning, our adventures are hardly over. We stretch down the winding, hilly back roads of Southwest Pennsylvania to pay our respects to Fallingwater, easily the most famous house ever constructed. Designed by fabled American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1939, the dwelling sits perched atop a waterfall on the Bear Run River. Wrights’ crowning jewel of a long and distinguished career, the work is a masterpiece of cantilevered concrete, stone and glass. Each painstaking detail cleverly designed and expertly crafted. It’s an awe inspiring work, and, as a former architect, completely humbling. After the tour, we snap a few quick photos outside before pressing Northward. We’re allowed outdoor photos exclusively, as the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has irritatingly banned indoor photography.
Motoring back into to Pittsburgh, we make one final stop before boarding our respective flights. Beyond Primanti’s there is another famous sandwich that put Pittsburgh on the food map; the Turkey Devonshire. Akin to the “Hot Brown” sandwich in Louisville, the Turkey Devonshire consists of slices of roast turkey piled atop toast points, stacked with bacon and tomatoes, and finished with a generous slather of a proprietary cheddar based cheese sauce. It’s been a belt busting staple of the Steel City since 1934. We pick the Union Grill for our Devonshire’s, a fixture of the Oakland neighborhood, purported to have the best one around. Ordering up a pair of the luxurious sandwiches, they are dished out 15 minutes later on a piping hot ceramic skillet, the cheese sauce still bubbling. Indulgent to say the least, we make fast work of the creamy, hearty fare. After a quick waddle to the plane nap time ensues quickly.
After a whirlwind weekend in West Virginia, Tyler is sold on another adventure next fall, and I’m already circling the calendar in anticipation. So look for us coming to a SEC hotspot in 2013. Kristi, I promise I’ll take good care of him…
Special thanks to Kristi for pushing for this, and allowing Tyler a weekend out on the road…
Special thanks of course to Tyler for sticking the college football needle into my arm decades ago and setting all of this in motion, looking forward to the trip next year…
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