As the 2015 college football season kicks off, big changes have been underfoot during the off season here on the Pigskin Pursuit. While my seventh season of intensive travel was intended to be the biggest ever, delving even further into the most remote corners of the sport, a new career opportunity thwarted all of those plans. In May, I accepted an expat assignment with my company to go live and work in Paris (the French one) for the next few years, so I packed up the schooners and relocated to the City of Light.
For an intrepid traveler and bon vivant, this was both a personal and professional dream that was simply too enticing to pass up. So while the unbridled gluttony portion of the “Pursuit” will still operate at peak capacity, evidenced by my initial cheese intake here in France, the “Pigskin” aspect of it (at least the American football aspect) will be slightly more subdued for the next year or two. Undaunted, I still have a few tricks up my sleeve for this fall, and I’ll be traversing the Atlantic to take in a handful of games.
While originally I hadn’t intended to return to the USA until October, a fortuitous early September work trip would bring me back to the friendly shores of lady liberty just as the 2015 college football season was kicking off. With a flight locked into Chicago, I’d be in town early enough to kick the season off with an exciting doubleheader: 1. a Friday night kickoff in Kalamazoo, Michigan to see the Western Michigan Broncos host formidable Michigan State and 2. Shoot down to South Bend, Indiana the next day for the historic Notre Dame vs. Texas season opener under the Saturday lights. Not a bad little doubleheader to kick off the season.
After the wheels of a nine hour transatlantic flight hit the tarmac, it’s a three hour drive to Kalamazoo from O’Hare airport. Equipped with a comically underpowered Toyota Corolla, I set off along the agonizing, painful stretch of Interstate 80/90 that skirts the southern shores of Lake Michigan. Eighteen wheelers clog the narrow lanes, Illinois State Troopers proliferate the medians, and frequent tollbooths sporting the latest in 1970’s technology, all grind traffic to a sluggish crawl.
The unmistakable waft of sulfur hovers thick in the humid summer air like a mist over the withered manufacturing bones of Gary (Indiana). In the distance, the hulking, industrial silhouette of Gary Works – U.S. Steel’s largest manufacturing plant in the country – puffs white plumes from their towering blast furnaces into the clear blue sky. It’s my first time behind the wheel of a car in three months, and instead of a leisurely cruise down a winding county road, I’m grinding my teeth and limping along one of the most nightmarish, dystopian stretches of road in America. A stroke would be a welcome respite right now.
Although Michigan isn’t exactly a state synonymous with great BBQ, after a few months of living abroad, any place with pork ribs looks like Pecan Lodge and I’d happily scrape the brisket trimmings off a Dickey’s carving block right now. So I pull into the first BBQ joint I can find in Kalamazoo – Hogzilla BBQ – which is little more than a takeout stand in a seedier part of town. Someone should take my car keys, because clearly, in my state, judgement is significantly impaired.
Hogzilla proves a thoroughly craptastic affair. The ribs are undercooked and chewy – and by chewy, I mean I’m literally attempting to tear them away from the bone like a jackal yanks at a water buffalo carcass. Brisket doesn’t fare any better. The grey lifeless protein lies somewhere between roast beef and sawdust, and I deign to the ultimate insult of dunking it in sauce to choke it down. Appallingly, for nearly twenty bucks, my meal doesn’t include any sides and there are no bathrooms available to patrons – even ones that have just driven three hours from Chicago. The fact that Hogzilla has foisted not one but two of these abominations on the Michigan dining public is both a sham and an affront to common decency. The good people of the Mitten State deserve better.
Fortunately, my spirits lift a few minutes later when I pull into the Western Michigan campus. The sun is out, sidewalks are lined with fans clutching cases of beer, the aroma of burning charcoal wafts through the air like an autumn perfume and tents line the grassy medians, neatly arranged into tiny villages. The spirt of college football blooms for a new season in Kalamazoo.
After easing the little rental Corolla into some free street parking on Forest Street, I wade through the rabble assembled in the shadows of Waldo Stadium and press further into the main campus for a quick tour. The Western Michigan grounds are neither offensive nor noteworthy. It houses the usual assemblage of unremarkable higher education architecture, many of which seem to resemble hospitals or corporate office parks. Judging by the amount of newer buildings, the campus appears to have grown considerably in the past decade or two.
From there, I work my way back towards Waldo Stadium. Carved into the side of a wooded hill, the stadium occupies a massive sports complex that also houses the baseball, softball and track facilities for the Broncos. The sidewalks are lined thick with game day fans pouring out of remote parking shuttle busses, all shuffling towards the stadium as kickoff nears. Half of the fans wear black Bronco t-shirts accented with the 2015 team slogan “row the boat”, a phrase coined by new head coach P.J. Fleck meant to bring solidarity and spirit to the football program. The other half of the mob wears green and white, as many of the Michigan State contingent braved the 1.5 hour ride down from East Lansing to witness the season opener for their promising 2015 Spartan squad.
Unfortunately, the influx of in-state fans has driven ticket prices to absurd levels for a Mid American Conference game. Previously, I’ve been able to score the majority of my MAC tickets for free. The scalpers tonight, however, are having a field day ripping off unsuspecting fans. They’re demanding prices upwards of $150 a pop – over double face value of $68, for a Western Michigan game. Comical. For perspective, I paid $200 for my Alabama vs LSU ticket when the teams were #1 and #2 in the country – easily the biggest regular season game of the past decade.
Frustrated when the scalpers obstinately refuse to budge, I opt to canvas the parking lots instead, trotting up and down the rows with a single finger raised in the air. After an hour of searching, I finally haggle a fan in one of the parking lots down to $70 for a choice 40 yard line seat, grumbling as I fork over face value for the privilege. Western Michigan tickets are a hot commodity on a Friday night…
As the Michigan State band begins its march into Waldo stadium, fervently pumping out brassy regalia, it signals the start of my 2015 season and I file in shortly behind them. As anticipation builds towards kickoff, the Western Michigan squad assembles in the Northwest tunnel while the packed house of 30,885 rises to their feet. A few seconds later, Triumph, a white spotted American Paint horse mounted by a member of the WMU Equestrian team bursts out of the tunnel. The horse dashes across the field at full gallop, while the Broncos players sprint behind, leaping and bounding with the vigor of a fresh season coursing through them. After a quick coin flip, the Spartans line into a neat row on the 35 yard and await their kicker to drop his arm.
The game kicks off with a bang. Broncos return man Darius Phillips sprints 70 yards through the Spartan coverage team before being tripped up on a shoestring tackle at the MSU 30 yard line. The Bronco crowd explodes with the initial surge, but their hopes are short lived when the offense stalls and a field goal attempt is botched four plays later. After a Michigan State touchdown, the speedy Phillips strikes again, however, this time streaking a full 100 yards unabated for an exclamatory Western Michigan touchdown. Clearly, the plucky Broncos don’t intend to roll over for their bigger in state brethren.
After the initial onslaught, however, the Spartans assume more control. They settle into a grinding offensive pace and tighten the grip on defense, shoring up the special teams mishaps that opened the game. To their credit, the Western Michigan crowd is a vociferous bunch, amped up for the season opener; they rise to their feet on every third down wailing away at MSU quarterback Connor Cook.
As the half draws to an end Michigan State leads 27-10, but with the fight in the Broncos squad, it’s hardly a comfortable margin. After the usual band marches at halftime, Waldo Stadium explodes in a shower of fireworks. Bursting high above the south scoreboard, the night sky is ablaze with streaks of green, red and orange, the crowd cheering with each successive report. A grizzled old Broncos fan next to me remarks “they must have wanted to light em’ off at halftime, because it would look strange to light off fireworks after a loss…”
The second half kicks off under a thick cloud of pyrotechnic smoke, still hanging heavy in the humid night air as the acrid smell of sulfur wafts over the stands. The Broncos mount a determined charge in the second half. Quarterback Zach Terrell zips a pair of touchdowns, drawing the Broncs to within 10 midway through the fourth quarter, and the crowd swells with anticipation of a miracle. But with 1:41 remaining, Terrell makes his second mishap of the day, floating a soft pass into the corner of the endzone for an easy interception by Spartan defender Vayante Copeland – sealing the fate of the Bronco faithful. A few victory formations later, Sparty escapes Kalamzoo with an uneasy 37-24 win, and a few hard lessons for their upcoming battle with the Oregon Ducks. To their credit, the Broncos players and fans never fold in this one, and they “row the boat” until the final whistle…
It’s a rare treat for a MAC program like Western Michigan to host a traditional power like Michigan State, and with an electric crowd for a season opener, it was a fantastic start to the Pigskin Pursuit in 2015. With a few winks of sleep I’ll skip down to Notre Dame in the morning, the Irish are kicking off their season against Texas – a historic matchup involving two of the most storied programs in the sport, and that’s exactly where I intend to be….
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