Another week, another mid week MAC Conference game. This time, my travels take me to glamorous Dekalb, Illinois to see the undefeated Northern Illinois Huskies. The Western Michigan Broncos would be their final test of the regular season. With a lofty #14 ranking in the polls, the Huskies had an outside shot at getting into a BCS game if they could win this one and the proceeding MAC Championship game. But with the mercury dipping well into the teens (single digits with wind chill) and a dusting of snow on the radar, this would be far from a comfortable affair. I packed enough winter clothing for a polar expedition into the Jetta, loaded up on sunflower seeds, and sped off to Dekalb for a 4-1/2 hour ride.
As I make my way north along I-55 in southern Illinois, I gingerly set the cruise control at moderate 70mph. From experience, Illinois is a state riddled with overzealous state troopers, and today proves no exception. During the 90 mile stretch between Saint Louis and Springfield, IL I gaspingly count over 30 cruisers craftily tucked into blind medians and bridge abutments. That’s one cruiser for every three miles of road. While I’m sure it’s paramount to public safety to so aggressively patrol a highway that bisects mile upon mile of fallow cornfields, perhaps the brilliant political minds in Illinois should consider redeploying those resources to better good. Like, for instance, the south side of Chicago; a place which enjoys one of the highest violent crime and murder rates in the country.
Political musings aside, I make a stop for lunch in Springfield, Illinois at the infamous Maid Rite sandwich shop. While there are a handful of Maid Rite locations spread throughout the Midwest, this one enjoys some historical significance. Located along historic Route 66, Springfield was a key stop between the Chicago and Saint Louis corridor of the “Mother Road”. Shortly after first opening its doors in 1921, this Springfield Maid Rite opened a drive thru window for hungry wayfarers looking to grab a quick bite on their way. A seemingly innocuous innovation at the time, this proved to be the first drive-thru window in the country, earning itself a spot on the National Register of Historic Places and spawning an entire “food in the car” culture. So the next time you pull into Taco Bell at 3AM with a chalupa hankering, you can thank the little Maid Rite in Springfield, Illinois for making it all possible.
I opt for dine in to stretch the legs a bit, and order a pair of their signature “loose meat” sandwiches – spiced, finely ground beef served on a soft white bun. Naturally, I wash it down with a frosty mug of their home made root beer. Combined, I think the entire order costs five bucks. This is simpler food, from a simpler time, but it’s cheap and efficient, and has me back on the road ten minutes later.
I plod the remaining few hours through the sweeping cornfields of northern Illinois and pull into Dekalb about an hour before kickoff. Snow flurries trickle from the sky, and a fresh white layer blankets the parking lots. I don enough layers for Shackleton’s voyage and set off towards the beckoning lights of Huskie stadium. Incredibly, tailgaters are out in droves in the parking lots adjacent to the field. Wearing colorful, insulated snowmobiling gear they huddle around garbage can fires, clutching beers and steaming cups of Irish coffee as the wind whips through the frigid night. A few of the more reasonably minded retreat into the inviting yellow glow of their cozy RV’s, sheltered from the harsh elements. Uncle Eddie would be proud…
I plow through the flurry outside Huskie Stadium on the hunt for tickets, but even the scalpers are smart enough to stay home on a night like tonight. After a futile search, I huddle into the warm confines of the Yordon Athletic Center, chatting up a handful of other Huskie fans with the same idea. After hearing my story, they hand over a free ticket from a fistful of extras, as a few of their fair weather family member declined to show up. As an added bonus, the game tonight is general admission seating, so I’ll be able to sit wherever I please.
I crowd into the stadium and stake out a choice spot along the fifty yard line, while the frigid aluminum bleachers immediately suck what little warmth remains. With a little sunshine, day games in the cold can be quite tolerable, but at night the bitter air is unrelenting, there is no escape from its chilly grasp. Before the game kicks off, each senior is honored at mid field as part of the final home game ceremonies. Heisman contending quarterback Jordan Lynch in particular, gets as rousing a standing ovation as the 17,679 person crowd can muster. Even the Huskies mascot – a Siberian Husky named “Diesel”- is honored before the game. After nine seasons of loyal service, the majestic Husky is retiring, and “Mission” a new two year old purebred pooch will replace his position howling away on the sidelines.
On the field, the game is, quite simply, the one man Jordan Lynch show. With the frigid temperatures and snowy conditions thwarting air attacks, he takes to the ground, and runs roughshod over the hapless one-win Broncos. Lynch carries the ball an astounding 27 times, and amasses 321 rushing yards alone – good enough to break his own FBS record for Quarterback rushing yards in a single game. He would eventually rush for three touchdowns, and pass for another; bringing his season total to 22 passing touchdowns against 20 rushing touchdowns. Only five quarterbacks in FBS division football history have ever had 20/20 seasons, and a few of those guys have a big bronze trophy sitting on their mantle at home. While the merits of his Heisman consideration are still debatable, Lynch is easily one of the most impressive players in the country to watch.
At halftime, I hang out in the bathroom for warmth, crowded into to the only heated space in Huskie Stadium with dozens of others retreating from the 3 degree wind chill temperatures. As the feeling returns to my fingers and toes, a moment of clarity washes over me in that cramped little concrete restroom. Tonight the Huskie squad is sporting alternate black and chrome jerseys, emblazoned on the back is the team slogan “The Hard Way”. The words have become a sort of mantra for the Huskie program, as the entire roster is filled with players that went overlooked by some of the bigger programs. Everything they’ve accomplished to date – the unbeaten record, playing in the snow, and hopefully getting to a BCS bowl game – they’ll have to do the Hard Way. Nothing will come easy for them. It’s an appropriate slogan for the crowd on a night like tonight too. As I emerge from the heat of the bathroom, with the Huskies comfortably in control and the outcome never in doubt, it would be easy to split. It would be easy to jump in my warm car and jaunt back to St. Louis, avoiding another two hours of frigid football. But this little pursuit of mine isn’t always about the easy games – the big games between two SEC juggernauts slugging it out in a 100,000 seat stadium. Anybody can stick around for those. If I want to keep exploring every corner, every facet, of this beautiful American sport, sometimes it will mean driving 5 hours each way, to stand alone in a 15 degree blizzard, in a tiny stadium in Dekalb, Illinois, on a Tuesday night, to witness a blowout.
Sometimes…I’ll just have to do it the Hard Way.
And with that, per my usual form, I stay for the entire contest while most of the crowd withdraws for warmer pastures. The Huskies roll to a 33-14 victory to complete their unbeaten regular season. Lynch’s play states his demand for the Heisman on the field, and with a final MAC Conference Championship game remaining at Ford Field in Detroit, the Huskies will make their case for BCS Bowl consideration. And, as always, they’ll have to do it the Hard Way too.
On the way home after the final whistle, however, tragedy ensues. My trusty steed “White Lightning”, a 2002 white Volkswagen Jetta TDI, craps out on the highway only 40 minutes outside of Dekalb. After over 170,000 miles of flawless service, the engine inexplicably dies at 70mph, and I coast the wounded warrior off the nearest exit ramp as dozens of dash lights flicker red with ominous warning symbols.
Now breaking down is never fun. But breaking down at 11:30 at night, when it’s 15 degrees outside, over 230 miles from home in Oglesby, Illinois reaches a whole new level of suckitude. I pop the hood in frustration and root around in vain for a broken fan belt or some other easy explanation, all the while spewing a steady stream of profanity like the furnace fighting Old Man in “A Christmas Story”.
Luckily, Officer Knoblauch of the Oglesby Town Police pulls up behind me a few minutes later. He follows me with the flashers on while I push the car into a secluded side street, and offers a ride to a nearby Best Western in the back seat of his cruiser. The next day I’m forced to return to St. Louis unceremoniously – behind the wheel of a rumbling UHaul truck, the Jetta dejectedly chained to a trailer in tow. The “Hard Way” indeed.
Fortunately, I’ll be boarding a plane for my final two games of the season – a doubleheader in the frigid north country of Michigan. And with any luck, White Lightning will be back in action next year, with another 170,000 miles of faithful service left in her…
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