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…
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