I hate Florida State.

At least, I’m supposed to.  Growing up a Notre Dame fan, the two teams were perennially vying for the national championship, squaring off in some of the most epic college football games ever played.  1993 Still burns like acid in my memories.  But the days of Lou Holtz and Bobby Bowden staring across the gridiron are distant memories, and, like the Irish, the Seminoles find themselves trying to recapture their former glory.  Sporting a #4 ranking, lofty post season expectations and a premier ACC conference matchup against Clemson, the lure of this storied program was calling my name.

After a late Friday night arrival, thanks to the rapidly decaying service of American Airlines, I start out groggily on Saturday morning after few hours shuteye.  Tallahassee is a deceptively difficult place to get to.  Tucked into the corner where the Florida Panhandle meets the Peninsula, its three hours from Pensacola or Jacksonville.  With flights in excess of $1,000 for either of those locations, I flew into the suburban cultural vacuum of Tampa instead, making the four hour drive up the Gulf Coast.   Hammering up State Road 19, the spongy Florida countryside is speckled with neatly planted Southern yellow pine forests, interspersed with an occasional towering live oak, draped in iconic Spanish moss.   The drive proves more peaceful than I anticipated. Not the stop light ridden, strip mall consumerist bile typically associated with the entire sunshine state.

I stop once along the way, lunch at Goodmans BBQ in Perry.  The waiter proudly takes me through their selection of four different sauces (one of which is ketchup), but when I ask him what kind of wood they smoke with, my query is met with a blank stare.  I hadn’t expected much from Florida cue’, and the sloppy plate here confirms my fears.  I shovel the lifeless grey protein down dejectedly, and press on northward.

Arriving in Tallahassee and winding my way around the state capitol building, I meet up with Drew (name redacted) a second year law student at FSU who’d agreed to part with an extra student ticket over a few emails we’d exchanged.   He promptly thrust a red solo cup in my hand, and I joined him and a few other law students huddled under the shade of a lone parking lot Oak for a few cold Coors Lights.

After a few pops, I make my way down Jefferson Street, flanked on both sides by pristine sorority houses. Sadly, the legendary FSU coeds aren’t oil wrestling in the front yards.  The sidewalks are painted with bright floral patterns in front of each of the ornate mansions, their Victorian balconies overlooking manicured lawns and kempt flower beds.  Following a growing herd shuffling towards the stadium lots, the asphalt plains are flooded with a sea of tents. Tailgaters fan themselves in the shade beneath, nose deep in massive plastic cups of bourbon and coke, retreating from the ninety degree Florida sun.

I make a quick lap around Doak Campbell, a few hundred students already lined up at the iron gates four hours before kickoff. In addition to enclosing Bobby Bowden field, the stadium sports a massive stained glass mural and several attached buildings housing various administration and classroom facilities.  It’s an imposing monolith of masonry, and claims to be the largest continuous brick structure in the United States.  I mill around the “Unconquered” statue, a breathtaking 19ft bronze commission erected in tribute the Seminole people, the only tribe to never officially surrender to the US Government.  Seminole mascot and traditions run deep at Florida State, and are officially sanctioned by the Seminole tribe, no doubt appeased by some sizeable checks flowing out of the athletic department.

In the shadow of the statue I meet up with Alan, a friend of a friend (real names redacted) who presents me with the most remarkable gift I’ve ever had on my travels – a field pass for the entire contest.  I’ll be watching the biggest game in the ACC all season, an ESPN Gameday game, close enough to hear cleats scratching on the turf.  The student ticket I had elaborately procured only moments before now repulses me.  I stroke the glossy plastic pass as we enter the tunnel, marveling at the power of access that comes with each security checkpoint. Touching the pass reassuringly every few seconds, I check to make sure the flimsy elastic hasn’t snapped off my neck.  My precious…

We watch some pre game warm-ups from the sideline, the game nearly two hours before kickoff. Players stretch and drill fundamentals while assistant coaches observe behind dark sunglasses.  A few prized recruits are led in from the tunnel, single file like show ponies, behind a gaggle of stunning female boosters playing tour guide.  Boys gifted with mens bodies.  They clearly draw from a different gene pool than most.  It’s going to be the biggest game of the year in Tallahassee, so this is their best chance to close the sale on the most touted five star recruits.  I marvel at the relaxed calm of pregame, watching the empty aluminum bleachers gradually swell to life before kickoff.

As kickoff approaches, a steady drumbeat pierces through the pregame chaos.  The iconic Seminole War Chant begins. Swampy southern air grows more electric as each second ticks off the countdown clock, the crowd rhythmically tomahawk chopping as they howl.  Chief Osceola, mounted on a painted Appaloosa named Renegade, prance their way to midfield, his flaming spear thrust nobly overhead into the Florida night.  With a tug on the mane, the horse rears onto its hind legs, the spear driven gallantly into the turf, signaling the start of the contest.  It’s contrived ceremony, perhaps even a bit pompous – show me an entrance that isn’t.  Your heart pumps diesel, thumping against your chest with each ritualistic drumbeat, deafening echoes amplified by 83,000 others hanging on the precarious edge of frenzy.  It’s an epic entrance.

On the field, the contest lives up to the hype.  Clemson jumps out to an early lead, led by a deceptive rushing attack and a few misdirection plays.  The offense comes in flurries.  Up close, the sheer size and speed of these athletes is remarkable.  They’re carved out of stone.  Helmets pop with each collision, and the chatter between players becomes audible….“Watch 1-2, Pickup 1-2!”.    During key defensive third downs, the War Chant reaches its zenith.  At field level my ears throb in the din. Having a conversation is all but impossible, never mind running an offense.  The crowd wills the Seminoles back to life.  In the second half their offense explodes, reeling off 35 points on a flawless balance of rushing and passing. They cruise to a 49-37 victory, solidifying their position near the top of the polls.

Having been there now, it’s impossible to hate Florida State.  It’s a first tier college football destination with proud traditions, a boisterous atmosphere and fervent fan base.  As long as they faithfully lose to the Irish annually in the ACC, count FSU among the favored elite of college football experiences.

Special thanks to a great friend for the field pass, it was truly a once in a life time experience.  Hopefully, we can finally connect for a game one of these days man…

Thanks also to my “handler” for the evening on the field, and making sure I didn’t run out and try to tackle someone.  Go Noles!

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