|StateofRutgers Swells with Joy|
Growing up in New Jersey, you learn to deal with all the stereotypes and jokes about our beloved state.
For me — it was always the usual suspects: Spiky hair, techno music, late night runs through the Lincoln Tunnel to Club Exit, glow sticks, white tank tops, Kangol hats, Friday nights at the mall, tight jeans, Paulie Walnuts, "What Exit?!," Joe Piscopo, Tommy Cheeseballs and his pheromones — it all comes with the territory.
And the disaster that was Rutgers football.
The last one? Well, there was never any defense; no snappy comeback for it. Whereas Tommy Cheeseballs and his legendary MTV "True Life" documentary about life on the Jersey Shore was never truly an accurate portrayal of our state's residents, there was no exaggeration for how bad Rutgers was at football. No hyperbole whatsoever. All the jokes, all the ridicule, all the insults — they were more or less spot on.
Winless seasons; losses to New Hampshire; surrendering 101 points in two weekends — it's all been pretty embarrassing for anyone with a love for football and a passion for all things Springsteen-related. While the hoops team gave us joy in the late nineties (Geoff Billet is STILL a hero in New Brunswick), the Scarlet Knights football squad has been nothing but an eye sore. And not for a few years.
For a few decades.
The best high school football talent in the state would flee Jersey like baby birds leaving a nest, getting scooped up by vultures from the Big Ten and ACC, never once considering Rutgers as a legitimate option in the college selection process. In the 90's, Jersey high school football blue chippers went to prominent out-of-state powers year after year. Chris Simms, Eric McCoo, Christian Peter — they'd make national news for high school achievements on the football field.
And then they'd leave.
It continued with the turn of the century. Wali Lundy, Dan Klecko, William Green, Christian Olsen, Tamba Hali, Brandon Hoyte — they'd go on to star elsewhere. They'd flee the swamps for greener pastures.
And who could blame them? Why stay home in Jersey? Aside from the opportunity to feast on a Fat Cat or a Fat Sam at the Grease Trucks, why would they stick around to play at Rutgers? Hell, they could always read the Daily Targum online and just go to Knight Club while home on breaks. There was never any reason to stay in-state. The football program at our state's university was worse than a joke — it was an embarrassment. High school stars would excel so they could get out of Jersey, not hang around for four more years.
But after Thursday night's miraculous win over Louisville, that all might change. This Greg Schiano guy? He's got Sinatra-like status in the Garden State these days. From Wildwood to Wayne, they're putting him in the same breath as Parcells and Lombardi (Jersey guys, too). A native of Wyckoff, Schiano's brought college football back to the Garden State and a buzz to the Rutgers campus — for the first time in, well, my entire lifetime.
Jersey is officially stricken with Scarlet Fever. Go online and try to find a Ray Rice football jersey. You can't. They're all sold out. "Brian Leonard for Heisman" tee-shirts? There were a few available back in September. Now? The knock-offs are all over ebay. Tickets? I wrote an article on this last week. You couldn't give them away two years ago. A pair of seats for Thursday night's game was going for $400 on Craigslist.
If you were frozen in 2002 and brought back to life this weekend, I'm not sure what you'd be more shocked by — the fact that Britney Spears is now twice-divorced with two kids or that Rutgers football was undefeated and in the BCS Championship Game picture. Both are startling. Both are somehow true.
The way Rutgers played Thursday night — on national television, for the whole country to see — was something for Jerseyites to be proud of. Down 25-7 in the second half, the defense came out like gangbusters, and the offense answered. RU scored 21 straight points in dramatic fashion, pulling off the greatest upset in school history. Rice dominated the ground game behind an incredible offensive line, quarterback Mike Teel ran the show from under center, and fifth-year senior Brian Leonard made the biggest play of the evening — hauling in a 26-yard pass on 3rd and 6 late in the fourth quarter to keep the eventual game-winning drive alive. Kicker Jeremy Ito would pop through the go-ahead field goal (on his second try) minutes later. The defense held Louisville's high-flying offense scoreless in the second half.
From top to bottom, the team chopped wood. Or something like that.
Rutgers came to play Thursday evening. The effort was inspiring, and the energy was infectious. If you didn't get caught up in the team's play on the field, you surely felt the bug spreading in the stadium. The crowd was alive, and it's trickling across the country for anyone who has once called the Garden State home this morning.
I didn't go to Rutgers. But with this excitement, just being from Jersey is enough. The butt of so many jokes for so many years, Thursday night's win meant something for anyone who's followed this team over the years. Garden State natives united over the win. Our place in the world of college football — for so long just devoid of anything worthwhile — was suddenly etched in stone. Schiano's boys from Rutgers played with chips on their shoulders Thursday night and Jerseyites seemed to be cheering them on with a comparable amount of inspired "Us Against the World" passion.
When Ito's game-winning kick soared through the uprights, it was hard to not get caught up in the moment. Every college football fan in the nation had their eyes on Rutgers' football program.
And for the first time in forever, they weren't laughing at what they saw.
Somewhere in Whippany or Verona or wherever he resides these days, Tommy Cheeseballs was likely watching, cheering, and pumping his fist in approval.
Rutgers football has arrived. And like the spiky hair, the Bon Jovi music, and the Kangol hats — it's not going away anytime soonYou can e-mail FOXSports.com contributor Peter Schrager at PeterSchrager@gmail.com.