Left my house in upstate New York around 7:30 am. Matei has asked me to cover the game for Insiders, so equipped with my press pass and free parking sticker, I stop at Starbucks and grab a coffee (pumpkin spice latte, the yuppies drink of choice) and a muffin for the 3-hour ride to Syracuse. I notice a lot of Massachusetts's plates passing me on Interstate 90. My first thought is our BC brethren are making the trip to support their RU brothers. But then I think, Nah, it can't be that and then it hits me, the Bills are playing the Patriots on Sunday which explains having to share the road with far-and-away the nation's worst drivers.
Approaching the greater Syracuse metropolitan area, a dark cloud hovers over. I find my way to the stadium, navigating through the almost deserted and depressing streets of Syracuse. My first thought is why would anyone in their right mind attend school here? But as I approach the campus, things start to get nicer and surprisingly, I find the campus to actually be well----collegiate. As instructed by Matei, I find the press entrance, show my press pass and I am directed by security to an elevator that opens up into the press area. I have been assigned seat #29, which as it turns out is next to a couple of beat reporters from the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the back of the press area, they have a buffet table set up with big bowls of salad and next to them heaping trays of what I can only describe as Manwich. I think to myself, no way, but can't escape noticing that the press is scoffing it down like it is prime ribs and lobster. The brownies and chocolate chip cookies look good so I grab a few and a cup of coffee and head for my seat. As I survey the Carrier Dome, I am struck by its sterility. Everything about the place is artificial right down to the Manwich. I had read that they would be lucky to get 28,000+ but surprisingly as the game begins, the place is almost full. The game starts and we quickly fall behind 10-0. Rutgers finally wakes up with a 7-yard TD pass from Ryan Hart to Clark Harris and a 26-yard Jeremy Ito field goal to tie it at 10, before Collin Barber hits a 25-yard field goal right before the half to make it 13-10 in favor of Syracuse.
Halftime arrives and I get up to stretch and see how the Manwich is doing. Standing next to me in the corridor is Dave Sims, the ESPN announcer for the game who is discussing whether or not Tom Coughlin is a good coach with one of his colleagues, I almost snap at him to focus on the game at hand, but think better of it. As I continue my walk, I see Aditi Kinkhabwala of the Bergen Record. I introduce myself and she wryly comments to me that Big Dog after inviting her to participate in one of the Insiders chat sessions, mentioned in passing that none of the guys at Insiders thinks she knows much about football. I assure her in my best Eddie Haskell rendition, that this is not the case and I personally have tremendous respect for her knowledge of football. She gives me a yeah-right look and I move on. I take a few steps and see Bob Mulchahy surveying the Manwich. I introduce myself and ask him how he thinks we will do in the 2nd half. He responds, "I think we are going to be alright" but he doesn't sound at all convincing. As I return to my seat, I notice two scouts from the Colts and Falcons sitting right behind me. I ask the guy from the Falcons who he is scouting but he plays coy with me and won't bite. I tell him to try the Manwich.
The second half could best be described as, "It was the best of times and it was the worst of times." With 3:54 left in the game, the Syracuse writer next to me, asks if I think Rutgers should play it safe, run the ball and take time off the clock or try and put up another score? I respond without hesitation that if we go into a shell, we lose the game. I have been watching Rutgers football for far too long. Well, we all know how it ended and to force one to relive it would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. As the game ends, I ask the Syracuse beat writer if I can tag along with him to attend the post-game press conference. He says, "follow me," and I find myself struggling to keep up with him as he navigates the catacombs of the Carrier Dome like he designed the building. Eventually, he directs me to a portal behind the end zone where the Rutgers writers are told to assemble.
As we are waiting for Coach Schiano, I notice that the only difference between the field and the concrete we are standing on is the padding of the field itself. With such an unforgiving surface, it is easy to see why there are so many injuries on artificial turf. Coach Schiano comes out and the 15 or so writers form a half-circle around him. The questions are posed very delicately in hushed almost reverent tones. Still, I am impressed by Schiano's calmness and matter-of-fact responses to the questions. I'm thinking either this guy either REALLY believes in himself and the program he is building or he should head off to Hollywood. I conclude that it is much more of the former and I walk away feeling strangely calm.
I make my way outside and it is raining so hard that the rain is going sideways. After about a half-an hour of trying to find my car, I locate it and flop inside like a beached whale. All this and a three-hour ride home through the rain. I think to myself how much easier this ride would be if we had only won. I stop at a Burger King on the New York State Thruway to complete my day from hell.
October 6th Wednesday/11:00 am
I have persuaded my wife that a 2,000-mile road trip to see Rutgers play is a sane thing to do. So for the second time in five days, I find myself tooling down the New York Thruway, heading west past Syracuse. As I pass the Syracuse exit, a veil of depression comes over me and I swear to myself that win or lose in Nashville, I am going to have a good time. We stop for dinner in some town on the New York/Pennsylvania border. We find a family owned Italian Restaurant and my wife gets lasagna and a salad for $5.95 and I get Chicken Parmigana and a salad for $7.95. With both our wallets and stomachs full, we drive a couple of more hours staying outside of Cleveland. The next morning I take my wife to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and we check out the Cleveland waterfront. We drive around the City for a while and although there is some car traffic, there is literally nobody walking around. Soon there are no cars on the city streets and we start to wonder if we wandered onto the set of The Twilight Zone. We decide we have seen enough of Cleveland.
We head south and stop in Columbus for lunch and to do a quick tour of Ohio State University. The place is enormous, like all of Rutgers campuses combined into a single location. The campus is attractive, but Columbus or the part of Columbus we saw is nothing special. The stadium is massive but nondescript. We take off and continue south. As we drive through Cincinnati, we pass both the Reds and Bengals stadiums and almost immediately see a sign welcoming us to Kentucky. What is striking is how instantaneously the landscape goes from flat in Ohio to hilly in Kentucky. We pass through Louisville and I mention to my wife that Louisville and Cincinnati look like interesting places for future road trips. She demurely replies, "If you ever make me do this again, I'll blacken both of your eyes." We continue on.
We arrive in Nashville around 9:00 pm. We are staying at a hotel across the street from campus and as we arrive, they are showing the second Bush/Kerry debate on a large wall in the lobby. It is hard to tell where people's loyalties are because everybody looks unimpressed. A guy next to me says to no one in particular "I can't take anymore of this." I brightly respond, "Well at least Rutgers is going to win tomorrow." He gives me a look like my fly is open and walks away. The next morning after breakfast, I excitedly mention to my wife about heading downtown and catching some of the clubs when she hands me a brochure entitled, "Belle Mead---Queen of Tennessee Plantations." Now although I am into the Civil War, I figure I can watch the History Channel. The tour, however, is actually interesting right up to the bullet holes in the front pillars of the main house, but what makes Belle Mead unique is that it bred thoroughbreds. We further learned that Belle Mead was the home of Iroquois, whose breeding lines run to Seabiscut, Secretariat, Funny Cide and Birdstone. Following the tour, we had lunch at the restaurant on the grounds of Belle Mead; "dining" on barbeque chicken, crab fritters and ginger bread pudding before we happily departed. I had to admit to my wife that the tour was a great idea. We spend the rest of the afternoon driving around Nashville, checking out the music clubs and Nashville's residential areas that look strikingly like many of the affluent areas of New Jersey.
We leave for the stadium about 6:30 PM, having been told that the stadium is no more than a 15-minute walk from the hotel. As we walk through campus, it reminds us a lot of Princeton. Everywhere we walk, we see big stone buildings, antique gaslights and large expanses of open space. We enter the stadium at the end zone and are surprised to find no stands, but tables set up like at an outdoor-wedding reception. Occupying most of these tables, are people wearing red t-shirts. The effect is like showing up at a wedding where you think you won't know anyone, only to find a bunch of old friends. Our seats are just a short walk along the 10-yard line and the team is warming up right underneath us in the end zone area, so I walk down and hang over the railing with many of the players' parents. It is interesting to listen to them because they have more than the casual fans awareness of the game.
There are about 500 Rutgers fans in attendance and five minutes into the 3rd quarter, we find ourselves down 27-3 and I keep reminding myself of my promise to not let a loss ruin our trip. People start to leave but most of us just sit there in stunned silence. And then suddenly, like a switch went off, we get two scores both culminated by Brian Leonard runs. It is now 27-17 and I start to think that this could become interesting. However, before we all can finish our RU chant to our Vanderbilt friends, they score to make it 34-17 and most of us figure, stick a fork in it, we are done. The fourth quarter begins and Peyton Manning has secretly slipped into Ryan Hart's jersey. Two touchdown passes and another touchdown by Brian Leonard makes it 37-34, but of course, we have to endure a 60-yard completion only to be ruled that Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler stepped over the line of scrimmage. The guy with the defibrillator leaves our section and we walk away into the southern night not quite sure if we believe what we just witnessed. Leaving the stadium, fireworks explode above us and I think back to how lousy I felt leaving our stadium after the New Hampshire game with our own fireworks exploding to a crowd that didn't care. It was nice to be on the other side of the coin.
We get up on Sunday and decide to take a different route home. We arrive around dinnertime in Chapel Hill, North Carolina where we decide to stay for the night. Chapel Hill is a nice town and the campus is great but for some reason the place doesn't have the same effect on us as Vanderbilt. There is something vaguely disconcerting about the place and as we drive around it hits me, there is very little that distinguishes the place as "southern." Most of the restaurants downtown are closed, so we drive out to the highway and if you didn't know better, you would swear you were on Route 18. We have stumbled upon fast-food nirvana. We decide on Chillis, which looks exactly like the one down the street from where we live.
The next morning we head north for Charlottsville, Virginia, home of the Virginia Cavaliers. For years, I have heard great things about Charlottesville, so we anxiously take off for the three-hour drive north. Arriving in Charlottesville around noon, we park in the center of town that is divided by a pedestrian only walkway with stores, restaurants and businesses on both sides of the walkway. In the middle are tables and benches where people are having their lunch, a cup of coffee or just sitting around reading and talking. As we are eating lunch, I grab a magazine on Charlottesville that casually mentions they have six bookstores, nine coffee bars, two movies theatres, a professional theatre and any kind of restaurant you can imagine. After lunch, we find our way to the famous campus designed by Thomas Jefferson. It is the quintessential college campus. The stadium sits up on a bluff and you approach the inside from the top of the stadium as opposed to most stadiums. I comment to my wife that I now understand part of the reason why UVA is getting so many NJ kids to come down and play for them. Charlottesville is an exceptional town that looks southern but feels northern.
October 9th Saturday/6:30 am
After returning from Nashville late Tuesday night, I find myself four days later making my routine 300-mile round-trip from upstate New York to Piscataway. It is homecoming and I excitedly head back to my home state to watch us beat up on Temple. I haven't given myself enough time, however and given traffic and stopping for food and libations, I arrive at the stadium at 11:15. Barely enough time to down a few cold ones and eat a sandwich, I make it into the stadium just in time for kick-off. However, all is not lost. Since my wife didn't accompany me, and as I learned from my friend KV, I use her ticket to return to my car for additional half-time festivities. The game, well, it can best be described as watching someone slowly sink in quicksand. You watch because you have to but you wish they would go under already.The next week, I get my one reprieve for the month of October as mercifully, the Pittsburgh game is on television. The next week, I am back at it for the West Virginia game, completing a 3,000-mile sojourn to watch Rutgers football during the month of October. The amazing thing is that driving back from the Temple game which we won, I was thoroughly depressed, while driving home from the West Virginia game, which we lost I was happy. Only in the world of Rutgers football can winning make you sad and losing make you happy.
Next week is Boston College, which is closer to my house than Rutgers Stadium. Go figure.