The long awaited trip, planned since this past spring, was finally here. No more waiting and no more anticipating of what could be. No more giggling and dreaming about miracle seasons, and certainly no more futile attempts at convincing the non-believers of this year's RU football version. They could all see it for themselves live -- we were a mere less than 20 hours away from kick-off.
The drive was more or less inconsequential -- trying to find the most innovative manner in which to pass the time. That was our job. And the better we could be at it, the faster game time would arrive. Unfortunately, as much as we tried to avoid the obvious, conversations inevitably would turn from the "$3.25 per gallon!!" type of commentary to some form of football discussion -- always.
My girlfriend, who cared enough to join us on this trip, had never been to a college football game. Rutgers/Illinois would be her first experience. Her first experience of the game-day environment, her first experience of tailgating, her first experience of the live-action ... all things that watching on television could not substitute.
What better trip could she make, I thought many months prior, than out to Illinois to see a different part of the country. What better introduction to football could I offer her than what the Big 10 could present.
With so many hours to spare, we delved into the basics of football, from the dimensions along its field length, to the scoring system, and length of time involved per match. Understanding the basics, would be sufficient to allow her to get a feel for what was to be going on down there.
That would fill one hour ... too many to count to go ...
The rolling hills of Pennsylvania did wonders for killing another hour or two. Eyes would close, then open, then close again, until the flat terrain more reminiscent of the midwest took hold. The drive through Ohio ensued.
"The back of my neck is one gargantuan monkeyfist," seemed to be the common theme after driving through Ohio. Perhaps the only bad news about having gone through the state was that we'd have to do it again, on the way back. Undoubtedly, one 75 m.p.h. in a 65-zone ticket and 2 points later (on the way back to NJ) has me set, for all future road trips, to avoid the Buckeye state at all costs!
What I could have said (I'm glad I didn't) to the officer that pulled us over as we entered Columbus was to pointedly ask him if he had any plans on stopping the guy that had cut me off 5 miles prior.
But at that point (this was on the return trip), as you may well imagine, I had little life left ... I turned the other cheeck and took it on the chin.
"Thank you, may I have another."
Eventually, later that night we'd reach Champaign. The Red Roof Inn we stayed at that Friday night could have been the biggest hole-n-the-ground for all we cared (thankfully, it wasn't). A bed, with a mattress, was all we desired.
After a quick dinner to "Smokey Bones" -- a fantastic bbq joint on Neil Street, with the most wonderful of atmospheres -- it was time for some shut-eye, for drinking, laughing, and good times were all waiting for us on the other side of sundown.
Rutgers Football, until recent years, had been the only college football team, and college town, I had experienced in person. Maybe it was the anticipation of Zook and the season opener ... who knows ... but the atmosphere by Memorial Stadium was unlike anything I have experienced in Piscataway, New Jersey. From the bbq trucks parked in the lots (wouldn't it be great to see the Grease Trucks have a similar space avaiable for them on game days?), to the gargantuan spread of the tailgators, about as far as the eye could see, to the good natured Illini fans jollying around with nothing but warm smiles and friendly eyes to meet us everywhere we went.
I had always wondered what it is, precisely, about college football that has always been so attractive to me. That Saturday morning, in Illinois, it finally dawned on me -- the comraderie, the 50,000 individuals beating as one heart, the entire atmosphere, was what I had always wanted to experience.
Going through the actual game serves no puprose at this point. It has all been said and written many times over.
Truth be told, I feel in some sense, lost. While I had previously thought that I had a sense of the pulse of this team, I now find myself in a state of unexpected. Perhaps mired in something not quite quick-sand.
I simply find myself with more questions than answers. Sure, that should be typical of any team after its first outing, after suiting up against someone other than the same players as has been the occassion for the past month or so -- certainly, does Oklahoma enter week two with questions ... how about Miami ... even after their emotional victory, the Seminoles seem to have a lot more to work on now than any of us previously imagined ... despite their victory, Virginia was pushed nearly to the brink ... so, questions, it seems, are quite normal.
I guess the bottom line, for me, is this. During our drive back, my girlfriend, who other than our single hour of Introduction to Football 101 and her game-day experience (which, thankfully for me, was a positive one) will by all admission state she knows little about the game stated to me: "But it was 27-7. How could that happen? That is just ridiculous."
And so I was left, mired in my thoughts, wondering what it would be like to be on the other side. Just for once, to feel that feeling of respect. Just to once feel the dismay that Hurricane fans feels after a lonely loss.
My heart and loyalty remain with Rutgers -- something that will never waver -- but for once, I would like to see a winning season -- you see, in my 10 years of being a Rutgers fan, I've never experienced more wins than losses.
I would dearly like to see it and experience it this year. If only just once.