Thursday, December 30, 2010

Geaux-ing Bowling

It's the height of the college bowl season! Roughly two weeks ago, I attended my 1st bowl game. Here's the account...

Sports can be a means of expanding one's horizons.

They can provide an opportunity to see places, meet people, and witness significant events that will stick with you for a lifetime. It's more than just the game...if you want it to be.

I had always wanted to attend a college football bowl game. The prospect of seeing two successful programs go head-to-head and having their fan bases converge on the same location had always fascinated me. When that bowl game involves your alma mater, it becomes even more significant.

When Ohio University went 8-4 during the 2010 regular season, there was a strong possibility that the Bobcats would be selected for a bowl game. It would be the 5th bowl game in the program's history, and 3rd in the last four years. When the announcement was made that Ohio would be playing Troy University in the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl on December 18th, I immediately started making travel plans.

It was not just the bowl game that intrigued me. I had never been to New Orleans, and had always wanted to see what it was like. I wanted to immerse myself in a city that was only five years removed from one of the worst natural disasters in history, Hurricane Katrina, and was attempting to reinvent itself. How have things changed? What remained the same? I was not only ready to experience a significant sporting event in Ohio football history, but also a city that was still rebuilding.

Upon arriving in the "Crescent City" on Friday afternoon, there was so much to see. I was in the heart of downtown New Orleans; within walking distance of the city's major attractions. The weather was misty and colder-than-average for the region, but that would not deter me. If you really want to experience a city, walk through its downtown area. You will get a great feel for its pulse.

No matter where you went, it was impossible to avoid reminders of the New Orleans Bowl. Banners hung from street lamps, and stores had signs welcoming Ohio and Troy fans. Meanwhile, Bobcats' and Trojans' apparel was proudly displayed by those who were also walking in the downtown area.

Downtown New Orleans provides reminders about the upcoming game

The flavor of New Orleans is prominent -- particularly in its food. There is an amazing array of Cajun, Creole and other Southern addition to standard fare. If there is one thing that hasn't changed about this city, it's that the residents are very proud of their cooking abilties. In the French Quarter, I sampled meals at the Camellia Grill and Johnny's Po-Boys -- both of which opened after World War II. It was evident that Katrina had not spoiled the town's taste buds. Once again, you could see patrons wearing Ohio green or Troy's cardinal shade of red.

The bowl game's atmosphere can depend on its location, and the stakes involved. The New Orleans Bowl featured a festive feel for both schools -- a reward for a successful season, regardless of this game's outcome. There was no national championship at stake. Ohio and Troy fans interacted on Bourbon Street, in the French Quarter, and in downtown New Orleans with little-or-no trouble. The game itself was largely secondary to the circumstances surrounding it. It was like a glorified exhibition game...and much my surprise, I was perfectly fine with that.

Bourbon Street added to the atmosphere for Ohio and Troy fans alike

One of the highlights to the weekend was getting to hang out with one of my best friends from college, KP. We were cut from the same mold -- willing to attend almost any game at any time. During college, he imparted this philosophy upon me: "There is no such thing as an unattainable ticket." Those are words to live by for any sports fanatic. Even though he lives in Boston and I live in New Jersey, we were both determined to meet up in the "Big Easy."

On Saturday night, the New Orleans Bowl was about to take center stage. A national television audience would watch as Ohio and Troy matched up in the Louisiana Superdome. The area was buzzing with activity, almost two hours before kickoff. On one side of the outdoor concourse, a cover band, dressed in Bobcats' and Trojans' football jerseys, performed. On the other side, there was a faith-based hip-hop concert. Meanwhile, game programs were being sold, tickets were distributed, and pre-game parties were taking place under covered tents.

Standing outside the Superdome

Inside the Superdome, Ohio and Troy fans mingled in the concourses, making the walk to their respective seats on each side of the field. The aroma of various concession stand foods filled the air. New Orleans Bowl t-shirts were hot sellers at the merchandise kiosk. People were soaking it all in as the opening kickoff approached.

Despite the passion that existed in those who were there, the general lack of interest in this game was evident. The Superdome has a football capacity of 69,703, but the stadium's upper deck was completely off-limits to fans. Not only that, there were numerous seats (and sections) available in the lower levels as well. If this was a "glorified exhibition game," as I stated earlier, the public echoed that sentiment -- attendance for the 2010 New Orleans Bowl was 29,159.

Those who were there were ready for a spirited contest between two lesser-known teams. Ohio, led by former Nebraska head coach Frank Solich, has put together a string of successful seasons during his tenure. Troy, out of the Sun Belt Conference, carried a 7-5 record into the New Orleans Bowl. The Trojans' head coach, Larry Blakeney, is in his 20th year at the helm. Despite only being part of the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision since 2001, Troy has developed a reputation for tough scheduling, and this is their 5th bowl appearance during that time.

Seeing both schools with their names and logos represented throughout a neutral stadium gave the contest a "fantasy" or "video game" effect to me. For at least one night, Ohio football mattered enough to have its name painted in an end zone in New Orleans. I was looking at it with my own eyes, yet it was still tough to believe. For Ohio State, Texas or Alabama fans, such things are commonplace -- and possibly even taken for granted. But for a mid-major alum, it's a big deal.

Not a figment of my imagination

With green-clad fans sitting on one side of the Superdome, and cardinal-clad fans sitting across from them, the openng kickoff boomed as Troy kicked off to Ohio. The cheers and excitement on the Bobcat side were soon dulled, as Ohio quarterback Phil Bates threw a deep pass for an interception on the 2nd play of the game! The Trojans would then drive 78 yards over the next 4:12, culminating with a Jerrel Jernigan touchdown run from 12 yards. It was 7-0, Troy.

Ohio fans would soon have something of their own to cheer about. The Bobcats would take their ensuing possession 81 yards over 8 plays, ending with a 34-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Boo Jackson to wide receiver Steven Goulet. For that moment, I was in total bliss -- I was at a college football bowl game, and my alma mater just scored.

Ohio and Troy match up in the New Orleans Bowl

From there, Troy severely outplayed Ohio. The Trojans opened up a 38-7 lead by halftime, before cruising to a 48-21 victory. Troy's freshman quarterback Corey Robinson was named the New Orleans Bowl MVP, after throwing for 387 yards and 4 touchdowns.

Although the trip resulted in an Ohio loss, it was well worth it. I toured a city that I had never visited before, and came away with the sense that New Orleans is on the road to recovery. I saw a great friend, and made some new ones along the way. I sang along to "Hang On, Sloopy" while in the French Quarter with a few dozen other Ohio fans. I have memories that are now etched into my brain.

I went for the New Orleans Bowl, and that involved far more than the game itself.

A worthwhile experience

Friday, December 24, 2010

At Your Service

Earlier this month, Army and Navy played their annual rivalry football game in Philadelphia. It caused me to reflect upon my very 1st college football game, the 1989 Army-Navy game. The memories are still fresh in my mind, 21 years later...

Some sporting events can transcend the sport itself.

When the United States Military Academy and the United States Naval Academy set foot on the football field to figuratively do battle, it's more than just a game. It is one of the best rivalries in sports -- filled with pomp, pageantry, tradition and a burning desire by both sides to win. There is also the knowledge that after they graduate, these young men -- who are now entertaining us -- will be among those who defend our nation.

My very first college football game was the 1989 Army-Navy game...and even as a 10-year-old kid, I could feel the importance of it as I set foot inside Giants Stadium. It was a freezing December day at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Despite being bundled up in a heavy winter coat, hat and gloves, the wind and frozen air permeated my slender frame. The sky was overcast, giving the sun no chance to offer relief.

Upon reaching our seats behind the end zone, two rows off the field, one question remained in my mind: "Why, on a freezing day, would my father want us in our seats almost two hours before the opening kickoff?" At the time, there was no one on the field going through warm-up drills, and there were almost no spectators in the seats. It was just a barren stretch of kelly-green artificial turf -- with end zones painted in Navy blue and Army gray, and a sea of empty red and blue seats.

Without words being spoken, I soon received my answer. About 10 minutes after we sat down, the attending cadets from the U.S. Military Academy marched onto the field. Wearing charcoal gray dress-uniforms, with long coats and hats, the cadets slowly took over the field. They marched in units of about 50, in form with everyone else. It was an awesome sight to behold. Once the procession was complete, The Army band played music while the cadets chanted along. They then made their way to the seating bowl, occupying almost the entire sideline in the lower seating bowl to our right.

After that, the U.S. Naval Academy followed suit. Dressed in Navy peacoats with shiny brass buttons and white hats, the cadets also marched in formation onto the Giants Stadium turf. The Navy's cadet representation was not as significant as Army's, though it was just as impressive. Following the Navy's procession, they took their seats along the lower sideline to our left, filling about two-thirds of the sideline seats.

With about an hour before gametime, Army and Navy took the field for practice drills. At one point, the Army kickers were practicing field goals on our end of the field. The catch nets were not up behind the goal posts, so the footballs were sailing into the stands! At first, I was just watching the scene unfold...but after a couple minutes, I took it upon myself to be helpful. As the practice kicks reached the seats, I would retrieve the balls (or just catch them out of the sky) and throw them back to the appreciative Army staffers. It was fun...but frankly, the running around was also a way to keep warm!

The Navy Midshipmen were decided underdogs. Coming into the 1989 game, Navy was just 2-8 on the season, with one of the lowest-scoring offenses in the NCAA. Their head coach, Elliott Uzelac, was hours away from being replaced. He -- and his players -- knew it, providing extra motivation for a game that doesn't need any. Despite a disappointing season, a Navy win over their archrivals would salvage it.

The Army Black Knights, on the other hand, were in the middle-of-the-pack in the NCAA's Division I with a 6-4 record. Their high-powered rushing offense averaged almost 29 points-per-game. On top of that, the Black Knights had won 3 consecutive meetings with Navy, and 4 out of the last 5 contests. The all-time series was now deadlocked at 41-41-7, and Army was determined to take the edge.

The atmosphere was electric throughout the game. Despite the cold weather, roughly 80,000 filled the stands, with both sets of cadets chanting and cheering on each side of the field. The Army cadets appeared stoic in their dress grays, while the Navy side waved yellow towels and generally appeared more boisterous.

On the field, Army had a live mascot, a mule, standing on the sideline, with a black and gold "A" draped over its back. They also (naturally) had a howitzer cannon behind the end zone on the far side of the field, which a few cadets fired after every Black Knights' score. The Navy sideline featured an assortment of toys, including a small motorized battleship and plane, which were driven around the field during timeouts. Their live mascot was Bill the Goat, which had its horns painted in blue-and-gold.

The game itself featured some classic, old-time college football, with a lot of wishbone formations and rushing plays. Passing was essentially used as a deception for both sides. Although Army led for most of the game, neither team established its dominance...and the two teams were in for a fight to the finish.

Wearing white jerseys with gold helmets and gold pants, Navy trailed 17-16 as it embarked on a late 4th quarter drive. Nightfall had set over the Meadowlands, and the temperature had become even colder...but the adrenaline of the moment was warming everyone in attendance. With 15 seconds left, Navy's drive had reached the Army 15-yard-line. The game now rested on the foot of kicker Frank Schenk. If Schenk makes the 32-yard field goal attempt, his name will forever be remembered in Navy football history. If he misses, the misery will continue for the Midshipmen.

As Schenk stepped onto the field to line up his kick, Army coach Jim Young called a time out, in an attempt to "ice" Schenk. The tension inside the stadium was ratcheted up another notch, as the teams met on their respective sidelines. The Army defense, dressed in their black jerseys, with old-gold pants and old-gold helmets, would try to block the kick.

The crowd buzzes as Navy goes into its field goal formation. The ball is snapped, the holder makes the placement. Schenk takes his approach, driving his right foot into the ball. The ball comes our way, heading toward the goalposts that are located mere feet from where my father and I were seated. It splits the uprights, right down the middle. The kick was good!!!

The Navy sideline and rooting section went into bedlam. Screams alternated with cheers, while high-fives and hugs dominated half of the Giants Stadium landscape. On the Army side of the field, it was stunned silence. The Black Knights and their cadets simply stood there, attempting to process what was happening. The decided underdog was about to win one of the greatest rivalry games in sports.

Seconds later, time expired. The final score read: Navy 19, Army 17. The Midshipmen had ended its losing streak against the Black Knights, and salvaged their season in the process.

The final seconds and game-winning kick.

After the game, the schools gathered on the field for their respective alma maters. Army's played first -- and at the end, a half-hearted "Beat Navy" chant emanated from the gray-clad portion of the crowd. When the Navy alma mater played, there was impassioned singing from the Midshipmen -- ending with a "Beat Army!" scream that echoed throughout the stadium.

As my father and I walked out of Giants Stadium, I noticed that I no longer felt cold. The intensity of that game -- my first college football game in-person -- was pulsating throughout my 10-year-old body. I couldn't have asked for a better introduction.

It is a sport that occasionally becomes embroiled in controversy and scandal. To some, college football is viewed as a minor league to the pros. Yet, when it comes to the Army-Navy game, there is no such cynicism. It is a pure contest of athletes who will someday be defending the United States, either at home or overseas. If one of those players reaches the NFL, it is the exception, instead of the rule. If you can attend an Army-Navy game someday, I highly recommend it. It may change your perception of college football forever.

Pennant from the 1989 Army-Navy Game

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Turkey and Tackles

Thanksgiving is traditionally occupied by three things: families, food and football.

More often than not, those aspects of the holiday converge during the afternoon, as the eyes of the NFL focus on Detroit and Dallas for their annual games. A few years ago, the league added a Thanksgiving night game that would rotate among various cities every year.

Football has been a Thanksgiving fixture for decades

I had always wanted to attend an NFL game on Thanksgiving, and so many questions had entered my mind about it. Was the crowd any different for these games? What was the tailgating like? Can you actually replicate a full holiday meal in the stadium parking lot? How cool would it be if the Jets had a home game on Thanksgiving? I was about to have those inquiries finally answered.

New Meadowlands Stadium shines in Jets' green on Thanksgiving night

Most of the food preparation actually took place the night before.

Thanks to the advice and guidance of my mother, I successfully cooked a 12-lb. turkey for the 1st time, in addition to my great-grandmother's recipe for stuffing. It was more work and preparation than I had previously imagined, and I now have additional respect and appreciation for anyone who slaves in the kitchen on Thanksgiving.

Whether it was toasting and buttering an entire loaf of bread to make the stuffing, or constantly checking and basting the turkey to achieve a perfect tenderness and golden-brown color, there was not much time for relaxation.

The turkey makes its grand appearance

For the night, the four of us were each other's family -- but my mother's cooking advice and my late, great-grandmother's stuffing recipe allowed me to maintain the connection with my biological family. My father, who taught me plenty about both the main aspects and nuances of football, would be on my mind durng the game itself. Even though they weren't in that chilly parking lot with me, they were still there.

The stuffing was my great-grandmother's recipe, passed down through generations

We were not the only ones creating new Thanksgiving memories. Some deep-fried their turkeys in the parking lot itself, while others went with the pre-prepared approach. As the game drew closer, the parking lot became more full -- as those with already-full bellies had started to arrive at the Meadowlands.

Aside from the location, it was a traditional Thanksgiving meal

With only 45 minutes until the opening kickoff, it was time for dessert. In keeping with the traditional meal, there were two options -- apple pie or pumpkin pie. For those who desired, vanilla ice cream was available as a topping. It was the perfect end to a wildly successful meal.

Pumpkin and apple pies were a nice finishing touch

The 1st half of the Jets-Bengals game was played like both teams were in a turkey-induced coma. Defenses and sloppy play dominated, as the 1st quarter featured no scoring. At halftime, Cincinnati, despite its 2-8 record, held a 7-3 lead over New York. The crowd of 78,903, perhaps dazed by their own pre-game meals, was relatively quiet.

Both the Jets' and Bengals' defenses were in-charge early

In the 3rd quarter, however, the Jets showed why they were 8-2 on the season.

Wide receiver/quarterback Brad Smith scored a 53-yard touchdown on an end-around run in the first minute of play, then added an 89-yard TD kickoff return in the 4th quarter, as the Jets ended up cruising to a 26-10 victory. It was one more treat for Jets' fans who took time out of their holiday to watch their football team in-person.

Brad Smith receives a bear-hug after returning a kickoff for a touchdown

As fireworks burst above the stadium after the game, my 1st NFL Thanksgiving experience had concluded.

Fireworks mark a Jets' holiday victory

I'm thankful for the opportunity to attend such a game, thankful for the friends who could come with me, thankful for my family's help throughout this process, thankful for the Jets providing a win, and thankful that the rain held off throughout the evening. Most of all, I'm thankful that these memories will last a lifetime.

The video board at New Meadowlands Stadium says it all