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

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