How I got here

Pregame at the scarlet walk

Listen: Going the Distance, Rocky

I don’t know if you’ve heard: Rutgers has cracked the Top 10 with a vengeance. How did they do that? Oh, only by winning the Single. Greatest. Football. Game. Evah. No lie.

To say I had been looking forward to the game would be understatement. This game had been circled on the calendar. My afternoon was blocked out in Outlook. The Lord himself made sure that the weather would be ideal for tailgating. Me and Jesus, we were pumped.

I showed up for work with a 12-pack of Sierra in my cooler, on ice since the night before. I had a dozen hot sausages, a few peppers and onions, and some fresh rolls from the bakery. I was ready to tailgate, and I had to restrain myself from getting my grill on in my office parking lot.

3:30 found me in my car, rolling to Piscataway. The roads were clear, and even the Highway Authority was pulling for us: The electronic Parkway signs all read “Go Rutgers.” I pulled into the Blue Lot at 4:00, grabbed my gear, and headed for the Yellow Lot and my ragtag band of tailgating friends.

The next three hours passed in a haze of Belgian beer, delicious food, and upbeat – if cautious – conversation. Yes, we can win. Here’s what has to happen to win. This team is capable of winning. Nobody was crazy enough to utter the Four Words…we were faithful, for sure, and we were confident. But fans are a superstitious bunch. The Four Words were verboten.

Besides, we’ve been to hell and back with this team. Rutgers went 0-11 the first year I got season tickets. Back then, I went to the games more to spend time with my then-girlfriend’s best friend’s husband. Andrew and I would get coffee and dounts from the Dunkin’ Donuts in Highland Park for noon kicks, and a thing of wings from Cluck U for the afternoon games. Night games? Prime time? These games weren’t even on TV. Every Saturday was MCI day: friends and family only.

But it was fun, getting a bit loaded by spiking our coffee in the morning or drinking Yuengling in quantity for the 3:30 games. I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdog, and I readily signed up for the 1998 season, 1999, 2000…

We went from General Admission to the Purple Lot, and began hosting the Big Tailgate once a year for all sorts of people. We met the guys from Rivals.com and the Greasetruck, and would grab a pre-game brew with them on the way into the stadium. The on-field product hadn’t gotten much better, but my Saturdays had.

I think it was 2001 when we began tailgating in Yellow in earnest with the GT guys, eventually moving our own pass to Blue (Blue being much closer to the stadium than Purple…Yellow is a step up from that) and joining a block of seats in Section 103. 2001 wasn’t much to write home about. Nor was 2002. Or 2003. But the talent on field was better, and Coach Schiano was untiring in his promise to deliver Big Time football.

We beat Michigan State at home to open the 2004 season, on national TV. That was the first sign of the changing times, of the rising Scarlet tide on the Banks. We won 4 games that year; one game less than the year before, but there was something about these guys.

2005 was the breakthrough. 2005 was winning in the Carrier Dome. 2005 was Ryan Hart bringing this team back against UConn. 2005 was 7-5, bowl eligible, and a shootout in the desert against Arizona State. Never mind we lost the Insight Bowl: we played. We went bowling. Holy crap, or so I thought.

Well, if 2005 was Holy Crap, then 2006 must be the most Blessed and Exalted Crap to ever exist. Winning the opener on the road at UNC wasn’t expected, but it was a sloppy game. We pasted Illinois, never letting them cross midfield. Ohio and Howard were walks. 4-0, but taking to the road for a stretch at South Florida, Navy and Pitt. Minefield ahead.

We beat a good USF team at their place, then stoned Navy on their Homecoming day. We took 6-0 into Pitt and taught Tyler Palko what a real defense felt like on Sunday morning. 7-0, with the hated UConn Huskies and their awful front-running fans coming up.

UConn was a scare, but in the 4th Quarter our defense decided to show up and take the game over. 8-0. 8-0! My friends and I would have pinched each other, but that’s pretty gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

Which brings us to Thursday, my beer and sausages, and the Four Words. I walked into Rutgers Stadium 20 minutes before kick, earlier than I have ever gone in. I found my seat (I actually sat in my seat, not just in the general area), and watched as 44,000 other scarlet-clad fans started to rev up. There were 10,500 students at the game, and they all came in full throat, egging us older folks on with endless chants of RRRR….UUUU…RRRR…UUUU.

I’m not going to detail the game…you can watch it for yourselves on ESPN Classic some other time this year. I will tell you this: at halftime, down 25-14, not a single person in my section was depressed or sad. Nobody said “I should have sold my tickets.” No, on that night, I think we all knew that this team was in the game, that we were a few dropped passes from a lead, that we were not going to pack it in.

Alumni of Rutgers are referred to as “Loyal Sons and Daughters.” People like me, NJ residents who like beer and wings and sunshine and football and camaraderie, we’re the Adopted Sons, and we’re no less loyal. And at halftime on Thursday, 44,000 Loyal Sons and Daughters were not about to let this team go down without a fight.

What we saw, then, in the Second Half, was the sort of football that goes beyond hyperbole: the Scarlet put on a clinic of pass defense, blitz packages, and disciplined running. We tied the game at 25 with 8-ish on the clock, and got the ball back on our own 8 with about 5 minutes to go. And I could feel the Four Words in my throat, waiting to be unleashed. But I kept them down. I had to. Until…

Third and 6, 2:20 to go, ball at the Rutgers 35. We need this. Mike Teel steps back, drops a short pass off to Brian Leonard, and the Senior Fullback, who forewent an NFL career to play in Scarlet for one more year, gained 25 yards and put Rutgers on the cusp of field goal range. First and 10, handoff to Ray Rice, and Rice takes the ball up the middle to the Louisville 19. First down. Chip shot territory for Jeremy Ito. And the Words? They came out:

“We’re going to win.”

It took Ito 2 tries – the first was a miss, negated by a Louisville offsides that clearly rattled him – but The Judge split the uprights to give The Sons a 3 point lead with 13 seconds left. We kick, the run it back a bit, and then Brian Brohm gets sacked for the 5th time, to end the game. Holy. Shit.

ito.png

Needless to say, it was a great night. I got home at 2:30, and stayed up an hour longer watching and eventually falling asleep to the TiVo’d game.

So that’s my story. A few days ago I was all about how cool it is to really be into something, and this sort of thing, it’s the payoff. Not that I’m in it for the winning…I love it, don’t get me wrong, but it’s like gravy. It’s about the experience, about going to the game, drinking the beer, busting the chops of guys that have gone from tailgate buddies to actual friends.

That said, Keep Chopping, and Beat Cincy!

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One response to “How I got here

  1. The guy to your left, making the funny face, looks like he could be Taylor Hicks, the guy who won American Idol! LOL

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