Monday: Game Day
About eight in the morning, I wake up and head downstairs for the Super 8 continental breakfast as if it’s Christmas morning. Today’s breakfast features dozens of assorted plastic yogurt cups. I can sense Bob wondering how many of these he can sneak into his jacket. Twenty-seven would be my guess. The things are tiny.
Shortly thereafter, we head for the Del Mar Train Station and arrive around 11:00am to meet up with my friend Travis before embarking on the 20-minute train ride to Pasadena. Bud and Bob have each managed to each bring a case of beer with them on the train today. They’ve come prepared.
The train station is swarming with Auburn fans. Meanwhile, I realize that I will have to buy sunglasses to survive the California sun. So I head to the train station souvenir shop and try on several pairs while the sales associate offers feedback. I buy a pair for $25 before we board the train for Pasadena.
We arrive at the Rose Bowl at 12:30 and have our picture taken outside the Rose Bowl. The weather is perfect, a forecast in the low seventies. I’m already convinced that southern California is the best possible football experience. I can’t imagine anyone not being impressed by a visit to the Rose Bowl.
Bob immediately discovers that the ticket market is pretty weak. Given the size of the Rose Bowl, the travel distance for the two schools, and the lack of enforcement against the practice, there are a decent number of tickets for sale on the street today. Bob decides to hold off for a few more hours, so we instead head to the “VIZIO Championship Party.” Before entering, Bob is asked to finish the nine or so beers from his disposable “trash bag” cooler before he enters.
We leave Bob for the time being.
As we enter, I make conversation with an FSU fan with a mullet and the FSU logo shaven into his head. He tells me that he has vowed to keep this haircut because FSU has been on a 15-game win streak since his last haircut in 2012. Seriously.
[Interlude: FSU is the “new money” family in the old money country club of college football. Prior to 1987, Florida State had won zero national titles in college football and had only finished a season ranked in the AP poll six times. Since 1987, FSU has claimed seven college football titles. Along the way, the program has also garnered three Heisman Trophies.]
Back at the Rose Bowl, I get a call from my friend Tyler. “Hey man, I think I’m at the right hotel, it’s in Downtown Fallujah, right?” Tyler or “T.O.” for short, is the most quintessentially Southern of my friends. He’s fond of employing Southern aphorisms like, “That’s uglier than mud on a fence” or “this conversation is like nailing jelly to a tree.” He informs me today that he nearly missed his flight because TSA found an old shotgun shell in his carry-on bag, which I find hysterical. So anyway, that’s, T.O.
Leaving the “Ultimate Tailgate Party,” Bob, Alex, and I head back to the stadium in search of tickets. As we leave, Bob suddenly stops us and jogs over to a nearby trailer. He has successfully managed to hide his disposable cooler of beer underneath a trailer while we were inside. Who does this?
It’s now less than four hours until kickoff, and Bob starts to price tickets. Meanwhile, FSU fans seem to be vying for a new college football record for most fans wearing flat bills to a football game. As I wait, I buy a game program for $15. Bob shakes his head in dismay, “They’re always free after the game.” Somehow, I should have know this, but I didn’t.
Bob almost makes a deal with a guy that has a striking resemblance to former Mississippi State football coach Sylvester Croom. Sylvester’s sales pitch? “$500 and a cold beer for two tickets?” Bob shakes his head and moves on. Two hundred dollars per ticket is the cheapest Budget Bob is offered and he immediately pulls the trigger. Face value is $315. Another victory for Budget Bob.
With tickets in hand, Bob and Alex head to the Brookside Golf Course, which surrounds the Rose Bowl Stadium to meet up with my friend Van. Yep, there is a golf course that surrounds nearly half of the Rose Bowl stadium. Cars are parked all down the fairway, a big improvement from the usual concrete parking lot. It’s like Mexico City in Pasadena, CA. Today hole number 4 will become lot number 6 or as Van refers to it, “the party hole.” This is one of the many reasons that a visit to the Rose Bowl is unique.
We find Van on “the party hole” near the sand bunker. Van and I lived across the hall from each other in the fraternity house and we spent four years crashing parties at different SEC schools where we didn’t know a single person. Van is now in medical school and lives in Birmingham. He is the only man I’ve ever known who can play video games for thirty-six straight hours and still make an “A” on any upper level biology test the next day.
At Van’s tailgate, we eat steak, bratwurst, sliders, grilled shrimp-boil skewers, and other assorted delicacies. The scent of BBQ and smoke filters from nearby tailgates fills the air. In my entire life as a sports fan I’ve never seen such a detailed tailgate on foreign soil. They have flat-screen televisions and they’ve even hired girls adorned in Auburn tank tops to walk around with trays full of hot food. (FYI: I did not take any pictures. This is because I’m now at the age where asking random girls to be in pictures with me is borderline creepy….or maybe it was because all my pictures ended up looking like Jackson Pollack paintings…) Anyways, I’m also offered stuffed mushrooms, steak and spring rolls. All of the food is excellent. Bob is in heaven.
About an hour later, I leave Van’s tailgate to meet back up with Bud. Kickoff is now two hours away. I meet Bud on hole #11 and we immediately make our way to “Tiger Walk” with an army of Auburn grads to watch the Auburn football team enter the stadium. As we head to “Tiger Walk,” I run into former Auburn Tiger and SEC Baseball Player of the Year, Hunter Morris. Hunter and I became friends during my time as a manager for the Auburn baseball team. He is now in the Milwaukee Brewers organization. He looks at me for a moment and says, “AU fans are outnumbering FSU fans 3 to 1 .” I agree.
Amidst the huge crowd, the team buses arrive at the stadium. The team is accompanied, as always, by an escort from the local police. Most of the players exit the bus wearing headphones, and occasionally one will sing out loud.
Finally, it’s time to head to the game. Bud and I enter the stadium and make our way down to the field level. The atmosphere is absolutely electric.
We watch the team warmups as the stadium lights glisten on the bright white Auburn helmets. The end zones are freshly painted and orange clouds appear in the blue sky. An omen from Mother Nature?
As soon as we get to our seats, a woman in Auburn gear turns to us and asks us what year we graduated. I answer her, “2010.” “Aweee! You’re just a little baby,” she says. This will be Bud’s seat companion and he’ll be interrogated by her for the entire game.
As the Florida State players run onto the field, their fans begin a tomahawk chop chant. (Later in the game I will find myself wondering how many Seminole fans have died of a tomahawk induced heat stroke during a game.)Bo Jackson and former FSU Head Coach Bobby Bowden shake hands at midfield for the ceremonial coin flip. The crowd explodes in cheers. This football season Malzahn has created a fashion frenzy with his various sweater vests each game.
On the first play of the game, Tre Mason rushes for 11 yards. Two plays later, on third down, Nick Marshall slightly underthrows a pass to wide open Ricardo Louis for a would-be 50-yard touchdown. The entire Auburn section gasps.
FSU then takes possession and moves the ball until they face a third and 8 at the Auburn 16 yard line. Jameis Winston is sacked by Nosa Eguae and FSU settles for a field goal. Later on Tre Mason answers with a touchdown to take a 7-3 lead.
Early in the second quarter Marshall finds a giant lapse in the FSU coverage and hits Melvin Ray for a 50-yard score. 14-3, Auburn.
Auburn’s Cody Parkey misses a close field goal in the second quarter. But on the ensuing drive, FSU quarterback Jameis Winston fumbles the ball on his own twelve-yard line and Auburn takes over. A few plays later Nick Marshall sneaks into the endzone for his third touchdown of the game and to make it 21-3. Gus Malzahn gives the crowd the much anticipated fist pump as he channels his inner Mike Ditka. Our section is euphoric.
Then, with 3:52 remaining in the first half, FSU Coach Jimbo Fisher rolls the dice and barely converts a fake punt run that goes for seven yards. For the first time all day, FSU fans have something to cheer about. I view this as a desperation move by Fisher because Florida State needs points. After the fake, the FSU offense found a rhythm and scored their first touchdown of the game. It’s 21-10 Auburn at the half.
When halftime arrives, I decide to head for the concession stands. Auburn fans seem confident. Over the PA system, the crowd is announced at 94,206. When the second half opens, I’m still in the concession line.
Back on the field, FSU kicks a field goal to cut our lead to 21-13 at the end of the third quarter. I find myself looking at the clock, willing the time to run out.
Nick Marshall throws an interception on Auburn’s opening drive in the fourth quarter. Malzahn kicks his foot into the ground. After the ensuing possession, FSU drives the ball and Winston throws an 11-yard touchdown, but an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty forces FSU to kick the extra point from the 17 yard line. The score is 21-20 Auburn.
On the next drive Auburn kicks a field goal to make it 24-20. Then, a minute later Levonte Whitfield returns the FSU kickoff for a touchdown and suddenly FSU leads 26-24 with 4:31 left in the fourth. I stare morosely down at the field. How are we losing this game?
Auburn responds by effectively moving the ball by running despite the dwindling clock. One yard, eight yards, four yards.Ultimately, Tre Mason bounces off a linebacker and runs for a 37-yard touchdown to reclaim the lead. It’s 31-27 Auburn, with 1:13 remaining in the fourth quarter and the tension in my section is palpable. Has Auburn scored too fast? Will FSU score again on a kick return? Adding to the tension, a lady turns to me and says with a scratchy Southern accent, “You look really nervous.” I nearly explode. Bud stands with his arms crossed in front of his chest.
On third and eight from the Auburn 10, Winston throws an incomplete pass at the goal line. Penalty flags fly. Pass interference. Uh oh. My pulse is now racing. The stadium is so loud that I cannot hear the questions from the lady next to Bud. Now FSU is facing a first-and-goal situation at the Auburn 2. Time seems to stand still. On the next play it happens… Winston completes a touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin right in front of us. My stomach is trembling. The Tomahawk Nation is chopping with fervent passion. 13 seconds remain on the clock.
Auburn takes possession at their own 17-yard line. Can it happen again? A Prayer in Pasadena?Team of Destiny?The hairs on my arm are sticking up. The last play was well-designed, but Tre Mason is swarmed by the defense after gaining nearly thirty yards. FSU wins their first MNC since 1999.
Florida State fans are going crazy while Auburn fans are stunned into silence. A few curse words pepper the silence. I kick my “souvenir cup” as we head for the exit because we can’t stomach to watch Jameis Winston raise the crystal football. This is the fastest I’ve ever exited a football stadium in my life. We leave without saying a word. Taunting text messages arrive from my Big12 friends at a frantic rate before my phone dies. As we pass an ESPN booth I overhear that this is the biggest comeback in BCS record.
Leaving the stadium I realize that Auburn and FSU fans are the two most dissimilar fan bases in college football. FSU men are easy to spot; they’re tan, have muscles in their cheeks, and use hair product. A guy in a flatbill screams at me, “Go back to Alabama.” For most fans, this of course, is true whether we’d won or lost. Anger courses through me. This guy gets to be happy and I don’t? Why?!
By the time we locate Tyler outside the stadium, we realize that the line to enter the train station is a mile long. It’s also impossible to move. We wait in line for fifteen minutes, and then decide to take a cab to the next station. I then realize that I’m walking alongside country music artist Jake Owen.
When we get back to the room I turn on our Zenith television. Every channel has its own recap of the game. It’s impossible to escape.
Tuesday: The Eulogy
The morning after the BCS championship I climb out of bed at seven, pack my bag, hug Bob and Alex goodbye, and head downstairs to my “full-sized” rental car. I inhale the sixty-two-degree California as I load the car. Outside it’s quiet, but I still hear the stadium noise in my head.
Shortly thereafter, as I head to LAX and sit in standstill “LA Traffic,” I think about all the people who have shared the college football season. I remember hugging Auburn QB Nick Marshall after the win in Arkansas. And now the 2013 college football season is over and all I can think about is: “Why do I care so much? Why do I do this to myself? Deep down inside, many of us are sometimes frightened of how much we care. But no matter what happened in 2013, we’ll be back in 2014 and 2015 and on down into the distant vistas of football seasons to come. I’m like Michael Corleone in “The Godfather Part III,” when he utters the famous line, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
I arrive at LAX after a drive that seems like it should have deposited me in the suburbs of San Francisco. Soon I find myself feeling better right up until the moment when I scan the departing flights and realize that I’ve missed my flight back to Dallas. I head directly for the ticket counter and ask the Delta agent how soon I can get out of LAX. “Every flight is oversold, but we have a flight tomorrow morning at 6:50,” she answers. In desperation, I asked if there was any way – any way at all – she could get me home today. There isn’t. As I leave the ticket counter in disbelief, who walks through the main entrance at LAX? Steven Spielberg. Yes, this really happened. This seems like a perfect omen, but I will not be leaving California today. My hopes are once again…. crushed.