September 20, 2007

At the Rutgers Football Game.

Tucked away in one of my desk drawers is what I like to call my "Life's To Do List." It's a constantly evolving list as I add and erase entries all the time. Somewhere on "The List" -- in between "Hop a Flight to Cancun and Crash a Wedding" and "Claim that Property in Newfoundland that my Grandmother Told Me about Before She Died" -- I wrote, "Go to a Rutgers Football Game before I Graduate." So when I got an e-mail informing me that tickets to see the nationally ranked Scarlet Knights take on Norfolk State were available, naturally, I took the bait.

Although I attend Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, I had never been to New Brunswick -- the host of the university's main campus. I had no reason to being that I was enrolled at the Camden satellite. However, with graduation coming up and with it the search for a graduate school, it should be natural that I would consider applying here. With kickoff scheduled for 3:30 PM, and wanting to check out the environs, I left around 10:00 AM.

It took me a little more than an hour drive on the Turnpike to get from exit three to exit nine. Then the real fun began. It took about another hour to drive through downtown New Brunswick, and another hour to find a place to place to park. New Brunswick is your typical American college town. It's got the same row of crap bars, hole-in-the-wall pizza joints, and cheap apartments that every other land-grant college town in America has. It kind of reminds me of Chapel Hill, in a way, and that should NOT be construed as a complement.

After parking the car in a public park about two miles away from the stadium -- $15 to park? I don't think so! -- I arrive at Rutgers Stadium. For the next hour or so, I wander around checking out the atmosphere. This was Homecoming weekend, and as such, the tailgating scene was skewed a little older than I expected. Either that, or the student body was getting their drink on back on campus (more than likely). Anyway, the revelry was a bit subdued to what I was used to at an Eagles game. But the Ivory Tower Gentry was getting their drink on, while the student body stammered in from their dorms.

At around 2:00 PM, I begin to notice the Rutgers marching band assembling outside the stadium. Looking bored, the band was killing time until the Rutgers team bus arrived. By my count, I think they played that old Paul Simon song, "You Can Call Me Al" three times.

Then, slowly but surely, the crowd begins to assemble around the band. By this time, the band had been joined by the cheerleaders, who formed a honor guard in front of the stadium. When the team buses arrive, the crowd had grown to about three-deep. All were there to catch a glimpse of the team before game time. They call it the "Scarlet Walk," and they do it before every game. I get a brief glimpse of head coach Greg Schiano.

At 2:30 PM I head to the turnstiles. Out of the corner of my eye I spot Janet Rice, the mother of Rutgers' star running back Ray Rice. I saw the last game, and the announcers said that Ms. Rice was 4' 11". If Ray Rice's mom is 4' 11", then I'm 7' 3"! Anyway, I'd be a bit embarrassed if I were a Heisman Trophy-caliber running back and my mother showed up at my games wearing a jersey with "Chris' Mom" on the back, and a facemask-less helmet.

Over the next hour the stadium would begin to fill. The athletic department sets aside the end zone seats for New Brunswick students, but the tickets I got were all the way in the Upper Deck -- far away from the action. I was kind of expecting more Camden students to make the trip, but I didn't notice anyone in our section. Also, one of my professors (the Chairman of the economics department at RU-Camden) has season tickets on the 50-yard line. But I didn't see him.

Just before kickoff, I make a run for the concession stand, to grab a quick brew and a hot dog. And that's when it hit me. NO BEER!

That's right, you can not buy a beer inside Rutgers Stadium -- which, I guess, explains the empty beer cans and Captain Morgan bottles in the men's room. What the hell kind of country do we live in where you can't get a beer at a football game?

As for the game itself: This week's opponent was Norfolk State, a historically black college that went 4-6 the previous season. This would be their very first game against a division 1-A (or whatever they're calling it now) school, and that would be no coincidence. You see, Rutgers is a "football school" now, and as such it requires some creative scheduling. Outside of conference games, each school is allowed to draw up their own schedule. Usually, that means contracting with weaker 1-A or 1-AA teams by enticing them with a big pay day.

It's a win-win for both schools. The bigger school gets an easy win, a full stadium, and a placated alumni (for one week anyway). The smaller school gets a big payday, and the experience of playing against the big boys of college football. Not that long ago, Rutgers was in Norfolk State's shoes, serving as whipping boys for the Notre Dame's, Tennessee's, and Penn State's of the college football world. Now, the shoe is on the other foot and Rutgers is able to play eight of their 12 games at home.

When Norfolk State took the field for warm-ups I thought to myself, "These have got to be the ugliest uniforms I've ever seen." Green and Gold. The Archbishop Don "Magic" Juan must be a Norfolk State benefactor.

Around 3:00 PM the student body begins to trickle in. The school wants everyone to wear red to the game, and many of the students comply. Red t-shirts and jerseys are the uniform of the day. I did see someone in a "Be the Reds" t-shirt, which I thought was kind of cool -- even though it's the wrong sport and wrong country. It brought back memories of staying up until 5:00 AM to watch the '02 World Cup.

Rutgers football fan is a unique breed. A hybrid that takes the pugnaciousness of Philadelphia sports fan, with the arrogance of New York sports fan. Case in point: during the previous home game against the Naval Academy, chants of "Fuck You Navy, Fuck You! clap clap" (Stay classy, New Brunswick!) Fortunately on this day -- in part owing to the "Homecoming" atmosphere -- such chants were not heard by this observer.

As for the game itself, the final score was almost a forgone conclusion: Rutgers 59, Norfolk State 0. It had all the excitement and drama of a fourth-week NFL pre-season game. The only highlight was the Norfolk State marching band.

I think it speaks volumes about the quality of a football game when the only thing memorable about it was the halftime show. Although I have to admit, it made me a bit uncomfortable to see a predominately white audience giving a standing ovation to a uniformed phalanx of dancing African-Americans. Don't get me wrong, those Norfolk State kids gave a hell of a show, and took a great amount of pride in their performance. But it seemed like something out of a Jim Crow-esque minstrel show.

In fact, after the Norfolk State marching band's halftime performance, many began to head for the exits. As do I, to the strains of the Rutgers Marching band playing Paul Simon's "You Can Call Me Al," again.

Lessons learned:

1) New Brunswick is a shit town. Rutgers-NB will be my "safety school."
2) The atmosphere of college football is much different that the NFL.
3) Rutgers' football team is better than Norfolk State's.
4) White people love black college marching bands.
5) I will never be going to another Rutgers football game again.

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