Journey to the (Rocky) Top
AKRON, Ohio — This is the promised land. It is a structure imagined by a suited Board and a suited Dr. Luis Proenza, the president of this fair university. That great man promised this land, and this building, and he knocked down useless old dorms and closed a few shitty streets to erect this monument to the long history of Akron Zips football.
These are the blades of turf promised by those men and women in suits, and this is land being actualized by the greatest family in all of sports on Earth, the first family of the gridiron, the Family Bowden.
Every proud football institution goes through periods of rebuild where future success belongs in the “Only A Matter Of Time” department. Nebraska fired Frank Solich after a 9–5 season, and look where they are now after dumping that chump. Alabama hasn’t won a national title in 18 months and you don’t hear anyone in Tuscaloosa moaning about it. Those transition periods are hard for all parties involved, so it’s best that everyone stays quiet and ignores them altogether. That’s what the whole city of Akron has done since the stadium opened in 2009. The first game, a memorable 41–0 win for the good guys over a perennially tough Morgan State squad, paved the way for two more wins that season, and a whole eight victories since.
It was there, at InfoCision Stadium, that we began our quest to visit five college football stadiums in four states in five days. We are merely two guys, but with us we carried the hopes and dreams of all fanhood-agnostic sports wanderers.
The Zips won five games in 2013, as many as they had since the new stadium opened. They were picked by MAC media members, the non-student ones, to finish second in the East in 2014. It’s certainly a puzzling ranking, but there is a feeling of promise around a program that hasn’t made a bowl game since 2005. We won’t say they’ve been the most embarrassing program in the country since then because we like to lie.
We strolled into a parking garage that is curiously close to the stadium. There was no line of cars on the highway or on the street adjacent to the garage. The parking attendant took five of our dollars and laughed, hard, when we asked if we can just park anywhere.
The sound of the breeze was loud. We can see the top of the stadium, which has a sellout number of 27,881. We surmised that rabid Zips fans were silent in reverence of our National Anthem.
Groups of people walked into the stadium with us, silently singing the school fight song. They’re chanting in their heads. You could hear it if you leaned in…
Contrary to our prior belief we had to pay to enter the stadium, which is akin to donating to a church during Sunday mass. Those not feeling charitable could clearly watch the game from outside the grounds through a fence.
We looked up at the massive end zone scoreboard and saw the home team had already scored against Howard, an FCS school on a business trip. The Zips had the ball again, and the first football play we saw on the extravaganza was a dropped bubble screen. It was Akron, after all.
The next play was a touchdown. A cannon fired. Howard fumbled a few plays later. The lower bowl, almost all the way to three-quarters full, cheered. Akron scored again. Nine minutes and 34 seconds remain in the first, and the Blues led Howard by 21. It’s going to be a season at InfoCision. We couldn’t hear it, but we could smell it.
We were yelled at moments later. A man with glasses told us he was enforcing the stadium’s strict “No Standing” policy. There were “9,104” people there.
The man allowed us to stand and walk — multitasking was permitted — to “Roo Street Pizza.” No one was hungry. Perhaps everyone was intently watching the football. The hurried woman at “Roo Street Pizza” quickly told us that they don’t sell pizza. Then she informed us that she would accept our ID “this time,” even though it was valid that time and all other times. It’s that precision that makes that patch of land our favorite place to visit.
A full 180 degrees around the concourse, we sat — ZERO STANDING, SIR — on a grass hill in the end zone below the scoreboard. We observed that the hill, and the section of students in the actual seated area, was apparently a big freshman mixer. An 18-year-old in a blue polo shirt tapped random girls on the shoulder and started short conversations. If it were warmer, it would have been spring break. Everyone was enjoying themselves and enjoying their first Akron football game.
Many hours passed. We were still there, rueing an earlier decision to not bring jackets or board games. Akron hadn’t scored since there were nine minutes and 34 seconds left in the first quarter. Since then, we learned:
-The words to the Akron fight song, to be loudly deployed from our mouths and souls if the Zips decide to score again.
-That Zippy — the mascot whose bobblehead we have in our possession — is a girl. She showed us her kangaroo pouch. Her handler had to explain kangaroo biology to us.
-That the scoreboard needs its bass lowered or fixed or both.
-That the Akron cheerleaders do a dance that can only be described as Little Kicks.
-MAC officials — who robbed Howard of three points at the end of the first half by starting the clock too soon and then literally running away from the ensuing protest — are bad, but we knew that already.
-InfoCision is a nice stadium, one that would probably look great with 27,881 people in it.
-Akron’s kicker missed a 25-yard field goal. We learned that’s a thing that can happen.
Somewhere in the third quarter, Akron found the end zone again. We were worried they’d lost it. The crowd broke the rules. The band played the fight song. We sang proudly. We submit the lyrics here without comment:
We cheer the Akron Blue and Gold,
We cheer as the colors unfold,
We pledge anew we’re all for you,
As the team goes crashing through,
We cheer the Akron warriors bold,
For a fight that’s a sight to behold,
So we stand up, and cheer and shout
For the Akron Blue and Gold.
Zzzip! Zip go the Zippers!
Zzzip! Zip go the Zippers!
Akron U Gold and Blue,
All for you and the Zippers too!
Akron scored twice more in the game. Howard didn’t, but by a product of not scoring, their kicker didn’t miss an extra point, which is something that Akron’s managed. All but a few hundred people evacuated the building before the game’s death. Just before that, the in-house entertainers pulling the music strings played Matchbox 20, which is audible apathy. The hill — once full of fresh faces — was empty and its emptiness made this possible:
We left as we arrived: In no hurry, in silence, in cars, ready to start the trip the next day.
BOWLING GREEN, Kentucky — For whatever reason, no one really bothers to police the building of buildings. Miami built one for no reason in a town that doesn’t like baseball or sports. Atlanta is stealing money to move theirs outside Atlanta. Pittsburgh’s football stadium was aging before it was finished, an eye wart on the primest real estate in town. On this trip, we’d already seen an example of overextending your fan base and your capacity for capacity. Akron did too much.
When you’re in charge of a small program with a limited number of city people who want to support and no real passionate base of alumni, you have to build your stadium as if you’re going to suck. Suck. Like, worst team in college football five years in a row SUCK. That’s what Western Kentucky did.
The Hilltoppers — debatable nickname, and no we won’t look up the real meaning — constructed their stadium with ineptitude in mind. “Houchens Industries — L.T. Smith Stadium” — another questionable choice — is low to the ground, has only a 22,113 capacity and feels more like a good high school atmosphere in its intimacy than Akron’s does. It’s everything a small conference college stadium should be, and it sells beer. So this freshman orientation, having the advantage of being on a Friday, was the liquored kind. The game was a blowout — WKU is way underrated, yards get easier as the clock gets older and Bowling Green lost its quarterback along the way — but our trip really isn’t about football, it’s about everything that surrounds the college game. That’s the stuff we love.
Not far on the edges of this game was a red-tented seafood grill, with the best shrimp/sausage/potato game in the business. We sat in the end zone fan-grass (a small-school theme?) and ate this heavenly food and tried to figure out exactly why this atmosphere felt different than Akron’s, beside there being more people in the building.
Above us and to the right, the press box was named for Jack and Jackie Harbaugh. There were advertisements everywhere, offering an aura of importance. The scoreboard’s speakers were fully functioning. Akron’s not much of a barometer, really, but that was a great small-school football feel.
We had one reason to go on this trip — more on that later — but we wound up finding at least one thing we wanted to do at each place we went. In BG, KY, we wanted the Blob. We wanted a picture with Western Kentucky’s HOF mascot, whose actual name we do not know. We know him as the Blob. We also assumed he was a he, since obviously finding out Zippy was a girl didn’t deterred us from gender assumptions. We looked for Blobby for most (all) of the second half. We had him, and then we lost him, and then he was gone.
And now the game was over. Western Kentucky ran away with it by a few touchdowns. We still couldn’t find the damn mascot, and our time in Kentucky was running out. Then we found him, and for the only time in the weekend, we were star-struck. What a…thing. That costume of fur was even more pristine up close than we’d imagined. We called to him and snuck one hell of a selfie.
We now considered the night an overwhelming success. On the way out, we ran into former WKU basketball coach Ed Diddle, apparently known for his creation of red, waveable towels for crowd use during his team’s games. The plaque said his innovation was “unique.” There’s no way to verify this. We accepted this claim and move along.
Later on, the night led us to the fairly clean carpets of a Knights Inn in Chattanooga because the Best Western was too expensive.
ATHENS, Georgia — The Jetta doesn’t chow as much gas as the old Jeep which has a new owner but goodness we needed fuel so we stopped at a culture hub in northern Georgia. Quite a few football games were happening in the state that day, the opening Saturday of the color season, so hues were everywhere. Red bought beer, Crimson bought beer, Orange bought liquor. Some got smokes, others swipe Krispy Kremes, most purchased caffeine in any of its infinite forms.
All those colors shuffled out the door as fast as the cashiers would send them into the sun — the kind of fresh light that feels like spring golf. The briskness of everyone’s gait was hopeful. We’d never been to that part of the country on a fall game day before, but up north that pace is taken exclusively by early-season sports fans drooling with hope or by those who are at that moment placing some trust in car-top carriers. At the hub, slogans were exchanged, glares given. All those people stocked up on supplies and went south — souther — for football.
We…were going to Athens. We went to school in an Athens.
Our Athens is a magical place with really only one street where there’s nothing much to do except drink and love Athens. Little time is left for much else, and what is higher learning. Our Athens’s version of education is social with a minor in the sexual. Our Athens is quaint. Without the university the land on which it’s perched would almost certainly be overwhelmed by poverty. Our Athens is a bubble. It’s supremely walkable, bustling with contained energy. Worries don’t last long in our Athens. Our Athens is Neverland.
Our Athens feels a crap load like the southern Athens, with the primary exception that there were 200,000 more people in town for a Georgia football game, and absolute max capacity at Ohio University is, like, 80,000. We hit that once a year, on Halloween, and the whole state’s police force is called in to keep peace, ride horses and arrest non-threatening underage drinkers who stumble over brick streets, harder to navigate when hammered.
Through luck, the kind we’ve stopped trying to explain, we met someone two days before the start of this journey whose brother lived in southern Athens and wanted us to know what it’s like before, during, after an SEC football game. Not just an SEC game, a Georgia game. Everyone down there was eager to show off their football. Now we can tell our grandkids that we spent time at a fraternity in Athens, Georgia.
On the gravel front lawn of a southern fraternity, you are a pledge. You wear a white shirt and a red tie to support your school and you wear black pants because even although it’s almost 100 degrees out you will be an honorable pledge and do as you’re told. You are told by everyone who isn’t you, everyone of all ages and genders. You are told things as to be treated like second-class human beings. You are treated like slaves because all of the white men here who are treating you like shit were also treated like shit and so they feel it’s only fair to treat you like shit. You are treated like shit for tradition. If you survive tradition, you can participate in tradition. Once you’re a part of tradition, you earn the right to treat pledges like shit. Treating pledges like shit is a right for life.
But now you are a pledge. You deliver food and beer, you refill food and beer. The food is pasta and pork and beans. Sometimes the person who requested the food slams the food you’re about to deliver to him down onto the ground. He yells at you, asking why you dropped his food on the ground. What are you, disrespecting him? You apologize. It was your fault. You’re so sorry. The master, mad that he can’t eat this food you threw into the dirt, picks up some of the macaroni and slams it in your nose while you apologize for dropping it. You think you might have to apologize for cramming the cheesy pasta in your own nose but the master laughs and points and walks away and calls you a bitch. You’ve already had your shirt ripped today. The heat and a full day of being treated like this is making you fiery. You snort the cheese out of your nose and take a forceful step toward your attacker as he walks away. Your fellow pledges save you by holding you back. They plead with with you to remember that he couldn’t possibly mean it. It’s the way it’s always been. This will end soon. Georgia plays in a few hours.
You are also a dancer wearing red and holding the key to the party. You are the center of this adult playground, which is rapidly turning into an adult wasteland. People approach you because they want what you have. Your smile is wide, your bangs are long, you’re a bright light and the patrons here are flying toward you in packs. Your key is a funnel. People want your funnel. They want the gravity that comes with your funnel, the kind engineered to force a heavy weight of beer (or tequila) down their throats. Your queue is always short because your funnel is efficient. You’re hustling the crowd. Of course you know the easiest way to their hearts is through gravity, alcohol, this party. You know an extension of this party is down the street at the stadium, where the Dawgs are playing Clemson. You’ve obliterated half the party and you’ve taught two out-of-towners how to bark at football.
You are finally Todd Gurley at this party. You enjoy touching the football because it means you get to run with it and score touchdowns. During the second quarter of the party, you return a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, and if you had continued running in a straight line up the bleachers into the top deck you would have collided with two guys from out of town who were caught up in the red sea. They would most likely be barking. Probably, they would be shaking purchased pom-poms. They would definitely be celebrating your touchdown as if it was their own.
Later, as things were starting to get rowdy, people ritualistically throw four fingers into the air and that’s your cue to crank up your music. You get things raging with another touchdown, and then another touchdown sends the party into a frenzy. Beer and water rain from the second deck of the party onto the first.
The party attendees in the upper-most tier of the party aren’t moving at all. They probably can’t hear the music you’d made because the other sections of the party were being too loud.
Georgia won and the rains came to cleanse the town of its many sins, some of which were surely still happening. The Georgia shower was the inescapable, big-ol’-drops-of-rain kind, the kind that softens your hair and soaks your socks. It stays in your clothes for days. It makes you feel like you’re being washed. It comes so fast that you want to walk slower. It’s moving and beautiful. People complain about this kind of rain the most.
KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — In Tennessee they steal your shoes just to get a smell of day old Georgia rain water.
“They” is certainly too general to use, but someone in Tennessee used the cover of a football game to steal some smelly shoes that were soaked in the water of the south.
While we still had that pair of adidas, while the sneakers and the rest of our clothes made the Jetta reek of a road trip, we had to get our orange. We traded in our rags for Volunteer t-shirts. That was important to our growth that day.
An essential bit of information, in case you were wondering why ANY OF THIS HAPPENED: The trip was hatched because Tennessee football exists. The first phone call we ever had about leaving home to see a game revolved around drinking beer and singing Rocky Top with 100,000 people, which is a right given to us by our founding fathers. One absurd idea led to another and another, as is customary with us, and we ended up in a handful of places. The trip crescendoed at Neyland Stadium.
Through a hallway of orange, the players and the band marched into the arena. It started to rain again, a preamble to a lovely evening of weather, and everyone shuffled through security and tried to keep their tickets dry long enough to pass through the high gates.
Walking the Neyland concourse feels like trudging through a long, trough-filled bathroom, but everything gets better nearer the field. Orange surrounds you, engulfs you, squeezes some goddamn life into you. It is a quite pleasant color when there’s that much of it around. It might be the best of all the crowd colors:
18. No Color
48. Game Postponement
90. Spray Tan
It was deafening when all the orange started to sing. Everyone knew the words because they had since birth. We were northern-accented frauds embracing our place in the world but you’re damn right we memorized those words on the drive in who do you think we are idiots?
Rocky top, you’ll always be
Home sweet home to me.
Good ole rocky top,
Rocky top Tennessee, rocky top Tennessee.
Utah State was Tennessee’s opponent that day, but it might as well have been Alabama. We wouldn’t have been surprised had orange steam fallen onto the field, from veins of the rafters, burninig into the eyes and ears of the opposition.
There’s simply no way Utah State could have known how dire a situation they were in that day. The poor Aggies didn’t know they only had two downs to get a first down. If they didn’t get a first down on first down, that was ok but not ideal. If they didn’t get a first down on second down, they were buried. On the first drive of the game, Utah State huddled up and called a play for third down.
Butch Jones, Tennessee’s head coach, presumably grinned as someone in the press box with access to all the stadium’s speakers hit the Turn Down For What Button. They hit that button, and one of the great in-game entertainments was unveiled.
It was Third Down For What. It was perfection.
The place LOST ITS MIND. After the crowd got the idea of what was happening, it anticipated it, and then it had a party. Kids, parents, moms, dads, drunks, sobers, in-staters, visitors, mascots, linebackers, bench players, managers. Everyone dug down deep to find their own personal Third Down For What Button. That day, Utah State faced 14 Third Downs For What. In a 31-point loss, the Aggies only converted three Third Downs For What. Third Down For What forced two USU timeouts. Third Down For What won the game. Hell, it won at least the weekend if not the whole season.
We still haven’t recovered from exposure to all of that Third Down For What. How do you expect us to come back from that?
So against the original plan, we didn’t go anywhere after the game ended. At a bar on Cumberland the line was long and the queue was full of oranges who were feeling a second wind. Inside the bar, Peyton Manning was playing for Tennessee on a loop in all the biggest games of his college career. Young Peyton was really slinging the ball around on that SEC Network. He was playing Terry Bowden’s Auburn Tigers sometime in the 1990s, and he was beating them in the SEC Championship game or something. Peyton was up to no good, showing emotion and getting angry and being young and stuff. Fans of his current, stoic professionalism might not have liked to see him this fired up about beating a college team. Act like you’ve been there before, Peyton.
An unorthodox bar band was performing on the stage that night. There were six guys in the band:
-Drunk lead guitarist
-Drunk country guy
In an upset move, the campus bar band was extremely talented. They played good music. The country guy wasn’t there to necessarily play the guitar around his neck, though, he was tasked with getting all the girls to sing into the microphone and saying country things because this was Tennessee and God forbid someone fail to scream AMERICA to elicit a cheap cheer. Without drunk country guy, this entertaining band would have just been playing good music.
But DCG showed his worth eventually. We found out from DCG something we didn’t know before we stepped into that state. When you sing that famous Lynyrd Skynard song, you know the one, you don’t scream-sing the lyrics as they were written. You scream-sing the lyrics handed down to you from your daddy and your daddy’s daddy:
FUCK YOU, ALABAMA
AND THOSE GEORGIA BULLDOGS TOO
FUCK YOU, ALABAMA
ROCKY TOP OH THROUGH AND THROUGH NOW HOW ‘BOUT YOU
Somehow by 6 a.m. we were 20 miles outside Knoxville, sleeping on the floor of an apartment being rented by two friendly people, which is to say they were from Tennessee, which is to say we weren’t from Alabama.
When we returned to the thank-God-it’s-still-parked-there Jetta in the morning, that pair of shoes drenched by a Georgia/Tennessee rain mixture was gone. May they find a good home. May they find a good dishwasher. May their new owner(s) never put their noses near the soles.
SOMEWHERE, Kentucky — Somewhere in Kentucky while the mountains forced my mouth open, the sheer irresponsibility of what we were doing hit hard. I was putting thousands of miles onto a car I’d just bought, driving the eventual trade-in price lower and lower with every passing mile of trees, mountains, and scenery. We were jacking up our credit card bills while one of us was in law school and the other was paying two different rents. We had to be at work and school in another state in 19 hours. Our families probably wondered where we were and also where they went wrong. We looked at our social media posts and wondered if we’d have any friends left when we got back to Ohio. I worried we were playing into social media’s destructive game, where everyone competes for the warped prize of The Best Life. I worried that The Best Life competition contributes to millennial depression. One pair of shoes was gone. The car was only beginning to smell like damp onions, an improvement. Neither of us could have found our current location on a map. No sleep ’til next week, surely.
Shouldn’t we be repentant for this? Shouldn’t we apologize to…everyone?…for being young and stupid and doing something no one else in the world was doing with their long weekend? Shouldn’t we be saving money? Shouldn’t we be using this time to relax? “Recharge our batteries”? Drink at the same bars we always do? Watch our alma mater play? Be hungover on the couch for hours? Be stationary? Stagnant? Dead?
We checked our bank accounts at a McDonald’s while we got our best waking rest in days. We’re lucky to be in generally decent financial standing, but the damage of the weekend really wasn’t that bad. The car needed fed and rest like us but it was fine. Sleep is overrated. We checked in with our families to tell them we were OK. Shoes are shoes. It didn’t…it just didn’t matter where we were on the map. We were slowing life down by filling it as much as we could with people, places, and new things. It was frantic travel, but it all moved at a Congress pace. For us who love life, that’s the goal. Must we complain about the day dragging on? Why should we want life to feel fast? At the McDonald’s we talked about how almost anyone could take this trip if they wanted.
We were on the road again, to Louisville.
LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — So…(exhale)…in Kentucky they tailgate for as far as you can see their tents. The Louisville-Miami match-up was the final one of the opening weekend of the college football season, and it served as our fifth game in four states in five days. We could have slipped into early-onset nostalgia but we held on to the moment.
We knew by a quick glance that the bright marketing idea for Louisville’s was a blackout. Everyone was in their finest darkness, with slogans like “Lights Out,” to symbolize black as menacing to opposing football teams or something.
We learned that’s their thing in Cardinal Country, they like to spel — —
Ok cool guys we get it just give it a rest for a second I’m trying to expla — —
……….you finished? Ok, great, thanks.
The home team flew some planes over a field-sized American flag, and then another plane dropped the game ball and the Cardinals’ mascot out its doors toward the field. Parachutes deployed, everyone cheered nervously as they suddenly became very aware of the wind. A human in an animal costume landed on a not-large flat patch of green turf. Back In Black by AC/DC honored the camouflaged crowd, which cheered louder when the team was introduced.
Maybe it was because the Neyland folks threw a perfect game not 24 hours earlier, but Louisville-Miami felt a thousand percent like an NFL game. It was on a Monday night, so it wasn’t that rowdy. We roamed around the stadium, it wasn’t that loud. There’s a “Party Deck” to quarantine the heavy drinking. That C-A-R-D-S chant is a spot-on impersonation of the monotone “Here We Go Steelers, Here We Go” chant that you’ll hear in your sleep after you watch a game at Heinz Field.
Well before Louisville had iced the game away, dads and moms left because they had to work in the morning and took their sons and daughters because they had school. They CARDS’d all the way down the stairways and into the elevators and out the gates to their cars.
Inside the rapidly emptying stadium, one upper-deck section was still pretty full. They were chanting for their coach, Bobby Petrino.
Louisville won the game and those same people CARDS’d down the stairs and out the gates and unfortunately into their cars where they shouldn’t have been, because only a drunk person or a proud fan would unabashedly chant for Bobby Petrino.
I don’t really know how to end this. Similarly we didn’t know how to end the trip. We didn’t talk much near the end. We were exhausted and processing. Had it only been five days?
We laughed a lot and hugged goodbye and laughed some more at the irony of being in a hotel parking lot when we just spent five days on the road without staying in one of those things. We loaded up on caffeine in its infinite forms for the last portion of the trip, the one that would take us “back to reality,” as some call the uphill trek after a vacation. Reality didn’t come with a stigma for us. After singing Rocky Top that loud, how could it?
With broken watches and bladders we drove separately north, loudly listening to hip-hop and think-podcasts because we were finally falling asleep. A few hours later at work and at school, everyone seemed as tired as we were.