Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tis the Season - College Football Road Trip Extravaganza

Loyal readers, today marks a truly momentous occasion - the triumphant return of A-Rondo the Horn! After an incredulous five month hiatus the little blog that could has finally returned, so prepare yourselves for a steady flow of sarcasm, sass, and if there's time...a light dusting of sports talk.

It truly is a glorious time of the year. The leaves have changed and the air is crisp as we all revel in the sublime interlude between the scorching humidity of summer and the biting cold of winter. Autumn is upon us, and that means more than cider doughnuts and pumpkin spice lattes. We sports fans now turn our thoughts and gazes to NFL football, postseason
MLB baseball, the drop of the puck, the impending NBA season, and college football (for those who wish to delve deeper into the grandeur of the October sports scene, check out Bill Simmons' latest mailbag). And in this, the most wonderful month of the sporting calendar, what better way to return to the blogosphere than with a retro-diary of an epic three week stretch of college football road trips? None! So prepare yourselves for a detailed account of the pageantry of college football, the beauty of the open road, and the mind-numbing stupidity of seven guys in their early twenties on a three day bender. Let it begin!

Trip #1: Penn State at Michigan - Ann Arbor, MI

After four days, 1,871.7 miles, $195.74 of gas, about two dozen McDonald's dollar menu items, and two insufferable treks through the state of Ohio, here is a retro-look back on the weekend that was.

Thursday - 3:48 PM: Sitting at my mom's house waiting for my buddies Justin and Dano to get out of work. They both claim they will arrive around 4:30 at the latest. Justin, maybe. Dano, not a chance. The plan for tonight is to drive from Enfield, CT to State College, PA (about a six hour trip) to meet up with two more of my buddies, Rubin and Ben, at Penn State. In order to truly appreciate the ensuring hilarity and debauchery that awaits us in the next few days, you will need to know a little bit about my entourage. So, being the thoughtful blogger that I am, here is a brief scouting report on each of my esteemed cohorts.

Background - Recent graduate of Lehigh University with a degree in Industrial Engineering and now living in the Philadelphia area. Ben is a culprit of the "collar pop," truly the scourge of all things fashionable. Furthermore, he can always be counted on for egregious use of such terms as "fratmosphere" and "brozone layer."
Original Meeting - Ben and I were both victims of unfortunate parenting, as we found ourselves in a community theater works production of "Stone Soup" at the tender, impressionable age of 6. Our paths then crossed again at a summer soccer camp relatively shortly thereafter. My memory consists of him being an ambitious, competitive young talent and a fun kid to be around. He recalls hating me with every fiber of his 7-year-old being. Truly a wonderful start to our illustrious friendship.
Friendship - Middle school/high school friend and teammate of many years on the pitch, most notably for our high school soccer team. Also, Co-Captain (along with myself) of our high school indoor and outdoor track teams.
Sports Knowledge - Average. Relatively well informed with the world of sports. Knows enough about college football to appreciate the significance of game we are attending, but wouldn't exactly be the first pick of a Sports Trivia Fantasy Draft.

Background - Fellow member of Clarkson University class of 2009 (you haven't heard of it, don't act like you have). Completed a degree in Chemical Engineering and now living in our hometown of Enfield, CT. You may find this engineering thing is a theme among my friends. In a related story, we are all nerds.
Original Meeting - Kindergarten. I wish this story was more exciting, but it's not. Moving on.
Friendship - Friend throughout elementary school, middle school, high school, and my only friend from home who I went to college with. Also a teammate of many years on the pitch.
Sports Knowledge - Sub-par. He'll watch the Super Bowl, he knows which teams are good and which teams suck...but that's about it. He will be lowering the collective college football IQ of the entire bunch throughout the weekend. But not quite as much as another friend, who we will get to in due time.


Background - Recent graduate of Penn State with a degree in Nuclear Engineering, now getting a Master's in the same field, also at Penn State. In a related story, his social skills are average at best. Shocking. Despite this notable social handicap, he is engaged, making him the first of our cortege to accept the shackles of marriage. A moment of silence for our fallen comrade. (Silence)
Original Meeting - We met in middle school as we were both trying our very hardest to destroy our reputations and eliminate any delusions of popularity by participating in our 7th grade production of "The Diary of Anne Frank." What we were thinking, I will never know.
Friendship - Friends ever since those horrendously awkward middle school years and throughout high school. Our friendship has a unique appeal because he is one of my only friends who follows the world of sports as avidly as I, because we share similar rooting interests (Patriots and Red Sox), and because he shares my unadulterated love of everything college football. Minor caveat - there is a slight chance that we are mortal enemies. More on this surely to follow.
Sports Knowledge - Above average to elite. Really knows his stuff. Well, with regards to NFL and college football. When is comes to other sports, his acumen is less than proficient.


Background - Recent graduate of Worcester Polytechnic Institute with a degree in Chemical Engineering, and now living in our hometown.
Original Meeting - We shared the same CCD (religious education) class from our grade school years until the start of high school. Enthralling, I know. Never really knew each other very well until high school.
Friendship - Friend throughout high school and teammate of many years on the pitch.
Sports Knowledge - Abysmal. This is the man who did not watch the 2003 Super Bowl (Pats/Panthers, one of the greatest of ALL TIME) because he was hanging out with his girlfriend. His man card was forever revoked and he now bears the title of manbitch for all time. This can never be reversed. Do not pity him; he did this to himself.

Thursday - 5:27 PM: Still waiting for Dano, whose complete and utter ineptness to be on time has reached disturbing new heights. He is the Ryan Leaf of punctuality. Chargers Ryan Leaf, not Washington State Ryan Leaf.

Thursday - 5:59 pm: Immediately after leaving, we proceed to get stuck in rush hour traffic in Hartford, or as I like to call it, The Land That Law Forgot. During our lovely stay in the self proclaimed "New England's Rising Star," we witness a car driving against traffic in the OPPOSITE LANE proceed to take a LEFT TURN at a RED LIGHT with it's EMERGENCY FLASHERS ON. In front of a cop. Ladies and gentlemen, Hartford Connecticut! You cannot make this up. No wonder we lost the Whalers.

Approximately six hours of driving, multiple unintentional detours, and several failed attempts to educate Justin and Dano about the current college football landscape later...

Thursday - 12:00 AM: Finally arriving in State College, PA...home of Penn State, Joe Paterno, Beaver Stadium, and the cheapest bar prices known to mankind. Upon driving down College Ave, Justin (who went to school with myself in the bustling metropolis of Potsdam, NY) utters the following phrase: " this is what college is supposed to look like." Damn it all.

Thursday - 12:15 AM: Oh wait, where's Ben?

Thursday - 12:23 AM: No, seriously...where's Ben?

Thursday - 12:31 AM: After enjoying a welcome reception from Rubin in which we were besieged with several hybrid-curses and his legendary grumpiness that we have all come to know and love, we finally make our way to a bar. We then proceed to raise our glasses and make a toast to Ben, who to the best of our knowledge is driving aimlessly through the dark, vacant bowels of western Pennsylvania. God only knows how lost he could be, especially considering his driving skills (this will come up later).

The remainder of this evening can be summer up accordingly: After indulging in $4 Yuengling pitchers all night, we discovered that this bar sold 40s of malt liquor. Umm, what? Ok...yes, please. Curiously however, you are not allowed to drink them in the bar. Umm, what? Instead you are ENCOURAGED to leave to bar with the bottle (they provide you with a lovely plastic shopping bag for toting and concealment purposes), and continue to drink outside, or wherever the night may take you. Needless to say, rowdiness ensued. The night ended with one of our friends, who shall remain nameless (rhymes with Bustin') falling asleep on the bathroom floor with his pants/boxers around his ankles and waking up around 5:30 AM when Rubin's fiancee had to access the bathroom when getting ready in the morning.

What's next? The always enjoyable early morning hungover wake-up, followed by another six-plus hour drive to Ann Arbor, MI.

Friday - 7:01 AM: Ow.

Friday - 7:13 AM: Ugh.

Friday - 7:23 AM: Kill me.

Friday - 7:30 AM: Six fully grown males after a night of drinking plus a weekend's worth or luggage in a Subaru Forrester for 400 miles? Color me excited.

Pure, unadulterated boredom.

Friday - 3:57 PM: Hanging out at my buddy Mike's place in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My mind is literally numb from driving through the entire state of Ohio. After a relatively forgettable drive, I am left the the following thought:

  • Ohio is the WORST STATE EVER. Let me rephrase - Ohio: Worst. State. Ever. Allow me to put this into perspective. Driving through Pennsylvania is by no means an exciting endeavor. In fact, it is boring. But at least there are things to look at. Boredom can be mitigated by trees, rivers, and sprawling, beautiful countrysides. Immediately after crossing into Ohio, there is no longer any terrain. At all. There is nothing. Nothing. Well, besides corn. It's like purgatory. It is a desolate, flat, depressing wasteland incapable of eliciting even a modicum of mental stimulation. I am not nearly a talented enough writer to formulate prose capable of portraying the abject dearth of entertainment in the nullity that is Ohio. Instead, I will leave that to the fine folks of Ann Arbor, who shrewdly sell T-shirts with the following image (if there is a just and loving God, these should sell like hotcakes).
Phew...glad I got that off my chest. Very cathartic. Anyways, here is the scouting report on Mike before we get back to the action.


Background - Currently in his final semester at the University of Michigan, completing a degree in Mechanical Engineering.
Original Meeting
- Mike and I first crossed paths as youngsters on the Enfield soccer circuit. I always found him to be a charming young lad, and I was under the impression that he felt the same about me. It was not until his signing of my high school yearbook that I discovered otherwise. The following is the first few sentences of said yearbook inscription: "I still remember the first time you were on my rec team. You had the long hair and that black Nike cap. I wanted to beat you." Clearly, a lasting friendship was born (and in my defense, it was a dynamite chapeau).
Friendship - Fortunately, our friendship survived the hat episode, as was highlighted by years of high school soccer and track.
Sports Knowledge - Above average. Very knowledgeable of college football, thanks to going to school in the college football hot spot of Ann Arbor, one of the staples of Big 10 country. Exceedingly well informed of European Soccer as well as Formula 1 racing. Very well rounded sports fan.

After recuperating from the voyage, we hit the town to seek out some local flavor and refreshment in the form of dinner and beers at the Arbor Brewing Company. Our batteries recharged via burgers, burritos, and a few cask IPAs, we head back to Mike's place to await the arrival of our final running mate, Matt.

Arbor Brewing Co.


Background - Graduate of University of New Hampshire with a degree in Civil Engineering, and living in Enfield for the time being. Has the mouth of a sailor, the liver of an Irishman, and a diet that consists of two food groups - peanut butter and pasta.
Original Meeting - Elementary school. No amusing anecdotes though (sorry).
Friendship - Friend throughout elementary school, middle school, and high school. Matt was one of the blue-chippers of our high school soccer team.
Sports Knowledge - Average to above average, depending on the sport.

Upon Matt's arrival, we set out to experience the Ann Arbor bar scene. This was fun, but it was the post-bar festivities at Mike's place that provided the most entertainment, comedy, and stories that we will desperately hide from our families, for the sake of preserving whatever dignity we have left. Continuing my Dimaggio-like streak of ruthlessly bad karma, I managed to contract some sort of illness and was forced to go to bed immediately after returning from the I did not directly experience any of these shenanigans. But after putting together the pieces of an inebriation puzzle, the following is believed to have taken place that night:

  • Towards the tail end of an epic night of pure belligerence, the group was hanging out on Mike's front porch. They were then approached by a mysterious, nameless individual carrying a bag (that's right, a bag) of wine. He was accompanied by a female companion of some sort. My friends then proceeded to drink his wine and send him stumbling off on his way into the night, but not before Justin drew his ire by referring to his girlfriend a "ho." He meant nothing malicious or offensive, that's just Justin being Justin. In a related story, Justin is an idiot. Oh, and also, they wanted to fire a rifle into the ground. Fantastic. Thankfully, Mike's girlfriend, Beth, managed to derail these ambitious plans thanks to some common sense and a hint of sobriety. The lesson: don't have kids.
Saturday - 10:00 AM: Beer, brats, burgers, and the welcome tones of "College Gameday" playing in the background. As far as I am concerned, this is heaven.

Saturday - 10:01 AM - 3:29 PM: Gameday. Gameday. Gameday. Gameday. Gameday. Gameday. Gameday. Gameday. Gameday. Kind of excited. Just a bit. God I love college football.

Saturday - 3:30 PM: Gametime
14th row endzone seats in the Big House

At long last, the game itself. In most notoriously anti-climactic fashion, this proved to be the least enjoyable part of the weekend. Let me clarify - I love college football. I love everything about it. I love the passion of the fans. I love the autumn weather. I love the tailgates. I love the atmosphere of the college towns. I love the scale and energy of the stadiums. I love the many great traditions of each program. I love it ALL (well, except for the BCS...and Ohio State). That said, the game was a cold, rainy blowout in which an over-matched and out-classed Michigan team did everything in its power to take all the life out of the stadium. Not exactly the best experience the world of college football has to offer. Penn State responded emphatically to an impressive opening drive by Michigan, and the young Wolverines never quite regained their stride, stumbling and fumbling their way to a 35-10 shellacking at the hands of the Nittany Lions. Tate Forcier continued his free fall back down to Earth after the legendary start to his Michigan career. The now beleaguered quarterback looked rattled and confused, a total polar opposite to the unfazed, clutch assassin that roared out of the gates at the onset of the season. In other words, he looked like a true freshman. Time to put all the wunderkind and legend talk on the back burner for the time being, as both Forcier and the Wolverines are at least a year away from returning to Big 10 contention. See? I told you there would be a hint of sports talk somewhere in here.

But despite the cold weather, the rain, and the undeniably ugly product on display on the field, I still found myself marveling at the spectacle that is big time college football. It literally takes your breath away when you step into Michigan Stadium and see it for yourself in all its gridiron glory. There are louder stadiums out there and there are bigger stadiums out there, but the Big House is a monument to the glorious history of college football. Furthermore, say what you want about it, but there is something to be said for Michigan fans clapping and fist pumping as they proudly sang "Hail to the Victors" long into the fourth quarter of a game that had long since been decided. Yes, thousands of the lesser fans had started to disperse out of the stadium as early as the third quarter, and I make no judgment of that decision. But the true fans, the ones who get it, remained. And I am proud to say, I was one of them.

After the game, the gang once again hit the bars, while I stayed in to recover and prepare for the 13 hour drive awaiting us in the morning. Good times!

Sunday - 7:30 AM: Thinking of things that I would rather do than get up and drive home. Among the winners: picking a fight with Ron Artest (even the unimaginable unintentional comedy the event would be offset by the fact that he is completely, utterly, unequivocally insane), befriend Sasha Vujacic, or see the Yankees return to the World Series. Wait, that's about to happen? Damn it all. Also, I take back the Vujacic comment...I could never.

Sunday - 7:53 AM: We exchange awkward hand shakes and man hugs with Mike and set out on our way. Farewell, Ann Arbor. Until next time...

Sunday - 7:55 AM: It takes all of about a minute and a half to get lost. Yes, this is a car filled entirely with engineers. After that minor snafu, we are State College bound. I actually consider driving around Ohio, regardless of the additional expense and driving time this would incur. This is not a joke. Ohio sucks.

Sunday - 11:20 AM: Mmmmmm....McDonald's. Minor caveat - we are in Ohio. Therefore, it is to no surprise that my McChicken looks as if it were sat on by the entire Buckeye offensive line. Damn you, Ohio.

Ohio...where the sandwiches are are flat as the terrain.

Sunday - 1:00 PM: After Rubin grows weary of manning the helm, it is Ben's turn to take over after a gas stop. Less than 10 seconds into taking over for Rubin, Ben manages to flagrantly run a red light 30 feet away from the parking lot. Apparently, the Ohio state of mind is already creeping into Ben's impressionable mind, as logic, common sense, and any semblance of driving ability have clearly gone the way of the dodo bird. I now begin to make deals with God to spare my life.

Pure, unadulterated boredom.

Sunday - 6:23 PM: There is nothing in the world that Dano and I want more than Taco Bell. Nothing. At this time, we become frighteningly proficient at long distance reading of the food sings along the highway. From over a half mile away, we are able to instantly deduce whether a Taco Bell is awaiting us. Finally, after countless disappointments and teases (to the untrained eye, the Dairy Queen logo is quite similar to Taco Bell's...a rookie mistake), success! A Taco Bell, in all its pseudo-Mexican glory. It is truly a monolith of gluttony; a beacon of joy to the hungry, road-weary highway traveler. Replenished by various combinations of tortilla, cheese, meat, and vegetables, we embark on the home stretch.

Sunday - 8:45 PM: Stuck in traffic, in Hartford of course. Tantalizingly close to getting out of the car and sleeping in a bed for the first time since Wednesday, but no. Thanks, Hartford. You truly are the gift that keeps on giving.

Sunday - 9:23 PM: Home. Finally. Five days to recover, then it's on to trip number two.

Sunday - 9:30 PM: Final thoughts from trip number one:

There are some things in life that will never change, two of which were in full display during this weekend's escapade. One is the unbreakable bond between the friends you grew up with. There is just something about the people that you surround yourself with during your formative years that can't quite be explained. These people are more than just the company you keep. A bond is formed that transcends mere friendship; these people become a part of who you are. You carry them with you wherever you go. Whether it is a personality trait that rubbed off on you, a favorite song you shared, or a late night semi-drunken talk about life; they are a part of you. Old friends from back home are just
different. This couldn't be more apparent this weekend. Once the gang got back together, it seemed as if no time has passed since high school. Although we had taken drastically different paths and created many new bonds and friendships along the way, it didn't make one iota of difference. We were us, and I can bet that none of us can make an analogous statement about any of our other friends.

Finally, the reasons stated above are why I love college football, even more so than any other sport. For those of you who know me well, you understand the gravity of that statement. For those who do not, let's just stay I started my application essay for grad school with the sentence, "
Hello, my name is Conor Hayden, and I am addicted to sports." (And yes, I got in. So there.) I am going to phrase this very carefully: fans' love of college football runs deep, very deep. Deeper than that of any other American sport. These fans are passion personified. Now, to be fair, the most passionate fans in the world are those of European soccer; there simply is no comparison. But those are different people, different cultures, and different circumstances. College football is our soccer (yes, we do have soccer, but it just is not the same, and you know it). College football fans treat their team as if it is a friend they grew up with. Your team is a part of who you are. It may be because the players aren't yet the millionaires we watch in the NFL on Sundays. Although the lifestyles of division one college football players are far different then our own, they are still collegians, just like us. Perhaps that makes them seem more human than their NFL counterparts and makes it easier for us to grow attached to them. Or perhaps it is because of the revolving door that is college football rosters. At the very most, we will watch a player on a college team for four years (not including redshirt seasons, etc.). Therefore, we grow attached to the programs, the teams, and not the individual players. But whatever the reason may be, these teams embed themselves deep within the minds and hearts of their fans, just like an old friend. They may not always get along, but at the end of the day they wouldn't want to be with anyone else.

Michigan is currently on the heels of not just a bad, but a
historically bad 3-9 season, the worst in Michigan's illustrious and storied football history. But on Saturday in Ann Arbor, the excitement in the chilly, rain-soaked air was palpable. The streets were alive with people young and old, all dedicating their Saturday to supporting their team. With the exception of a few Nittany Lions fans who made the trip (a testament to their fan base), it was maize and blue as far as the eye could see. It didn't matter that the weather was lousy. It didn't matter that Michigan had its worst season ever last year and that there is currently a black cloud of contraversy looming over the program. It didn't matter that an auspicious future of Michigan football is still not yet a certainty. That was all moot. What mattered was that it was an October Saturday in Ann Arbor, and there was nothing that anyone would rather do than go support and old friend; even if that friend had fallen on hard times. God I love college football.

Sunday - 9:35 PM: My liver hurts.

What's up next?

Trip #2: Penn State at Northwestern - Evanston, IL

Stay tuned and stay classy, my friends.

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