Friday, November 25, 2011

Rivalry Weekend: Pure, Old-Fashioned Hatred.

A few weeks ago, we took my dad to the Georgia Tech/Clemson game as a birthday gift. One might wonder how a guy from Cumberland, WI came to be a Yellow Jackets fan, but as dad tells it, they were the hometown team when he moved to Atlanta, and that was that. Anyway, it was Homecoming Weekend against a Top-10-ranked conference rival; a heavy game for 'Tech.

"Big Honkin' Deal" certified, if you will.

If we'd been doing things right, we would have hit The Varsity beforehand for some artery-clogging eats. Unfortunately, we left a little late, traffic was bad, and we ended up pulling into the parking deck without a ton of time to spare. (On the way in we passed a drunken, older guy wearing a Clemson hat and a New England Patriots hoodie. Explain that combination. We should have run him over.) We forked over the $20 fee, parked, and headed out into a brisk Southern autumn evening.

The route from the parking deck to the stadium took us across an overpass that was staked out as prime tailgating real estate. Scalpers snaked their way through the crowd: "Got One!" "Need 2!" "Four tickets! Who needs tickets? Y'all need tickets?!?! Got four!!!" Under team-logo-bearing canopies that had probably been there since well before dawn, people yammered excitedly at each other over the hiss of grills and the clanking of beer bottles in a steady hum of drawled joviality. Portable radios blared the local pregame show on AM 680: "The Fan" and generators powering TVs and digital receivers puttered merrily away. The collective aroma was a complex, delicate blend of cheap beer, good bourbon, charred meat, and intoxicated humanity.

And that was just the prelude.

We left the tailgaters behind and hung a left on Techwood Drive, Georgia Tech's Fraternity Row. Pandemonium. Alcohol-fueled students, alumni, and fans were everywhere, forming a loose migration towards the stadium lights. Those not attending the game, young men wearing blazers and ties in Yellow Jackets colors and women in dresses too short and thin for the October air, were milling around on frat house porches and lawns, tall boys, cocktails, and fifths of Jack or Jim fused to their hands. Lynyrd Skynyrd's cover of J.J. Cale's "They Call Me The Breeze" blasted from one open window. Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down To Georgia", (just "Devil Went Down" in GA shorthand), piped furiously from across the street. Here and there, clusters of orange and purple indicated the presence of The Opposition. The parade floats, retired from their earlier duties, had become makeshift dances floors/jungle gyms. The frat house lawns were already trashed, and it was still a half-hour until kickoff.

Georgia Tech's Homecoming Weekend may not rival schools like Alabama or Ohio State for sheer volume, both in the sense of population and of decibel levels, but the rowdiness-per-capita quotient must be pretty damned close.

Through that press of lunacy, we made our way to Gate 3, and into the granite majesty of Bobby Dodd Stadium At Historic Grant Field.

Our seats, it must be said, were pretty choice. Row 5, upper deck, right corner of the home end zone. The place was humming with the sort of disorganized electricity you always find in a stadium 20 minutes before kickoff; excitement and anticipation mingled with the confusion of last-second concessions stand and bathroom runs, people checking their tickets and navigating towards their seats, yelling into cellphones trying to locate their friends. After some trial-and-error, we found our numerically designated spots on one of the aluminum benches that line the upper deck. Mom went for a hotdog and popcorn. Dad and I took in the scene.

The view from that end of Bobby Dodd at a night game is something to behold. Atlanta's skyline juts up from behind the jumbotron at the far end of the field, creating the kind of backdrop that makes you wish you really knew how to wield a camera. You get the sense that the city has grown up around the stadium, which is exactly what happened. (Whenever we drove downtown when I was a kid, Dad would point out the old, blue-domed Hyatt Regency hotel that was the tallest thing in Atlanta when he moved here in 1967. That blue dome has since been dwarfed by the IBM Building, the Peachtree Plaza, and any number of other structures that, out of necessity, have had to grow upwards rather than outwards.)

In a stadium packed with rabid fans, I should make special mention of the 'Tech student seated a few rows behind us. She was obviously being fueled by some amalgamation of booze and possibly chemically-induced hyperactivity, and she had a nonstop, profane motormouth like ... like a drunken sailor amplified through a 500-watt amp. Now, there's nothing in the world wrong with a little drunken heckling. Heck, it wouldn't be a good game without it. But this was on another level. She did not stop screaming things at the players on the field ever. All night. I was honestly equal parts annoyed and impressed. Lungs of iron and a voice box of burnished steel, man.

You already know what happened on the field. The Yellow Jackets crushed Clemson 31-17, totally derailing the Tigers' BCS Title hopes and temporarily keeping Tech's own shot at the ACC Championship Game alive.

As the clock wound down, the PA announcer pleaded for orderly behavior. Stadium security positioned themselves around the periphery of the field, presumably to deter or prevent the ecstatic throngs from rushing onto it.

They never stood a chance.

It was the first time I'd ever witnessed a full-bore field storming live up close, complete with goal-post decimation and the whole bit. I don't know if they use inferior camera angles on TV or what, but the view from the in-person upper deck closely resembles an eschatological microcosm. The 100 yards of verdant turf which seemed to allow endless space for the deployment and maneuver of 22 men only moments before is swallowed nearly instantaneously. It is trampled by jubilant feet as they rush to be as near to the players as possible, and woe betide anything in their way. Pity the grounds crew.

Our walk back to the car was essentially an amplified replay of our experience coming in. Drunken optimism had been replaced by drunken swagger, and the party on Techwood had either devolved or elevated, depending upon your point of view, into something far more dynamically unhinged. Amidst the chaos, two guys slumped in rocking chairs in front of one frat house, raising their glasses and yelling happy, drunken nonsense to all passers by. Literal ramblin' wrecks, if you will. The game was through, but the night was young, and the revelers were getting their second (or possibly fifth) wind.

That's how it is when you come into a home game as significant underdogs against the number 5 team in the country and thrash them on Homecoming Weekend.

The buildup is intense. The aftermath is insanity.

And everything I just described is a mere distillation, a parlor trick, compared to what happened in College Station on Thanksgiving, and what's going down today in Atlanta and Auburn and Gainesville.

Rivalry weekend is the gift that gives every year, reliable as the mail and death and taxes. These games matter regardless of who's sitting where in the BCS rankings or the conference standings or any other external factors, really. The old syaing about winning the battle but losing the war is irrelavent if this is the battle you win. And Texas/Texas A&M, Georgia/Georgia Tech, 'Bama/Auburn, and Florida/FSU are unquestionably the biggest, baddest, noisiest, craziest rivalry games played every year. Those are the big four. Or big three, now that the Longhorns and Aggies are on a (hopefully) temporary break due to realignment bitterness. Oh, I know LSU's trouncing of Arkansas yesterday technically held the most import vis-a-vis the BCS, but the Golden Boot game never seemed to pack the concentrated wallop of the true in-state rivalries, historically speaking. (The only non-state-rivalry matchup that delivers this consistently is Georgia/Florida. It's not billed as "the world's largest outdoor cocktail party" for nothing.)

No offense meant to Ohio State/Michigan, UCLA/USC, etc., but they simply don't grow up with a bone-deep football jones. (I'm not saying it's 100% healthy. Southerners have a pathological relationship to the sport that can, if manifested too strongly, vault from eccentric obsession to total lunacy. See: the oaks at Toomer's Corner.) Point is, football is different in the south. It just is. And today is different even from our normal level of fanaticism, because today is the one-day-a-year rapture that will fuel conversations, debates, and smack talk for the other 364.

Happy rivalry day, y'all!

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