Watching college football on TV last weekend, I felt an unexpected wave of melancholy.
I’d just gotten back from an annual reunion weekend with a group of retired Navy guys. Every year we pick a different NFL city. Our weekend agenda: a major college football game, an NFL game, and catching the best of whatever that city has to offer.
This year, we met up at a hotel right across from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Our NFL game was the week five matchup: Tennessee Titans vs. Indianapolis Colts.
Everything had gone so perfectly. We loved Indy, the games were close, and guys were a lot of fun. But trying to pinpoint the most memorable thing, I could only come up with this…
I never felt a single moment of discomfort.
But it was my college years at Penn State that really galvanized my football fandom. It was simple: Our boys in blue and white were the good guys, the more famous schools on TV were evil, and Joe Paterno was the Pope promising us salvation every Saturday.
We’d awaken early on game days, pulling heavy layers right over yesterday’s clothes. Eventually finding a mangled $35 student season ticket buried deep in my wallet (whew!), we walked right from our dorm, across an empty grass field, and straight toward an unobstructed Beaver Stadium. Someone knew someone, and a few crumpled dollars to the keg guy got us into a tailgate. Huddling behind a pick-up truck, we kept warm by hyping the game, flirting with girls we’d just met, and maybe tossing a Nerf around. With no beer in the stadium, we marauded into a packed student section with only raw enthusiasm and the group’s body heat to endure a chilly fall day.
I look back fondly on those times. We didn’t need much. But what we had, we were very excited to have. We rarely got to see Penn State play on national TV, yet they would miraculously win two National Championships during my time there.
Football still enjoyed a measure of cultural innocence then, before money and scandal would terminally infect all things. Society had yet to learn the full extent to which everything would soon be so effortlessly available.
The Alley is an entertainment strip in the shadow of the L&N Federal Credit Union Stadium (think college football, think banking!). We pushed through a turnstile and into a virtual Disneyland of pregame commerce. Multiple life-sized TV screens showing in-progress college games around the country hung over this outdoor strip. Food trucks, mega-bars, Louisville football merchandise tents… even a turfed cornhole mini-stadium. At the head of the strip, a local band took the stage and revved up the tailgaters with ‘80s rock covers.
Was all of this for real?
In this magical consumption Narnia, the flow of commerce was a perfectly orchestrated symphony. Whenever I thought of something I might want to consume, it appeared, my card was scanned, and the max gratuity (for simply handing me something) applied.
The 59,000 fans on hand set a new attendance record for the Louisville Cardinals. Ranked No. 25th, they would take on No. 10 Notre Dame. A particularly intense Louisville fan sat alone next to us. Mid-20s, heavyset with dark features and a messy black beard, his life-and-death celebrations after every Louisville first down were concerning. He’d already jawed it up with a row of Notre Damers right behind us. After the first quarter, we stopped offering him high-fives, the blood vessels in our hands pleading for more time. Why was Stanford’s Cardinal singular while Louisville’s Cardinals were plural, I asked him. He stared vacantly right through me.
As day became night, I lounged in my padded flip-seat, a drink in my drink holder, legs stretched, watching most of the action on the giant video screen, just like in my living room. TV timeouts passed unnoticed as roving cameras distracted fans and kept everyone engaged while $12 beers and $15 mixed drinks—available absolutely everywhere—ensured people remained either animated or anesthetized. The PA announcer instructed everyone when to make noise or remain quiet or to cheer in some particular way (just like church) in case they forgot.The mild weather and the fact that the home team was making a game of it kept the mood generally upbeat.
The Cardinal(s) would ultimately prevail in grand fashion.
The van ride had us back in Indy by 1:30 A.M. Within hours we were fully caffeinated and gathered in the hotel lobby for Phase II. Louisville had set the tailgating bar high. But the Indianapolis experience was about to raise it to an unimaginable level.
It’s 10 A.M., and club music is boom-boom-boom-ing through a massive room packed with bodies clad head to toe in NFL merchandise (No. 5 Richardson, No. 18 Manning, No. 12 Luck, No. 28 Taylor) everywhere. Chefs serving up gourmet chicken wings and sliced filet mignon on paper plates. More big screen TVs overhead with the NFL Europe game live. A 50-foot long, wildly tricked-out bar handing out Bloody Marys or mimosas and anything anyone called out for. Tons of coveted autographed sports memorabilia displayed for a silent auction. Two adorable Colts cheerleaders posing cheekily with fans. A local female radio personality kept announcing things and hugging everybody. There were video games and pop-a-shot basketball and Plinko and, of course… more cornhole!
I passed a kiosk with two absurdly attractive women promoting something. I took a free fruity vodka drink in a slender can, then the taller one convinced me to pose for a photo with her (and most importantly, the drink!). I somehow ended up with a promotional t-shirt.
Later I would find myself back at this kiosk, but not before a terrible voice in my head made me slip on the t-shirt (emblazoned with the simple but profound words Day Drink). This time the shorter woman approached, eyeing me now as a willful marketing co-conspirator. Brown doe-eyes closed in as she brushed against me, her hand gently caressing my back. I felt her breath as she spoke directly into my ear. “It would be lovely if you could get all of your friends to Day Drink.”
The Jags were finishing off Buffalo on the big screen as two younger girls who might have been created by A.I. strode past in sporty halter tops, one carrying a shiny football helmet.
“Hey-hey boys,” the taller one smiled, showing off the helmet’s distinctive blue-white product logo.
“Uh, well I…” My phone was already in her hand, scrolling.
“It’s soooooo easy.” Seconds later she looked up, her come-hither face made up to perfection. “I just downloaded it for you.” She smiled, batted her eyes, then nodded to her friend. “Don’t forget to bet.”
Their work here was done. Before I could speak, I’m holding my phone again, watching them skip to another gaggle of Colts jerseys.
The walk to the game took five minutes. Everything about the megachurch that is Lucas Oil Stadium was right out of a Pixar movie. Actual Indy race cars were hanging from everywhere. Iconic statues doubled as strategic selfie spots overlooking the field. Eclectic signs advertised every imaginable variety of food and drink with wait lines that didn’t even seem like lines (and that max tip…already in there).
An afternoon sun beamed through clear retractable doors over the north end zone like holy light through stained glass as we settled into spongy seats even more comfortable than in Louisville. Still flying high from Jay-Z’s wedding, most of our group was already making active use of the hard lemonade stand right behind us.
The game itself felt quiet and remote. Teams moved slowly up and down the field. Drone cameras above and alongside the field projected every microinch of the action to the big screen and into living rooms across the country. The hometown fans seemed more docile than our disturbed Louisville friend, content to eat and drink and wait for their cue to be loud. It was a perfectly regulated 68F at my seat.
I was getting bored. It was time to explore this megachurch more closely. I slipped away.
Thousands of seriously merched-up fans were everywhere but in their seats. I took an escalator way up into the highest section. I volunteered to snap pictures for people next to the bronze Payton Manning statue. I found a mezzanine area where at least five hundred people were flat-out partying their asses off, oblivious to the game.
I wandered back to our section late in the third quarter. Most of our group was unaware that the Colts latest savior quarterback (Anthony Richardson) had been injured, his backup having competently led the team for most of the game (Richardson was later declared out for the year). Colts fans in the stadium probably hadn’t noticed either.
I reconnected myself to the IV booze drip behind us, content to scroll my phone and wait for funny people to pop up on the fan-cam.
I think the Colts won.
Later that night, a five-star dinner at St. Elmo’s Steakhouse put a bow on the weekend. A private room upstairs with (of course) a big screen TV (couldn’t miss the Dallas-SF night game). One of the guys, a talented pianist, even regaled us with an entertaining Billy Joel/Elton John singalong.
We debated where to meet up next year. Las Vegas got the most votes. None of us really cared about the Raiders, but their stadium is new, and there would be Usher or Britney Spears going every night just down the Sin City strip.
Last October I made it back to my first Penn State football game in 25 years. That grassy field between the dorms and the stadium, now just endless rows of high rise buildings. Complete with all the merchandise and big screens and fireworks and overpriced drinks and 110,000 people packed 360 degrees all the way up to the sky. I didn’t even recognize the place.
College football was a religion long before there was an NFL, and I worshiped faithfully at its altar. But when the big money came, those preachers twisted the gospel. Fans prayed harder and obsessed more and faithfully sent in money, while the kids became prizewinning cattle annually auctioned off to the NFL, raking in billions for universities and a handful of select NFL oligarchs.
The average life expectancy of an NFL veteran is 59.6 years.
It was halftime. Penn State was fighting hard to avoid an 8th straight loss to Ohio State. I looked out the window. It was cool and windy. October leaves colored the lawn orange and red. A thought occurred. I could bundle up and start a fire in the pit, maybe turn on an AM radio and bring some beer out there, maybe go back in time.
The thought quickly passed. We can never go back. Comfort and convenience like opioids flowing through me. Through society.
I fluffed my blanket and topped off a glass of cabernet, preparing to re-enter another entertainment coma. The second half was about to start. I fiddled with the FanDuel app on my phone.
What shall I bet on next?