Listen. Maybe you are someone who truly values convenience. Maybe you are someone who enjoys, or takes for granted, that you can “get in line,” online to secure tickets to the concert, game, or event you’ve been excited about for months. Maybe the idea of queueing for tickets with your physical, corporeal body sounds like a massive waste of your time. But I’m here to tell you: you’re wrong.
Hear me out.
It’s February 2002. I am 19 years old, cherub faced, and carrying my sleeping bag to a small patch of grass outside Cole Field House, the once-iconic basketball arena for the University of Maryland Terrapins. I haven’t even kissed a boy in college yet. I am a small packet of optimism with my whole life and every opportunity for greatness in front of me. I haven’t defined anything for myself yet: I am nothing; I am everything.
What a fucking time to be alive.
As freshmen tend to do, I’m in a pack of kids from my floor, parading around campus with the strange but real intimacy that comes from living on your own for the first time with a group of similarly inexperienced idiots. With an undergrad population over 25,000, we freshies certainly don’t run the place. But we do feel anointed. Special. Tapped.
Because things have been happening since we got here.
Two weeks into school, we experienced 9/11. A collective trauma that felt more acute (not more acute than for others, but more acute to us) because we could see the smoke cascading upward from the Pentagon from the upper deck of our football stadium. I still remember everything about that day—everyone on my floor packing into our already overcrowded “forced triple,” watching my roommate’s tiny ass TV so we could be together. Walking to the dining hall in an emotional fog. Going to a vigil on McKeldin Mall and burning candles in front of the bronze terrapin outside the library.
A few weeks after that, a tornado tore through the area, ransacking North Campus, where we underclassmen lived. The tornado busted up our dining hall and a few dormitories, turned parking lots into scrap metal, and killed two students by tossing a car into the side of a brick building.
These tragedies made us seek community and refuge in each other. We became fast friends out of necessity because, well, who else could we turn to? We couldn’t simply dwell in the sadness. We had to figure it out, make our way, and find some goddamn fun.
The fun side of these freshman friendships was consummated on Saturdays at home football games. Here, we came together for another collective experience, built on unexpected triumph rather than tragedy.
Maryland had never been known as a “football school,” and yet here we were, winning the ACC outright and heading to the Orange Bowl, a BCS Championship. I remember the students collecting oranges at the dining hall before the last home game, and as time expired, hundreds of citrus orbs flew onto the grass as students rushed the field, somehow pulling down a field goal post and sprinting to Frat Row to celebrate with one of our signature bonfires.
Reckless. Spirited. Memorable.
But tonight—this cold night in February—is even more special. My floormates and I are racewalking up the hill to ensure we can get good seats for tomorrow’s game:
At the end of the season, they are retiring Cole after 47 years of service. And this particular Terps men’s team feels predestined to send it off in glory. Under the sweaty, curmudgeonly, yet extremely lovable head coach Gary Williams, these Terps had made the Final Four last year, and many of the players had returned for a run at a national championship, including Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter, and my favorite player—men’s or women’s—to ever put on a Terps jersey: point guard, No. 25, Steve Blake.
If you know college hoops, you already have a strong opinion on Duke. And if you’re on the right side of history, you loathe them. Overly white, pious, whiny, and cocky. And, okay FINE, also very talented. But, like, in an insufferable way. It’s like watching Goliath kick David’s ass, steal his money, and eat his lunch from November through April. They’re the bad guys, not just in this story, but every story.
We had lost to these dastardly Blue Devils in the Final Four in 2001, suffering an absolutely epic, shameful collapse—hemorrhaging a 10-point lead in the last 60 seconds. And we had lost to Duke by 19 on the road earlier this season. We need this game to reclaim our souls, our confidence, and to avenge our lost ones.
I have a paper ticket—or maybe it’s more like card stock—because it’s 2002, and I don’t even have a cell phone, let alone a smartphone. I am holding onto this ticket for dear life because if I lose it, I will be forced to walk into the fountain on McKeldin Mall and drown myself in misery. At this moment, and for many moons beyond, this ticket is worth more than anything to me. It is my whole reason for being.
I had to wait in a similar overnight, freezing cold line to even get this ticket, and—I’ll save you the longform dramatics—despite being one of the first 400 people in line (for 4,000 tickets), I almost didn’t get it. So, as I pull on a ski hat and plop my sleeping bag in a pile next to Meaghan and Michelle and Mickey and Megan and Jeff and Tom and the rest of the lucky ducks, I am full of gratitude and excitement. Because going to this game was far from a sure thing.
This morass of shivering students weaves directly to the locked student entrance of Cole Field House, where we are promised that doors will open at 10:00 A.M. Until then, we’ll have to just sit and wait, entertaining ourselves with dumb stories and jokes. It is college, so naturally, students have brought various gross, cheap liquors to pass the time, literally pre-gaming. To keep ourselves warm, we wear 8 million layers, cuddle up, and just generally steel ourselves to the biting wind and frozen ground beneath us.
Brilliantly, a friend from the second floor of our dorm—nicknamed Superfun Tom, not to be confused with regular Tom on our floor—shares in a delivery from his mom who lives nearby. She has made about 20 baked potatoes, wrapped in aluminum foil, which double as both a phenomenal hand warmer and a 4 A.M. snack. I have never forgotten this ingenuity, nor the kindness.
Some students are already painting their not varsity bodies red, including my neighbor from home, who is the capital A in an ambitiously long M-A-R-Y-L-A-N-D. He looks like a very cold, boy-shaped ketchup bottle. It’s fantastic.
I’m so close to the front door that I’m almost guaranteed an amazing seat. But after the melee that almost denied me tickets in the first place, I’m feeling anxious and paranoid that I’ll get snuffed out.
That’s the feeling, though. The anticipation? The buildup? The ohmygod ohmygod i can’t believe it—that’s the whole fucking point of the exercise.
When they open the doors, we try to maintain order, but it’s mostly a very hurried racewalk to the lowest seats near centercourt. I wind up in the fourth row, with HOURS to go before tip-off. Meaghan, Michelle, and I wind up painting our faces in the colors of the Maryland flag, and—channeling the confidence of average white dudes across the nation—we take our shirts off, wearing just sports bras, and paint FEAR / THE / TURTLE across our stomachs.
Before the game starts, there’s tension in the air. A good one. One that feels like we know a secret. One that feels like our friends are about to walk into this surprise party. One that feels like we’re about to help out the demolition crew and blow the roof off Cole Field House.
It’s 11:00 A.M., and a sea of hungry, sleep deprived students are cheering at nothing at all. There’s no consistent entertainment on the court. The team hasn’t yet come out to shoot around. But we can’t help it or contain our excitement. We just occasionally need to clap or woot! or chant “Let’s goooooo Maryland (clap-clap)” or we might explode.
I remember the camera crew finding and asking our group to cheer loudly for 30 seconds because we have been chosen as the Cingular Wireless (LOL remember?) fans of the game.
I remember the infamous “oh he steal!” moment where Steve Blake picked Jason Williams’ pocket at halfcourt just before halftime.
And I remember us winning the game, knocking off the No. 1 ranked Duke Blue Devils. I had to look up the score—87-73, good guys—to remember whether it was a blowout.
I don’t remember what I did with my sleeping bag once I got into Cole. That irrelevant detail is lost to the sands of time. But I do remember that my off-white winter coat got someone else’s mustard on the collar, and despite being the only article of clothing I have ever had professionally cleaned, that stain never ever came out. At the time, I was mortified to keep wearing it through the winter. But now, thinking about that yellow stain is so charming, it gives me goosebumps.
I remember feeling like I was part of something bigger than myself. Feeling like something special could happen. Feeling like there was no place I’d rather be than in that line.
So, maybe you’d rather be on your couch. Maybe you’d rather click a button and let technology do the waiting. But me? I think it’s a little sad that we gave it all up for convenience.
Because I’d do anything to prolong that magic feeling of right here, right now.