Monday, December 8, 2014

A Chance Encounter, a Game and Some Advice…

Driving home down the highway this past Sunday from Indiana my knuckles were gripped so tightly to the steering wheel they had turned white. Outside the weather was…just about perfect for the mid-west in December; forty degrees and brilliant sunshine. So why the white knuckled drive? I was fuming…and all because of a damned football game.

I thought back to how I had arrived in this state of mind and to be honest, it really never should have happened. Three weeks ago I was in Los Angeles on a trip I was not scheduled to take until a few days before. This trip that I was not supposed to be on was replacing a trip I thought I would be taking this week but now has been cancelled…because I went on the other trip which I now have told you three times. Anyway, at this meeting in Los Angeles I ran into a co-worker who runs Indianapolis and the surrounding areas for our company. We greeted each other and he immediately asked me if I had an interest in going to The Big Ten Championship game which is held in Indianapolis in early December. At that point, my team had not clinched a spot. In fact they had two games to go before they could actually clinch the spot in the game. I told him I wasn’t sure but would let him know after the weekend’s games were played.

I had taken my family three years ago when my team, The Wisconsin Badgers, played Michigan State and we had a terrific time. The atmosphere was festive and…Wisconsin won. That said the game was close and came down to the final minute. It was exciting and the fans for both sides while very “into” it were cheering for their respective teams. This comment will make more sense in a bit. It should be noted that when I said I took the family this was only partially true. Our oldest son Jim was a freshman at Wisconsin and he actually did not go even though he was closer than we were. I think it was near exam time so we told him to buckle down and study or something like that. It remains a sore subject to this day. Now, Jim is off at Law School out east and our youngest son Bennett is in his first year at college in Virginia. He remains a Badger fan but is also a fan of his school’s team now as well. Given that he would have to get himself back home so we could all go to the game together and Jim had already said “No way…exams” (Which I logged here for future proof that we did not hold him back from going) it seemed far-fetched that we could all reasonably make it. Fast Forward two weeks and Sue, Megan, and I were on our way to Indy to meet Bennett who had one of our cars and a big gap between classes and exams such that he was able to go.

The drive out was fairly miserable with rain the whole way, a husband wife conversation that was going so well we missed a key exit that added forty-five minutes to our drive and lots and lots of trucks. It too had some white knuckled moments. As well as some occasions where I was fighting off sleep thanks to the drone of the hypnotic wipers going back and forth, back and forth. Here was the other thing; I wasn’t really that hyped up for the game. Wisconsin had won seven or eight straight and yes they were now in the Championship game but with the new college football playoff they were not in the mix. Sure they were playing the Ohio State Buckeyes who were ranked pretty high so they had playoff hopes but we were playing to go to one decent bowl versus going to a less decent bowl. That was it. Last time it was for the Rose Bowl and that matters to the Big Ten. This time, Wisconsin was in the game but to what end?

We arrived within twenty minutes of each other and I will say I was relieved to see Bennett safe and sound. He had an eight and a half hour drive which he turned into “Under eight” and we had a nine hour drive which we turned into “Almost ten”. We all checked in, had a fun dinner and called it a night. The next day the game did not start until 8 PM…actually 8:17 PM but what does that matter right? Sue and I went to breakfast at a really nice local farm to table place that had the requisite host with a knit cap on and the skinny, bearded, tattooed waiter who explained that all the food was local, obtained from local farmers, blah, blah, the eggs had been laid while the chickens were in some spa treatment or something.  The coffee was ground in unique, fully sustainable bamboo bowls using techniques from the ancient Aztecs…and the bacon was cut with a stone sharpened machete’ that caused the pig to bleed less or more…I can’t really remember. Anyway…breakfast was great…especially the bacon. And the place was filled with mostly locals and just a few “Fans”. Of the fifty or so people in the restaurant I’d say ten were “fans”. Of those ten, eight were OSU fans. This became a theme.

After the kids awakened we went to the Big Ten Fan Fest at the convention center. Here they set up interactive exhibits, games, trivia, etc. They also broadcast their pre-game sports show live so you can watch it and potentially be seen on TV by the eleven people watching the show. As we wandered around we noticed two things. First, there were a lot of Buckeye fans here. Second, they looked pissed. When we came last time it was the first time they held the game and it was us and Michigan State. We noticed a pretty equal number of fans for both sides and everybody seemed pretty excited to be there. People were smiling.  This time…not so much.

You have to realize that both teams sport similar color schemes; Wisconsin’s Cardinal and White and Ohio State’s Scarlet and Grey…essentially everybody walking around was wearing something red. So at first it was difficult to tell which team the fans all wearing red were supporting. As people got closer you could see the logos. And in the case of The Buckeye fans the scowls. That and the menacing looks and the occasional growl. This group was hostile and there were a ton of them. Remember the breakfast ratio of four to one? That held true throughout the night.

By lunch time we decided to head across the street and get something to eat. The kids really had not eaten so they were hungry. We walked over to “The Colts Grille” a sports bar honoring all things Indianapolis Colts. I have no idea why I thought this place would be an option. I remember thinking they would have TV’s and we wanted to Watch Wisconsin play Marquette in Basketball but that was it. We arrived to pandemonium. The place was stuffed full of Buckeye fans and the wait for a table was “Unclear at this time”. Not only was it crowded but it was loud. They have this cheer they do. Someone yells “O-H” and the rest all yell “I-O”. Get it? They spell Ohio. Of course their school is called Ohio State and many of them will tell you it is THE Ohio State University making the point that they are the only school that matters in Ohio I guess. But just to be clear, they never try to spell “state” and I am pretty sure “university” is beyond their abilities as well. In fact I would wager a hefty sum of money that most of these people could not even get into Ohio State and that frankly is saying something. Fortunately, Indianapolis has a pretty nice downtown and there were many other options so we went elsewhere and got a table right in front of another group of twelve or so Buckeyes. A few minutes later they were joined by roughly twenty members of the Ohio State Marching band who sang their misplaced theme song “Hang on Sloopy”. It was nice-ish but at the end when the table yelled “&%$# Wisconsin” it took some of the nice out of it. The restaurant was actually a pretty upscale place (we did not get our TV’s to watch the basketball game) and the staff looked a little surprised. I could see them shoot startled glances at each other and a couple of them said something to each other but I could not hear them. The table of twelve was laughing hysterically.

We took the afternoon off. We napped, got in a workout and prepared to go to a pre-game party that was part of the deal along with our game tickets. I saw a few of my co-workers there and then we headed off to the game. By now it was 7:30 PM. Megan and I became separated from Sue and Bennett but we all had our own tickets so through the masses entering the stadium we were able to text each other that we would see each other inside. About this time I noticed a man who was looking at me and who was just simply too close for comfort. I didn’t see him at first because I was looking down at my phone. I smelled him before I saw him. Beer. I looked up and he looked at me very bleary eyed and said. “Oh %$#&, sorry I thoughted we has a connectedtion but you are going to Wisconsinland”. He was pickled. I nodded and said “That’s right”. He slurred back “What’s right Bucky??” He appeared to now be upset that I had engaged him in conversation. He may have even been upset that I was so close to him but that was his doing. I was about to try to explain when I heard a loud “Girl shout”. “Grooooooouuuuuuup Photo you bastards hahaahahahahahahah”. This distracted “Close beer breath guy” and I was forgotten.

 I looked at Megan and she was mortified. Her face was equal parts “Why are we here? What just happened? And I thought we were going to a football game not an ultimate fighting competition.” The lines literally began to combine out of nowhere and for a second we were going backwards. The group photo fans had left a huge gap and other lines took the opportunity to fill in. Megan and I side stepped and got in a much shorter line and made our way in. Inside it was just like the “Colts Grille” only more intense. People continued to demonstrate their intelligence by publicly spelling “Ohio” while still skipping the state part. Others would scream profanities at any unsuspecting Badger fans they encountered…which by the way was nearly all of them. You see as angry as the Buckeye fans appeared to be, my experience with Badger fans is that they (and this is a huge but pretty accurate generalization) are simply really nice fans. Now I know every team has its group of idiot fans ( My Aunt and Uncle have traveled the country going to college games as part of their travel business for years and they have many, many stories about bad fan behavior…some even about my Badgers) but my experience is that the Wisconsin folks generally behave pretty well. This added to my dismay. The scene inside the stadium was loud and chaotic and angry. But on top of it, I wasn’t prepared for this. I could not figure out how Ohio State had sent ALL of their angry fans to this one game…but they had and it was getting uglier by the minute. By now I had started to put beer and whiskey together and realized that an 8:17 PM start time was great for ratings but a disaster for fan sobriety. We couldn't get a definitive time for a table at lunch because the Buckeyes (and Badgers) most likely stayed and drank all afternoon. Lucas Oil Stadium was lubed all right.

After some confusion we found our seats and to our relief we were in a good spot; pretty secluded actually in the front of the upper deck where there are only a few rows. It appeared to be a 50/50 split of Badger fans and Buckeye fans. This was also a relief…and there were some empty seats…we hoped we had landed in a “safe zone”. Sue and Bennett arrived ten minutes later and Bennett had steam coming out his ears. They had encountered a group of Buckeyes who yelled the same cheer as the lunch crowd but they did it constantly while walking right behind my wife and son. I think they would have preferred they go back to their spelling chant.

Right before the game the two marching bands were on the field and in an ironic twist they mashed together “In a spirit of sportsmanship” to create one band while they played the national anthem. And then the game began. Now let me be clear here. Wisconsin got crushed. As in killed. As in wiped off the field. The only thing they won that night was the coin toss. So I am not trying for a second to say that Wisconsin’s Badgers should have beaten the Buckeyes. It wasn’t like there were “A couple of bad bounces” that could have changed the outcome. No…we lost fair and square. What is interesting to me is that five minutes into the game I was barely paying attention. Remember those empty seats in our section? They filled up. One row was right behind us and the “fans” who poured themselves into the seats were a drunken mess…and loud…and rude. You know, like the rest of the Buckeye fans. First they discovered we were Wisconsin fans so the drunken yelling began. “Yo, yo?! Bucky (our mascot is Bucky Badger…Buckingham to these jerks) leave.” ‘You guys suck ahhhhhhhh” Usually followed by a burp (or worse) or drunken laughter. These “people” were cracking themselves up. The two women just screamed in our ears then laughed. Our backs were kicked followed by laughing apologies...or not. Mostly not. The nice Badger Fans/family of four, right next to them suddenly disappeared. They never came back. I thought at first this was a bit of an overreaction. I later changed my mind.

By the second quarter the game was quickly switching from “A fast start for OSU” to “Look out, a blow out is underway”. Normally, when the stress of the outcome leaves I have seen the fans supporting the winning team relax. Not here. These fans smelled blood and wanted more. They became louder, more upset that they were not winning by more and the “ladies” behind us continued to scream-gag incessantly. Until they didn’t. Suddenly two of the four stooges behind us were gone. I asked my wife and she said “I think they went to the bathroom to pass out”. I thought she was being a bit harsh but now the “Boyfriends” were left without “Chaperones”. They got worse. Suddenly my wife looked really concerned and she said, “The guy right behind Megan is about to pass out and I don’t want him to fall on her. Seats freed up next to her (more Badgers had fled the scene) so we moved down. They then threw their legs on our seats, yelled obscenities at our fifteen year old daughter, and continued their Buckeye ways.  I have no idea if they watched the game or knew the score.

I finally looked back at the one guy and she was right, he was bobbing like a buoy in rough seas. Very unsteady and still trying to talk smack; only now it was more of a growl of unintelligible words. “Fancy” and “Classy” still had not returned. Sue was probably right again.  Later Bennett and I discovered that we had both secretly and individually made plans that if attacked we would finish the fight quickly. Both our plans would have landed us in jail. We didn’t care at that point. This was not a fun experience…and we were at a college football game. As I looked back at “Buoy boy” to make sure he would not land on my daughter he made one last attempt to humiliate his Badger enemies in front of him. The effort apparently was too much for him and he proceeded to wet his pants right in front of us. That was the last straw for my wife.

After a bungled attempt by the security detail failed (not my preferred method) we finally gave up and left. The game was well past being over. On our way out we saw countless “relatives” of the now newly named “Piss-Boy” many of whom shouted additional insults at the closest Badger they could find. Outside the stadium a Badger fan had numerous red marks on his neck and was explaining to a police officer that he had “Been choked by a rabid Buckeye fan”. The cop just shrugged…they all looked rabid.

Now I am driving in my car wondering why I am still so angry and then it dawns on me. This horrible experience was all about a football game and the hostility was created by these “fans” from O-H I-O who in all likelihood couldn’t spell that without the cheer having been created for them. I wondered how they possibly could think this was a good way to represent their university…except they don’t really affiliate themselves with the school…they affiliate themselves with the football program and may not actually know that Ohio State is actually an educational institution…at least in theory. The problem is…these people belong in a different kind of institution. Their “passion” ruined what should have been a fun event for my family and I am sure many, many others. Yet it made me think about how I can have a Saturday ruined when Wisconsin loses. Or how I actually equate Wisconsin sports success with my own. Warped for sure. Granted, I did actually graduate from this school but still…my perspective was altered just a bit in no small part to the “Buckeye faithful”.

Now Ohio State is in the Football Playoff and “Their” team will play Alabama in New Orleans where alcohol is easier to get than water. I have just one thing to say to the Buckeye fans…I’d settle down if I were you or your new chant might go something like this “J-A” “I-L”.

On Wisconsin!