[Bumped, of course. -- PV]
It was about 9:00pm on Saturday night when I passed mile marker four on US-218 and realized that the radio was producing more static than music. I turned it off and surveyed the car. My wife was asleep, as was Spencer. What a day! We got four miles from Missouri before KRNA's signal faded to static. The last band I heard was Journey .
Don't Stop Believing.
I wrote a little piece last week about taking my twelve year old, Spencer, to his first real Hawkeye game, and why it was important to me -- and so many other Iowans -- to pass on this family tradition. I recalled the Iowa-Michigan 1985 game, how clearly I remembered it. I reposted this piece on my personal blog, where my mother read it and commented that they never thought of these things as "traditions," it's just who we are.
Exactly. This is who we are.
For whatever reason, that last post hit people just right, and Adam was gracious enough to bump it. Many of you responded with kind words, but it is I who owe you my gratitude for the privilege and honor of giving voice to something we all know and feel but sometimes struggle to explain. When people come into our house in Missouri and see the Iowa stuff everywhere -- the alumni sticker and license plate frame on my car, my "I *HEART* THE HAWKS" mouse pad, and the Tigerhawk logo that is my cell phone background, they think I'm just a little crazy. Like one of those insufferable Nebraska fans whose conversational range is limited to recalling all the ways Nebraska used to be great.
We're not like that, I don't think. Iowa football fans are not spoiled by a nauseating history of serial achievement. To the contrary, we're plagued with self-doubt, knowing that as great at Iowa can be, we're not Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, or Texas. Our starters from Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Texas are the players that Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, and Texas didn't want. Our starters would be lucky to make the two-deep on an elite team's roster. Yet we hang in there. We're competitive with nothing more than pride, work ethic, and coaching. The Iowa way. Consequently, we all know that Iowa is always a half-step behind the truly elite programs and every victory is a cherished moment in which we, for good cause, collectively bask.
It's this unpredictability that makes games like Iowa-Michigan '85 so memorable. Would we care as much if we won a share of Big 10 Championships in half of the seasons over the last two decades? Ohio State fans don't appear to lack for enthusiasm, but to me it'd be like getting dealt pocket aces on every other hand of poker. That doesn't sound fun, and winning ceases to be an event. It becomes instead an expectation that, when not met, converts ordinary people into intolerable jackasses. Maybe Ohio State fans stay loud because they can reasonably set their sights higher - the national championship - whereas we Iowa fans don't dare to presume so much as a spot in the Outback Bowl.
My point is that this is part of who we are and probably one of the reasons that Iowa fans are (I hope) well-regarded. We know how fleeting success can be in competitive sports, especially for our team and so we relish seasons like 2009 and hold our breath all summer, not daring to dream that maybe this is the season when we win it all. We're earthy midwestern stock and we know better than to entertain that kind of conceit. We know that every game is potentially ulcer-inducing.
That's what I expected from Iowa-Michigan State, 2010.
We rolled into Iowa City around 1:00 pm, and parked at the EPB lot. After my wife lost a grizzly battle with her germophobia, I directed her from the Port-a-Potties to the library, whose facilities were less offensive to her delicate feminine sensibilities. The girl at the desk saw our Hawkeye garb and offered undisguised annoyance that football people were using the library facilities. To which I say: I'm a donating alumnus, lady, and one of the benefits is toilet access. She'll understand when the English department calls her six weeks after graduation begging for money.
After that stop, we crossed the Burlington Street bridge and walked up the hill to the Field House. Campus was buzzing at this point -- and I mean that in all of the ways it can be interpretted. The fans were sauced and the air was charged. I could walk in Iowa City for hours and people watch.
We emerged from the Field House and there she was -- Kinnick Stadium, a classic collegiate brickhouse, tall, arched, proud, constant. The air had turned to fall. You can smell it when it arrives, there's an added layer of crispness that reminds me of high school football on Friday nights and hanging out at McDonald's after the games. We wore jeans and flannel shirts. We played basketball at midnight in the school parking lot, the car radio playing a mix tape of mostly Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. That's how Iowa City smelled on Saturday and it was great. We circled to the south side. I didn't explain why to my family, but I knew Nile was there and wanted to see him. We stopped for snacks. Naturally, I had a pork tenderloin. My wife stocked up on Iowa supplies, picking up some Hawkeye wear for Hayden and our girls. Spencer got a new hat to wear to the game.
Then we headed in. I touched Kinnick's helmet on the way in, and we walked around to Section 102, near the north end zone. I held my breath on our way up the tunnel and then we were there. An expanse of green, the slanted heights of Kinnick's upper stands stretched out before us, players practicing on the field, and that momentary disorientation you feel every time you go into a football stadium and realize how small it looks compared to TV. I broke out into a grin. My wife grabbed my hand and said, "Oh my God, this is going to be so fun. I hope we kill 'em." Spencer was speechless.
Down, down, down the stairs to Row 6. Spartan Country. The Spartan fans were absolutely wonderful. The drunk ones apologized for swearing around Spencer. I told them, "Don't worry, you should hear the things I say in front of him." Spencer said, "No, you should hear the things I say in front of him." That's my boy. While the pre-game practice wound down, I ran through some stadium etiquette with Spencer. I told him we do not boo the opposing team, that's low-class, and besides, there's an entire student section for exactly that kind of heckling. We are respectful of guests in our city who have traveled far to be here. Besides, 300 was awesome and we can only hate a team called the Spartans so much.
The clock ticked down and the band entered the stadium. Now, I'm a sucker for the national anthem. I go to Cards and Rams and Blues games down here in St. Louis and I don't mind telling you that I invariably tear up during the national anthem, and that's when it's some awful pop soloist butchering our anthem with an unnecessary "interpretation" full of painful spastic pitch changes that sound more like the emergency brake on a steam locomotive than a vocalization. I had serious concerns that hearing an actual marching band playing it would turn me into a blubbering mess.
I didn't even get that far. The band marched in and opened up with the school song and I found myself with puddles atop my cheeks, wishing I'd worn sunglasses.
The clock hit zero, the Swarm entered the stadium, and my wife and Spencer went absolutely crazy. I was dutifully recording everything like a good Dad. We clapped politely for the Spartan team, and I leaned back and told the Spartan fans behind me, "Screw the Wolverines." One of them gave me a big drunken hug and said, "My new best friend!" I have nothing against Michigan, mind you. This here was diplomacy.
Keys out and jingling, the game kicked off, and we all know what happened for the next three hours. Complete and total domination. My wife was nearly hoarse by half time, and Spencer actually got bored in the second half and searched the entire stadium for some funnel cake. We debated a trip to the Amanas to cap it off, but we had a babysitter on the clock and a long road home. We gassed up and headed south on 218 as the sun fell below the horizon and we left Iowa City as it began to warm up for a victory lap that wouldn't end until early Sunday morning.
And so it was that, just four miles shy of the Missouri border, I lost KRNA's signal as Don't Stop Believing faded out and I switched to my iPhone. A few short minutes later, my Honda rolled over the last square foot of Iowa soil and onto the bridge over the Des Moines River and I began to put miles between me and my beloved home state. When the sound of the road changed from the pitched hollow whine of the bridge to the mild rumble of terra firma beneath the pavement, I looked once in the rear-view mirror and allowed myself a bittersweet smile in the darkness, my silent farewell to the Hawkeye state. Until next season, old friend.
I should have been a 19th century maudlinist.
We got home after 11:00pm and relieved the babysitter, who is actually another displaced Iowan from Pella. She's trying to find a way back. I make too much at my law firm to even consider it, though one of our partners is an Iowa alum who has spoken of opening a Des Moines branch office, and I think he's only half-kidding. He and I talked about Kinnick on Monday, and he said, "I've been to every Big 10 stadium except Penn State and none of them stack up to Kinnick. It is the best place to see a football game. It's not the stadium itself, it's the City and the people. Maybe it's just because I'm an Iowa fan, I don't know. "
Maybe, but he's got a point. It's the people. It's this shared irrational devotion to a team. Individual players come and go. If we follow them in the NFL, it is because they are Hawkeyes. We love our Hawkeyes because they are the most visible symbol of our Iowan identity, and the communicative power of this symbol is so overwhelming that it penetrates players who came here from out of state -- like St. Louis's own Adrian Clayborn -- to the point where they self-identify as part of our Iowa family, and we recognize them as such.
I'm rambling now, so I'll wrap this up. Thank you all for reading and sharing and for being the people that make Kinnick Stadium, and Iowa, such incredible places.
Don't Stop Believing.