Fall may be my favorite time of year. There are trips to the apple orchard, the colors of the trees, pumpkin flavored everything, and football.
Whether as a player or a fan, from backyard pick-up games to Monday Night Football, nothing signals the changing of the seasons quite like the return of the pigskin.
But while always an enthusiastic two-hand-touch participant, an avid NFL fan, and a die-hard supporter of my high school team, I never cared too much for the college game. Even after I began attending the U of M, I never felt nearly the same school spirit for the Gophers as I had for my high school.
It felt so impersonal and corporatized: licensed merchandise, $6 hotdogs, and, at the time, an indoor stadium nearly a mile off campus. I enjoyed my share of great sports moments in the Metrodome over the years, but few places were more effective at draining an autumn day of its charms like entering the big gray baggie.
And much as I’d like to think I’m not a fair-weather fan, the middling performance of the team certainly didn’t help. The fight song felt like an obligation. (“Fire Mason!” had become a far more common refrain). Nonetheless, I dutifully bought season tickets as an underclassman. But by the end of the woeful 1-11 campaign of 2007 my tolerance had been sapped.
One more shot
The following year I didn’t attend a single game, though the team began to show some signs of life. That, combined with the opening of our new stadium the subsequent fall, persuaded me to give the squad one more shot, and I was not disappointed.
The timing couldn’t have been better. TCF Bank Stadium opened in 2009, the start of my senior year. I worked on campus that summer and received an invitation sent to all university employees for a free preview tour of the grounds. I went and it was a marvel. Huge photos of U of M legends adorned the locker room, from Bruce Smith to Tony Dungy. The view from the bleachers showcased the Minneapolis skyline in the distance.
I was becoming truly excited as the first game approached, and I wasn’t alone. For the first time in memory my friends and I arrived at the gates hours before they opened, hoping to get good seats for this once-in-a-generation event.
And one of the best parts? We could simply walk there from Dinkytown; there was no more caravan of Campus-Connectors shuttling undergrads to and from the rented Dome. After 30 years we finally had a home again.
As we waited in front of the student-section entrance, the crowd behind us grew with each passing minute. Soon President Robert Bruininks appeared and gave a rousing speech to the masses, and the anticipation built further.
When the gates opened we poured into the concourse and were able to snag seats in the lower bowl. The upper deck seemed to be overflowing. It was a far cry from the half-empty arena I was used to, and the weather had hit that perfect crisp equilibrium between hot and cold.
The marching band took the field in short order and the crowd was nearing full fever pitch. And then the capper: Before the coin-toss a litany of former Golden Gopher stars emerged. Bud Grant was in tears, but it was all punctuated by 96-year-old former coach Murray Warmath. As he zipped onto the field in his motorized wheelchair, smiling and waving, the stands erupted in guttural approval, and a shiver ran down my spine. It was finally all coming into focus now – the immense history of this institution I was attending.
This man was a living link to the program’s glory days of a half-century before, when he’d led the team to the Rose Bowl by recruiting one of the first heavily integrated rosters. More than just a reminder that we had much to be proud of though, he represented the sheer humbling size and scope of the university’s reach. My experience there was just a tiny slice of the hundreds of thousands of students who had called this place home since the 1850s.
One of my more stoic pals turned to me and said he had chills.
Crowd goes bonkers as ‘Ski-U-Mah’ cries fill the air
Finally the game began. We watched as now NFL star receiver Eric Decker carved his way through the opposing defense. By the time the sun set we’d eked out a win over Air Force 20-13, and the crowd went bonkers again as cries of “Ski-U-Mah” filled the air and Goldy spun his head.
Normally a seven-point win over an unranked team in early September would hardly warrant such a reaction, but the margin of victory hardly mattered. The field crew even preemptively lowered the goal posts in an effort to discourage fans from taking matters into their own hands.
It was clear I wasn’t the only one who had felt starved of something better; for the first time in years people had found an excuse to celebrate to excess, and they weren’t going to let it escape. I’d finally glimpsed that camaraderie and sense of tradition so essential to the college experience. For one night at least, I felt like a Gopher.
Danny Eckberg is a Minnesota native and 2010 graduate of the University of Minnesota who currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
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