Summer Road Trip: America’s Heartland

America’s Heartland

After half a dozen conferences cancelled college football, it was time for some much-needed college football travel. The motto of Road to CFB has always been that America is best seen on the road (hence the name), so I decided to map out a 3,800-mile, six day road trip over the course of a couple weekends. A week-long stop in Ohio to visit family was the perfect break in between long miles on the road.

This year’s inaugural Summer Road Trip was planned in two legs– America’s Heartland and the Deep South. The route to Ohio would cover as many flyover states as I could in three days, including Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. There’s a surprising number of stadiums along such a sparse route.

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Day 1: Kansas

The first leg of the road trip was the longest of the entire journey– a straight shot from Fort Worth, Texas, to Manhattan, Kansas; a hair over seven hours on the road covering 477 miles. If there was something to talk about along this arduous and mundane route, I’d put it here; the route goes past Oklahoma City and Wichita and not much else.

Manhattan is surprisingly hilly and green with plenty of trees and Kansas State is situated in the middle of civilization– both things I didn’t expect. Bill Snyder Family Stadium, at the time, was undergoing renovations to the south end zone suites and video board, meaning some gates were left open for construction workers to come and go. This to me is an open invitation to explore the stadium, albeit quietly; confidence goes a long way when walking around stadiums.

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Outside Bill Snyder Family Stadium is the man in which the stadium is named after, immortalized in a statue. Snyder, for those who don’t know, was the Wildcats’ head coach for over 40 years and had the stadium named after him during his tenure (good luck finding another facility in the world with that being the case).  During his career in Manhattan, Snyder racked up over 200 wins and posted a 0.656 win percentage. In all their seasons without Snyder, K-State has a 0.340 win percentage.

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As quickly as I arrived at Kansas State, I left; there’s no legal parking at the stadium without a K-State parking pass. It’s just 80 minutes separating Manhattan and Lawrence, home of Kansas University. This part of the drive is drastically different than the one from the south. Kansas is home to the Flint Hills, a hilly, lush area in the northeast region of the state that is home to American Tallgrass (like you see in the paintings of bison and Native Americans). There’s even scenic pull-offs along i-70 that provide some seriously cool views in a state that many believe doesn’t have anything of note.

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Kansas Memorial Stadium has a gate that prominently reads PUBLIC ENTRY, which is intended for game days, but I took as another open invitation to explore the stadium. As far as Power 5 venues go, Kansas Memorial Stadium is fairly unremarkable: no decks, no variation, not even a closed bowl. Despite it looking like the smallest stadium in the Big XII, Kansas is seventh with 50,071 seats– ahead of Kansas State (by 71), Baylor, and TCU. It’s also the second oldest in the conference (opened 1921), behind Boone Pickens Stadium of Oklahoma State (opened 1920).

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When it comes to getting visiting stadiums, I abide by a few rules: First, nothing that could be deemed “breaking and entering” by police. That includes jumping fences and cutting locks. The second rule is nothing leaves the stadium. There was a cool Kansas seat cushion laying in the stands, but that stayed there. Third, keep off the playing surface. As a former player, I know coaches are particular about their playing surface, and (unless I’m allowed) they certainly don’t want me fussing around on it.

However, errant open gates, unlocked doors, and low walls are fair game here (the line of thought is, if they really don’t want me in there, I wouldn’t get in– something I’ll encounter here in a bit). The game is to get in, get a photo, get out. Simple!

Kansas was in a state of suspended animation, something I noticed for several stadiums along this trip. Gloves, hand warmers, and empty bottles were left in the stands as if everyone scrambled right after the last home game of the year. Pro tip for those who want to visit Kansas Memorial Stadium: there’s plenty of streets with houses north of the stadium that offer free street parking. The status of parking here on game days is unknown, but is likely restricted due to the proximity.

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As much as I enjoyed the easy driving through Kansas, I can say I’ve seen it all there, so it was time to head farther west to Kansas City, about 90 minutes away. It was time for some genuine KC barbecue and a visit to Arrowhead Stadium. LC’s BBQ is a spot the size of a garage just a stone’s throw from Arrowhead and Kauffman Stadium (home to the Royals) that does barbecue right. I’d recommend the smoked turkey, which is piled high on white bread and complemented with heavily seasoned thick-cut fries.

The Chiefs had just won Super Bowl LIV a few months ago (though, to be fair, seems like years since it was before the COVID-19 pandemic), but the World Champs swag had not yet arrived to Arrowhead. It was a quick stop there, and then a race to Columbia, Missouri, before sundown to see Mizzou.

The convenience of arriving after 5:00 pm to most campuses means campus lot restrictions are lifted, and many will allow anyone to park with or without a pass. When visiting stadiums, always (and I mean ALWAYS– seriously, make this your number-one priority) read the parking signs carefully. Parking services at any campus will slap you with a $20 parking ticket ($50 sometimes) faster than you can put your car in park.

The Tigers had must just finished practice for the day, since the loading dock gate was left wide open next to the football training facility, likely for players’ convenience. With no coaches or staff in sight, I managed to hit the trifecta on stadium access this day.

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Faurot Field is in the bottom third of capacity for SEC stadiums, but the layout and the build of the facility makes it look much larger than its 61,620 capacity. The towering press box adds scale to the stadium, and the southeast stands have some unique lighting fixtures. Mizzou also has a giant block M made up of white rocks in the north end zone that is its signature stamp. The entire venue is just pleasing and is one of my favorite SEC stadiums I’ve seen yet (though I couldn’t point out why). The concourse is large and open and the south end zone is home to new suites and a large video board.

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After some more self touring, I decided I’d worn out my unexpected welcome and left Day 1 quite pleased. A perfect score on stadium access, a clear day in the low 80’s, I really couldn’t have asked for a smoother first day. Also a plus– no parking tickets and no traffic stoppages. We won’t talk about the hotel I paid $45 for, but it worked out.

Day 2: Iowa

I set alarms at 5:30 am daily to fit 13 hours (minimum) of driving in before sundown so I can photograph stadiums they way they should be. I prescribed myself plenty of caffeine to pull this feat off, especially after exhaustive driving every day. It was back heading north for me en route to Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State, for whatever reason, has been high on my stadium wishlist for years and the excitement to get there was significant. The route there is through small Iowan towns and two lane roads, without a single interstate sign in sight. For anyone looking for a therapeutic drive and the most intimate way to see the country, cross the Missouri-Iowa border at sunrise.

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Fast forward four-and-a-half hours, and you arrive at Jack Trice Stadium. On non-game days, there’s free parking in Lot S1 of Jack Trice at the Reiman Gardens. Crews were there prepping Iowa State for a season that, at this point, is still scheduled to begin; this means open gates (my favorite). Calmly and confidently, I walked up the ramp into the bowl, carefully avoiding anyone who might question my motive of being there.

It’s a pleasant stadium, easy on the eyes, but vibrant and colorful. My favorite part of the entire stadium is the south end zone video board that’s raised on metal beams and looks like a highway sign. There’s nothing else like it in college football.

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The secret to taking photos of myself by myself is my shoes; they make excellent stands for your phone, but sometimes come at the expense of dirty or wet socks. In this instance, crews were power washing the stands (specifically the section I needed to stand in) and I had to change my socks when I got back to the Jeep. Extremely uncomfortable, but completely worth it. Although I would have liked to see a painted field, Jack Trice has natural grass and likely won’t paint their field until game week.

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Regardless, it was another success. Success that was short-lived.

Just like Kansas State and Kansas, it’s a straight shot about two hours down i-80 from Ames to Iowa City. Unremarkable and straight as an arrow. Iowa’s campus is surprisingly urban, with Kinnick Stadium nestled right in the middle of a bustling downtown. It’s known that Kinnick sits next to the famous Iowa Children’s Hospital, which is the centerpiece to Iowa’s prestigious medical campus. Urban campuses are bad news for stadium access– especially in venues as popular as Kinnick. It was totally locked down, and there was absolutely no hope of getting in.

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There was absolutely no way that I wasn’t participating in the best tradition in all of college football: the wave to the Iowa Children’s Hospital. Inside or outside, it’s a bucket list item that I will participate in again when I visit Iowa on a game day. However, it was too good to pass up this time around.

Iowa offers metered public parking near Kinnick by the football training facility, for those wanting to visit the outside of the stadium.

Leaving Iowa and heading north east toward Wisconsin was a sobering experience for me. A massive line of storms named El Derecho passed through the plains of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois just a week before, pounding the region with 100 mph winds, blinding rain, and several tornadoes. The rural route to Madison follows US route 151 and cuts through dozens of small communities that were absolutely devastated by this line of storms; barns were blown to pieces, trees were split like toothpicks, cornfields were flattened, and tin roofs were peeled back like a can of soup. Rural Iowa’s economy depends on agriculture, especially during the severe recession caused by the 2020 pandemic. My heart felt for these communities shredded and the families ruined by the destruction of the crops. I encourage everyone to look up the photos from this storm, but it’s the worst aftermath I’ve ever seen in person.

With that firmly behind me, I passed over the Mississippi River and entered southwestern Wisconsin– some of the most picturesque land in all of the Midwest. Rolling hills were home to bright red barns and dairy cows just like you’d envision for Wisconsin.

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Camp Randall Stadium is situated right in the middle of downtown Madison– Wisconsin’s capital city. Much to my chagrin, the south end of the stadium was under major construction, barring me from getting anywhere near a good photo position. It also meant the facility was closed and completely inaccessible. The urban-ness of the campus also restricted my view of the stadium and any photo opportunities I wanted. Like Kinnick, Camp Randall Stadium was not welcoming to visitors like me and was actually really frustrating to get around. I had to settle for a photo in a parking lot.

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At least there’s convenient free street parking on the west side of the stadium, given you aren’t going on game day.

I couldn’t waste too much time looking at the outside of this buried stadium– I had to make DeKalb well before sundown which was an hour and 45 minutes away. The route, at first, is south down i-90 before getting really off the interstate and driving through legit cornfields for 30 miles. DeKalb itself is a good sized town, but is hidden amongst corn.

Huskie Stadium was the first MAC stadium that didn’t have its gates open (sample size includes Bowling Green, Toledo, Eastern Michigan and, spoiler, Miami OH). Gates were up and locked all around the facility. After accessing an SEC stadium and three Big XII stadiums, I’d be damned if a MAC school was going to keep me out. With time running out, I discovered a door left unlocked from a leaving athlete. Northern Illinois leaves their stadium open on a “if you know, you know” basis likely left for athletes wanting to run stadiums.

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What I did keep quiet, though, was my access to the away stands. The home and away grandstands are not connected by a concourse, which I thought was pretty strange; in order to access the away stands (to get the best photo with the press box), you’d have to enter through the away gates (locked) or walk right past the windows of the athletic training facility in the north end zone. With a full facility of coaches and players working out, I avoided the threat of being kicked out and tried to find a route to the away stands via the south end zone (and the field).

Under the home stands is an indoor concourse reminiscent of a basketball or hockey arena, and straight ahead of the door I walked in were the coaches offices, away locker room, and other rooms I likely wasn’t allowed to be near. To reiterate, I’d be damned if I let a MAC stadium fool me. So I headed into the hallway and eventually found a door labeled FIELD. With the assistance of an errant football, I blocked the door open, and hurried across the south end zone grass, keeping well out of sight of anyone. From there, I was able to get my photo just in time for the sun to set.

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At this moment, I thought it was the most sneaking around I’d have to do, and to be honest the rush was pretty exhilarating, but the next day would prove that wrong. We won’t talk about the next hotel I paid $45 for, but it also worked out.

Day 3: Illinois

Another day, another early morning start. It was another two hours from Streator, Illinois, to Champaign and the University of Illinois. For being a Big Ten venue, Illinois was surprisingly open to anyone who cared to go in. In fact, there was an older man running laps around the field and a father and son running drills on the playing surface.

Memorial Stadium is old– seriously old; it was constructed in memory of the University of Illinois students who fought and died in World War I (still dubbed “The Great War” on the placard). Every aspect of the stadium aside from the playing surface, the lower bowl bleachers, and the press box looks like it hasn’t been touched since its 1924 construction. While many would classify this stadium as dirty or rundown, I loved the history preserved in its structure.

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Memorial Stadium’s most outstanding feature is the war columns perched behind the upper decks of the east and west grandstands. Each column has the name of a soldier who perished in World War I that the stadium is dedicated to. It’s a quiet and solemn area of an otherwise bustling stadium– it’s almost like a museum built into a football stadium. There are plenty of unique features of college football venues, but this one falls under a short list of my favorites.

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The next leg of this day was due east to the birthplace of Road to CFB– Purdue’s Ross-Ade Stadium. You can read about the inspiration here. I hadn’t been in nearly five years and I made an effort to make this one of just two repeat stadiums along the drive. It was the start of move-in weekend for freshmen, opening up plenty of legal/illegal parking spots near the stadium.

Good news, Ross-Ade Stadium was under construction. Bad news, it was the kind of construction that actually made access to the stadium more difficult. Signage was everywhere warning people like me to STAY OUT. There was one non-construction entrance gate that was open (construction zones, aside from being dangerous to enter, are super illegal to trespass in), so I took full advantage of that. I won’t give away all my secrets, but I passed through a couple staff-only gates and moved aside a light barricade to slip into the stands.

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There was no chance at moving across the field undetected to my original seat from 2015 nor into the away stands, so I settled for what I could get. There was a maintenance worker on the field who was glancing at me, but suspected I was supposed to be there. That is, until I plopped my phone down against my shoe and posed for a photo. After one take, I noticed she was headed right for me so I bolted. The key is calmly and confidently, but time was also of the essence here. Fortunately, I made it out before any confrontation arose, and I decided it was time for me to leave.

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It was onto my last college football related leg of the journey, the three hour slog from West Lafayette, Indiana, to Oxford, Ohio. I say “slog” because it’s about an hour on the highways and two hours on 40 mph roads littered with 25 mph towns. Don’t get me wrong, this is the way to see America, but I’d have seen about 20 hours of it over the past few days. The final town of the drive is College Corner– a village of about 400 that’s bisected by the Indiana-Ohio state line. In fact, you don’t even know you’ve crossed into Ohio until you’ve left town.

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A little overcast and drizzle never hurt anyone and Miami’s Yager Stadium was wide-open, which leaves little to write about. It was a quick in-and-out for me en route to my parent’s, and the America’s Heartland Summer Road Trip leg was in the books.

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Total miles: 2,082

Total stadiums: 10 (4 conferences)

Total states: 9

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