This offseason, I’m sharing the nation’s best game days through the eyes of the most accomplished college football travelers. Below is Robert Dowd’s story:
A Triple-Header By Any Mode Necessary
I was born in Syracuse NY where the 1959 college football season is legendary. SU is Dad’s alma mater. This made an impression on me. My earliest memories of college football are 1960’s Notre Dame games on television. My first in-person games were at the University of Florida in 1977. I graduated from UF in 1981, with our best years still ahead of us.
When traveling for college football games, I usually root for the home team… unless I am traveling with the opponent. Syracuse away? Go Orange! Florida away? Go Gators! Sometimes it’s easier to get tickets from the visitor’s box office. Supporting our armed services academies is just plain patriotic. West Point away? Go Army! Navy away? Go Mids!
My first in-person game at Notre Dame was Navy in 2003. My second game there was Navy in 2005. A third game there was Navy in 2007. I once said that I would attend until Navy beat ND. Each of the Navy versus Notre Dame football games that I have witnessed I have traveled with Navy… to East Rutherford, to Baltimore, to Dublin, to Jacksonville, to San Diego… and to South Bend.
A Timeless Rivalry: Navy vs. Notre Dame
Early trips to South Bend were… fly from Albany to Chicago on a Friday… rent a car and drive to South Bend… stay in a way-overpriced hotel for two nights… drive back to Chicago on Sunday afternoon… and fly back to Albany. Great fun!
But then I discovered the Amtrak Lake Shore Limited line from Boston/NY which connects in Albany and continues on to Chicago with a stop in South Bend. It’s like a moveable feast, or a camping trip on rails. People with coolers and duffel bags take over several train cars on a Friday evening, sleeping on the overnight trip, and then they all pile off on a Saturday morning for a day on the ND campus, and then pick up the return train coming from Chicago at midnight in South Bend.
In 2007 Navy played like they had nothing to lose. Well, they never do. I sat on the east side of the stadium among USNA fans and the academy pep band. The fact that the game went into overtime was remarkable. The spirit that the Midshipmen displayed was extraordinary.
Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada quarterbacked like a true officer. Defensive end Chris Kuhar-Pitters picked up a fumble and took it in for a touchdown right in front of us. Linebacker Ram Vela, like a mad man, leapt over a blocker for a fourth-quarter fourth-down sack. The first and third overtime periods took place right in front of us. In the 3rd OT Navy knocked down a two-point conversion pass! A flag or pass-interference!! Navy stuffed the ensuing two-point conversion run!!! Navy beat the Irish 46–44… for their first win in this rivalry since 1963.
As exciting as any game like that is when seen on television, it is so much moreso in person. My memories are so vivid, that when I see replays of the game they are always from the “wrong” side of the field, and moving in the wrong direction… I did not watch from the press box television perspective! And yes, I returned for Navy at Notre Dame in 2009. Same result, but not nearly as heart-stopping.
Planes, Trains, And Automobiles
After I discovered the Amtrak Lake Shore Limited line from Boston/NY connecting in Albany and continuing on to Chicago with a stop in South Bend, Notre Dame football games became a regular railroad adventure for me. Another stop along that route is Cleveland, literally in the shadow of the Cleveland Browns stadium. Well, only if you could see a shadow in the wee hours of the morning.
I fixated on geography for a while, and wondered where I might get to from Cleveland. Because I am a college football fanatic, inclined to attend a game at any level of play, I started scouting Ohio teams. That’s easy enough to begin with, but then proximity and kickoff time(s) need to come together for a perfect day.
My memories are so vivid, that when I see replays of the game they are always from the “wrong” side of the field, and moving in the wrong direction… I did not watch from the press box television perspective!
I looked very hard at 2018 but did not see where this trip would fit my itinerary. The stars aligned in 2019. My wife and I boarded Amtrak on Friday night November 1st and arrived in Cleveland very early Saturday morning. We walked over to the nearby Hilton Hotel to relax in the upstairs lobby until the Burnham Restaurant opened. After breakfast we walked down the street to the Enterprise rental car lot on Superior Avenue. We drove from there for an hour-or-so down to Wooster. The College of Wooster first came to my attention in a College Football Hall of Fame exhibit in Atlanta in January 2018. I have an old scarf, very similar to the COW plaid, which believe-it-or-not is what drew me to this school.
Arriving early before the 1:00pm kickoff, we strolled for a bit in the Secrest Arboretum and then grabbed lunch downtown at the Broken Rocks Café. We parked for the game on Spink Street near campus, and on our walk to the stadium we heard music… from behind a house… and we could see bagpipers. So at my insistence, we trudged up the driveway into the back yard, and when the musicians paused between warm-ups, I asked if they wouldn’t mind us taking a picture. Far from it, they seemed to enjoy the attention. My wife got a photo of me with the College of Wooster Pipe Band before the game. She must think I’m nuts, sometimes… Let’s walk up this driveway into a backyard where a college bagpipe band is hanging out and ask them if we can take photos!
On the football field, Wooster kicked a last-minute field goal to beat Ohio Wesleyan 16-14 in a hard-fought contest. It had been a beautiful morning but began to cloud up in the afternoon as we left to head over to Youngstown, an hour-and-a-half or so away.
Arriving comfortably ahead of the 6:00pm kickoff, we scouted the area before parking at the Youngstown State football stadium. The NDSU Bison were too much for the home team to handle, rolling over the Penguins 56-17. It was a chilly evening, and so our change of clothes (and colors) came in handy. We ducked into the nearby Charley Staples Famous Bar-B-Que for dinner after the game, expecting a crowd but not finding one. We were glad to be out of the cold. And then we drove an hour-and-a-half back to Cleveland.
Only one wrinkle made the rental car return a challenge. The downtown Enterprise lot was closed by then, and with no drop-box option. The manager in the morning directed us to drop off at the Cleveland airport. Which we did. And then we got a shuttle bus back downtown. Had we been much later, it would have been a cab ride. We sat (and napped) for a while in the train station before the return Amtrak came to whisk us home. Admittedly this trip took a lot of effort and coordination, but hanging out for a few minutes with the College of Wooster Pipe Band, before they marched onto the football field for the game, made this entire trip worthwhile.
College football travel like this always offers about what you expect. But it’s the unanticipated that keeps you coming back. Notre Dame will beat Navy almost every time… but not always. Spending time with a college band before a game can be as fun as a tailgate party. Two football teams play, and one wins. Maybe yours. And the rest is just icing on the cake.