Monday, September 10, 2007

Jersey Fun

A sea of scarlet at the Rutgers-Navy game in New Brunswick Friday night.

TURNABOUT. Last year I wrote about attending a Penn-Harvard game at Franklin Field in Philadelphia. I didn't tell you that Mrs. CP's experience of college football was limited to just two games involving the same schools at the same stadium. So she was entirely unprepared for the experience of Friday night when she saw her first-ever Big-Time college football game.

Some surprises awaited me, too, though I had once sat on the fifty yard line at Michigan's infamous Big House to watch the Wolverines go at it with the Missouri Tigers. My hosts were a Michigan grad student and her Brit husband, a friend of mine who had frequently ridiculed American football players for all the padding they wore. In fact, that's why I had coerced them into going to the game. We sat right behind the Michigan bench, just above field level, and the din of the line play -- giants colliding and grunting like angry bulls -- made it impossible to talk except between plays. As it happened, the first plays we saw were right at the fifty yard line, and after about three of these, my Brit friend turned to me and said, "I will never make fun of American football again." I smiled a superior American smile, of course, and congratulated myself on the fact that I'd deliberately avoided introducing him to football at the Ivy League university where he was enrolled. It's just not the same thing.

Ironically, that's part of what made the Rutgers experience so astounding. Until just a few years ago, Rutgers was a fixture on the non-conference schedules of multiple Ivy teams, scheduled (hopefully) to lose gracefully in tune-up games the same way Appalachian State was supposed to lose to Michigan last week. A sorry role indeed for the team which had played -- and won -- the first college football game in history, against nearby Princeton, thus creating the oldest and most one-sided rivalry in college football. There was a time, sadly, when the Tigers beat the Scarlet Knights 69 times in a row, and Princeton continued using Rutgers as a doormat even into the era when New Jersey's state university was at least three times the size of its snooty neighbor. That's a proof of just how little Rutgers cared about the game it had helped bring into being. One more: Mrs. CP is a Rutgers alum and a huge football fan, but as a student, it never even occurred to her to see a Rutgers game.

Those days are gone. The Scarlet Knights finished last season ranked 16th in the nation. They're big time now. As they should be. Rutgers is one of the best state universities in the United States, and it's the eighth oldest institution of higher learning in the country, founded a decade before the United States was. It's just plain wrong that so many of New Jersey's greatest athletes have been forced, for generations, to migrate to such Johnny-come-lately university locales as State College, Pennsylvania, Columbus, Ohio, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and South Bend, Indiana, where their friends, families, high school classmates, and potential future neighbors and employers almost never get to see them play. Worse, there's more of a need in New Jersey for a team the whole state can rally around than in other states, because neither of the two pro teams that split New Jersey into two opposing camps -- the Giants and the Eagles -- are even affiliated with New Jersey. It's a particularly raw part of the longstanding identity crisis that has enabled the whole country to make jokes at New Jersey's expense with nary a word said in protest. (Despite the fact, as we have pointed out here, that New Jersey really is the best state in the union.)

I apologize for the long preamble, but you have to know the history to appreciate what was so moving about seeing the Rutgers-Navy game the other night. More pleasing than the lovely New Brunswick campus, more impressive than the clockwork organization that ferried spectators to and from the dozen scattered parking lots, more stunning than the beautifully designed and spotlessly clean new stadium, more spectacular than the high-tech scoreboard, more stirring than the solid sea of red made up of students, alumni, and fans in the stands, and more potent than the talent and disciplined determination of the renascent Scarlet Knights themselves. On that night in New Brunswick I experienced, for the first time in my life, a massive and profound display of New Jersey state pride.

The Scarlet Knights of Rutgers are ours. Not borrowed from New York or Philadelphia. Not north, not south, but right in the middle, at the heart of things. We sat there with 44,000 of our fellow citizens, all of us dressed in red-blooded red, and feasted on what folks in Columbus and Ann Arbor may take for granted because they simply inherited their grand tradition. Not so with Rutgers. Here was a long-blighted tradition reclaimed and transformed in a deliberate miracle. What is no doubt commonplace at most big-time college stadiums had special meaning here -- the student body and much of the crowd actually singing along with the Star Spangled Banner, the scoreboard sound and graphics cues that invoked spectators to become a direct force in the game on third downs and critical plays, the intense focus on the game itself that's mostly absent in the Ivies and other also-rans, being present for the announcement that Ray Rice had just broken the all-time record for Rutgers rushing in the second game of his junior year, the company of colonial militia who fired the cannon from a nearby woodsy hilltop after Rutgers's frequent scores, and not least, the politeness and bonhomie of the crowd. I've never heard less bad language at a football game and never heard more 'excuse me's' as people came and went along crowded rows in a stadium filled to capacity.

It was obvious how thrilled everyone was just to be there, for this most delightful and unexpected of outcomes. Our kids -- football players, cheerleaders, dancers, band members -- looking this good and living up to their good fortune so well.

The game? I almost forgot. Rutgers beat Navy 42-24. Navy played well. Rutgers played like the ranked team they are, and the issue was never in serious doubt, but I think almost everyone was pleased that the Midshipmen weren't humiliated. There was no need for that, and Rutgers has a history that should make them wise on that score. When Navy's team ran onto the field, there were one or two boos, but more applause. As the man who stood clapping next to Mrs. CP observed, "I don't think you're allowed to boo Navy."

You can't boo Navy, but you can defeat them.

Rutgers has done an outstanding job, and they need no advice from me. But I do have a wish I'd like them to consider. Get Princeton back on the schedule. You know, as one of those early tune-up games. For maybe the next 70 years or so. Let the lordly Tigers get an annual lesson in humility that may be the only one they'll receive in their college careers. If the Princeton boys have the guts to learn that what goes around comes around, I'd be happy to help drive home the point for as many years as I am able.

It's the least I can do for my home state.

New Jersey.

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