Location: Salem, VA
States Visited: Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia
I was safe at home. Ready to pursue next steps and all that. My bed, my shower, my electric toothbrush – it all felt more comfy than ever. After that last drive, I would have to be insane to hit the road again. But I wasn’t ready for this season to be over. Are you? Isn’t the only thing better than football… more football? I wanted to hear those cheers one more time. I wanted another game. One I could cherish, savor and just enjoy, dammit. In my visit to Bridgewater College, my new friends told me of the fun they have each year at the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, the championship game for Division III. It’s an eleven hour drive from Chicago to Salem, but I considered that a small price to pay. Without spending too much time thinking about it, I found myself driving south on the Kennedy Expressway before the sun came up on Friday morning. When the Corolla’s odometer ticked 20,000 precisely at the Illinois-Indiana border, I chose to view it as a sign that I’d made the right choice. After all, I hadn’t been to a national championship game in ten years.
I have found throughout these travels that any trip under ten hours is no big deal to me. Anything over ten is another story. After eleven hours at the wheel, I arrived at the Quality Inn a bit out of it, though it was a peaceful eleven hours with relatively open roads and calm weather. Reuniting with the Stone Station folks, we hit a bar in Roanoke. I quickly found that the Stagg Bowl is more than a mere championship game. Fans of Division III travel from all over the country to take in the experience. I may have driven the farthest, but some had flown farther. It’s like a corporate convention, but way more fun. People compared notes, bought each other beers, and of course talked about the next day’s matchup. The weather report for Saturday was an ominous one. Freezing rain with temps at or below freezing. Lucky for me, my job entailed traipsing around the parking lot, which kept the blood flowing. For nearly everyone else, their job only required wearing purple and tossing back some brews. That led to many hiding out in idling cars to keep warm.
The gang at Stone Station, however, was hard at work from the time they arrived at 8am. All the fantastic food I had remembered from my trip to Bridgewater was on display and then some. There’s no way I’m going to adequately list all the delicacies available, but it included some of Llama Guy’s special recipe chicken, Skoal Train’s pulled pork sandwiches, Religion Major’s crab and vegetable soup, Peggy’s fried potatoes, Chris’ deep fried turkey and was topped off by O-Line Mom’s homemade brownies. I’m sure I’m leaving a ton of people out here – it was an incredibly impressive smorgasbord and was free to all. Please leave comments for the ones I forgot! People from all across the parking lot lined up for the grub throughout the day. This included the Whitewater band and dance team, the game’s radio broadcasters, families, and Mount Union and Whitewater students. After stuffing my belly like everyone else, I appeared on D3football.com’s pregame show to talk about my road trip. Ideally this will be the first of many broadcasts where I discuss what I have seen and experienced. It was very nice of them to have me on. Hopefully I did a decent job. I haven’t heard a recording yet, so I have no idea how it came off. Anybody tune in? If so, leave a comment or shoot me a note. Anyway, it was great fun, and show host Gordon Mann did a great job of making me feel comfortable and asking good questions. We focused mainly on the D-III and the Stagg bowl, and a big topic of conversation was the wide array of fans present in Salem. Aside from the large groups of folks from the two teams playing, I met and talked to people from Christopher Newport University, University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, Huntingdon College, Wesley College, and saw others sporting Randolph-Macon College and Ferrum College gear. What an array! I guarantee you won’t see that kind of participation January 7th in New Orleans. A huge percentage of the people here for this game are simply die-hard Division III fans. Of course they all joined in for communion.
Taste the rainbow
After sixteen other contests this season, you’d think I was burned out. Or maybe just jaded or something. The kids in purple helmets on both sides of the field played so hard, and with such determination, I can safely declare that this was the best game I saw this season. Better than South Florida/Rutgers. Better than USC/Washington. Better than Oklahoma/Texas. Better than Florida/Georgia. Those were all great games, but this one had everything. Monster hits, huge game-altering plays, major swings in momentum, multiple coaching adjustments, and passionate fans on both sides. It certainly didn’t hurt that the Stone Station gang saved me a seat with them in row 2 at the fifty yard line, but the game earned all the praise I’m giving it. When Justin Beaver scampered for a game-sealing 66 yard run, I found myself jumping up and down, cheering my head off. It was one of those football moments that makes this sport so incredibly special. A simple run up the middle began with the hope that Beaver could reach the first down sticks, and ended with one team’s euphoric understanding that they were about to be crowned national champions. Of course the flip side to that understanding was that Mount Union realized they were about to lose their fourth game this century and come just short in their bid for an unprecedented three-peat. I can’t tell you how glad I am that I came down to Salem to witness it.After having their team photo taken with the championship trophy, in unison the Whitewater team shouted, “Miller Time!” I blurted out, “It’s a Wisconsin thing,” and a woman standing near me said, “That’s right – we don’t drink Budweiser!” Ah, Wisconsin. It’s not quite the “fifth quarter”, but hearing that took me back to my trip to Madison. That was my fifth game, but nearly 16,000 miles ago which makes it feel like forever and a day. It was at that moment that I realized I already missed this season. And it had only been over for ten minutes.
Everyone retreated to the parking lot just before a major torrential downpour. I helped the Stone Station gang pack up, but not before we all dug in to some more of Llama Guy’s chicken. Plans were made to go out and grab a drink, but I think in the back of everyone’s mind, we knew that we were cooked. The bitter cold takes a lot out of you, especially when coupled with a thrilling football game. So goodnight from the parking lot also served as farewell. I’m going to miss those folks, but only so much. I plan to return to both Bridgewater and Salem – maybe as soon as next season if I can swing it. I’ve got one more drive, and horrible, nasty weather is predicted directly in my path. Looks like it’ll be a long one. I don’t mind. I don’t want this trip to end, anyway.