Fall Saturdays. Synonymous with college football games. And not just any – I’m a Big-10 guy. I credit my Grandad on my mom’s side for introducing us to big-time college football. My first game was at the older, smaller Beaver Stadium in State College, PA. The Nittany Lions hosted Ohio University. And the halftime show featured multiple marching bands, not just the amazing PSU band. I was hooked. So was my brother. In fact, he became a rabid Penn State fan (are there really any other kind?) though none of us save for my Grandad attended PSU. Still, it became our adopted football school.
So while most of the major college football conferences are starting their seasons amidst the pandemic, the Big 10 opted to cancel theirs. Which means my fall Saturdays are not going to be nearly as enjoyable as in the past. I am sure I will watch games here and there. But I always opt for any Big 10 game when it’s on, and especially when Penn State is playing.
In my youth I was able to attend a few games with my grandparents. When I started college at William and Mary, those fall Saturdays took on a different tone. The football games were still fun, and the stadium at W&M was wonderfully intimate. Of course most of those occasions were more dominated by the tailgating than the play on the field. Still, the entire experience is what I most cherish about fall Saturdays.
The fall of my sophomore or junior year, W&M thought it would be a good idea to play PSU – at State College of course. So me and a few fraternity buddies – also all from Pennsylvania and all PSU fans – drove up for the weekend. I stayed with a grade-school friend who was a student there. He had secured me a seat in the famed student section. I was the only W&M fan in that part of the stadium, though no one gave me a hard time. In fact, I think they all felt sorry for me. But I did get to help pass the Nittany Lion mascot up through the stands not once but twice during the game, holding him aloft as he worked his way from hands to hands among the section. I don’t recall the exact score, though I think W&M did score a field goal near the end, after PSU had cycled through the entire team and likely had the junior practice squad on the field by the time the clock hit 0:00 at the end of the 4th quarter.
Years later, we had access to season tickets for a game each fall from the guy we bought our house from. This started an annual fall tradition for me and my brother – of a brothers football weekend at State College. We preferred the games near the end of the season, as I believe college football is best enjoyed in cooler weather. We would find an overpriced hotel room (booked months in advance) and arrive Friday evening. In those days, we chose to do the whole college experience, and would hit a few of the more storied State College watering holes. In the days when we valued fun over sleep and didn’t worry about what or how much we ate, we would inevitably close out the night with a stop at the now-gone State College Diner. Nothing topped off an evening of Rolling Rock ponies out of a case box in the ‘Skellar than a Penn Stater omelette and a grilled sticky at 2am. Ah youth.
My brother and I enjoyed a long streak of always bringing the Lions a win when we attended. We even entertained the thought of reaching out to JoPa and suggesting that because we seemed to bring such good luck whenever we sat in Beaver Stadium, perhaps they may want to consider offering us complimentary tickets to all home games. But we never got around to making the request. Their loss. And ours.
We typically went to the last home game of the season – “Senior Day” – when they honored all the graduating seniors before the game. One year we watched as the massive running back Larry Johnson rumbled for over 200 years in the first half alone, hoping to make his case as a Heisman hopeful. We were in the stadium for one of the infamous “White Out” games, where all fans were encouraged to wear white. I will forever remember being in Beaver Stadium that night with nothing but a sea of white surrounding us, rocking and screaming as the Lions faced Ohio State, with a snow squall adding to the electric atmosphere.
Those fall weekends with my brother also gave us a chance to catch up, to talk about any number of things – important and inane. We had a ritual of getting breakfast before the game – ideally at the Diner – where we had just been only a few hours earlier – if the line wasn’t too massive. Over our coffee, eggs, scrapple and grilled stickies, I would quiz my brother on his encyclopedic knowledge of that year’s team roster. Working from the local newspaper’s pregame section, I would give him a uniform number, and he would tell me who wore it. And not just their name, but their position, year in school, their major, their hometown, and often their high school. And not just the more well known players and starters, but the WHOLE roster. Big-time college football programs like Penn State have two and sometimes three different players with the same number in their squads. And my brother was always able to name ALL of the players for each number. I was (and still am) in awe of his recall ability. If you could only harness that in other ways! Imagine the possibilities!
Our football weekends have slacked off in recent years. We did manage a trip three years ago as I made the weekend my 50th birthday gift to him. We didn’t bar-hop Friday night like we used to, though we did get to experience what would be our last meal at the Diner. And we were able to experience our first Beaver Stadium “Stripe Out”, sitting in one of the blue stripe sections. It was a raw raining night, but that didn’t “dampen” (ha!) our experience.
And the Lions managed another win with the Winebrenner brothers in the stands.