THE LAST FIVE ...

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- Wednesday, Aug. 02, 2006

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- Wednesday, May 17, 2006

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- Friday, April 21, 2006

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- Thursday, April 20, 2006

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- Wednesday, March 1, 2006

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Monday, Sept. 9, 2002 - 9:17 a.m.

College gameday

Hidden within the modern, light-yellow brick exterior of Notre Dame Stadium sits the original House That Rockne Built, the older, red-brick structure remains. When they expanded the Stadium's capacity by 20,000 in 1997, they did so by building out and up, allowing the team to play through the 1996 season while construction continued. An eyesore during that season, with a concrete halo surrounding the top of the stadium, it now provides for an even slope of 79,000 fans six Saturdays each fall.

Heather and I walk in and immediately salute the original structure with a soft caress and a pat, then speed-walk our way up the ramps to our seats in Section 135, one of the new sections, directly behind the freshman student section and back of the corner of the north end zone. We cheer as the band emerged for their pregame performance. We sing along with "America The Beautiful" while the flag is presented, and we stand, saluting the flag as it is raised to the National Anthem.

The Irish emerge from the tunnel and sprint onto the field for their first home game and coach Tyrone Willingham's first home game as Notre Dame coach. When Carlyle Holiday's first pass on first down of Notre Dame's first possession was a completion to tight end Gary Godsey, the man next to me cheers and screams, "The tight end!" I look at him and say, "That's just what my dad says." Turns out the guy graduated in 1976, the year I was born, but I don't tell him that.

Throughout the game, I sit in the sweltering heat, baked by the sun. Luckily, Heather and I remembered to buy sunscreen the day before, so we come away from six hours in the sun with nothing more than a slightly red nose for me and a pink shoulder for her. We're apparently the smartest people in our immediate area, sharing our sunscreen with the people beside us who had forgotten to bring some inside. I actually sit there thinking I'd prefer the cold weather of November to this 90-degree September day. It's even too hot to really drink beer; I had four before the game (Miller Lite never tastes as good as it does when taken from an ice-cold tub and drunk beside the open trunk of a car) but have no interest in it afterwards.

At halftime, the Purdue band plays a medley of Michael Jackson songs, with a "normally mild-mannered trumpet player" (as the announcer said) donning a red sequined jacked and single white glove in order to dance at midfield. Eight guys pound Purdue's self-annointed "largest drum in the world" (which, believe it or not, celebrates its 80th birthday later this season). Heather scoffs at "the Big Bass Drum" and I point out that it would be more impressive if it were played by one guy instead of a crew. When the Notre Dame Band -- the oldest university marching band in America -- takes the field, it begins with a Beach Boys medley and then plays "Rhythm of the Night," highlighted by the traditional dance number wherein most of the brass players lay down their instruments and boogie to the bass beat. In an interesting twist I note, the Irish return to the field from the locker room while the ND band salutes the Purdue fans by playing their fight song. They close the halftime show with the Notre Dame Fight Song, to which the Purdue team returns to the field.

After the game, won by Notre Dame 24-17 (if you need the play-by-play, and I imagine few of you do, you can find it at the South Bend Tribune website), we cheer the team as it salutes the students and await the band's postgame performance. The man next to me and another in front of me bemoan Notre Dame's lack of an offensive touchdown in two games so far this season, and one of them even complains that Holiday is not a good quarterback and will be replaced by a freshman -- any freshman -- next season. I'm annoyed but I keep it to myself. A 2-0 record is good enough for me, I don't care how they got it. The band lines up and goes through their postgame set, finishing with the Alma Mater and Heather and I put sweaty, sunscreened arms around one another and sway to the song 11 rows behind 8,000 students doing the same.

Rather than sit in traffic right away, we stop by to see Julie and her family again before returning to the car. While we are walking toward ours, we cross one section of the Joyce South lot and see a couple wandering the rows, sometimes together, sometimes spread out but within shouting distance, apparently looking for their car. They wander back and forth, retracing their steps, even walking over toward the lot entrance to recreate the path they took when arriving. Finally, the woman looks at him and says, "Could it be over in that section?" They walk with us across a second access road that puts them in a lot closer to the Stadium and find their white rental car with little trouble. "That's the problem with renting a car," I say, "sometimes you forget what it looks like."

When we reach our car, which I'd pulled forward into the parking spot, there is still a car behind us and a set of chairs in front of us as people tailgate postgame. Annoyed that the couple standing there watching us put our things in the car do not take the initiative to begin moving them, I ask if we can move a couple to get out, and the man says, "You've got quite a drive," looking at our Minnesota plates. I inform him that it's a rental and we're staying in town only 10 minutes away.

We hit the road to BW3 and, as we suspected, find it not overly crowded and are able to snag a table in the bar to watch the Florida-Miami game on the big screen. Sadly, trivia is nowhere to be found, all the televisions devoted to football. It's not a total loss; we are plenty satisfied with buffalo wings, the fries, and several more big beers.

"Oh! An idiot!" I cry as we watch highlights from earlier games on ESPN. In the Illinois game, an Illini defender picked up a fumble from the opposing quarterback but incorrectly thought the play was dead, so he spiked the ball 10 yards downfield. Luckily, one of his teammates was paying attention and picked up the ball and ran it in for a touchdown.

The Florida-Miami game remains close and fairly competitive through the first half, but the Hurricanes pull away in the second half. On one play, a Florida receiver is manhandled by a defender on a passing play. "He got raped!" Heather yells, then turns to me and quietly stated, "That counts as interference."

Saturday, it turned out, was my last official day of work at the newspaper. I spent it visiting old friends, drinking cold beer in the hot sun, watching the Irish march onward to victory, and stuffing myself with wings and fries and beer while watching three more hours of football.

Just as we are ready to leave BW3, classmate Julie calls me to let me know she and some friends are heading to Coach's. Just as Miller Lite tastes best at a tailgater, Coors Light is never better than when you're with friends (and getting the bottles for a buck fifty, or whatever they were). Coaches is one of the student bars and the one at which I spent my first 90 minutes as a 21-year-old, downing 13 shots in the hour and a half between the stroke of midnight and last call on Sept. 2, 1997. It started with me sitting down at the bar, Bryan placing the paper and pen in front of me to sign after each shot, and the alert bartender saying, "Uh-oh, who's birthday is it." Bryan pointed to me. "OK. First one's on me," the bartender says, then pours half a pint of Budweiser, measures out a shot of amaretto, lights it up, and plops it in the beer. I'd seen Flaming Dr. Peppers before that, but never tried one (and it was good). The rest of the night, just OK. Let's just say I passed out in the bathtub when I got home, afraid to stray too far from the toilet.

By midnight, after we've talked and drank some more, Heather and I wearily decide it's time to go. We're due to get up at 7 a.m. in order to return to Chicago in time for our noon flights. We spent a lot of time at Coach's looking for updates on the UCLA-Colorado State game, and for most of the night we continually see Colorado State 13, UCLA 7 into the third quarter. It is only now, on Monday morning, that I remember to look on ESPN.com and I now find that UCLA scored 21 points in the fourth quarter to win 21-19. Colorado State is one of just three ranked teams to lose over the weekend, but many, like Ohio State and Michigan, played patsies. Ohio State beat Kent State 51-17. Kent State? C'mon. I hate Ohio. State.

I have weird drinking dreams that night that leave me with a sad, sinking feeling throughout Sunday. In one, Casey and I fought and I hated that, and the other I don't remember many details. That and the hangover. That was uncomfortable. Heather and I leave Kregg, Julie, Jack and Berghoff at 8:15 and eventually feel a little better when our noses clear with the help of Allegra and several miles between us and the Large Golden Retriever. With a combination of allergies, dehydration and a third straight day waking at 7 a.m., I feel disoriented and although I still know my way around South Bend and Indiana, I check myself more than once to make sure I don't get us lost or off-track (because are you ever really lost?) on the way to O'Hare. And you may laugh, but Bryan and I almost did take the toll road the wrong way when we wanted to go to Chicago. After so many trips during which we drove back east, it was something of a reaction -- "OK, I'm going home, that means East." So when we get the ticket from the cheerful toll attendant, I focus on the I-80/90 sign pointing straight ahead saying "WEST/CHICAGO" and fighting off the "EAST/OHIO" ramp. "Yes, Chicago," Heather says. "Ohio would be bad. Definitely Chicago."

Despite my sluggishness, I can still drive and anticipate what the road throws at us. Somewhere on a straight stretch in northwest Indiana, a hawk swoops down to pick up something (probably a rodent) on the grass center median. It then beats its wings and slowly takes off again, having never really touched the ground. Only, stupid bird, it flies out over the road as it rises, and had I not begun slowing down when I saw it swoop in, we would've had hawk on our windshield.

Back in Chicago, I remark that we're probably lucky the Bears are playing home games in Champaign while Soldier Field is renovated because otherwise we'd be stuck in game traffic on I-90 at 9:30 a.m. But we make it to O'Hare in two hours flat and kill time with one another before going to our separate gates for our 12:30 flights. We both buy the Chicago Tribune for the CD-ROM commemorating 10 days of coverage following 9/11 and after I'd bought mine, Heather spots the Entertainment Weekly Fall TV Preview issue and buys one for each of us. Eating breakfast, we trim the fat from our Tribunes, tossing out the ads and sections we have no use for. I read a little while waiting at my gate, but then watch the first few minutes of the Kansas City-Cleveland game when the CNN Airport Network switches to the NFL at noon. On the plane, I fall quickly asleep, the Tribune on my lap. I snack and have a drink when the attendants come by, but then I'm asleep again, the paper falling to the floor at my feet. When we reach northeastern Pennsylvania and the pilot announces our initial descent, I open the window shades and gaze out over the scenery. We fly over the hills of northwestern New Jersey and I notice a few trees on the highest peaks have begun to change color for the fall. I try to figure out which roads are which, which lakes are which, and get a positive ID as we turn for our final approach, flying high over Teterboro Airport and the TGI Friday's of Wood Ridge on Route 17, all of which I positively locate. I noticed last night on the news that a small plane took off from Teterboro later last night and crashed into a house out in those northwestern NJ hills.

Deplaning this time, I have no one there to greet me, which is one of the smaller but yet still disappointing aftereffects of 9/11, that only ticketed passengers are now allowed to the gates. Flying into Chicago, Heather and I arrived within half an hour, and she was able to go from her gate to mine to greet me. Coming back, even though we'd both driven ourselves to the airport, we couldn't have anyone waiting at the gate if we wanted.

Returning home, I felt like William Miller in Almost Famous. I shed my bags and flopped down on the bed, turning on the TV and trying to get some sleep. I never would've been able to work last night if I'd had to, but just lying there knowing I had nothing to do, no responsibilities between then and, well, Thursday if I want, was enough to rejuvinate me just a little.

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