Page 2 of 6
There was a big football game on campus the day Holden Caulfield got kicked out of school in The Catcher In The Rye. "You were supposed to commit suicide or something if old Pencey didn't win," he said. That's just the kind of goth-girl, can't-do attitude I'm determined to bring with me to the University of Montana versus Eastern Washington football contest.
I'm hung over from last night, so we're off on the right foot. It's a cruel joke that I've been sent on this assignment. You'd be hard pressed to find a girl with less school spirit. But, believe it or not, I know the rules of football. I leave my house at 12:30 on foot for the 1:05 kickoff. I should have known that to get the full spectacle, you should aim to arrive six months early. I talk to a girl from a sorority who's been playing beer pong in the parking lot since 10 a.m. By the time I get my press pass and filter in, the Griz have already scored a touchdown and spirits are high.
Looking down into the stadium is mesmerizing. The players seem so close, like toys you could pick up and move around. Maroon-clad fans envelope the field in a warm hug. I'm wearing my black hoodie with a bleeding heart on the chest, the one that makes me feel safe. The cheerleaders are wearing black as well, but it's not the same. My outfit implies dark sunglasses and a cigarette.
Usually, I'm a vegetarian, but I'm alone and suddenly I want to fit in, so I buy a hotdog. I hope it will temper my pounding head, but I'm pretty sure that by anybody's standards it's a bad hotdog, cold and rubbery. Every time, I'm startled by how long it takes to chew and swallow an animal.
The Griz kick a field goal, and here's something you might not know: Whenever the home team scores, there's a very loud gunshot. I jump. A man standing next to me with a walkie-talkie laughs.
"I wasn't expecting that," I say, pointlessly.
There's nowhere to sit and I don't want to, really, so I spend much of the game walking along the periphery. The hotdog is starting to make me sick, or I'm still hung over, or both. I pause at a garbage bag thinking I'm going to hurl when a man taps me on the shoulder.
"Where can I get one of those cushion seats," he asks, "and where can I get a coke?"
How the fuck should I know? I want to tell him, but then I realize my press pass must grant me authority. I think I'm important, too, but not like that. "The stadium is a big circle, dude," I say. "Just walk in any direction and you'll find what you're looking for."
The nausea passes. I eat a mini pizza. I notice a sign dangling above my head: "Not in Our House."
"What does that mean?" I ask its owner.
The sign means that the other team is not permitted to score more points than our team because this is our stadium and we would instead prefer to win.
The man with the sign tells me he's a season ticket holder. He seems delighted to talk to a reporter about his love for his team, his city, his country. I notice a cluster of red shirts behind the end zone—the Eastern Washington crowd—and decide to head down there in search of someone with a bad attitude.
I find instead an incredibly congenial Eastern Washington fan named Mike.
"What's it like to be an away fan at these games?" I ask him.
"It's great," Mike says. Missoula is great. He comes to all of these match-ups. The Griz fans are warm and accommodating, he says, and he loves the town and the people in it. There's a little bit of friendly heckling, which is all part of the fun. He says we're especially nice when we win.
Eastern Washington won the FCS National Championship last year but so far they have a losing season. The Griz are 1-1. I overheard all this at the bar last night, and now I converse with Mike about it freely, like I'm some sort of expert. Then I go back to wandering around like a lost child.
I pass a couple of teenagers and I ask them my ace-in-the-hole question: "Why are you here?"
"We're pre-recruits," They say. One of them shows me a pass that says "Pre-recruits."
"I don't know what that means."
"It means they brought us to the game because we might play for the Griz!"
But they look so tiny! I've already grown attached. I don't want my little cubs to get hurt. They're from "Butte, America" and they ask me to emphasize this point. I will never get over how considerate Montana teenagers are. In Michigan, where I come from, these kids would have insulted my mother and then violated the Eastern Washington mascot.
I'm struck by all the families and children here. I see a few drunken people outside, but most everyone inside seems lucid and interested in having a nice time. There's nowhere to buy booze in the stadium.
I'm standing to the side on the concrete steps when a very drunk man comes lumbering down. The man in front of him catches his fall, and the drunken man says, "You wanna knock me out?" But it's clear nobody wants to knock anybody out. They're both wearing the same maroon outfit. A third man emerges, smiling, and gently escorts the drunk man down the stairs and out of the stadium. "You're alright, buddy," he says. It's a touching, slightly sad moment and I feel lucky to be alive to see it.
Remember the football game? Eastern Washington is advancing toward the end zone and there's a rule to spectating: The crowd gets super loud when the other team is on offense. It gives us a sense of control in a world full of chaos. We feel like we're helping.
It's first and goal and the Griz shuts them down. It's second and goal, less than a yard to the end zone, and they try to edge their way through. Everyone piles up like hamsters and Washington is thwarted again.
I'm starting to get emotionally involved. I want them to prevent this touchdown.
It's third and goal. Washington opts for a passing play, and...there's an interception! The Griz player runs it down the field for a 50-yard gain and the crowd goes wild! I actually clap and cheer for the first time, before I become embarrassed by my outburst.
It's halftime. I mindlessly follow the throng into the parking lot. Two shirtless men walk in front of me with the words "Down" and "First" written on their backs. I consider tapping them on the shoulders and asking them to switch places.
I wander out onto the grass where there is much beer drinking, more hotdog eating, and a bunch of little kids running around in Griz wear, which is painfully cute. I watch two little ones wrestling. They have to be twins, with their matching maroon hoodies and tiny jean shorts and oh my god. I hadn't anticipated the football contest would make my clock tick.
They each cling to one of their father's legs and he pats them on their heads and laughs. I start to think about my own father, how we used to go to the Detroit Lions games and watch Barry Sanders play and how special that was. I wonder if my father is watching me from heaven and if he's proud of me—which is weird, because he's not dead.
Halftime is about over and I think I should go find some potential husbands to "interview," but I can't find anybody worthy. We have nothing in common; they're all football fans.
Football is a neat but flawed sport. It seems unfair that only some people on the team get to catch the ball and only one person gets to throw it. That's why an interception is so extraordinary. That defensive player wasn't groomed to run down the field like that. It wasn't supposed to happen. College ball is less crisp and stylized than pro football. Earlier I saw an Eastern Washington player catch the ball and then down himself because the defensive players rushed at him. Apparently he got scared and fell over. And college ball is not yet ruined by fantasy football. Have you ever watched a game with one of those fools? Ask them who they want to win and they'll say, "Well, I'm rooting for the Seahawks defensive line, but I hope the Raiders have a good running game, because..." zzzzzz.
There is a mildly infectious mood in this stadium. Whenever Montana gets a first down, the announcer yells "First Down!" and the crowd screams back, "MONTANA!" It reminds me of Catholic mass, when everybody says "and also with you" at secret times I'm not privy to.
I'm told there are over 26,000 people in the stadium, and almost all of them seem bent on one precious, albeit inconsequential outcome. Montana never loses the lead, which makes us all feel safe. The stadium hums with love.
Eastern Washington gets close in the fourth quarter. They combine a couple of tight passing plays for a touchdown, plus a thrilling 2-point conversion, putting the score at 17-14 Griz with about 5 minutes left. That means we're a field goal away from a tie game, and I'm thinking, "Dear God, don't let this game go into overtime." It's fun and all, but Jesus, we've been here for three hours.
We win the game and I'm happy everyone is so happy. The stadium roars. I listen intently to the post-game chatter. The fans seem pleased but a little sleepy after so much fun in the sun. A red shirt passes through the crowd, and a guy near me says to his friend—he's not even talking to Red Shirt; he's having an implied, safe conversation with his friend about what he might have said— "You guys played a good game..." He trails off, searching fort the perfect words. "Just not good enough!"
Bears, as we know, are both fierce killers of men and plush comfort objects for children. Clearly, this Griz fan has claws. And that theoretical Eastern Washington fan is going to cry his eyes out.