This week the Illinois Fighting Illini and Northwestern Wildcats are playing in their respective bowl games, which are supposed to be the pinnacle of a good season. But Illinois and Northwestern already had their season's biggest game when they played each other in last month's Wrigleyville Classic--the first football game at Wrigley Field in 40 years. It was an electric atmosphere, and I remember it like yesterday.
When I first heard that my alma mater, Illinois, would be playing against Northwestern at Wrigley Field, it seemed like the perfect way to wake this sleeping rivalry. I had been to their 2008 game in Dyche Stadium and came away very disappointed; not only had the Illini failed to show up and earn their bowl eligibility, but the stadium wasn't even 70% full. What should have been a home game for Northwestern was instead a lackluster crowd split at about 50/50. Plus that day was cold. If I have to watch the Illini fritter away their bowl hopes against their rivals, it only adds insult to injury watching it happen while turning into an icicle.
The best college football rivalries with rich traditions are games like Ohio State-Michigan, Alabama-Auburn, Florida-Florida State, Texas-Oklahoma, Army-Navy, and so on. From a national perspective, Illinois-Northwestern is about as interesting as a UConn women's basketball game. (Apologies to Geno Auriemma.) When I was sitting in a frigid Dyche Stadium in 2008, there were six signs hanging for the seasons that Northwestern had gone to bowl games. While I knew Northwestern's 100-plus years of football history wasn't exactly filled with glorious conquests, I had forgotten that their grand total of bowl appearances as of 2008 was only six. I couldn't help but chuckle to myself at the time, although by game's end with the Illini's butts' kicked and mine frozen, there wasn't anything left to laugh about.
But everything changed when it was announced that the Illinois-Northwestern game was coming to Wrigley Field. The mystique of Wrigley meant that the rivalry would get some much-needed energy. Finally, people other than diehard Illini and Wildcat fans would care about the game, even if only to see football played on a national baseball landmark.
On the day of the big game I hopped on the Purple Line train at Evanston's Dempster Street station and headed south. You always overhear the darnedest things on CTA trains. This time it was some guy with a big cello telling a stranger about his upcoming gig, how it would be the first time his father would see him with his new band and his hopes of making him proud; oh, and that he was dating two women--one of whom coincidentally happened to be a mutual friend of the stranger. Of course, cello guy asked him to keep this info secret.
At the Howard Street Station I switched to the Red Line train. On the other track I could see the Holiday train with Santa's sleigh and toys, a quintessential Chicago tradition. Once on the Red Line, I had to stand and people were packed in like sardines. A woman and her two children were sitting practically beneath me. The kids, no more than ten and seven years old, were swearing regularly with f-bombs. Their mother had no problem with this and in fact joined in.
More and more people kept piling into the train at each stop. It was an uncomfortable ride that saw personal space invaded, but I was still in a good mood. Earlier in the day I had watched ESPN's College GameDay on TV. The whole crew was in Wrigleyville for the broadcast and the place was already buzzing. Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso, and Desmond Howard always do a great job, but today they seemed to have a little more excitement in their voices. They also had Erin Andrews join them on the set for a while. When Ernie Banks ("Mr. Cub") led them all in the singing of Take Me Out To The Ball Game, it was a memorable moment.
GameDay also took a behind-the-scenes look at historic Wrigley Field. They showed the surprisingly small, cramped conditions of the locker rooms with a dearth of shower heads and a narrow, winding hallway where the players would have to walk single file for about 90 seconds to reach the playing field. Think about that for a moment: Walking a minute-and-a-half through a narrow, dimly lit tunnel just to make it from the locker room to the field.
And of course GameDay covered the last-minute rule change. Due to the brick wall being way too close to the east end zone, the teams' offenses would have to head toward the west end zone for the entire game. Erin Andrews gave an in-depth report from the dangerous east end zone; and then ESPN went to their other sideline reporter to cover the slightly safer west end zone. (I think it's just a coincidence that I remember Erin Andrews' name but not the other guy reporting on the sidelines, whoever he was.)
C'mon guys. What would have been so dangerous about playing in this end zone?
Finally we reached the Addison Street stop. I got off, along with practically everyone else. Fans dressed in the dueling colors of orange and purple were everywhere. It was a bottleneck trying to get down the stairs and out of the station. My plan was to go west on Addison, but that would have been like trying to swim against a strong ocean current. Instead my path was pushed north along Sheffield Avenue where the masses headed toward the giant party known as "Wildcat Way," where tents, games, souvenirs, and a cover band playing rock songs entertained a sea of humanity. I finally latched onto a trash can and pulled myself out of the rapid waters near a bar called Murphy's Bleachers. With so many people passing by, I barely had enough room to tweet. The atmosphere felt like a bowl game.
Across the street from Murphy's is Harry Caray's statue. During preparations for the Illinois-Northwestern game, the statue was cracked. Some caring fan decided to help remedy the situation with a band-aid.
I took the scenic route around the stadium, soaking in the atmosphere. Finally I met up with Westy, a college friend who had gotten me the ticket. After going through Wildcat Way again (this time I literally rubbed elbows with Northwestern's marching band as we plowed our way through the crowd), we entered the stadium
The Chicago Cubs painted their famous marquee purple in honor of Northwestern for the game. There was a steady stream of people going through here before the game to have their photos taken in front of it. Oh, the memories...
When we first got to our seats, Wrigley's old school scoreboard showed Michigan as being up big on Wisconsin. That was surprising since it would be a big upset. But the scoreboard operator had indeed mixed up their scores and soon took those numbers down to reverse them. As darkness fell, the lights' glare on the scoreboard made it more difficult to read. Wrigley also doesn't have a big video monitor to see replays. All of these things, while frustrating at times, add to Wrigley's charm.
Our seats were fortunately here in the west end zone, so we go to see most of the action. In the east end zone someone held a sign that read, "Wrong Way."
A few empty seats were visible in the stadium and on the rooftops, but the place was packed and much livelier than what I had witnessed in Evanston two years earlier. The crowd was about 60-40 in favor of Northwestern. Our seats were in a Northwestern section, which was fine. Northwestern fans tend to be tame. They have more important things to worry about than their football team, so they're well behaved. And really, I wouldn't want to get into a putdown contest with them, because eventually it would devolve into Northwestern fans chanting "Puuuublic schooool." How can you top that putdown? (If anyone knows, please enlighten me.)
As for the game itself, the Illini got off to a hot start and rarely looked back. Mikel Leshoure rushed for an Illini record 330 yards in the 48-27 win. Although, Northwestern fought valiantly and the game was still in doubt heading into the 4th quarter.
By the time the game had ended, night had fallen. It's hard to explain, but there's something magical about the way Wrigley's green grass glows at nighttime under the lights. It was a special moment to savor the Illini victory; a moment that was soon ended when some guy fell over backwards and smacked his head hard. Apparently he had gotten the bright idea to better admire the scene while standing on his seat -- and then it folded in on him. He said he was fine, and I hope that's true. I also hope he wasn't an Illini fan.
One of the oddities of this game's look was the wide open space in left field. I'm kinda surprised they didn't put temporary seats here to make even more money. At least all that extra green grass was pretty.
After walking south to Belmont to avoid the crowds at Addison, I found myself back on the Red Line heading north. The train was packed again, but this time I managed to snag a seat. Right in front of my nose was a purple leather glove with diamond-like stones in it, gripping the pole for support. The glove belonged to a woman in her 50s--obviously a rich Northwestern alum. She was part of a group of three couples, all about the same age. They were making plans to get off at Davis Street (in Evanston) for dinner. Someone complimented her on the gloves, and she replied that they were from Italy.
A guy in this Northwestern group, I'll call him the "Ringleader," started asking others in the group some playful yet personal questions. One of the women declined to answer his question, citing that it was too much like the Newlywed Game and this was to a "public place." It was all in good fun. Then they looked out at the "Five Guys" burger place and started wondering out loud if there was also one in Evanston. I happened to know that there is, but there wasn't really room for me to turn around and talk to them, so I just listened as they pondered aloud. Some said there was, others said there wasn't. Finally the Ringleader asked one of the women, "Have you ever had a 'Five Guy?'" This then uncomfortably segued into the differences between men and women when it comes to fantasizing about ... ahem... more than one. This group of Northwestern fans, led by the talkative Ringleader, were having a good time discussing all sorts of subjects, including jokes about what anyone else in Chicago could have possibly been doing today other than being where all the action was at Wrigley Field.
Then the train stopped at Jarvis, near the end of the Red Line. I couldn't see what happened, and I dare not turn around for fear of making eye contact with a mad man. But I heard what happened. As it turns out, I wasn't the only person who had grown tired of these clowns for the past half hour. Someone walked up to the Ringleader and went on an expletive-filled tirade, mentioning something about "going on and on about a silly game" and "if I ever catch you doing it again, I'll run across the field and..." I'm not going to repeat what the man said he'd do to the Ringleader, but I will say that if I'm ever sent to jail, he's the last person in the world I'd want as my cellmate. After he got off the train, there was dead silence. Before the door shut, I turned around to finally catch a glimpse of him. He was a big man dressed in a long dark coat and wearing a yellow beret. Yes, I said yellow beret. He was still facing the train, his face stone-cold serious, a dead ringer for an angry Ving Rhames.
A few stops later I made it back to Dempster and walked home. It had been a perfect autumn day for football. (Perhaps a little chilly in the second half after the sun went down, but that's football.) One of the things I'll most remember from that day in Wrigleyville was its festive and historic feel. On three different occasions I overheard various people use the exact phrase: "This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Maybe it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But if they do decide to play football at Wrigley again, that would be fine by me.