Sunday, November 6, 2011

110% in Athens

A combination of a popular YouTube video as well as old-fashioned newspaper advertising finally convinced me to attend a football game at Ohio University last Wednesday. It is only a little more than a half-hour drive west of Parkersburg, and reminds me a lot of Morgantown—a large state university in a small town. I’ve always enjoyed going to Athens for various college events, the bike trail, the film festival, ice skating and hockey games, the interesting variety of stores and restaurants, etc. Years ago, WVU used to play them in basketball, so I’ve seen games in the Convocation Center (the OU version of the WVU Coliseum). Anna and I even attended the famous Halloween celebration in Athens one year. However, in all my years I had never attended a football game.

I had always heard the Ohio University band—the Marching 110—was supposedly fantastic. Recently, several Facebook friends had posted a video of the band that had gone viral (meaning that it spread rapidly, not that it had embedded malware). With Parkersburg newspaper ads touting the Bobcats mid-week ESPN game against Temple University, along with a beautiful weather forecast, I decided to go. Tickets were only $15 (or I could have opted for a $20 deal that advertised a long-sleeve “blackout” special t-shirt, scarf, and inflatable “thunder sticks”). Doing some on-line research, I found designated parking areas for just $5.

After parking and getting my ticket, I hiked towards downtown, past Maya Lin’s (the designer of the Vietnam Memorial who grew up in Athens) rendition of an earthwork computer card, behind the OU swimming pool building (with the fragrance of chlorine in the air), and around Bird Arena (home of the OU Hockey Team) to the new student union building. I love student unions, even at schools I never attended. You can get a real feel for the campus just from reading the bulletin boards, to see what events are occurring. I was sorry to see that I had missed a recent Mary Chapin Carpenter concert. I also regretted that I wouldn’t be able to attend an upcoming Physics and Astronomy Department open house, among many other interesting activities.

I headed into downtown, and walked the entire main drag, trying to decide where I would eat dinner. I finally decided on Chipotle, a national chain that tries to serve healthier Mexican food. I sat in their sidewalk seating and watched the world go by (Athens has a very cosmopolitan population, with many international students). After eating, I walked back towards the stadium, with the warm glow of the setting sun, and the crisp crunch of autumn’s leaves beneath my feet—a good night for football!

Before entering the stadium, I walked around the outside, checking out their “Tail-Great Park” with an inflatable playground, face painting, cornhole games, pep band, radio broadcasting, etc. On the other side of the stadium, they have a roped off area for their students to enjoy their pre-game. It was fun watching them applying black body paint to shirtless guys (the game had been designated as a “blackout” game, and fans were encouraged to wear black), and painting various letters to spell out ESPN, or Bobcats, or whatever. The football team was also wearing special black uniforms for this game. The national TV coverage had everyone jacked up for this game.

I finally entered the stadium, but first walked all around the interior perimeter. I got a close-up look at the brass cannon (Civil War vintage?) that ROTC students keep near the corner of the end zone towards the town. They fire it at the kickoff and for every Bobcat score, a bit like the Mountaineer and his musket. The opposite end zone (toward the river) features a grassy knoll, reminding me of the hill in Morgantown where I watched games back in the Ollie Luck/Jeff Hostetler days (it was the end zone towards the hospital where the luxury boxes now stand). There is also a giant inflatable bobcat head (kind of like the old inflatable WVU football helmet) that the team runs through when entering the field. I got to walk through the inflatable bobcat head during my stroll around the stadium—things are much more accessible in this smaller stadium.

Once in my seat, I watched the teams finish their pre-game warm-ups while the band began assembling for their pre-game performance. As the players prepared to leave, as most teams I’ve seen do, they all huddled up together to share some inspirational words and build the team spirit. However, what I found interesting was that the Marching 110 ran onto the field and joined them in that team huddle—what a nice touch to see the band as part of the team! The players then went back to their locker room while the band performed some preliminary songs, and then the alma mater and national anthem. The public address announcer refers to them as “the most exciting band in the land”—a catch phrase similar to our “the Pride of West Virginia” for our WVU band.

The band then created an alley for the team to run across the field to their sidelines, which (unlike Morgantown) are located across from the pressbox on the student side of the field. To my surprise, students were streaming onto the field—they allow students to help form the gauntlet for the team to run through while entering the field. The Bobcat mascot, riding a brand new Harley Davidson motorcycle from a local dealer, led the team onto the field, and proceeded to make a lap revving that v-twin engine for all to hear.

There were several interesting activities that took place during long timeouts. My favorite was also the simplest—about a dozen pairs of guys lined up on the goal line, for a “wheelbarrow race.” One guy in front walked on his hands, while his partner stood up holding the handwalker’s feet. They had to race out to the 20 yard line, before switching positions and race back to the goal line. What made it especially funny for me was the public address system blaring “Yakkity Sax” (the Benny Hill theme song).

Another activity was a punt, pass, and kick competition (the NFL used to push their PPK competitions for kids when I was young), where one person was selected to start at one goal line with a punt, then where it landed he got to throw a pass, and then where it landed he could go for a field goal. The person chosen that night did very well on the punt and pass, leaving only a chip shot field goal. The crowd was excited because he had made it so far down the field, but he missed the field goal.

Finally, another neat activity was a couple of giant transparent inflatable balls, big enough to put a person inside. Two contestants were chosen to start on one sideline, race to mid-field, and then back, while running inside like hamsters. It was fun to watch (especially when they fell down inside).

Speaking of fun to watch, the half-time performance of the Marching 110 was well worth the trip. This band is into fancy stepping/shucking and jiving/swaying and sashaying across the field. They will even lay down their instruments (as well as throw them back and forth) and do some intricate dance routines. Their lines are crisp and their sound is accurate. This is not a huge band like WVU’s, so the sound is not overpowering, but it is definitely a fun band to watch. They played a lot of contemporary songs that the student section liked, by performers such as Avril Lavigne, Usher, and LMFAO. I can see how over the years, without a lot of success by the football team, the band became the showcase of game day, and very popular with the fans. [By the way, while it may have meant the total members at one time, the number 110 now refers to putting 110% into their performance, and is not the total number of members in the band.]

The game itself was fun to watch as well. There were some big plays and some trick plays, making it fun to watch. I left at the start of the fourth quarter (it was a work night, after all) and listened to the end of the game on the radio as I drove home. The Bobcats ended up beating Temple in the closing minute to win 35-31. I had so much fun, maybe I should go back on Nov. 22 for a Tuesday night game against their rival, Miami of Ohio. The athletic department, led by Jim Schaus (former Mountaineer athletic director Fred Schaus’ son) is doing a good job of marketing. I’ll wait and see what the weather is like—because with Ohio University, I’m allowed to be a fair weather fan, unlike West Virginia University, which runs deep through my veins, whether winning or losing, in good weather or bad. Go Mountaineers! And Go Bobcats, too!

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