It is wonderfully fitting for me this weekend that Virginia Tech travels to Notre Dame only a few days after the Washington Nationals won the World Series.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve become less and less a fan of watching sporting events live. Part of it may be I was a sportswriter for a decade when I got out of college, so those hundreds and hundreds of days/nights in a press box or on a sideline may have fulfilled my lifetime quota. The other is the advancement of big screen HD televisions – of which I own far too many – that make it so much easier to see the action.
My wife would say the overriding factor is that I’m also cheap. At home, the food and beverage are far more reasonable.
She does have a point.
But back in college, I was ready to go anywhere at any time to see a live game. Promises were made to friends that if a certain event ever happened way out in the future, we’d go no matter how old we were. One involved the World Series with my friend Tim, which I mentioned yesterday.
The other was made when I was a freshman at Virginia Tech in 1974 and involved Notre Dame. The Hokies were in their first year under Jimmy Sharpe, and football at Virginia Tech was about as far away from the big time as the Nats were from the World Series when they were 19-31. Notre Dame dominated the airways of pre-cable television, and after one particularly festive and ambitious moment, my friends Rick and Doug and I proclaimed if the Hokies ever played Notre Dame, we were going to South Bend.
Rick and I were 18. Doug was 19. We might as well have promised if any of us were elected president, we’d all go to the inauguration. The odds of it happening were that slim.
But in 2016, I got the call from both friends. Tickets had been purchased. Plane and hotel arrangements had been made. Just pull out that credit card and show up at the airport, I was told. We flew into Chicago on a Friday, then drove in some pretty intense rain to get to the hotel just outside of South Bend.
Turns out that was the best day of weather we’d see. Saturday morning it was freezing. The wind was blowing so hard, I looked out the hotel window and plants and shrubs looked like they were leaning at a 90-degree angle. It couldn’t decide whether to rain or snow, so ice pellets were coming down.
Welcome to South Bend, Indiana.
Just as the weather made the gameday experience pretty brutal at Notre Dame, I didn’t care for the actual World Series game experience either. The Nationals got greedy and sold far too many standing room only tickets to the point everything – from concession lines to waits for the restrooms – were far to long. It was a crush of people anywhere you turned.
But for both, it was also a great feeling of finally doing something you’d looked forward to for a long time. The pictures of the three of us in front of Touchdown Jesus, as well as those from the World Series with my wife and friends, will be timeless treasures.
Plus there’s the matter of in both cases, it looked like an almost certainty the Hokies and the Nats were going to lose.
Yet somehow both won.
Our seats were three rows from the very top of the end zone, arguably the worst seats in the house (note to self, NEVER buy tickets to away games through your school because that’s what you will get). But even that far from the action, we could see clearly Notre Dame had taken a 17-0 lead and seemed on their way to ruining the afternoon.
We sure came a long way to watch us get our butts kicked, I opined to my fellow travelers.
But just as the Nationals had Howie Kendrick to pull off last-minute magic, the Hokies had Jerod Evans. He ran for a touchdown. He threw for another touchdown. The defense tightened. And with 9 minutes to go, Evans threw another touchdown pass, this time to Bucky Hodges, to tie the game at 31-31.
This was the football equivalent of hitting two home runs off Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles to force extra innings.
Virginia Tech would then hold Notre Dame to a three and out. The Irish would shank their punt and all of sudden the Hokies had the ball near midfield.
Much like when Kendrick’s home run clanked off the foul pole, this incredible feeling of “hey, we could win this thing,” started surging through me.
10 plays later, Joey Slye would kick a field goal that was about the length of an extra point. Just as the Nats bullpen held in the 8th and 9th innings of Game 7, the VT defense did the same. Both won.
That night in a diner in who-knows-where rural Michigan, three old friends ate one of the greatest meals of their lives, telling lies, reliving the old days, and repeatedly saying “can you believe we won?”
Much like many of us have been doing ever since 11:50 PM Wednesday night.