Saturday, November 14, 2009

A River Runs Through Us

Thursday night the Missus and me made the short hop over to Rutgers Stadium to watch New Jersey's hometown team play the University of South Florida. The game, which was nationally televised on ESPN, was an announced sellout although from where we sit (§219) it appeared as if the building was no better than 2/3 full. In case you missed it, although USF arrived in Piscataway ranked among the Top 25 teams in these United States, they got rolled on the banks of the old Rar-i-tan.

I did not attend school at Rutgers. My brother Bill did - and at the risk of incurring his fraternal wrath - he did so a lifetime ago. He graduated from Rutgers well before anyone sat around brainstorming the idea of a Big East Conference. In his day, Rutgers Stadium was a nice, small, on-campus facility with a grass playing surface and seating for roughly 25,000 people. In his day, the football team at Rutgers played its games against Princeton, Bucknell, Lehigh and Delaware (perhaps the non-conference schedule that this year included Howard, Florida International, Army and Texas Southern is not as different as one might have hoped).

Yes Virginia, they have indeed come a long way baby in the three-plus decades since Bill roamed the campus. And I realize that the transition from where they were once to where they are still trying to get to presently - and getting a bit closer all of the time - has not been seamless and it is not universally appreciated by all concerned. But it is hard not to notice the difference in the general demeanor of the student body now as opposed to where it was a decade ago.

I spend a fair amount of time running in and out of New Brunswick for work. The Superior Court of Middlesex County is located in New Brunswick, which is the county seat so between court appearances and depositions at any of the too numerous to count law firms and attorney's offices located within walking distance of the Courthouse I drive around and through at least a piece of RU's campus several times a month. Ten years ago, one could drive up and down Easton Avenue and count on one's hands the number of college kids walking around wearing an article of clothing that identified them as a Rutgers student. Hardly any storefronts, fraternity houses or dorm rooms had flags flying from them or banners affixed to them that manifested any expression of school spirit.

Now it is as if the RU Bookstore has had a perpetual, deep-discount, going out of business sale (they have not and they are not so you will be able to sell your used books there at semester's end I am certain) for the streets are awash in Rutgers students wearing something that identifies them as such and rare is the establishment you pass that does not have a Rutgers flag or a scarlet "R" or at least one of each present for all to see.

I happen to be a big-time college sports kind of guy. I graduated from CU-Boulder in May 1989 - a semester before the football team launched its back-to-back seasons of competing for the National Championship in the Orange Bowl. Among my most fond memories of college was running around on the field at Folsom Field on October 25, 1986. A date I remember twenty-three years later because it was on that day that the Buffs defeated Nebraska at home for the first time since Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House (for you non-history doers out there he was elected President in 1952 and re-elected in 1956). A lot of us, men and women alike, ran around on the field at game's end celebrating the moment - a moment that those of us in the stands had done scant little to bring to fruition. We ran around down there not doubting for a moment that it belonged to all of us - football players and political science geeks alike. And we were right. It did.

Thursday night, while the stands were not close to full at the simply gorgeous, state-of-the-art facility with a FieldTurf playing surface and seating for more than 52,000 that the Missus and me and all of us who pay taxes in the State of Concrete Gardens helped pay for, the student section was filled to capacity. And before the game, a lot of the RU students who we saw in and outside of the stadium all appeared to be pretty fired-up, dressed in either red t-shirts or white t-shirts. Once we got inside we saw that there was a method to the madness of the dress code as the kids wearing white spelled out "R" and "U" and the ones wearing red formed the background around the letters. A decade ago there were not enough kids in the stands to complete one half of one leg of the "R".

There are those who view big-time college athletics as indicative of all that is wrong with higher education in this country. I simply am not one of those people. Is it close to a perfect system? Nope. But perhaps once your shuttle flight from Utopia lands you can point me in the direction of such a thing. In my forty-two + years wandering the planet I have not yet encountered one.

And besides, I cannot be inside Rutgers Stadium or at home watching them play on television and not think of my old high school pal Dwight Giles, who walked on at Rutgers, ended up a three-time letter winner and parlayed his chance to use football as a means to get his college degree into a post-college life in which he did nothing but help those he felt most needed to be helped. He was the best athlete I ever had the chance to play with or to watch play a sport. And he was even a better person than he was an athlete.

We were only about thirty years old or so - slightly more than a decade out of high school and five years or so removed from college when Dwight inexplicably and tragically died. Our season tickets at Rutgers Stadium are on the RU side of the field. At every home game the sideline is packed with people wearing rather official-looking passes. I presume that among their number are former Rutgers players. And I like to think that had he not died far too young, I would be able to see "Hersch" on a regular basis still for I doubt not for one minute that he would be down there, smiling that ear-to-ear smile of his, soaking in all that has grown up around him. And appreciating his role in helping them get from there to here. Although knowing Dwight he likely would have had difficulty acknowledging it.

-AK

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