It's always intimidating to step into another team's stadium. And I mean this as a fan.
I'll never forget the mocking looks I got the first time I wore Northwestern purple into the Big House in Ann Arbor.
"Well, good luck—I guess," said the middle-aged Michigan partisan sitting in the row below me. He wore a blue sweater over a maize shirt and he was unable to hide his smirk, as confident and successful in life as the Wolverines always were in the game of football.
At the end of the game, when the Wildcats had completed the upset on the way to their first Rose Bowl trip in four decades, he turned to me and offered a handshake.
This did not happen a few years ago when I visited Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, where even after the Cats suffered a 41-9 beatdown, a series of Badger fans got in my face to belittle my team and whatever loose woman must have birthed me. One of the hecklers was all of about nine years old, holding the hand of his smiling mother as he challenged my manhood.
These fond memories came rushing back to me as I sat in the bleachers at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley last Saturday to see Northwestern take on California.
I'd expected Cal fans to be chill, and a portion of them stoned. But with the opening kickoff, a tanned, fit, fiftysomething in front of us began to cheer and exhort and pump his fists. As the Golden Bears marched down the field on their opening drive, my heart sank, but the guy grew more impassioned and animated. He was jumpy, fired up, impossible to contain, ready to burst out of the cannon. He could barely stand watching it unfold—only the relative restraint of his wife seemed to keep him from running on the field and joining the game himself. And he looked to be in playing shape.
Cal was soon threatening. On fourth and goal, the Golden Bears lined up for a field goal—but then holder Jackson Bouza tossed the ball to the kicker, who passed it back to Bouza, who sprinted in for a touchdown. It was an amazing play. I was stunned.
The superfan went berserk, pumping his fists and shouting "YES! YES! YES!"
One of my friends fretted; another abruptly decided to cheer for Cal. I longed for the company of Wisconsin people.
My cousin Mark overheard some chatter and was busy doing some research. A couple of minutes later he leaned my way and showed me his iPhone, which was displaying a black-and-white picture of the zealous fan—or, more precisely, a version of the zealous fan from about 30 years ago, when he had shaggier hair. Another shot showed him wearing an Indianapolis Colts jersey. His name was Matt Bouza and he was a former star receiver at Cal and in the NFL.
Something told us there aren't that many Bouzas associated with Cal football.
"That's his son," Mark concluded. "The guy who just scored on the fake."
The celebration continued as a steady parade of visitors came by to offer their congrats to the proud father. Even I briefly felt happy for the guy. But then the Wildcats had the ball and it was time to focus.
"YES!" I hollered. "YES! YES! YES!"
By the fourth quarter, when the Cats seized control of the game and I went hoarse from screaming, the Bouzas had been moved to better seats. Most of the other Cal fans seemed to shrug off the loss. "Northwestern's supposed to be better," I heard one of them say.
When it was over we all filed out of the stadium in an orderly manner. Nobody told me to go screw myself. I had no opportunities to defend the honor of my school or my mother.
It didn't feel quite right.
Games I'll be watching this week:
No. 6 South Carolina over No. 11 Georgia
No. 17 Michigan over No. 14 Notre Dame
No. 19 Northwestern over Syracuse (even though I think they're overrated too)
University of Chicago over Beloit
Disgraceful mismatch (scheduled only for the money) of the week:
Wisconsin over Tennessee Tech