It's halftime at Dyche Stadium, September 25, and two strange things are happening. The Northwestern Wildcats football team is up 9-0 over the Deacons of Wake Forest--and a steady stream of fans is flowing out the gate.
Sure, it's drizzling on and off, but these people paid $18 for a ticket, and the Wildcats, who haven't had a winning season since 1971, are threatening to be considered for a postseason bowl game. Only a week earlier they knocked off Boston College, a nationally ranked team.
On the other hand, I've seen this act before. Two years ago the Wildcats were whipping Wake Forest 42-zip at half, and the crowd poured out as if they were participating in a fire drill. After years of Saturday-afternoon drubbings, they've been conditioned to expect, and accept, losing. The team may have a new slogan--Expect Victory--but the fans still Expect to Leave.
At least this makes room for me. I approach a venerable alum in the parking lot as he's making his getaway.
"I've seen enough."
"What about the second half?"
"I've seen them lose too many close ones over the years. The team is still learning how not to lose."
"Oh. Mind if I borrow your ticket and sit in your seat?"
"Don't think I can do that. You see, I was sitting in the president's box."
"You don't have to worry about that. I don't want to sit near the president. I just want to get in the stadium."
"OK. You can have my ticket. But don't get me in trouble by sitting in the president's box."
"You got a deal."
And that's the hardest time I've ever had getting a free ticket to see the second half of a Northwestern football game.
Maybe the evacuees give me their ticket stubs because they notice my young son nestled in my backpack. If I point to the kid, they hand me tickets, no begging required. But more often they plod by, speechless and dazed, handing over a ticket as if they're passing on a bad luck charm.
The loyal fans just can't help themselves. And these are loyal fans. On game days they swarm into the north Evanston neighborhood hours before kickoff, wearing their purple-and-white hats and coats and carrying their trusty NU seat cushions.
The Wildcats' dynamic new head coach, Gary Barnett, says he wants Northwestern's home games to be like Notre Dame's, where 60,000 crazed fans lobby God to grant the team victory. Barnett's 1993 squad has an explosive passing offense led by pro quarterback prospect Len Williams, and a bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate in big-play receiver/returner Lee Gissendaner. But it's hard to get excited when there are 30,000 empty seats in the stadium. Harder still after the halftime exodus. This week, homecoming, the migration could be especially massive, the Wildcats having endured successive slaughters at Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Should be no trouble getting into that one.