It was 16 years ago. So the preamble is long but I hope you’ll bear with me.
My son – the future Mid – was old enough to start asking questions. And when I pulled out some stuff from my college days, he asked about that. And I mentioned that Bowling Green’s football program had turned into a winner after some dark days and he showed a genuine interest. From that my son asked a question that would change my days as a father.
“Can we go see a Bowling Green game?”
We played NCAA Football on our Playstation as the Falcons and I taught him all about the BG traditions – from Ay Ziggy Zoomba to Tootsie Rolls to Freddie & Frieda Falcon. I reveled in the fact that BG had already beaten Purdue and had stayed within a touchdown of Ohio State. We drove the 8 hours out to Northwest Ohio and realized the campus was on Fall break. The weather was miserable – cold and rainy.
But when we looked out our hotel window several hours before kickoff and he saw the stadium lights on, he said, “we have to go NOW!” And we did, sitting in the cold drizzle for an hour or two watching warm-ups. The crowd would be announced at 12,000-plus, but the 24,000-capacity Doyt L. Perry Stadium didn’t really look half-full.
Despite the dismal conditions, we were treated to an amazing game. Teeing off with Kent State – led by NFL special teams Pro Bowler Joshua Cribbs – the Falcons put on an electric show and posted a win. We went on the field after the game and met some of the players to celebrate.
And my son was hooked. We would go to the Motor City Bowl later that year and after watching an amazing victory over Northwestern, my son was bleeding orange and brown.
A BG-focused message board – we Internet dinosaurs used them back in the day – allowed us to connect with other BG fans and make new friends. We would attend a game every fall and, whenever possible, a bowl game. And something special started to happen.
First, was the experience. We came to know the players and would hang out after games gathering autographs and getting to know them. The tailgates with people we met on the message board were full of warmth and joy. In between games, we chatted constantly online (eventually moving to Facebook) and our annual pilgrimages there are among my favorite memories as a father (including one year when we didn’t think we could afford to go and one message board member arranged a fundraiser that got us there … how about that for school spirit?).
The second was what came to be known as The Streak. You see, whenever The Mid attended a game at BG, the Falcons won. Year after year we went and the Falcons kept winning. It kind of became “a thing.”
Third, for some reason, when the Falcons recruited Pete Winovich in 2004, he instantly became my Mid’s favorite player. He didn’t play much early, but that didn’t matter. After each game, my son would rush to the field, looking for Pete so we could get a picture with him and say hello. When we attended the bowl game that would be Pete’s last game in orange and brown, my son insisted that we find him, even after a humiliating defeat. With the season over, my son asked me to help him make a card featuring pictures of him & Pete from each season titled “Thanks for four hard-hitting years.” We mailed it to the athletic department and I thought, “well, that’s that,” figuring he’d have to find another favorite player,.
But a few months later, a package arrived. It included a heart-felt letter of encouragement from Pete and something amazing – the jersey Pete wore in that last game with our Mid’s last name emblazoned on the back. Yep, file that under “Prized Possession.”
Eventually, his own football schedule precluded him from attending more BG games and then, of course, came the Naval Academy. I assumed like a lot of parenthood, the time had past and I would have to be happy with the memories.
But when I looked at the calendar for this month, I noticed something. The entire sprint football league had a bye on the weekend of October 12. My son’s birthday is … October 12. And not only was BG playing host to Toledo in, the most storied rivalry in the Mid-American Conference, but it would also mark the 100th anniversary of BG football … and 100 years of the rivalry.
Could it be? Could the stars align?
I booked flights and the Mid put the request through the chain of command. Any USNA parent knows that any plans are just that – plans – until the paperwork is complete and even then subject to change.
But when he got his OKs, we alerted our BG friends and got things rolling. Mid Mom insisted that we get a cake to celebrate. In our family, that means a custom cake, complete with pictures, but the local supermarket said they only accepted photos handed to them. After some cajoling, they agreed to accept an email, so I whipped up something and emailed it.
The Mid got his OKs and we were on our way – Mid Mom and me from Philly and him from Baltimore.
I knew something was going to go wrong. It always does on a trip and when his flight was delayed out of BWI, I figured, “here we go.” But not so. We all arrived at roughly the same time, as did our baggage (surprise!) and we made our way to our hotel.
I figured there was no way Mid and Mid Mom would get up in time to get to the tailgate, but again, I was wrong. We were up and moving as planned. We swung by the supermarket to get the cake and tailgate supplies and the cake looked great. Another pothole avoided.
We somehow evaded paying for parking and got our spot with our tailgate crew. And it was like a homecoming. We hadn’t been there for years and it was like the prodigal son had come home. Despite cool temperatures and a persistent wind, the entire scene was flooded with warmth.
As we walked to the game, I got us turned in the wrong direction. Now I was upset. I had taken us out of our way. And Mid Mom was upset because her leg recovering from surgery was slowing her – and in turn us – down. Here we go, I thought. Here’s the glitch that will ruin the day. Then we heard, “Hey! Is that a Pete Winovich jersey?”
And there he was, Pete Winovich. It was the first time he and Noah had been together since 2007 in Mobile, Alabama. Pete shared the story of Noah’s note with two former teammates – defensive lineman Mike Thaler and linebacker Ted Piepkow and I don’t think my Mid could have been any happier. It’s a moment he had been waiting for more than 10 years. And if I hadn’t gotten turned around, and if the Mid Mom hadn’t been moving slowly, we may well have missed it.
Then there was the game. It’s important to note that Toledo came into the game with a nine-game winning streak in the series. They also came in as 26-point favorites. I noticed that the BG team was sporting an old school logo (the one used from my time there right through the days my Mid and I began following the team) on their helmets. As we took our seats way up on the West side of the stands, I looked over the field and thought, “well, if The Streak is going to end, this is the way it should end.”
Karma had much different plans.
An early lead persisted despite a seemingly endless series of turning points where the game seemed perched to pitch in Toledo’s favor. But when the clock finally ran out, The Streak was intact. The Mid was still undefeated. Just like old times, we walked onto the field and watched the team sing “Ay Ziggy Zoomba” and the marching band lead the alma mater. We even ran into Pete Winovich one more time before we left. Time had somehow stood still.
And the other shoe never did drop. There were no real glitches.
We turned to walk off the field and I won’t lie, I teared up. And I hugged my son. I thanked him for putting aside all of his responsibilities just to be there and for helping make all those amazing memories. As we exited, I thought about him commissioning in May. I wondered where he would go next and what he might be doing. And I wondered if I would ever be able to pull off another trip like this one. Then I realized it didn’t matter. I had this trip. I had these friends. I had these memories. To ask for more would seem ungrateful.
And, if anything, I most certainly grateful.