Whenever I talk to people about working for the Auburn athletic department for two years, they often say, “Wow, that must’ve been really fun!” And in some ways, it was – I got to stand on the sidelines at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturdays, be in the locker room before and after games, and meet some famous people.
But do you know what I didn’t get to do? Tailgate, enjoy games with friends and family, cheer, and eat funnel cakes.
Working sporting events can be really fun depending on your job – announcing is still my favorite sports-related job by far – but being a fan is always way more fun. When you’re working a game you can’t get caught up in the moment and cheer your head off, or you’ll almost certainly forget to do something crucial to your task. And you can’t be partial and yell at the officials, either. Well, you can yell at the officials, but college basketball referee and notorious diva Jamie Luckie might threaten to throw you out of the game for pointing out that Xavier’s lumbering oaf of a center can’t touch the ball in the lane without taking four goddamn steps and hooking the defender with his free arm to get his shot off. Not that I’m still pissed about that or anything.
Despite all my experience working sporting events, all my most memorable in-person sports moments have come as a fan, and my biggest “I was there” moments have come at three different levels. Here are the top 3.
3. November 12, 1999 – The beginning of a miracle playoff run. Northwest Cabarrus spent most of the 1990s winning one game a year in football, and even in years where they were pretty good, they would lose games 97-0. But my junior year was different; thanks to some very exciting comebacks and a little help from West Rowan, who beat our archrival Central Cabarrus on the last night of the regular season, Northwest snuck into the playoffs for the first time since 1987 with a record of 8-3 (this was back before they doubled the size of the state playoffs and you actually had to be good to make it). Our first round opponent was undefeated North Davidson, who had steamrolled everyone they had played all season. But on that cold Friday night in Lexington, I watched from the marching band section as the Trojans held the favorites in check and took a 7-0 lead to the locker room at the half. The Black Knights (that nickname helped make them more villainous in our eyes) clawed back to tie the game at 14 late in the second half, and got within field goal range as time ran down. Thanks to a clock management snafu on their part, the details of which I can’t remember, they didn’t get the kick away in time and the game went to overtime. North Davidson managed a field goal in the top half of the overtime period, but on the second play of Northwest’s possession, quarterback Ryan Woodham scrambled nine yards for a touchdown, giving Northwest an improbable 20-17 win. The band bus was hopping on the way back to Kannapolis, with everyone on top of the world just because we saw it happen.
We won our second round game, too – a 35-14 thumping of Erwin High School in Asheville – before falling to Concord in the third round.
Now, how do I remember so much about a high school football game that happened 13 years ago? Most people would say it’s because I have a penchant for remembering useless things, but I think it’s because school spirit was – and is – incredibly important to me. A lot of people think high school sports aren’t that crucial, but I disagree with them because I remember how much more fun school was when our teams were winning, and how it unified everyone. As the athletic director at RTHS, I would love nothing more than to see that happen with our students and school community.
2. February 12, 2004 – Upset in the U.S.A. I feel sorry for Charlotte students nowadays – the Atlantic 10 opponents are in no way interesting, and the 49ers haven’t sniffed the NCAA Tournament in basketball since 2005, my senior year. And while I’m not usually a fan of back in my day moments, Halton Arena was way more fun when I was in college and the Niners were in Conference USA. I mean, which opponents would you rather play? Marquette, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Memphis? Or St. Bonaventure, La Salle, and Fordham? I thought so.
In 2004 we were pretty good, but we thought we were still one year away from doing anything awesome – the team was young, and Australian five-star recruit Martin Iti wasn’t yet on campus. Iti, of course, turned out to be the biggest bust in the history of sports in the city of Charlotte. You haven’t seen sad until you’ve seen a center get blocked by the rim when trying to dunk, and then having fans of Davidson – the whitest basketball team ON THE PLANET – give him hell for the rest of the game even while their team was getting blown off the floor. But I digress.
When Rick Pitino and 7th-ranked Louisville came to Halton that year, it was hard to believe that we had much of a chance. The Cardinals had been killing people throughout the conference season, and 49ers point guard Demon Brown was suspended for a little legal issue involving some cosmetic equipment, meaning that backup point guard Mitchell Baldwin had to play all 40 minutes. Despite the obstacles, All 9,105 fans in Halton screamed and cheered with abandon all night long, and in the pep band section a certain tuba player lost his voice. When the dust settled, the Niners had upended Louisville 77-71, the court had been stormed, and we led off SportsCenter that night (the segment carrying the name that I chose to head this section). Almost more fun than the game itself was going with all my friends to Picasso’s Sports Cafe near campus after the game and celebrating late into the night. We had plenty of big wins that I got to see while I was in school, but this one definitely tops the list.
1. October 5, 1991 – From worst to first. I first started watching Braves on TBS in 1990, when the roster included such first-ballot Hall of Famers as Oddibe McDowell and Jim Presley. But in 1991, bolstered by free agents like NL MVP Terry Pendleton and Sid Bream, the Braves were neck-and-neck all year with the Dodgers for the NL West lead. I can’t remember how much I pestered my parents – I’m sure it was a lot – but my dad went out and bought us tickets to see the Braves play the Astros on the last Saturday of the regular season. The game was nationally televised on CBS, and the night before the game my sister, dad, and I made a sign that would actually end up getting us on TV – Can’t Beat Smoltz.
I’ve now been to about a dozen Braves games, and I still haven’t experienced anything like the atmosphere that day at the old Fulton County Stadium. According to the box score, the crowd that day was 44,994 strong; it felt and sounded twice as big. From the first pitch, through a monster Ron Gant home run in the 5th, and the completion of John Smoltz’ complete game gem, the chopping never stopped as the Braves beat the Astros 5-2 to take a 1 1/2 game lead in the division.
For whatever reason, my most vivid memory of that day was what happened after the game ended. No one left. The Braves players stood on the field and watched on the big-screen along with the fans as the San Francisco Giants defeated the Dodgers 4-0, clinching the division title for the Braves with one day left in the season. As if the atmosphere wasn’t amazing enough beforehand, the place completely lost its mind at that moment. After stopping to buy me a division champions pennant that I still have on the wall in my house, we left the stadium to the sound of war chanting, car horns honking, and people screaming. I was nine years old, and I was positive that I’d never be a part of something so unreal again. I was a big Braves fan already, but I was sealed up as a lifelong Braves devotee from that point forward.
And that is why being a fan blows the doors off of being an employee. On the emotional side of things, so much gets lost in translation. Working a baseball game, you don’t pull for a team – you pull for outs. Fans are allowed to lose themselves in it, and I missed that when I was working in athletics full-time.
So, it’s your turn. What are your most vivid, exciting, or satisfying sporting events that you saw in person?