ATHENS, GA. –– Being from Muncie, I have had my fair share of experience with football. I experience it every Friday night when I cover one of the four Delaware County high school football teams for the Ball State Daily News. With Ball State in the heart of Muncie, the Cardinals are always talked about each fall.
When I was asked to ride in a car for nine and a half hours to Athens, Georgia, to help cover the Cardinals’ week two contest against No.1 Georgia, I couldn't decline the offer.
When teams like Georgia and Alabama play, it’s must-see television. Big crowds, athletes that tower over everyone else and some of the greatest games in the history of college football. That’s what I think of when someone mentions Southeastern Conference (SEC) football.
I knew I’d witness a different kind of passion for the gridiron. But I still underestimated the enigma.
The closer we got to the city, the more signs of football we saw. Multiple vehicles had miniature Bulldog flags coming out of every window. Those same cars often were covered with decals and other signs that represented the famous “Dawgs.”
And the flags didn’t stop with the motor vehicles. They were outside the restaurants, shops, and even our hotel. When we walked in a CVS in Athens, Georgia attire reflected in our eyes as it was the first thing the customers saw.
Don’t get me wrong. There are stores in Muncie that sell Ball State attire, but it’s in a certain section. It’s not staring at you when you walk by the window.
As we headed back to our slumbers, sophomore associate sports editor Elijah Poe decided to take a route that took us past the stadium.
My first glance at Sanford Stadium ended with my mouth agape. It was huge; well, maybe that’s an understatement. At first, I questioned if Athens had an NFL team, even though I knew better.
The huge venue was lit up with a red light that made it look like flares were being fired. So yeah, I knew I was in a place that worshiped football like a religion. Then game day came, and it was a sight that I will never forget.
The first thing our group did when we got to the stadium was walk onto the field. I froze behind the endzone.
You know that scene in sports movies where the athlete looks all around him, showing the viewer the whole stadium? It felt just like that.
It also was eye-opening to watch the scoreboard. They were showing each current National Football League player that once suited up for the Bulldogs. Spoiler alert: It was a lot.
I kept wondering if the home of the Bulldogs would be full. I’m not trying to paint Ball State football in a negative light, but let’s be honest, Scheumann Stadium barely gets halfway full, even during rival Mid-American Conference (MAC) games.
After Poe and I began the hunt for the pressbox, it took a few minutes to find the path. Holding multiple levels and different elevators that took you to specific areas, the home of the Bulldogs forced us to ask a lot of questions about navigation.
But we are reporters. This should be easy, right? After talking to enough stadium workers that it could be its own article, we found it.
As we found our seats, I looked down at where I was standing just twenty minutes before. I was still in awe.
I’m a smaller guy, so looking tiny isn’t that hard for me, but even the athletes looked like they were insects.
Even though we left the stadium and went to the tailgate area, the size of the venue was still in the back of my mind. It was nice to see there were some Ball State fans attending the game, and make sure you check out my colleague’s article on that.
Then my question I asked hours before came to fruition. As we began to prepare for the game, it started.
It started with some fans. And then more. And then some more. Before long, the student section was about 60 percent full, even though the game was still an hour from kickoff.
About thirty minutes later, Sanford Stadium looked full. Actually, it wasn’t, because that is when I noticed a mob of people walking down the street to attend the game. It was one of the best things I have ever witnessed.
When the Bulldogs entered their home stadium, the crowd erupted into cheers and screams. It was deafening.
That was followed by the pregame rituals. First, hotdog-eating champion and Indiana native Joey Chestnut led the crowd in the kickoff chant. One side yelled Georgia with the other shouting back Bulldogs. It sounded a little like this.
“Georgia…. Bulldogs! Georgia… Bulldogs! Georgia..Bulldogs!”
Then it was in the normal cadence.
After that, the famous Uga bulldog, now Uga XI, made his appearance and trotted across the field. Our two photographers, junior associate photo editor Mya Cataline and sophomore Kate Farr, got awesome pictures of the living mascot.
Farr even touched the dog as he rubbed against her leg. That has to be good luck, right?
At the start of the game, Ball State surprised me as the first quarter of the David and Goliath tale ended in a 0-0 tie. But after that, it was all Georgia. That’s more like it.
I believe as a reporter, you are supposed to find things that stick out. Even in a blowout. Even then, it was hard to not feel like a fan of the game. The Georgia faithful was in it before the ball was even on the tee for the opening kickoff.
Even though the game was around four hours in length, it went by fast. Some may think that it’s a good thing that a game that long went by so fast, but I wish it went a lot slower.
After rushing to the postgame press conference and meeting up with Cataline and Farr, we went back to the press box to finish our work. As our workload lightened and Poe finished his in-depth recap, my editor and I walked outside to get one last view of Sanford Stadium.
We stood there for a minute. The same place that held a sold-out crowd earlier in the day was empty. It was quiet. The field was empty and was getting showered by sprinklers.
Then something clicked. One of the other reporters from the Daily News, senior Caleb Zuver, uses a word all the time. I mean, a lot.
He will say a performance in a sporting event was “special”, or a television episode was “special.”
Usually, I mock him with it and laugh about it. But as I looked over the hollow field, I had just one thought running through my head.