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Lions and Bulls and Bears, Oh My!

This trip has to go down as one of my all-time favorites.  The one which all others will be measured against.  And it all came together within 4 days of departure!

A fellow dad at my daughters’ school, Ted, is originally from Iowa but moved to Phoenix, then back to Chicago.  He’s as much a Hawkeye fan as I am a Penn State fan.  We had always compared tailgating at Iowa vs PSU and threatened to take each other up on the offer to visit the other campus.

Well, 2008 turned out to be the year of my visit to Iowa City.  Ted moved to Chicago earlier in the year and that set the wheels in motion.  Early in the season, Penn State was rocking their way through the schedule when Ted suggested me and a couple of other dads from the school fly to Chicago where Ted would pick us up, then drive to Iowa for the game.  Enter Rosey and Dave.

I can’t remember the details, but we pulled this trip together pretty quick – within about 3 weeks.  As the date quickly approached, I couldn’t believe it, but we were able to get a room in Williamsburg – about 25 miles west of the stadium.  We booked it for Friday and Saturday night. Done!

With Chicago about a 4-hour drive to Iowa City, it’s not a quick trip by any stretch.  Based on that, Rosey, Dave and I booked our flights on SWA to arrive into Midway by 5pm Friday night and out early Sunday night.  Check!

About 2 weeks prior to departure, I did a quick check of other events going on in Chicago.  I couldn’t believe it when the search turned up several options including, Suns vs Bulls Friday night in Chicago and Bears vs Lions in Chicago on Sunday!  Could this be possible?  How can we make the schedule work?  What about tickets?  Paraphrasing a famous Chicago line – we were on a mission.

We were striking out everywhere for tickets.  Both the Bulls and Bears games are always in high demand.  On Monday prior to the Friday departure, we were still scrambling.  Yes, we wanted to attend these games, but not at the price levels that were available online.

On Tuesday  Dave tapped into his network and was able to score comp’d lower level seats for the Suns game.  No easy task – so very well done!

Next was to make a decision on the Bears.  Ticket prices were soaring online.  The Titans were coming in undefeated at 8-0 with none other than PSU alum Kerry Collins leading the charge.  We decided we would wait it out, get to Chicago, find a bar and wait for ticket prices to drop.  It sounded like a good plan until the day before departure, when another dad at the school, who happens to work for the AZ Cardinals, found out about our escapade and pulled some strings to tap into his Bears connection to secure some face value tickets for us!  Score!

Friday morning, me, Rosey and Dave rendezvous at the airport with SWA drink tickets in hand for the quick flight to Midway.  Ted arrives in style with his Hawkeye gear already on high display as he shuttles us to the legendary Billy Goat Tavern for eats before the game.  Granted, this wasn’t the original Billy Goat location, but it was fantastic.  You know the Billy Goat from SNL fame – with John Belushi saying – no Pepsi, Coke.  Cheezeborger, Cheezeborger.  No fries – Cheeps.  We just had to experience this place.  Great burgers on back east style hard rolls.  And, just a quick walk from the United Center.

This would not be the Suns night.  Or their year for that matter.  They started the year off well enough – going into Chicago 4-1, but they would lose to the Bulls 100-83 and ended the year 2 games back of the playoffs.  With the beat down that was going on, we decided to get a jump on the drive to Iowa and bailed out early.

I don’t remember what time it was, but we stopped at the Iowa 80 Truckstop, which happens to be the World Largest Truckstop.  After a quick bite to eat, it was back on the road for the final hour to get to the hotel – but not before spotting Billy Gilchrist’s Penn State Bus parked in the lot.  Billy is a super-booster for PSU and I had just happened to be at his tailgate in State College a few weeks earlier for the home opener against Coastal Carolina.  Small world!

Home Opener, 2008
Gilchrist Bus in Iowa

We finally arrived at our luxurious Super 8 accommodations at about 2am and it was quick to bed so we could get an early start on Saturday.

The next morning, we realized how cold the temps were.  While we thought we were prepared for the weather, we were so wrong.  Ted took us to a massive Hawkeye Super Store so we could load up on some extra layers.  Smart move.

As we pulled into Iowa City, the place reminded me so much of State College.  Small town.  Home town banners and signs everywhere.  Enthusiastic fans.  You name it.  Since Happy Valley is already taken, we’ll have to call this place Happy Prairie.

We parked, then walked along Melrose Ave to take in the sights, sounds and smells of real tailgating.  The atmosphere was amazing.  Penn State was coming in undefeated, and Iowa was 5-4 with 3 losses in B1G play.  It didn’t matter.  The loyal fans were as enthusiastic as ever.  You’d think they were undefeated with a National Title on the line.

“Hey Coach, there’s some guy named Ted Kennedy stalking you”
No need for further explanation!

Ted hooked us up at a tailgate directly across the street from the stadium – in someone’s back yard.  Nothing like it!  The mid-western hospitality continued as endless streams of Hawkeye fans grazed the grounds.  We even ran into a former Herky the Hawk (their mascot).

Former Herky

The game was amazing!  Penn State dominated the first half, but Iowa hung tough.  The game was in control with PSU driving late, clinging to a 23-21 lead.  Darryl Clark ended up throwing an INT deep in Iowa territory that ended their hopes of extending the lead.  The Hawks took the ball and drove down the field for a game-winning FG with :01 left on the clock.  Heartbreaking for me as the rest of the stadium erupted in joy!

Game Winning Kick

As time expired, we rushed the field – yes, even I rushed the field.  How often do you get to rush the field?  As the Penn State players were coming off the field, I was screaming at them to put the loss behind them and focus on winning out to secure a slot in the Rose Bowl.  I even stopped team doctor and extended family friend, Wayne Sebastianelli, to say hello.

The madness on the field

After hanging out on the field for a bit, we wandered over towards the goal posts.  The policemen were guarding it like it was Fort Knox.  I playfully asked them if I could just touch the icon as it laid on the field and was given a stern – “NO!”.  After a couple of jabs back and forth, they allowed me a quick feel 🙂  I even got a shot with some “friendlies”.

Back to the car and head towards Williamsburg.  On the way, we stopped in a bar in Tiffin – once owned by one of  Ted’s relatives.  The place was hopping with Hawkeye fans.  I was the only Nittany Lion in the place for most of the night – but I never felt out of place.  The fans couldn’t have treated me better.  Perhaps a loss might have affected it, but I doubt it.

As we drank the night away, a bachelorette party show up in the bar!  Tiffin is a town of fewer than 2000 people – so there’s probably one wedding per year – and we just happened to be there for it.  Amazing.  The ladies really added some excitement to an already lively crowd.  Sorry, no pictures from this scene!  What happens in Tiffin…

It was a short night followed by a long ride back to Chicago, but we made it to the game.  Kickoff temps were still in the 30s, so the winter gear we purchased the day before was already paying dividends.  The game was rather uneventful, but the Titans would extend their winning streak by beating the Bears 21-14.

Tennessee extended their streak the following week to start the season 10-0 and would finish the year going 3-3.  They entered the postseason at 13-3 and the top seed.  It was short lived as they would lose their first game in the playoffs to the Ravens.

The Bears finished at 9-7 and would miss the playoffs.  It’s no wonder when legendary Coach Ditka was spotted grabbing a beer at halftime.

After the game, it was back towards town to grab one last beer before boarding the train back to Midway.

The option to attend the Monday night Cards vs 9ers game was on the table, but I just couldn’t muster the strength to extend the weekend.  All in all, I wouldn’t trade that trip for anything.  Great games, great guys, great food and drink.

Next time Ted, it’s a Happy Valley weekend for you!

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