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An Irrational Thing I Did For This Stupid Football Team

No, not that thing. The other thing.

Perusing Twitter once a month, as I am wont to do when pretending I actually try at my job for Off Tackle Empire, I happened upon a great tweet on former EDSBS (RIP) yarn-weaver Action Cookbook:

And, given that it’s Northwestern Week (no, seriously! We’ve been writing things, pretending like fools that college football is happening in 2020!), it seemed like as good a time as any to share the story of when I willingly drove through the night—through two states I’d never been to!—in a rental car to watch a Northwestern-Duke football game.

I was extremely fortunate in grad school to have a few things working in my favor: A topic juuuuust national enough to justify brief trips, a now-wife juuuuust understanding enough to allow me to travel for multiple weeks at a time as we searched for houses and planned a wedding (which took place in a blizzard!), and a department definitely stupid enough to fund me doing all those things without question.

It’s fall 2017, and having passed my doctoral exams, I am on the research trail. One stop? A very reputable archive in Atlanta happy to host me for the better part of two weeks, with the archival attendants laughing as my pasty, chonky Midwestern ass showed up after a mile walk from the Inman Park Blue Line station dripping sweat.

This was after I would get on the 50 bus westbound from Vine City, have the driver ask me if I was lost (seven times in nine days!), and ride the Blue from Bankhead to Inman. I’m not walking a step farther than I have to in the South. Too fat for that.

Anyhow, none of my research trips were accidentally timed—Boston? Northwestern played at Maryland, and that’s as close as I was ever gonna get. Boulder? ‘Cats took down the Huskers in overtime, only I chickened out on a cross-Nebraska drive. (I don’t regret that one.)

Atlanta, then, was timed not coincidentally with Northwestern’s trip to Duke, a second go-round of a home-and-home pairing that we all regret dearly.

The decision was simple: I was going to get home on Friday night, sleep until midnight, catch the last 50 bus downtown, ride the Gold Line to Hartsfield-Jackson, rent a car, and drive to Durham.

And that’s what I did.

Minus the sleep. I was too excited to go watch Northwestern at Duke—I couldn’t sleep.

The ol’ Vine City/English Avenue to Hartsfield-Jackson route. You know. As one does.

I got my rental car at about 2am. The tailgate, I was told, started at 9. I had to hurry.

Outside of the quick google search for “How fast can you go and not get pulled over in South Carolina?”, I was flying—at least culturally—completely blind.

There wasn’t much joy in that drive. For some reason, I didn’t have Spotify, so I was stuck listening to the various country, Top 40, and Christian stations, interspersed with rap stations my mayo-boy ass has no business stopping at, even if I like the beat. The car was some kind of hybrid, so outside of the two stops to pee and get the gas station coffee laced with cocaine in North Carolina, I had no need to stop.

The NU Club of NC Triangle was welcoming, some friends from the Northwestern University Marching Band (NUMB) from my time at NU were there, and it was wonderful. Sure, I hadn’t slept in hours, but when you’ve got the thrills, chills, and spills of a three-hour tailgate with alumni you’ve never met, the whole thing is just one white-knuckle thrill ride:

You can’t say we’re not on-brand.

It was a perfectly cromulent tailgate (that started on time—I just did a good amount of speeding): There was food, there were alumni young and old, and the beer flowed.

I struck up a conversation, though, with some locals who parked their pickup truck a couple spaces to the right of that picture. On the way back to my car to get a six-pack for the cooler, we struck up a conversation.

A UNC fan, two N.C. State fans, and a girlfriend who had no interest in being there. THESE ARE THE PEOPLE OF NORTHWESTERN-DUKE.

It was a good time! Turned out the owner of the car worked for the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission, and he liked to get after it. After asking me what drinks I tend to enjoy—gin and scotch—I was sent to put whatever random IPA I’d bought on some ice for the others to enjoy, and he reached into the back of his car...

...for a bottle of Lagavulin 16.

There’s something about drinking Lagavulin 16 out of a red Solo cup at 10am in Durham, North Carolina, when you haven’t slept in 27 hours that just makes it...better.

After an hour of conversation, just swapping life stories, assuring them I’m not Canadian—just from Minnesota—and revealing that they planned to attend half the game at most, we prepared to go our separate ways.

Until the ABC distributor tapped me on the shoulder: “Hey, can I send something home with you?” In his hand was the bottle of Lagavulin.

“Shit no, man, I can’t take that off you!”

He grinned. “Just put it in the truck and secure it—cops in South Carolina might take exception.”

He wouldn’t take money, he wouldn’t take beer—we shook hands, and this friendship, surely like so many before it, disappeared into the annals of Northwestern-N.C. State friendships.

All that was left to do was play the game. A stop by Kracklepopskiville, where all the Duke kids camp out waiting for Christmas or a bouncyshoots game or something, and by 11:45, already dripping sweat, we stumbled into Wallace Wade Stadium. Of course, to show our patriotism we had to buy tickets in the Northwestern section, paying full price.

It was a decision I soon regretted. But hey, Duke has tarps, too!

In reality, what happened in the game is immaterial. (Coincidentally, Northwestern lost by 24 and was never competitive.)

As I learned while scrolling the news that night, though, the weather back in Atlanta was getting worse—Hurricane Irma would make landfall sometime on September 11th, and on Sunday the 10th, as I prepared to drive back, Governor Deal declared a state of emergency.

Of course, I still had to drive back, and I would be damned if I didn’t have a stop to make: The Cowpens National Battlefield in Gaffney, which I’d swore I’d photograph for my American Revolution professor. The stop at Clemson went by the wayside—I needed to get back to my Airbnb.

I rolled into Atlanta that evening, dropped supplies off at the Airbnb, and after dropping the car at Hartsfield-Jackson, rode the Gold back to the 50 and into my bedroom with en suite—that was created by nailing two-by-fours over the Jack-and-Jill entrance from the living room.

Northwestern lost to Duke, 41-17.

I drove through the night to get there.

I returned to a locked-down state bracing for a hurricane.

Spent the next day locked in my bedroom, surviving on Lagavulin 16, watching Irma flood the Vine City streets out my window.

Worth it.