Sunday, October 25, 2015

Lehigh Mountain Hawks 42 at Fordham Rams 59 (NCAA Football, Patriot League) - October 24, 2015

After the Blue Jays were eliminated in painful fashion on Friday night, I needed to get out of the house on Saturday and start focusing on the fall and winter sports. There were a few options, but I chose to visit Fordham, one of the few schools in the city where I have yet to see a game. Their football team, ranked #10 in the FCS, was hosting Lehigh in Patriot League action. The Rams usually play in the Atlantic 10 Conference, but it doesn't support football, so they get to experience some different opponents every fall.

The campus is located in the Bronx, about 30 blocks north of Yankee Stadium and close to the Fordham Road stop on the 4, B, and D trains. There is a Metro North stop right next to the campus, but these tickets are a bit costly and trains are infrequent, thus the subway is your better option. You can take a Bx12 SBS bus from the subway stops, or just walk about 20 minutes through an area of New York City which sees few tourists. Incidentally, the Botanical Garden and Bronx Zoo (free admission on Wednesdays, which combines well with basketball) lie just north of campus, but the southern side is much more urban.

Once you cross Webster Street, take the small entrance to campus, letting the security guard know that you are heading to the football game. Once inside, you will be amazed at the contrast between the city and the university. The campus is filled with beautiful Gothic buildings (that's the Duane Library above) and you will pass several on your way to Coffey Field, the Rams gridiron. You will know you've arrived when you see the small monument to the Seven Blocks of Granite, the nickname given to two groups of linemen between 1929 and 1937. The most famous name is Vince Lombardi, who now has some trophy named after him.

There are three retired numbers above Section 6 including Lombardi's. The other two are more tragic as both honour players who passed away while playing for Fordham; Cornelius Murphy in 1931 (likely the deadliest football season in history) and Bill Tierney, who died while warming up for a game in 1996.

There is a single grandstand with tickets running $10 for general admission ($5 for seniors), which are the benches on either side of the 35-yard lines. The other sections have seat backs and are more expensive, but they don't sell out so you can sit at the top without worry. Bring a couple of paper towels to clean your seat as birds seem to occupy the stadium during the week and leave a few souvenirs for less observant fans.

Food is pretty basic, with pretzels and hot dogs going for $3.50 and bottles of Coke products for $2.50. Usually I advise readers to eat before or after the game to avoid overpriced food at the stadium, but college football can be a drawn-out affair and items here are reasonable. There is a Checkers along Fordham Road if you like fast food, but otherwise you might as well grab something from the concession stand to tide you over.

The field is surrounded by trees, which are quite colourful during the foliage season in mid-autumn. It is hard to believe you are in New York City when you are here. And you will be here for a long time.

The game started around 1 p.m. and didn't end until damn near 5. In that time, Fordham scored 8 touchdowns (that is their first above) and a field goal, while Lehigh managed a meagre 6 touchdowns. The key play was a blocked conversion that left Lehigh trailing 14-13. They went for two on their next score and their quarterback, Nick Shafnisky, ran into the end zone and was hit by a Fordham player. That knocked Shafnisky out of the game with a hip injury, and Brad Mayes, a freshman, replaced him. Although Lehigh led 21-17 at the half, Mayes struggled to move the Mountain Hawks on their first few drives of the second half, and Fordham took a 52-28 lead behind running back Chase Edmonds (below) who scored three touchdowns, including a run of 60 yards.

But Mayes found his footing and led Lehigh to two scores that cut the deficit to 10. Edmonds had been injured on a previous drive and looked to be concussed, but he was fine, and appeared on the next possession to clinch the game with a 75-yard touchdown that made it 59-42. Edmonds finished with a school record 347 yards as Fordham moved to 7-1 on the season.

This was one of the worst football games I have seen, at least aesthetically. No defense and dozens of extended TV timeouts for a game that wasn't even televised. Pace matters in sports and if this is a typical FCS game, I won't be coming back. Last week's Ohio State game was much quicker despite being nationally televised in the evening. Still, I would recommend paying a visit to Coffey Field if you haven't yet; it is one of the more attractive areas in New York and really, $10 for football is a bargain.


The Fordham cheerleaders have to do pushups after every Ram score, with one pushup per accumulated point. Safe to say they'd like to see some defense too, as they had to perform 121 pushups on the afternoon.



Friday, October 23, 2015

Penn State Nittany Lions 10 at Ohio State Buckeyes 38 (NCAA Football, Big Ten) - October 17, 2015

The schedule makers have been kind to me this season. For every Leaf road game that I plan to attend, there is a compelling event in the area around the same time. Toronto visits the Jets just three days after the Grey Cup, while their games in Minnesota and St. Louis are followed by college hockey and an NFL game respectively. The best combination was in Columbus last weekend, where the Ohio State Buckeyes hosted the Penn State Nittany Lions on the day after the Leafs beat the Blue Jackets for their first win of the campaign.

This was the “Game of the Week” on ABC, which meant an 8 p.m. start, allowing Sharpy and me to enjoy some of the early afternoon atmosphere before finding a bar for the first few innings of ALCS Game 2. Turns out that Michigan was playing Michigan State, so the baseball game was given short shrift in terms of TV screens, but we were able to watch the Jays take a 3-0 lead before heading to the stadium. We all know what happened after, so if you believe in chaos theory, blame us for leaving the bar and causing Ryan Goins to stop short of that fly ball.

Ohio Stadium

Located on campus along Woody Hayes Drive, Ohio Stadium doesn't look that big from far away. I am used to some of these new behemoths like AT&T Stadium in Dallas, but Ohio Stadium was built in 1922 with a capacity of 66,210, so its footprint is considerably smaller. These days it sits 104,944, and when you add some standing only tickets, attendance exceeds 108,000.

The pregame atmosphere is incredible, with nearly everyone tailgating under a tent. These guys make most NFL tailgaters look like amateurs; they were out in force at least eight hours before game time and probably longer. The picture below does not do the scene justice; imagine blocks and blocks of red tents with dozens of people sitting under each, eating and drinking. Those without tailgating amenities could visit the Varsity Club jut north of the stadium, or one of the bars a couple of blocks east. Usually games are in the afternoon, so the atmosphere might not have as much time to build, but I don't think it matters.

The rotunda is the unique area the marks the main entrance to the stadium on the north side. There are several plaques here commemorating the football programs and the stadium itself, as well as three stained glass windows showing football scenes that were added in 2001. If you don't think Ohio State Football is a religion, you will after seeing these.

Just in front of the rotunda is a sculpture that honours Jesse Owens, who went to Ohio State and won a record eight individual championships before going on to world fame at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Make sure to get into the stadium early because there is a lot going on and it takes time to tour. With the small footprint, concourses can get crowded, while the entrances get very busy in the last half-hour before kickoff as the tailgating population emerges from their tents around the same time. If you wait too long, you will miss the band’s must-see, pregame performance.

The OSU Marching Band (often referred to as The Best Damn Band in the Land) marched out of the north ramp (known as the “ramp entrance”) around 20 minutes before kickoff and immediately put on one of the most entertaining shows I’ve seen. The pregame show is similar each week, with the highlight being the creation of the Script Ohio and the dotting of the i, which can be seen in this video.

Of course, Hang On Sloopy is also played (study the words if you go!). For those who want to see more of the band, there is a “Skull Session” at nearby St. John’s Arena where the band practices, with doors opening four hours before the game. The band also performs at halftime, and we were treated to a preview of their London show (they are scheduled to perform before the Bills and Jags do battle at Wembley this Sunday). Great stuff, though in some cases you need to look at the big screen to see exactly what their formation represents if you are not sitting high on the east side.

Capacity increased after some end zone seats were added this year, but there isn't really a bad seat in the place. It takes about 30 minutes to tour around, checking food options (no beer here), and trying to get pictures from different angles. Ushers guard every entryway but are friendly and will let you through to take a photo or two.

There are three seating decks, A, B, and C, with even-numbered sections on the west and odd- numbered sections on the east. Even from high up, you get a good view, though binoculars are helpful.

All tickets for this game were $125, seemingly exorbitant for college football (considering face value for Mets World Series tickets in the upper deck behind the plate are $125) but with 108,423 fans entering the building, demand still exceeds supply at that price. This was the second largest crowd in stadium history, but I am not sure where the extra 3,479 fans stood, as there were some empty seats in the upper reaches of the C deck in the north end zone.

This was Black Saturday in the Shoe (the stadium is nicknamed The Horseshoe for its shape) and Ohio State work black uniforms for the first time in history. Fans were asked to wear black and many had purchased special attire for just this occasion, such as this lonely gentleman below.

The few Penn State fans failed to ruin the effect with their white clothing, and although a fair number of Buckeye supporters were in the traditional scarlet and grey, the blackout was a success. Well, except for the fact that every single fan was white.

Before the game, they showed the highlights of the Michigan punter fumbling the snap, resulting in a last-second Spartan victory, which led to a prolonged cheer and a general feeling of happiness that lasted throughout the evening. It is safe to say that Ohio State fans hate Michigan with a passion.

There is much chanting going on before the game, with the four stands chanting O-H-I-O alternately, starting with the south stand. My seat was in the west stand so I chanted H, though this became O later in the game (I never chanted I, proving I am not a narcissist). A number of other chants were heard, though I couldn’t make all of them out. Everybody seemed to be having lots of fun, except the poor Penn State fans. Chanting continues throughout the game and is a huge part of the fantastic atmosphere here.

Ohio Stadium is doubtless one of the top experiences for a sports traveler. As a Canadian, I will never fully understand the devotion adults have to a football team at a school they did not attend, but I can appreciate the attraction to attending these contests. College football home games happen only 6 or 7 times a season, so they are truly events and if you haven't been to one of the top football stadiums in the Big Ten, consider Ohio State as a great place to start.

The Game

It was a chilly fall evening, with temperatures forecast to dip below freezing, and fans were bundled up. My seat was in the first row of 14B, under cover and warmer than those up in the unprotected nosebleeds of C deck (sorry Sharpy). Tickets here sell out immediately and there were no pairs available within seconds of the public sale. Keep that in mind if you are traveling with a group; the secondary market will probably be your only option if you all want to sit together.

After much anticipation, the game got underway and Ohio State fell behind as Cardale Jones struggled to move the offense. Penn State kicked a field goal on their first possession after a 45-yard pass play from QB Christian Hackenberg (#14 above) to Chris Godwin got the Nittany Lions to the Buckeye 21. The rest of the quarter saw each team punt twice before Ohio State took over on their 30. They then unleashed a collection of weapons that demonstrated why they are the #1 team in the nation. Ezekiel Elliot carried the ball 4 times for 24 yards, Jones completed two passes, including one to former QB Braxton Miller for 17 yards, Miller ran for 15 on another play, and J.T. Barrett took over under center (that's him with the ball below) and ran for 17 yards on 2 plays, including a 5-yard trot for the go-ahead touchdown.

The Buckeyes scored TDs on their next two possessions, a 10-yard run by Elliot and then a 13-yard scamper by Barrett to make it 21-3 at the half. Game over, right? Not quite. Hackenberg connected with Godwin for a 56-yard bomb on the first play of the third quarter and after Saquon Barkley ran for 14, Hackenberg found DaeSean Hamilton on a screen, and Hamilton dove into the right pylon for an 8-yard touchdown to make it 21-10.

After a few punts, Elliott and Barrett combined for 65 yards on the ground to set up another field goal early in the fourth quarter. Barkley started Penn State’s ensuing possession with a 56-yard jaunt to the Buckeye 21. Things were getting interesting! A Penn State touchdown would certainly lead to some clenched butts in Columbus, but it was not to be. A couple of runs brought up 3rd and 2, but Barkley was stuffed, and the Lions had no choice but to go for it on fourth down. Hackenberg was sacked, and the game was essentially over. Ohio State marched 85 yards, culminating in a 5-yard pass from Barrett to Miller to ice the game. Hackenberg fumbled on the next possession and Barrett added another TD pass, this one to Michael Thomas, to finish the scoring. The 38-10 scoreline doesn’t reflect the nature of the game, which was not decided until midway through the final frame.

In fact, this was a more entertaining game than a typical NFL affair, with only eight penalties and the one turnover. The teams combined for 510 yards rushing (Barkley had 194, Elliot 153 and Barrett 102). The difference was on third down, Penn State was only 1-12, while the Buckeyes were 5-11, allowing a couple of key drives to continue. The game ended just after 11 pm (commercial breaks seem longer than those in the NFL, it have finished much sooner with all the rushing) and Sharpy and I were able to find a bar where we watched the lowlights of the Jays game.


I mentioned the lack of alcohol sales, which I happen to like. Some fans smuggle in a flask (security here is quite weak) but in general there is little of the annoying behaviour that makes NFL games such a chore sometimes. There was one extremely obnoxious guy in my section who couldn’t stop jumping up and down and cursing and screaming on nearly every play, earning him a couple of warnings from the usher. Without any booze to fuel his madness, he settled down by halftime, otherwise he would surely have been booted out.

Next Up

I’m at Fordham for another college football game tomorrow, and then heading to Chicago and Milwaukee, which will include a trip to the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals as I try to complete that league this season. Check back as always for updates.



Monday, October 19, 2015

Toronto Maple Leafs 6 at Columbus Blue Jackets 3 - October 16, 2015

My Toronto on the Road project continues this winter as I will see the Leafs in six road rinks. The Buds promise to be pretty bad this season so I am not hopeful of a perfect record, but would be happy with .500 in those games and I got off to a good start by seeing them in their only visit to Columbus last weekend. The Blue Jackets are the worst team in the league, having lost their first 4 in regulation, mostly because of poor play from 2013-14 Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky.

I've reviewed Nationwide Arena before on the blog, and it is still one of the best in the league. There is one big issue though, the banners are in alphabetical order by division, but the Arizona Coyotes have yet to be moved out of their Phoenix position. Somebody needs to get on that!

Another attraction here is a dentist named Gum. Appropriate that her office is located in a hockey arena, since most players are gumming it by the time they retire.

The cannon is still there in all its glory, but it looks like it will not be used that often this season.

Before the game, I went down to ice level to send good luck vibes to Leo Komarov and the rest of the Leafs. They were winless themselves, having secured a meager point against Ottawa the previous Saturday.

James Reimer was tending net for the Leafs and gave up the only goal in the first when Boone Jenner deflected a shot from the point.  The Leafs had their chances though, outshooting the Jackets 11-6, and I felt confident going into the intermission.

Right off the bat, my confidence was rewarded when Jake Gardiner blasted a perfect slap shot from the slot, picking the top right corner above Bobrovsky's glove. The Leafs took the lead when James Van Riemsdyk beat a screened Bobrovsky with a wrist shot just inside the blue line, a puck that probably should have been stopped. Just over a minute later, Nazem Kadri tapped home a rebound after the Leafs won yet another battle on the end boards and it was 3-1 good guys.

Of course, it was not to last as Columbus got one back with two minutes to go when the puck took a strange bounce off the boards behind Reimer, leaving him looking right as the puck went left to an unmarked Nick Foligno, who tucked it in the open net. Then Komarov took a penalty near the end of the period and Scott Hartnell scored a minute into the third with a shot nearly identical to Gardner's goal a period before.

Another collapse seemed imminent but Bobrovsky was terrible after that. First Joffrey Lupul was at the side of the net and beat Bobrovsky through the legs to make it 4-3 at the four-minute mark. Just after Toronto killed a stupid boarding penalty, Komarov came off the bench and raced for a loose puck. He beat Jenner, who crashed into the boards, and broke in alone, letting go an easy shot that trickled through a surprised Bobrovsky, making it 5-3 with just over four minutes left. Komarov added an empty netter with a minute to go to seal the deal as the Leafs finally got a win for new coach Mike Babcock.


The Blue Jackets went to Chicago the next day and lost, then returned home to play the Islanders on Tuesday and lost that as well. Coach Todd Richards was fired the next day and replaced by John Tortorella. I am sure the Blue Jackets players wish they had tried a lot harder now, Torts is a tough coach.

The Blue Jays played in Game 1 of the ALCS the same night, and we watched the last half at Brothers, one of my favourite chain bars for their Gator Balls appetizer. Which of course, was sold out that night. And the Blue Jays lost. It was a bit of a downer to an otherwise great evening. Fortunately, Brothers turns from a sports bar into a nightclub, so Sharpy and I, sitting at the bar, were constantly surrounded by 21-year-old students who found us old guys in Leaf jerseys pretty unusual. It was quite fun having drinks bought for you by people half your age and we stayed until last call. The only odd thing was that once the bar is closed, they do not let you use the facilities on your way out. I asked a cop outside where the nearest restroom was, and he suggested that I just find a place where nobody can see you. In NYC, that could land you in jail for the night, in Columbus, it's dispensed as advice from law enforcement officers!



Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Leicester Learning

Although I had been to England several times, it was usually for business so my touring was limited to London and a couple of nearby suburbs. So I quite excited to get to Leicester and see another English city and all that it has to offer. I took a morning train from St. Pancras (a beautiful station as you can see below), splurging on first class, as it was only $5 more than standard class, and arrived around 11 am.

The city center is quite compact and they have posted signs signifying important historical buildings all around, colour coded to represent the era (Elizabethan, Victorian, etc.). Below is the Thomas Cook building, constructed in 1884 in honour of the man who first conceived of road trips.

Ironically, for me at least, the first road trip in 1841 was a temperance excursion from Leicester to Loughborough. I did not follow suit, having an ale at the Ale Wagon when the rain hit.

The main attraction here is the King Richard III Visitor Centre and Leicester Cathedral. If you haven't heard, they discovered the remains of King Richard III under a car park back in 2012. Think about that. An actual monarch, killed in battle, buried unceremoniously and left there for over 500 years. Intrepid archaeologists decided to look for the remains and amazingly found them in the first place they dug. Truly a fascinating story and one well worth researching if you haven't learned the details. Even today, his name brings controversy as he is suspected of orchestrating the murder of his two nephews, who were in line for the throne before him.

The Cathedral (above) includes a statue of Richard in armour, holding a crown (below).

After much scientific testing that "proved" the bones were actually Richard III, his remains were finally re-interred this year in the cathedral, which is free to visit. Even this was a controversial act requiring court intervention, while some claim the bones are not Richard's at all.

The Latin phrase translates to Loyalty Binds Me. Sports fans would agree.

If you doubt the authenticity of the claim, the visitor centre provides a detailed step-by-step reconstruction of the project that discovered the skeleton and confirmed it was Richard, which should convince you. The final stop is a glass floor above the actual spot where the bones were found; now a lighting system shows you how they lay when they were unearthed (above). Well worth the admission fee of £7.95.

There were a couple of other sights around town, including a statue that represents the three popular sports in England (soccer, cricket, and rugby).

Finally, above is Welford Road Stadium, home of Leicester Tigers. I hope to get back here for a day or two in the future and take in a match here.



Monday, October 12, 2015

Canada 15 vs Romania 17 (Pool D, Rugby World Cup) - October 6, 2015

The primary purpose of my short trip to England was to see Canada in the Rugby World Cup. They were in Pool D along with France, Ireland, Italy, and Romania. Out of those opponents, Romania would likely provide the most competitive match, so I based my trip around their Tuesday encounter in Leicester.

The city of Leicester is about 100 miles north of London and close to Rugby, where the game was born nearly 200 years ago. I spent the day exploring the town and will write about that in a separate post. The game was a 16:45 start at King Power Stadium, home of Leicester City FC of the EPL, but during the tournament the stadium is referred to as Leicester City Stadium for sponsorship reasons.

Interestingly, Leicester has a top rugby squad in the Tigers but their home ground just minutes away was deemed unsuitable for the Rugby World Cup, amid some controversy. The stadium had hosted RWC matches in the past, and although capacity is about 3/4 of that of Leicester City Stadium (24,000 to 32,262), but it is lacking in some pretty obscure areas. Anyway, Leicester rugby fans were not happy and when they were given 3 pretty crappy matches, they didn't bother snapping up tickets, which allowed me to pick up one and thus I found myself wandering around the outside of a soccer stadium in anticipation of a rugby match.

I had ordered tickets online and picked up Category B seat for 45 pounds, which left me close to the try line midway up. Not a bad seat but a bit expensive for a couple of lower ranked countries.

End zone seats were quite a bit cheaper at 15 quid, and as this was a soccer stadium, much better value than they were at Olympic Stadium, where I saw a match a couple of days prior. But even these were still available at the box office and in fact, there were plenty of empties around the stadium, with about 5,000 unsold tickets remaining as the game started.

It had been raining on and off all day, including a mini-downpour that had me seeking shelter in a pub as I walked to the stadium. The length of the storm was about the same time it took to enjoy a pint of ale, a happy coincidence. By the time I got to the stadium the sun was out and a rainbow appeared behind the main stand.

There were many fans supporting one of the two nations, as well as a lot of neutrals who just enjoy rugby. I had mostly Romanian fans in my section, though there were three drunk Canucks right in front of me.

The players came out to a nice little pyrotechnic display, which kind of captured how Canada's day would end. In flames, in other words.

From the start, the Canadians were clearly the better team, but that is not saying much. Handling errors and missed kicks were the order of the day. Canada's Gordon McRorie converted just 1 of 3 penalties and missed the only try conversion in the first half (Canada scored 8 points when they could have scored 16), but Romania could not capitalize either, missing a penalty themselves and struggling to gain ground against Canada's solid defense. The halftime score was 8-0, the lowest of the tournament.

In the second half, Jeff Hassler (named man of the match way too early) escaped some weak Romanian tackling and tacked on another try. When Nathan Hirayama (who had replaced McRorie as the kicker) added the conversion, it was 15-0 Canada and victory was assured. As long as Canada didn't lie back. Oops. I could see their change in strategy immediately, or perhaps Romania responded with a more powerful approach that forced the Canadians back on their heels. Either way, the game had changed and Romania was starting to dominate; their captain Mihai Macovei scored a try in the 53rd minute and added another in the 75th with Canada down a man; both were converted by Florin Vlaicu to make it 15-14 Canada. All Romania had to do was force a penalty, which they did in the next scrum, and convert it, which Vlaicu did to clinch the win, the biggest comeback in Rugby World Cup history. I could sense the outcome from about the 57th minute, when Hirayama missed yet another penalty, you can't leave 11 points in the dressing room and expect to win at this level.

Well, at least I can say I saw rugby history. It was a depressing end to an otherwise extremely enjoyable trip, but on the bright side, I spent the overnight hours at a 24-hour sports bar watching the Yankees lose to Houston in the AL Wild Card game before catching an early flight back to reality.