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Editor's Note: ESPN.com is sending senior writer Wayne Drehs to six bowl cities in 10 days to find the people, places and one-of-a-kind experiences that make the college football bowl season unlike any other time on the sports calendar. Wayne's final story won't run until after the Allstate BCS National Championship Game, but you can read about his journey right here on his bowl trip blog.
Jan. 5 -- Toronto, Ontario (International Bowl)
You would have thought their older brothers played at Rutgers. Or perhaps they were somehow related to Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano. But no, the six teenagers from Buffalo, N.Y., (Williamsville East High School) were merely International Bowl fans. Yes, I said International Bowl fans.
A year ago, when the inaugural game was played here at Rogers Centre, the group drove up from Buffalo and randomly went all-out in their undying support for the Cincinnati Bearcats, painting their chests, dying their hair and doing everything they could to cheer Cincinnati on to a 27-24 victory over Western Michigan. Their theatrics even made their way onto the promotional video that runs on the International Bowl Web site.
After the two teams were announced this year, they decided they were going to cheer for Rutgers.
"I have family in New Jersey," said Nate Davidson. "And besides, we just didn't feel right painting the word, 'Ball' on our chests."
So instead they painted the word, "Rutgers," with one of the six squeezing both the "u" and "t" on his chest. But this year's show of support went beyond the face and chest paint, the red and black dyed Mohawks and the baggy jeans that seemed to hang halfway down their backsides. This group spent several hours transforming a Buffalo Bills helmet into a Rutgers helmet. They went online to find pictures of Rutgers helmets and then used a computer program to replicate the exact decals, from the "R" on the side of the helmet to the "Riddell" and "27," for Ray Rice, on the back.
The whole process took a couple hours, time well spent for the group that went to bed at 3:30 Saturday morning only to wake three hours later so they could begin the two-hour drive to Toronto and arrive in plenty of time for the noon kickoff.
"A lot of people think we're nuts, but coming up here is a chance for us to see a big-time bowl game," Davidson. "You could say we're helping take American football international. And besides, it isn't like we have to stay home to watch the Bills in the playoffs."
So what's the interest level for a bowl game in a winter climate in a foreign country? Well, the Globe and Mail newspaper outside my hotel room Saturday morning didn't feature a single article about the game. Instead, the front page stories were about the Canadian junior hockey team's 4-1 victory over the U.S. at the world under-20 hockey championships as well as a profile of Tampa Bay Lightning's Vincent Lecavalier.
Still, an estimated 30,000 fans filled the majority of the Rogers Centre's 100 and 200 levels. And several Toronto sportswriters commented that the bowl game atmosphere was far more electric than that of a Toronto Argonauts Canadian Football League game. Even before the game, the longest lines on the concourse weren't for the concessions or restrooms, but rather the souvenir stand, where Rutgers and Ball State faithful filed four and five deep to purchase International Bowl sweatshirts and T-shirts.
"It's a collector's item," said Angie Pearson, a Rutgers fan from New Jersey. "It isn't every day that you get to play a bowl game in Canada. So we had to be here and I had to buy a couple T-shirts to take home to some friends. Why not?"
Between shaking hands and receiving hugs from an endless stream of Rutgers faithful, the woman in the No. 27 Rutgers jersey, the one that says, "Ray's Mom" couldn't help but be in awe of her surroundings.
Sure, she had attended bowl games in Arizona and Houston in the past. But never did she think her son's college football career would take her to another country. And for good reason -- last year's International Bowl was the first college bowl game played outside the United States since the 1937 Bacardi Bowl in Havana, Cuba.
"There's one word I can use to describe what this whole experience has been like: extravagant," Janet Rice said. "We've been to the shopping malls, we're going to the CN Tower. I just can't believe we're in another country."
On a personal note: After six cities, 10 days, some 4,600 frequent flier miles and more than 7,600 words, the journey is over. It started by flying around the Lowe's Motor Speedway in excess of 170 miles per hour and ended by watching the one and only college football game played in Canada this year. I saw barely-clothed beauties on Bourbon Street and tightly-bundled Canadians on Toronto's Younge Street. I watched the Sugar Bowl from the president's box, the Orange Bowl from the Florida Marlins bullpen and the International Bowl from one of the Rogers Centre's famed, "field view" hotel rooms. All along the way, I met tons of great people -- from Jen at the Wildhorse Saloon, who tutored me on the history of the famed Nashville concert venue, to Ian, Miles, Melissa, Jim and so many others at the Orange Bowl who made sure I didn't embarrass myself as a volunteer ambassador. As I've said all along, this blog is a teaser for my wrap-up story that will run later this week, where you'll be able to read about my visit to Atlanta's Martin Luther King Museum with Clemson's Scott Cooper, preparing for game day in New Orleans with Sugar Bowl president Ray Jeandron and getting an earful from a Z.Z. Top roadie at the Orange Bowl. Look for it later this week. And thanks to everyone who followed along throughout the trip.
Jan. 4 -- Toronto, Ontario (International Bowl)
My hotel rooms on this journey have overlooked Atlanta's famed Peachtree Street as well as Fort Lauderdale's inner harbor. But at no point was I more excited than when I opened my hotel room door than here in Toronto, when I discovered that my room overlooked the Rogers Centre playing field.
Sure, the Rose Bowl may have its history, the Superdome it's goosebump-enducing story of triumph and University of Phoenix Stadium is equipped with seemingly all the amenities of a modern-day rocket. But there is no other bowl venue in the country where your hotel room can overlook the playing surface.
As a long-time stadium junkie who has never before visited Toronto, I just might keep the blinds open and sleep next to the floor-to ceiling windows all night.
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, on the other hand, likely didn't match my enthusiasm when he stepped onto the field for his Friday afternoon walk-through. For all Schiano had to do was lift his head up to see four floors of hotel rooms -- not to mention a restaurant and bar overflowing with football fans -- looking down on his practice.
So it shouldn't have been much of a surprise that a member of the Rutgers program was stationed in the hotel restaurant, to keep fans from taking pictures.
"Lucky for me they're mostly Rutgers fans so they understand," the guard said. "Because otherwise, who am I to tell some family they can't take a picture of their kid with the field in the background?"
Playing a bowl game in a foreign country presents all sorts of unique challenges, perhaps none more glaring than the challenge of obtaining passports. As of last February, every American passenger arriving in Canada by air requires a passport. So, after checking with the NCAA and realizing there were no potential violations, International Bowl executives encouraged players on all teams within the Big East and Mid-American Conference, the two conferences with tie-ins to the International Bowl, to obtain passports.
Rutgers and Ball State, bowl personnel said, did just that, making the transition to Toronto that much easier.
"Part of coming to this game is that it's a learning experience," International Bowl executive director Don Loding said. "For many of these kids, they've never before been out of the country. So they learn about currency, they learn about different customs and traditions, and they learn about obtaining a passport."
On a personal note: I travel frequently so it isn't unusual for me to hop on an airplane and show up in a different locale a few hours later. Yet there was something strange about leaving South Florida, where the sun was peeking out and people were returning to the beaches on Friday and three hours later land in Toronto, where piles of ice and snow line the streets and pedestrians are bundled in hats, gloves, scarves and hoods. It hardly felt like a bowl destination until I walked into the hotel lobby and almost got ran over by a group of 20 or so Rutgers fans.
I attended my second, "Battle of the Bands," in less then a week. Only this time, there was no flame-tossing baton twirler or Wildhorse Saloon in the background. Instead, the bands were surrounded on one side by Toronto's majestic City Hall and on the other side by a bustling ice skating rink. For me, it felt like a scene straight out of "A Christmas Story," minus, of course, those freaky monkeys. I think the only thing missing was a cup of hot chocolate.
Jan. 3 -- Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (FedEx Orange Bowl)
Their work already finished for the day, the three Navy fighter pilots stood in the Florida Marlins bullpen and soaked up the first quarter of the Orange Bowl. Some 10 minutes earlier, "Puck," "O.B." and "Sting" directed their F-18s over Dolphin Stadium, bringing a bone-rattling, eardrum-stinging conclusion to singer Katharine McPhee's national anthem.
|Don't touch the oranges!|
|Not many were ready for the chill that came over South Beach.|
|Congratulating the winning team is all in a day's work for Ray Jeandron.|
"Finally," she said. "Finally, it's over. I'm here." Some 20 hours earlier, the diehard Hawaii fan had departed Honolulu by herself on a cross-ocean, cross-country trip to New Orleans, where her beloved Warriors will face the Georgia Bulldogs on New Year's Day.
|After 20 hours on the road, Stefanie Lum finally arrived in New Orleans to support the Warriors.|
On a personal note: If the college football bowl season is an excuse to party, then New Orleans, the Sugar Bowl and obviously Bourbon Street are the bowl-partying capitols. On one of the biggest party nights of the year, on the eve of the 2008 Sugar Bowl, New Orleans didn't disappoint. Bourbon Street was littered with what you would expect -- short skirts, low-cut tops and enough beer consumption that the Budweiser Clydesdales should have little trouble continuing to eat like kings. There were police on foot, police on horses and police hovering above the street in some sort of robotic arm. Chants of "HA-WAI-EE" and "IT'S GREAT TO BE A GEORGIA BULLDOG" filled the air. A few blocks away, in Lafayette Square, the chants of "L-S-U" were already beginning with a week until the Allstate BCS National Championship Game.There were fireworks choreographed to both school's fight songs, with Georgia blasts exploding in red and black, and Hawaii's in green and white. But perhaps the highlight of the night was the cross section of people, from suit- tie- and jacket-wearing alums to one guy whose T-shirt perfectly summed up the Bourbon Street vibe: B is for Brewski.
On New Year's Day, I'll be hanging with Sugar Bowl president Ray Jeandron, bouncing from party to party and event to event, while making sure all the last-minute pregame details are falling into place. Got a story idea? Heading to New Orleans, South Florida or Toronto? Drop me a line at email@example.com.
|Baton twirler Karrissa Wimberley put on a show.|
On Sunday night, there were the Tomahawk Chop and the Kentucky Wildcat mascot. There were cheerleaders, pompoms and enough tubas to please even Lawrence Welk. There were moms pushing their Kentucky-clad kids in front of television cameras, purposely blocking the view of the Florida State cheerleaders. And there were the velour sweat suits worn by the Kentucky dance team.
But it was a baton twirler -- yes, a baton twirler -- who stole the show. Twenty-one-year-old Karrissa Wimberley, a Seminole junior, lit up the crowd -- literally -- by flipping three fire-lit batons between her fingers, knees, hip, mouth and the back of her neck. She made it look as easy as tying a scarf.
Even the Kentucky fans looked on in amazement. And for good reason. Wimberley currently is the National Baton Twirling Association World Champion.
"This is so much fun," Wimberley said after Sunday night's performance. "I'm used to these competitions where everybody is staring at me and analyzing my every move. Or I'm on the football field, where the fans are so far away. Doing something like this, in the middle of downtown Nashville, with the fans right up in front of you, was just a blast. It makes it so much more personal."
Wimberley didn't even find out she was going to perform until Sunday morning. Even so, her biggest challenge this weekend wasn't catching three fire-lit batons with her knees, but finding a place to store her gasoline-smelling batons and her gas jug.
"You have to be kind of discreet with a gas can," she admitted. "But if I would have kept it in my hotel room, the smell never would have gone away."
So she put the batons and the gas can in the hotel hallway, writing a little "do not disturb" note about who she was and why there were flammable liquids in the hallway. Wimberley versus the smell of gas is a battle she said she seems to be fighting constantly.
"When I go to the gas station, I think of football season," she said. "And during the season, my car just wreaks of gas. And I get terrible, terrible headaches. But you get through it."
The hottest spot to watch "Battle of the Bands" is the fifth floor of the parking garage at the corner of Commerce and Second Avenue. There, the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl hosts what has to be the only VIP bowl party in a parking ramp.
"When you tell people, 'Join us in the parking garage,' they sort of look at you like you're nuts," said Music City Bowl CEO Scott Ramsey. "You have to tell them, 'No, no, no. Join us in the VIP area located in the parking garage.'"
A year ago, diehard Kentucky fan Bruce Tinsley, creator of the popular syndicated comic "Mallard Fillmore," drafted a strip that encouraged long-suffering Cubs and Clippers fans to buck up, now that the Wildcats had won a bowl. The comic eventually got into the hands of the Kentucky coaching staff, and on Monday, Tinsley and his 10-year-old son, Burke, will be guests of the Wildcats at LP Field. And just for good measure, Monday's strip will mention Kentucky and the Music City Bowl again.
On a personal note: Many thanks to Georgia fan Matt Smith from Atlanta and several others who e-mailed to recommend Rotiers, the famous burger stop in Nashville. Unfortunately, none of you warned that Rotiers, just like Chick-fil-A, is closed Sundays. Oh, well -- I instead opted for a sandwich at the Wildhorse Saloon. And as someone who knows very little about country music and even less about line dancing, the pure magnitude of that place blew me away. Three floors of music entertainment heaven. And a dance floor big enough for a touch football game (which a few kids actually attempted Sunday afternoon). Expect a shorter update tomorrow, as I'll spend most of the day traveling to New Orleans, the fourth stop on this journey. I'm anticipating some New Year's revelry on Bourbon Street. Got a story idea? Heading to New Orleans, South Florida or Toronto? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Kentucky fans have come to the King's home state.|
|Tribble Reese and Quentin Groves play the feud!|
The answer drew a mix of cheers and boos from the split crowd. But perhaps it was Auburn defensive end Quentin Groves who had the best response. He just shook his head and stared at Reese. And when asked the same question later, Groves had this response:"He coached the best school in South Carolina," Groves said. "Lou Holtz."
The Clemson offense defeated the Auburn defense 389-70, after which Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox told the Hilton ballroom audience, "Our defense does that to us once in awhile." But the Auburn offense didn't fare any better, losing to the Clemson defense 410-0.
The bowl season has long been famous for eating contests between two teams -- case in point, the 52-year running of the Lawry's Beef Bowl in Beverly Hills. But here in the South, organizers of the Chick-fil-A Bowl conducted their own little eating experiment earlier this week.
No, they didn't ask Clemson and Auburn players to scarf as many Chick-fil-A sandwiches as they could. Instead, they took both teams to Fire of Brazil, an all-you-can-eat Brazilian Churrascaria in downtown Atlanta and invited them to enjoy themselves.
Little did the teams know the restaurant was keeping tabs on what each team ate. The results were staggering. Clemson's players stuffed some 570 pounds of meat and 130 desserts in their mouths, while Auburn ate more than 700 pounds of meat and 160 desserts.Each team ate more meat in its 90-minute sitting than the restaurant serves on an entire Saturday, restaurant manager David Navarro said. "Our gouchos had it pretty rough," Navarro added. "I've never seen people eat meat so quick in my life. We had to put two cooks on the grill and add a third from the basement. I've never seen anything like it." It was 30 years ago this season when Clemson fans started one of the more unique bowl traditions, bringing Tiger paw-stamped $2 bills with them to Atlanta for a nonconference game against Georgia Tech. The stamped $2 bill idea carried over to that year's Gator Bowl, and ever since, Clemson fans have headed for each bowl destination with wads of stamped $2 bills in hand. In fact, one teller manager at a Wachovia branch in Clemson told The Greenville News she expected orders for $3,000 to $5,000 worth of $2 bills leading up to the Chick-fil-A Bowl. For those of you interested in reading about my touching tour of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site with Scotty Cooper and Clemson teammate C.J. Spiller, you'll have to wait for my wrap-up story after the BCS Championship. Yes, I'm saving the best for last. On a personal note: The run of fine dining continues. Hit my second-favorite fast-food stop Friday (nothing can top In N' Out Burger) when I grabbed a Chick-fil-A sandwich. Say what you will about the shameless plug for the bowl sponsor; I don't care. Saturday, I'm off to Nashville with my eyes set on Music Row. Headed that way? Have a great story idea? Drop me a line at email@example.com.
Dec. 27 -- Charlotte, N.C. (Meineke Car Care Bowl)
Apparently, Connecticut coach Randy Edsall doesn't like to lose. Not on the football field. Not in a basketball arena. And certainly not in a coach-versus-coach, tire-changing contest as part of Lowes Motor Speedway Day at the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
|UConn coach Randy Edsall's tire changing contest win gets the approval of his players.|
"I was worried what was going to happen with my players if I would have lost," Edsall said. "I wouldn't have heard the end of it. Especially after what happened at the basketball game last night."
Monday night, when both teams were guests at the Charlotte Bobcats' game, junior cornerback Darius Butler unofficially tried out for Jim Calhoun's Huskies basketball team. Butler, 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, brought the Charlotte crowd to its feet when he finished the anchor leg of a three-man relay contest against Wake Forest with a Spud Webb-like windmill jam.
"I didn't care at all about the contest," Butler said later. "I knew we were going to win. I just wanted to get that dunk down. Now I can tell people I dunked in an NBA arena."
Thanks to Edsall and Butler, the Huskies enter Saturday's game against the Demon Deacons undefeated in pre-bowl competitions, which should have as much of an effect on the outcome of the game as the color of Grobe's socks.
The highlight of the day for both teams was undoubtedly the 170-mile-an-hour laps each player was invited to take around the Speedway, courtesy of the Richard Petty Driving Experience. But you'll have to wait to hear more about that in my wrap-up story. A tiny teaser: Picture 55-year-old Wake coach Grobe in a firesuit.
On a personal note: Excited to finally have this adventure underway. So far, three flights and no delays. My fingers are crossed. Despite colleague Pat Forde's weekly culinary tips in the Forde-Yard Dash, I've spent the past two nights eating Papa John's pizza and Hooters wings in my hotel room while working. I need to get out more. Friday, I will be in Atlanta, where I will be touring the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site with a pair of Clemson Tigers. Have a story idea for my trip? Heading to Nashville, New Orleans, South Florida or Toronto? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.