A few beers and a few tears – Beside the Point

CHUCK VANDENBERG

It’s kind of surreal at Kinnick Stadium.

In a pandemic world, we’re torn at times over a multitude of arguments about whether to get a shot, or not… wear a mask, or not… go to a crowded stadium of black and gold and gray… or not.

My brother and his family, extended by a couple of the kids’ significant others, headed to Iowa City Saturday to watch the No. 2 Hawkeyes try to “not stub a toe” against Purdue’s Boilermakers.

Going to Iowa City usually means a bit of tailgating before the game, or a lot of tailgating, depending on which place you’re in. We got there late and ended up settling for the top of a parking garage with some folded chairs and some snacks. No football to toss around or bags to throw at a hole. Just conversation and people watching.

We weren’t the only ones settling for the parking garage. The town was packed as usual. As we drove up Hawkins Drive from Hwy. 6, all the parking lots had barricades and placards telling us to move along.

“Lot Full”, “No Event Parking”. We pulled up to a main lot where a volunteer was checking permit passes. I yelled out the window…”Are you full?” He said the lot was for pass parking.

“I have to have a pass?” He looked at me funny as we drove by with my arms and upper body hanging out the window..

“Does a $20 bill work for a pass?”

My brother and the van full gave a laugh to that, but the volunteer got that raised eyebrow and raised shoulder thing going and smiled. I looked at John who was still laughing, “Turn in there, I swear he said yeah and I got $20!” Always the straight and narrow for him, and we drove away about a half mile and found the parking garage.

Tourist.

As we drove over, I thought about the humor of people and how it’s the salve of who we are as Iowans, along with the Mississippi River loads of BUUUUSCH Light we drink.

‘In heaven there is no beer, that’s why we drink it here.’ Go to Indianapolis, they love to tell the story of how we literally drank them out of Busch Light.

Anyway, at about 2 we left our perch on the concrete beachhead we found and started the 1/2 mile walk to Duke Slater Field.

About halfway there, as I was slipping comfortably into my role as class clown with the niece and nephew, it was totally oblivious to me that we were just around the corner from the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. My daughter had died there about 19 months ago.

I saw the parking lot where we used to park and walk her across the street into a northern entrance. I took a couple deep cleansing breaths, cuz that always works – and my sister-in-law Susan must have picked up on something, or she just wasn’t oblivious to what I was. I believe she was expecting what I wasn’t, or even herself feeling what I, for a moment in the sea of black and gold, had gently let slip from my mind.

Tears began to flow and I started making this noise that’s just the physical pressure of someone trying to suppress emotion with all they have, but when I hear it coming from my own body, it breaks my heart. I couldn’t do it and stepped into a grassy area and turned away from everyone. The group kept walking to the stadium, until I heard my brother humming some freakin’ song as he walked up behind me and stood there. Waiting. After about a minute… “Need a beer?” and hands me one from the pocket of his hoodie.

A chuckle came from the blubbering and we resumed our walk across the street to the north side of Kinnick Stadium.

Despite this pandemic still killing people, I was comforted by the numbers in front of me. Iowans are some of the best people in the world.

The kids had seats in a different spot than ours. They’re all four over 16 and we were fine letting them look for their own seats. We agreed on a meet-up spot after the game and headed to our seats on the 35-yard line about 25 rows up. Thanks, Tony!!!

As we went up the ramp, initially the wrong ramp, the sense of 65,000 people cheering for the same team hit me. That feeling you get walking up into this venue is something very unique. I’ve been to the Horseshoe in Columbus and Illinois’ stadium in Champaign, the former Metrodome in Minneapolis, and the last three ballparks in Cincinnati.

But very few things compare to walking into Kinnick Stadium, putting hand over heart for the anthem and then watching a Naval fighter wing, or in this case an AirForce refueling tanker, big and bad, go flying overhead. You felt like you could reach up and grab it. Everyone ratchets up the love for those symbols of freedom…and power. The pilots were honored in the third quarter in the north endzone, where they peeled back the chests on their fighter gear to reveal black Hawkeye t-shirts…AND THE CROWD GOES WILD!

Settling in to our seats people immediately start engaging with you as kickoff hits and we all instantly become the greatest coaches… and officials, not just in the Big 10, but…. in the world.

“69’s halfway down the field,” the dude behind me yelled at the officials. I mean he was yelling it on a pass play. I’m a ball watcher because in sports journalism you develop an instinct for watching the ball so you can regurgitate action.

He yelled it again… and then pointed. He was literally pointing at the offensive lineman too far down field and screaming “69 can’t be downfield!”

I’m laughing because I’m pretty sure over the other 65,000 booing that David Bell had caught another pass off a bubble screen, this cat was helping the line judge try to see things.

But he was RIGHT! 69 can’t be downfield. That’s okay. We kinda got our wakeup call as Hawkeye fans that we are not the second best team in the country. Here’s how I know that. On 3rd down and 2 yards the Hawks decided it would be a good idea to let Spenser Petras tap the center’s butt and go off his right side for a sneak. TWICE! It worked once but only a second surge at the line.

Now I am the self-proclaimed greatest armchair quarterback in the country with the highest grade of 20/20 hindsight vision, but why in the cosmos would you not let West Lyon alum Monte Pottebaum run through the wall, either with the ball or leading the dude with the ball for the first down.

Or…invoke a little misdirection and maybe throw something the Boilermakers aren’t suspecting. All I know is my brother was sure screaming for Pottebaum. I was arguing that getting Sam LaPorta tucked in just passed the front five for a dump pass might be a better option. I just like to see the ball in the air, I guess.

But I didn’t like to see how many times the ball got in the air to Purdue’s Bell, nor the Iowa staff calling defenses that gave this guy, one of the premiere receivers in the country, a 7- to 12-yard cushion on every snap. We’ve got a pretty good defense, right. Get up there and hand fight with him for three or four yards to keep him engaged.

But that’s all part of the fun. And even though Iowa “stubbed that toe” with a 24-7 stunning loss, a good time was had by all. Even those that walked out with folded arms shaking their head.

At the end of the first quarter my plan was to head down to the concourse for a bottle of water and a snack, waving back at those kids is still very much akin to waving goodbye to Kelsey and brings tears whether I’m in Iowa City or in Fort Madison in front of the big screen. Instead of staring into those windows, one of which I knew was my daughter’s former room, I looked back at the crowd and onto the field.

Everyone stood with helmets and hats off turning and waving. It is the single greatest moment in sports. All started by a social media post by some lady who thought it would be a great idea to wave as these children, peaking over the east side of the stadium, watch their Hawkeyes.

Tears came back, and just internally, I begged for the time to speed by.

Back to the game and testing my mind against that of Kirk and Brian Ferentz, and Phil Parker.

Aaaaaaa, what do I care. These guys are professionals and if we can’t avoid the hiccup of a loss at home to a 2-3 squad, we still engage in the moments and say we were there.

It’s not about the game today, but once again seeing some of the greatest fans on the planet go nuts about a flag on the field, or a broken coverage, or that Hawkeye sack.

But in spite of all that, it felt good to be in the company of the ‘crazies’. Not of Duke’s Cameron Indoor arena, which may have copyrighted the name “crazies”, but I acknowledge that possibility and I choose to move on.

I ran into Gary and Lynn Hoyer, Jane Wentzien and Kara Morrow, and they all high-fived me on the way out. Gary – disappointed with the loss, and Lynn giddy about her pickleball demonstration today starting at 11 in Riverview Park.

“Where’s Lee?” Lynn asked. “Home, still a tough place for her to be,” I replied.

“You tell her I’m bringing her here. She can come with me. And don’t forget to come play pickleball tomorrow.”

Did I mention pickleball in Riverview Park in a Sunday exhibition? The city is contemplating building six new courts on the former tennis courts at Victory Field.

I know the normalcy of being back at Kinnick after three years brought some pain in memory and in loss, on and off the football field.

But being with 65,000 people who I’m sure would give you a shoulder at anytime had built-in comfort. I even found three Payne Stewart-garbed duffers who came straight over from Finkbine Golf Course, but look like they came straight from Scotland. I snapped their picture because I thought THAT…. WAS…. AWESOME.

Straight off the links. Didn’t get their names, just those outfits and Kinnick Stadium. A pretty good Saturday overall. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC

Even sent that one to my bald superhero friend Chris Duerr at KHQA. He sent a smiley emoji with tears flying.

Indeed.

So, go watch some damn pickleball with Lynn Hoyer today at 11 a.m., did I mention Riverview Park? You might find Donna Amandus there, and she might hit you up for some money, and you might find Riverfest owner Charles Craft there and he may challenge you to a game (and he may clean your clock) – But that’s all Beside the Point.

Chuck Vandenberg is the editor and co-owner of Pen City Current and can be reached at charles.v@pencitycurrent.com.

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