A game experience is often a hyper-personal ordeal. Where you are, who you are with, what you are doing can often dictate how important, interesting or meaningful a game will be to you. Maybe you're there in person, cheering on with 100,000 fanatics, urging your team to victory. Perhaps you played a horn that belted out Tiger Rag. Live attendance isn't the only rewarding gameday experience. Some games just endear themselves to great watching, but sometimes the camaraderie of watching the game with like-minded folk, no matter the location, is rewarding all its own.
I got married. I moved to Chicago. I had no job. I had little money. It was stupid, and the best decision I've probably made in my life. September 19th I was married. The next week I spent in the American Virgin Islands and then off to Chicago with my car, some basic necessities, a wife and my dad to ease the transition. We moved into an apartment we never saw, which is another story for another time. We didn't have a couch or a bed. We had a TV, which was about 12 inches and came coupled with a VCR. It was most definitely not HD. But we had our happiness and we damn sure had LSU football.
Our first weekend in Chicago, we decided we should do the most foolish thing possible and go to a bar to watch LSU. After all, we didn't move to Chicago to sit in an apartment, so why not spend what little money we had?
So we ventured up a few blocks to Gamekeepers, a local watering hole that's probably bigger than it should be, having more TVs than it should have and absolutely little else of discernible quality sans the trough in the men's bathroom. But hell, it was the bar of choice for the local Alumni Association and served up cheap swill.
Knowing little else of Chicago, we ventured up an hour or so before game time, only to find a packed bar. Turns out, LSU fans weren't the only ones to populate this bar, as a smattering of other schools decided to set up shop as well. We walked in... no tables. Okay, we'll just hover for a bit, after all it seems a good bit of these fans were here for early games and will surely move on. So we stood. And stood. I drank a beer. And stood. I sipped another beer... while I stood. Finally, two gentleman, one young, one older, both clad in Gators' gear, propositioned what was sure to look like a lost, overwhelmed young couple.
"Is it just you two?" they implored.
"Yeah, just here to watch LSU," I said, sheepishly.
"Well, I think we're gonna stick around for that game, but you are welcome to take the last two seats here with us if you want."
"You sure? That's awfully nice," at least that's what I said in my now almost 4-year-old memory.
"Not at all, pull on up," the seemingly friendly Gator fans offered.
So we sat. We ordered drinks. We made small talk with a couple of Gator fans, who admitted to be cheering for LSU because they hated Georgia, which was just fine by us. Turns out, it was a father son, the son fairly recently relocated the Chicago, the father in town for a visit. They were friendly enough and certainly not annoying. By games end they bought all our drinks and food, which seemed like a new lease on life at the time.
It would be my first LSU game in Chicago.
The Georgia game is such that neither team hates one another. There's a rich mutual respect, both for the quality of play and the level of tradition each program brings. But hatred? Nah, not in this one. The series sits at 16-13-1, in favor of LSU. Record wise, these are the two best teams in the SEC this century. Playing Georgia is just good ole fashioned fun, primarily because there's a good chance both teams are gonna be pretty damn good when it happens.
Such was the case in 2009, when LSU headed to Athens. At the time, Mark Richt was the only top coach in the conference that Les Miles had not beaten, losing in ugly fashion in both the 2005 SEC Championship and again in 2008. LSU took it's lumps in 2008, playing a horrendous version of offense and defense that was purely lacking in the depth and quality we grew so accustomed to since the hiring of Miles. 2009 began with four straight victories, including a successful trip to Seattle beating Washington, as well as some closer than expected SEC victories against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.
Entering the Georgia game, we really weren't sure how good we were, despite being ranked #4 in the nation. Georgia ranked 14th and presented the toughest competition we had seen to date. Add to that that the game would be played Between the Hedges, and this one was far from a slam-dunk.
The game started slowly enough, LSU scoring the game's only six points in the 1st half. The third quarter would be much of the same, remaining a 6-0 LSU lead. The two teams slugged away defensively, never finding much room on the offensive end. For comparison's sake, the two teams totaled 642 yards of offense in this game. Georgia alone posted nearly 500 yards vs. LSU just last season.
But that fourth quarter... oh that fourth quarter. Georgia kicked off the scoring, with QB Joe Cox tossing a 1-yard TD to give them the lead. Things went quiet again, both teams trading three and four play drives, until LSU took the rock with 6:47 remaining. In somewhat surprising fashion, Jefferson lead the team down the field, completing passes of 10, 16, 16, and 12, then following up with a 26 yard run to put LSU into the redzone. Four plays and one penalty later, LSU punched it in with under three minutes remaining.
The defensive tempo of the game dictated this could be the final score. Yet Georgia would not go quietly. Joe Cox hit Tavarres King for 46 yards, following it up with a 16-yard TD pass to A.J. Green, leaving LSU less than a minute to find FG range, a task that seemed arduous...
Until Trindon Holliday did his thing, ripping off a 40-yard return, placing LSU on the UGA 38-yard line. Having Josh Jasper in their back pocket, LSU needed only to matriculate a few yards to put the game away. They handed to Charles Scott, who picked up five. Timeout. Next play, they handed to Scott again, who hit a pile and looked to be going down after a short game.... until he blasted off a UGA defender and into a wide open second level down the sideline for the game-winning score.
The game gave us a little bit of everything. It's the first time we began to believe in the elite potential of Patrick Peterson, who battled A.J. Green all afternoon. We saw promise from Russell Shepard, which would never be realized, but gave us great hope. We saw Jordan Jefferson seemingly emerging as a competent QB in a tough SEC road game. We saw Charles Scott deliver several bulldozing runs, including the game winner, playing his best game in what would wind up being a disappointing Senior season. Ultimately, LSU's ability to run the football and play ace special teams proved just enough to net Miles' first win against Mark Richt.
My first game in Chicago... and a game I'll never forget.